21 January 2018

One Ringo to rule them all

Ringo went home [from Rishikesh in 1968] after two weeks; his stomach, weakened by childhood surgery, couldn't deal with even that mildly-spiced vegetarian food, and Maureen hated the flies. Into their cabin moved two members of the Apple team, Neil Aspinall and Denis O'Dell, who'd arrived from London. O'Dell was there to discuss John's idea for a documentary about the Maharishi and the hard-headed Aspinall to make sure it never got off the ground.

O'Dell brought with him what he considered to be the best idea for the Beatles' next feature film since the Joe Orton script. This was J.R.R. Tolkein's fantastical trilogy The Lord of the Rings, already an enormous hit on American college campuses but still relatively unknown in Britain. Consequently, neither Paul or John had ever encountered Tolkein's world of hobbits, elves and wizards which - so their film 'guru' said - offered plum screen-acting roles for them.

Knowing no Beatle could be expected to plough through a 1000-plus-page trilogy, O'Dell gave the three remaining meditators a volume each, subconsciously maintaining their usual order of precedence: John was to read the first in the sequence, The Fellowship of the Ring; Paul was to read the second, The Two Towers; and George the last, The Return of the King [...]

Nothing came of the film idea Denis O'Dell had brought out to India so excitedly... At the Maharishi's ashram, it had been provisionally agreed that Paul would play the hobbit Frodo Baggins, John the slithery humanoid Gollum, George the wizard Gandalf and Ringo Frodo's sidekick, Sam. 'John told me he could write a double album to go with it,' O'Dell remembers.

- Philip Norman, Paul McCartney: The Biography, London, 2016, pp.306-7 & 324

[This snippet falls into the category of something I probably used to know, but had forgotten. Apparently O'Dell's discussions with United Artists included the idea of David Lean to direct the film]

11 January 2018

This time with a little dedication

I heard Joan Armatrading's Drop The Pilot again on a shop radio yesterday, and its giddy, effervescent pop nonsense always makes me smile. It put me in mind of this wonderful example of her stock and trade - the most artfully constructed soul-folk-pop songs that brightened the charts in her prime. This live version of Love & Affection from '76 also boasts an inextricably archetypal mid-70s sax solo, expertly done and gleaming as if it had just popped in on loan from Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street. It's great to see Glastonbury welcoming her back in recent years to introduce new generations to her talent. 


07 January 2018

London in the Phoney War

The end of September [1939] found Basil in a somewhat fretful mood. The air-raid scare seemed to be over for the time and those who had voluntarily fled from London were beginning to return, pretending that they had only been to the country to see that everything was alright there. The women and children of the poor, too, were flocking home to their evacuated streets. The newspapers said that the Poles were holding out; that their cavalry was penetrating deep into Germany; that the enemy was already short of motor oil; that Saarbrucken would fall to the French within a day or two; air raid wardens roamed the remote hamlets of the kingdom, persecuting yokels who walked home from the inn with glowing pipes. Londoners who were slow to acquire the habit of the domestic hearth, groped their way in darkness from one place of amusement to another, learning their destination by feeling the buttons on the commissionaires' uniforms; revolving, black glass doors gave access to a fairy land; it was as though, when children, they had been led blindfolded into a room with the lighted Christmas tree. The casualty list of street accidents became formidable and there were terrifying tales of footpads who leaped on the shoulders of old gentlemen on the very steps of their clubs, or beat them to jelly on Hay Hill.

- Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags, London, 1942.

06 January 2018

Not the swiftest of creatures

Full-page ad for the Citroen 2CV in Private Eye magazine no.609, published 19 April 1985, with a listed purchase price of £2774. The 2CV was manufactured from 1948 to 1990.


See also:
Motoring: Wellington's British cars, 25 February 2017
Motoring: Mad Lancias of Verona, 19 July 2015
Motoring: Te Awanga British Car Museum, 28 October 2014
Motoring: National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, 7 December 2013

Bronwen & Carmencita

It's always a treat reading the obituaries reprinted from UK newspapers in the local weekend paper; the Telegraph's are usually the best, with the Times a close second. A good obit is a real artform, and with those papers the early file writing was often done decades ago and kept on file for use in this distant 21st century. This morning's DomPost has two good examples for two notable women.

Bronwen, Lady Astor (1930-2017), the society model ('though she was actually middle class') who was from 1960-66 married to the Viscount Astor, heir to the family title and fortune. Cut dead by smart society after her husband was intimately involved in the Profumo affair [of 1963], she was widowed at 36 and spent the rest of her life deeply involved in Christian psychotherapy and spiritualism. On Astor, the Telegraph remarked: 'She spent a vivid old age in London, finally feeling she could return to the capital from self-imposed exile in the countryside after the Profumo scandal. She continued to windsurf and fish for salmon into her eighties...' (although presumably not in London).

And Carmen 'Carmencita' Franco (1926-2017), daughter of the murderous Spanish dictator, who as a 10-year-old was coached into delivering stirring Fascist messages and salutes to the children of Spain, and who at her father's deathbed in 1975 was careful to augment his last words to appoint as monarch Juan Carlos de Borbon - father of the current king, despite Franco omitting to mention his name. The Times reports that in later interviews about her father, Carmen, who was created the 1st Duchess of Franco by the new king, said she 'never saw him angry [and] the thousands of ex-Republicans shot by Franco's firing squads for decades after the civil war's end in 1939 she never referred to'. She enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle as the daughter of a wealthy dictator: 'The miniskirt-wearing Carmencita relished packing suitcases and going abroad, the farther from Spain the better. In the US she danced with John F Kennedy, yet the country she adored was India, although her first visit was no introduction to world poverty: she was the guest of the Maharajah of Jaipur'.

02 January 2018

My top 10 films of 2017

It's been another grand year of film adventures. I watched 182 films in 2017, and here's the best of the crop, including two great films featuring pint-sized lead actors, two top New Zealand documentaries, and capped by a shameless and compellingly charming underdog story straight outta New Jersey.

1. Patti Cake$

I knew I had to see Patti Cake$ the moment I read the festival blurb recording the moment the Cannes crowd heard the film's lead actor Danielle Macdonald speak at a Q&A they 'gave an audible gasp when she answered her first question because no one had a clue she was Australian let alone not American'.

There's no question that this quest-for-stardom music flick traverses the most hackneyed of cinematic cliches - the embattled outsider with a heart of gold striving to overcome adversity with the help of their plucky, wacky friends and a huge helping of sheer talent. In lesser hands this would be trivial, forgettable material. But with Macdonald director and writer Geremy Jasper has a legitimate, stone-cold star. There's never a moment in Patti Cake$ that leads the viewer to disbelieve her tremendous ability with a mic and a rhyme. Her rapping performances are quite authentically superb, and that's from someone like me who has little knowledge of the musical genre. And whereas a film like Steven Soderbergh's Haywire can coast on a serviceable lead performance by Gina Carano thanks to her eye-watering martial arts talents, Macdonald is the complete package here because in addition to rapping like a boss she also acts with commendable talent.

I won't spoil the audacious climax of the film, but this is that most treasurable of offerings, a true crowd-pleaser in every respect. Don't be surprised if you see Macdonald at the Oscars, or at the very least performing at the Grammys - assuming they can devise something PG-13 for her to rap, that is.





2. Dunkirk

In a masterful display of epic war-movie filmmaking from Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk fills a huge gap in the WW2 canon by telling the hallowed and mythologised tale of the grim months of 1940 in which Britain was dreadfully isolated and facing seemingly certain defeat at the hands of totalitarian foes. With Johnny Yank still an unbearably long 18 months away from getting around to entering the war, Britain and its Commonwealth fought on alongside the doomed French and Belgians, scrambling to save the army that could spell the difference between security and fascist hegemony.

Nolan understands the precariousness of the situation and the sheer implausibility of what became a totemic British act of defiance in the face of incredible odds. His film is unbearably tense yet profoundly exciting, it's intensely patriotic yet eschews all jingoism, and in a theatre of war deluged with 400,000 men it remains recognisably human and character-driven in scale.

In avoiding the lantern-jawed cliches of war movie heroism, Nolan tells one of the most honest and believable war stories I've seen, on the land, on the sea, and in the air. (The film does take the dramatic licence of somewhat overstating the importance of the 'little ships' in the rescue, but that's entirely understandable given the public fascination with that aspect of the story).

Given the horrors of shipwrecks - of which there are plenty in this film - and the sheer unstoppable force that strangled that unforgiving French coast, Dunkirk is a fine example of why so many war survivors could never speak of their experiences. In this celebration of what is, in effect, a famous and bloody retreat from certain capitulation, the only victors are those who survive, whatever the cost.

3. Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web

You don't have to like Kim Dotcom in the slightest to be impressed by the scope of Annie Goldson's stellar documentary. While the biographical aspects of the sorry Dotcom tale are strong, the broader implications for the entire way society consumes intellectual property are particularly intriguing. Particularly telling is the example given of the early rise of Dotcom's Megaupload, when a recent University of Kansas graduate tells a reporter friend that her campus was abuzz with sharing free movies on the site, and that it was her lecturer who first turned her onto it - a clear sign that the social impact of this type of sharing was mammoth and permeating every corner of the world.

Goldson has assembled a formidable collection of international interviewees to augment the expert insights of the Herald's David Fisher, including Jimmy Wales, Moby and Glenn Greenwald. And whether or not you think Dotcom is guilty of the crimes he's been charged with, his case has been handled diabolically by the New Zealand authorities at seemingly every stage. The questionable granting of New Zealand residency (potentially with the ultimate intention of handing him over to the Americans), the ludicrous overkill of the January 2012 raid on the Dotcom mansion (which was conducted using faulty warrants), the police's illegal cloning and sharing of his entire evidence file with the FBI, the illegal surveillance by the New Zealand security services (which was later patched up by highly contentious legislation) and the eventual court ruling that he was eligible for extradition to the US but not for the charges originally laid against him, the five years it's taken to even get this far ('justice delayed is justice denied', after all): these all add up to a picture of a New Zealand justice system seemingly taking its orders from overseas and bending its rules to suit.

Throughout, Dotcom appears as a charismatic chancer punching way above his paygrade - a low-level crook who made millions while Hollywood refused to adapt its business model to reflect changing technology.

4. Summer 1993

An expertly realised evocation of a momentous summer from the director's own past, as orphaned six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) is taken to the Catalan countryside for a new life with her aunt and uncle and her tiny cousin Anna. Wiry, inquisitive and puzzled, Frida struggles to adjust to her new environs and the family struggles to adapt to this newcomer, half insider, half outsider. As a simple depiction of childhood, familial kindness and learning to get along, this is hugely effective, finding particular joy in the small and utterly genuine interactions between Frida and the cherubic, playful little Anna that pepper the film. So many of the episodes depicted have the ring of true memories to them, and as Frida's story and that of her family emerges one can't help but be impressed with the performances of all involved.




5. Baby Driver

A finely-honed heist flick that sees Edgar Wright deploying his directorial verve in the service of a well-worn plot, taking it on interesting new tangents thanks to the lovingly-chosen soundtrack that scores almost every beat of lead character 'Baby's criminal exploits. While the getaway scenes are suitably spectacular thanks to top-flight stunt driving, it's the musical cues that give Baby Driver its soul and spirit, setting it apart from generic car films. And the genuine chemistry between Ansel Elgort's Baby and Lily James' Debora is a pleasure to watch - they will both emerge from this film with greatly burnished acting credentials. There are minor quibbles about the ending and the choice of actor to play the antagonist role, but the film surpasses any minor criticisms in its headlong embrace of sheer fun and its authentic, believable heart.


6. Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve has succeeded in constructing a fine addition to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner canon, in this unhurried, cerebral amalgam of recent sci-fi techno-paranoia such as Spike Jonze's Her and Alex Garland's Ex Machina. The film looks spectacular on the big screen, aiming for and often achieving a Kubrick-style surreality, while the soundscape is every bit as crisply targeted as the original's synth score suggested. Its ensemble cast performs well under Villeneuve's measured, restrained direction, offering the chance for scenes to play out gracefully without resorting to traditional sci-fi action bluster. There's also some commendably creepy robot love thrown in for good measure. If there's more story to be told, here's hoping this isn't the Aliens or Terminator 2 creative zenith of this tale.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

You may have heard of this one. My main take-home message was the potentially game-changing first use of the word 'spunk' in a Star Wars script. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed TLJ a great deal, particularly on the impressive IMAX screen in Auckland. But on second viewing the relative simplicity of the dialogue did become more noticeable. Did Rian Johnson intentionally keep the reading age of the script low, to maximise the potential audience?



8. Pecking Order

I can definitely recommend this New Zealand documentary following a year in the life of the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam & Pigeon Club (est. 1865). My workmate from Christchurch tells me it's populated by 'very Canterbury types', and despite having never lived there I can definitely see what she means.

While the exploration of the intricacies of competitive poultry exhibitions are interesting and well handled, and bring back strong memories of the Christopher Guest mockumentary Best In Show, as with most good documentaries it's the human stories underpinning the chicken preening that give the story its emotional heft. Aside from the lifelong fascination many of the film's subjects find in their birds, all is not well in the Club, with ageing president Les Bain finding insurrection in the ranks and finding himself ill-equipped to deal with dissent. So the lead-up to the national competition in Oamaru is shot through with tension and bitter infighting in committee rooms, which will be very familiar to anyone who's participated in such institutions; sadly, sometimes the people rewarded with office in recognition of many years of participation don't possess the skills to lead a disparate bunch. Equally, the young challenger who seems to possess the right skills to modernise the club is beset with the traditional New Zealand aversion to confrontation and is reluctant to put himself forward if it'll mean a stoush. Throughout, it's the youngest members (in their teens) who are the most sensible, as the old birds scratch and claw each other over seemingly petty disputes.

In this fine, strong local documentary my only niggling point of difference is that the filmmakers signal too strongly that the film is quirky and not to be taken too seriously through their choice of music cues, punning intertitles and graphic design. Viewers can work this out for themselves. But that's a minor complaint: this is very good work and gives townies like me a glimpse into a mysterious rural pursuit that's seemingly changed little since the 1860s.




9. A Date for Mad Mary

An object lesson in how to make a small film with a big heart, A Date For Mad Mary works in every respect - dramatically, comedically, narratively and visually. The tremendous Irish cast led by Seana Kerslake as loose cannon Mary offer believable and memorable performances and the film provides a glimpse into the motivations and challenges of a determined young woman seeking a 'plus one' for her best friend's wedding, with the slight impediment that she's got anger management issues and has only just emerged from a six-month jail term.




10. The Florida Project

Featuring a very fine juvenile performance from little six-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly and a compelling tale of motherhood on the breadline, The Florida Project offers the social realism of Short Term 12 and the naturalistic child acting of Boyhood, mingled with a nuanced depiction of those left behind by the American dream. And it only serves to emphasise the architectural crimes that seem to have been perpetrated on the unsuspecting urban environment of Florida.

See also:
Movies: My top 10 films of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010