29 December 2012

My best films of 2012

2012 has been a solid year of cinemagoing for me. My intake of new films has been somewhat curtailed by regular attendances at the Monday night Film Society screenings, which cuts into other cinema-going opportunities because I'm not always keen for two movie outings in a single week. But there's been some great entertainment on offer amongst the 10 films I've chosen as my best of the year. This year I've restricted my list to 2012 releases only, which omits some memorable high quality films released last year but seen by me in 2012, like The Artist, The Adventures of Tintin, Hugo and A Separation, and several above average film festival offerings like the Israeli academic drama Footnote and the Korean medieval actioner War of the Arrows, which were also 2011 releases.

In reverse order of preference, here's my top 10 for 2012.

10. Damsels In Distress (dir. Whit Stillman)
An enjoyable slice of deadpan whimsy, Whit Stillman's college-based comedy is wordy and increasingly scatty, and builds to a satisfyingly daft song-and-dance finale, complete with a safely out-of-copyright Fred Astaire number. I was most looking forward to seeing rising hipster star Greta Gerwig in the lead role, but her performance is curiously stilted - perhaps intentionally so, given the curious character she's playing. The supporting cast are more dynamic, and special mention should go to the two 'doofi' - the plural form of doofus - who offer winning performances of Keanu-esque moronity. Damsels In Distress also deserves plaudits for being perhaps the first motion picture to successfully deploy the philosophy of the French medieval breakaway Cathar sect as a comedic device.


9. Side By Side (dir. Christopher Kenneally)
This interesting doco about the aesthetic and technical considerations of the shift from film to digital movie-making involves the afore-mentioned Keanu Reeves talking to a who's who of Hollywood names, and he does a surprisingly good job of asking pertinent questions and trying to get closer to why film has such strong devotees, even as digital film-making grows ever larger. A niche topic, certainly, but for those interested in the history and the future of cinema, this is quality stuff. Particularly the bit where a director says the advent of immediate on-set digital playback revealed that most actors were less interested in their performances and more concerned about how their hair looked.

8. Le Prenom / What's In A Name? (dir. Alexandre de La Patellière, Matthieu Delaporte)
This deftly-handled film version of a hugely successful French stage play zips along with an assured cast boasting chemistry and timing born of years of practice. In the course of an evening old friends find out more than they expected about each other when they start an wide-ranging argument about one of their number's choice for their imminent baby's name. More and more emotional baggage emerges and it all gets built into a colossal barney. This is no grim Secrets & Lies tale though - it's all strictly played for wry laughs, and there are many, along with a few surprises. Try not to read too much about it, because some reviewers will be bound to give away the best bits.




7. Searching for Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendjelloul)

Do: See Searching For Sugar Man, the story of Rodriguez, a talented, lyrical Detroit native who became an insightful singer-songwriter in the mould of Donovan and recorded two superb albums in 1970 and 1971 before fading into complete obscurity. Do: Be intrigued by the impact these records went on to have in faraway South Africa, where Rodriguez became a cult figure and sold hundreds of thousands of records. Do: Buy the soundtrack to admire the songs that should have stood alongside those of Bob Dylan, Don McLean or Scott Walker, as the minor gems that they are. But DON'T: Watch the idiotic official trailer, read any reviews or search for online details about Rodriguez beforehand, because the best aspect of the film is watching the story unfold before you. Seeing the impact that one man's music had upon a nation on the other side of the world is a special experience, and you shouldn't let today's ridiculous insistence on fun-sapping full and total disclosure ruin the film's unexpected twists. (Incidentally, the film's focus on South Africa is understandable, but Rodriguez was also reasonably popular in the 1970s in Australia and New Zealand). 



6. Farewell, My Queen / Les Adieux a la Reine (dir. Benoît Jacquot)
Farewell My Queen's glimpses into the final days of court life at Versailles in 1789 are expertly rendered, capturing a highly believable atmosphere of faded decadence, imperial hauteur and an increasingly desperate sense of rising panic as the regime totters towards oblivion and the new bloodthirsty Republic. Servant Sidonie (Lea Seydoux from Inglourious Basterds, Mysteries of Lisbon and Midnight in Paris) is Marie Antoinette's devoted reader, who finds the entire world of Versailles crumbling around her. Diane Kruger fills the role of the capricious, obsessive Queen with aplomb, and Virginie Ledoyen is her glamorous favourite de Polignac, loathed by the masses and loved by the Queen with an equal fervour. Filmed on location in Versailles itself, this is a well-crafted glimpse into what life might have been like - fleas, rats and all - in the dying days of the French monarchy.


5. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
Seasoned with just the right levels of whimsy, Wes Anderson's new film is finally broadening his appeal beyond his devoted band of adherents, and enhances his reputation as one of the most reliable and watchable film-makers working today. Perhaps it's the likeable young lead actors - ultimate scout Sam and the scowling, bookish Suzy - or the array of sight gags and hard-bitten lines delivered by the children a la Rian Johnson's Brick. All the Anderson traits are still evident - a cast of actor pals (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), brilliantly composed shots, oodles of tracking, judicious use of slow-mo, hand-written correspondence, and a pronounced fondness for binoculars and record players. Cynics will say Moonrise Kingdom is another example of a film designed solely for hipsters and film society tragics. They'll be missing out on a solid and enjoyable film that builds on an already impressive body of work.


4. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
Yes folks, it's this decade's Bruce Willis time travel blockbuster! It is my ambition to one day produce a movie in which Bruce Willis travels back in time to tell Young Bruce Willis that in the future he'll appear in a lot of movies about travelling back in time to tell himself that he will appear in a lot of time travel movies (etc.) ... Actually, Looper exceeds expectations in that I was expecting a half-baked homage to Inception, but it turns out to be a well-put-together, solidly acted and interesting take on the time travel genre that had me thinking and re-thinking over the plot developments for days afterwards. I should've expected nothing less from the talented Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) - hopefully the entertaining and exciting Looper is his ticket into blockbuster territory.


3. A Royal Affair (dir. Nikolaj Arcel)

While the story may be relatively predictable, the quality of this late 18th century Danish royal court drama stands out, as do the performances of the excellent cast. Mikkel Folsgaard is particularly strong as the capricious and often obnoxious King Christian, forever flirting with the boundary between immaturity and insanity. The titular affair between the young Queen (Alicia Vikander) and the reformist royal physician Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is made more interesting by the political machinations that ensue, as the doctor gains more and more power through his friendship with the wayward king and implements liberalising policies espoused by his Enlightenment heroes. This naturally earns the enmity of the Machiavellian Danish aristocracy, who liked things just as they were. So the moral of the story is probably: never trust a toff.



2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (dir. Peter Jackson)
Quite simply, this is splendid entertainment. Freeman is perfectly cast, the adventure is suitably thrilling, and the visuals are both sumptuous and engrossing. While I mightn't want to see every movie in such pin-sharp clarity, when it's one as keenly anticipated as The Hobbit I'm glad of the painstaking detail. There really is a lot going on in every scene, and I found this exciting rather than distracting. The famously slender source material didn't feel particularly stretched in this instalment - well, maybe in one or two places - but who knows how it will fare in the 2nd and 3rd chapters. While the first Hobbit film may not quite be the equal of The Fellowship of the Ring, it successfully taps into the spirit of the earlier trilogy, which is a very fine legacy to invoke.

And my best film of 2012...

1. I Wish (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

There is nothing particularly complex about this Japanese film - two young brothers, living in different cities due to their parents' breakup, conspire to meet mid-way at the bullet train tracks, where the meeting of two passing trains at a collective 520km/h is rumoured to create a mystical wish-granting power. Their plan is to wish for their family to be reunited, but along the way they accumulate a posse of other children seeking their own wish-granting magic opportunity. The real pleasure is in the utterly charming and naturalistic performances of all the children in the film, but particularly the two real-life brothers at the heart of the story. Like the Studio Ghibli films (Spirited Away being the most prominent example), I Wish is so refreshing because there are no antagonists - no deadly rivals, no bullies, no mean parents or sadistic teachers; everyone is kind and generous to one another (particularly the children), and while there's plenty of humour there's none of the tiresome old-beyond-their-years wise-cracking that ruins so many American onscreen kid roles. I Wish is a great watch and an unassuming cinematic treat for audiences of all ages.

 

See also:

Blog: Jess' film highlights of 2012
Blog: My best and worst films of 2011
Blog: My best and worst films of 2010

27 December 2012

A means of communication


Yesterday I took another belated step into the 21st century: I bought my first smartphone. This involved braving the mean streets of Newmarket on Boxing Day, but I reasoned that most of the seasoned bargain raiders would be out at the malls rather than in the harsh light of day (The sunlight! It burns!). This assumption proved to be correct. There were small troupes of identically-coiffed trainee Epsom Plastics swinging tiny gift bags containing overpriced trinkets purchased with their parents' money, but the consumerism on display on the optimistically named Broadway was of a distinctly relaxed tone.

The handset I purchased is a parallel imported model, the Sony Xperia P, which has a four-inch screen and a dual-core processor. It's certainly no all-rounder like the admittedly fab but considerably pricier Samsung Galaxy S3, but it will do me just fine. I've just been tinkering with the offline settings so far because there's no wifi here and I don't currently have a data contract, but there'll be plenty of time to fill it up with handy and/or silly apps in due course.  (All recommendations gratefully received, naturally). The handset was set up for German users when it came out of the box, and while I did consider adopting a Teutonic alter-ego for the telephonic environment, it was easily switched back to English.

This means my previous mobile, a Sony Ericsson Elm, lovingly referred to as my 'dumbphone' on account of its lack of whizzy connectedness, will now be put out to pasture. It has served well since I bought it at the Carphone Warehouse in Chelmsford in August 2010, and while it never impressed with its performance, it was hardly likely to given its entry-level status. Its rudimentary wifi feature certainly proved helpful on several occasions, particularly in Berlin last year when I was anxious for news of a mysterious ash cloud that was threatening to close the skies to air traffic across Europe and thereby prevent me returning home to London.  

20 December 2012

An unexpected item in the Baggins area


Last night I enjoyed my first viewing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or as one Twitter wag has christened it, ‘An Unexpected Item in the Baggins Area’. It was at the home of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien screen empire, the Embassy picture palace – the fullstop punctuating the end of Courtenay Place with suitably vintage grandeur from the golden age of cinema. And it was the focal point of the splendid world premiere ceremony a few weeks ago.

The Embassy is the right place to see a film of this scale. Not only does it offer the 48fps HFR version of the film, but it also offers splendid sound quality, having been refitted once again in the lead-up to the Hobbit release, gaining something called Dolby Atmos for the premiere. The visuals are both sumptuous and engrossing. While I mightn't want to see every movie in such pin-sharp clarity, when it's one as keenly anticipated as The Hobbit I'm glad of the painstaking detail. There really is a lot going on in every scene, and I found this exciting rather than distracting.  

All the effort that has gone into bringing this to the screen is definitely worthwhile.  Quite simply The Hobbit is splendid entertainment. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast, balancing the Baggins love of home and hearth with his Tookish thirst for adventure. And the adventure itself is suitably thrilling, with The Hobbit being more action-oriented than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, no doubt because this is a film based on material designed for younger readers and because there is less narrative from the source material to work with over three films. The famously slender source material didn't feel particularly stretched in this instalment - well, maybe in one or two places - but who knows how it will fare in the second and third chapters. 

While the first Hobbit film may not quite be the equal of The Fellowship of the Ring, it successfully taps into the spirit of the earlier trilogy, which is a very fine legacy to invoke. It's already done well at the box-office internationally. On Sunday Variety reported in its traditional mangled English:

The first of three installments, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," hunkered down for what should be a sizable global run, drawing $223 million this weekend, of which $138.2 million came from international plexes. The movie earned $84.8 million domestically, lower than the most bullish estimates but enough to be the largest Stateside December bow ever.

(The article is rich in Hollywood clichés: it goes on to refer to audiences as 'auds' and uses the moderately revolting abbreviation 'cume', as in 'cumulative audiences'. It also praises the film's 'topnotch playability', which is a needlessly convoluted way of saying 'popularity').

18 December 2012

Stephen Merchant

Stephen Merchant
Opera House
Wellington
17 December 2012

‘I took a lady to the movies in London.  Now I don’t know if you know this, but popcorn in London is about five quid.  Five quid!  So I open my jacket and show her the inside pocket. Yep, popcorn from the corner shop down the road.  And afterwards she had the gall to call me stingy!  I don’t understand how she could think that.  After all, I only charged her two pounds fifty’.

- Stephen Merchant, Hello Ladies... (paraphrased)

During the many months in which I attended the weekly pub quiz at the Grey Goose in Clapham, there was seldom a week in which a particular sturdy gentleman didn't sidle up to our team table and proffer a flyer for the Goose's comedy club upstairs. Said flyer-dispenser would always ladle generous hints that one Stephen Merchant - yes, him off the telly, of The Office fame - was wont to appear there. Team Mince - for that was our name - never took the promoter up on his offer, taking it to be a slice of advertising puffery, but perhaps it was Merchant's haunt after all. If so, we certainly missed out, because Merchant has grabbed his share of the vibrant UK standup comedy circuit with his hugely entertaining Hello Ladies show. 

The material Stephen Merchant relies upon may not at first glance appear too promising, but his delivery and tone is honed to perfection and he plays the reliable and endearing self-deprecation card with aplomb. Much is said about the frustrations of the terminally lanky - he's six foot seven - and his background as an unreconstructed geek. Indeed, the whole premise of the show is that it's his most likely way (or perhaps last-ditch attempt) to secure a wife. This Merchant-as-loser angle shouldn't really work as well as it does - after all, Merchant is a successful TV writer, actor and producer with numerous awards to his name, and he's hardly likely to be short of funds after the small matter of 181 writing credits and 173 executive producer credits for the American version of The Office. But on stage, Merchant's persona is convincing and, crucially, eminently likeable as he rails against the injustices of inaccurate or snide media coverage of his B-list celebrity fumblings.

I particularly enjoyed the effort Merchant put in to his show script, with multiple comedic callbacks showing that he expects the audience to keep up and build on earlier jokes - his nerdish fascination with Venn diagrams and calculator watches being but two examples. His pleasing talent for self-mockery reaches its height when he dons two items of clothing supposedly gifted by his Bristolian parents and mimics the stunned reaction of nightclubbers witnessing the antithesis of cool strutting before them. And the encore is a hugely entertaining skip through a late-1980s piece of school agit-prop theatre supposedly discovered amongst Merchant's old schoolbooks, in which two members of the audience assist by playing roles as impressionable teen peers who are variously smoking, up the duff, on drugs, and coming to terms with their deep and abiding love for the play's writer-director-lead actor. 




One can only hope that Merchant finds the time for more standup work, because if this show is anything to go by, he's on to a winner. One of the best standup gigs I've been to.  

See also:
Review: Bill Bailey, Wellington, 29 September 2012
Review: David O'Doherty, Wellington, 4 May 2012

16 December 2012

Student geocaching

Victoria University, Kelburn, 16 December 2012
Student dudes, you really must try harder next time. I found your geocache treasure trove in no time flat, dumped on the stairs down through the university. Looks like a light shindig must have ensued, perhaps a genteel bridge evening or a gathering of the Philosophy Club. Judging by student flats' seeming inability to cope with the notion of putting out glass recycling every other week, this 'caching' is probably a regular occurrence.

John Howard on America's lax firearms laws

Early in 2008 Janette [Howard] and I were guests of the former president, George H. W. Bush or ''41'', as he is affectionately known, at his Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. I spoke to a warm and friendly audience of more than 300 who enthusiastically reacted until, in answer to a request to nominate the proudest actions of the Australian government I had led for almost 12 years, I included the national gun control laws enacted after the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996.

Having applauded my references to the liberation of East Timor, leaving Australia debt free, presiding over a large reduction in unemployment and standing beside the US in the global fight against terrorism, there was an audible gasp of amazement at my expressing pride in what Australia had done to limit the use of guns.

I had been given a sharp reminder that, despite the many things we have in common with our American friends, there is a huge cultural divide when it comes to the free availability of firearms [...]

The murder rate in the US is roughly four times that in each of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. Even the most diehard supporter of guns must concede that America's lax firearms laws are a major part of the explanation for such a disparity.

On April 28, 1996, Bryant, using two weapons, killed 35 people in Tasmania. It was, at that time, the largest number of people who had died in a single series of incidents at the hands of one person.

The national gun control laws delivered by the Howard government, following this tragedy received bipartisan support ... Research published in 2010 in the American Journal of Law and Economics found that firearm homicides, in Australia, dropped 59 per cent between 1995 and 2006. There was no offsetting increase in non-firearm-related murders. Researchers at Harvard University in 2011 revealed that in the 18 years prior to the 1996 Australian laws, there were 13 gun massacres (four or more fatalities) in Australia, resulting in 102 deaths. There have been none in that category since the Port Arthur laws.

- John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia 1996-2007, 'Brothers in arms, yes, but the US needs to get rid of its guns', The Age (Melbourne), 1 August 2012

[Howard was writing in response to another American gun massacre, in Aurora. The study Howard referred to found that Australia's gun buyback policy 'led to a drop in the firearm suicide rates of almost 80%, with no significant effect on non-firearm death rates']

'Essential' Kenny Loggins


Via Sacha Dylan and Cracked.com's post 'If Famous Albums Were Retitled With Brutal Honesty' comes this wee gem. Poor Kenny. It's the beard that renders him the target of all this hipster tomfoolery. By way of making amends, why not eschew the well-worn path of 'Footloose' or 'Danger Zone' and instead take in said beard in all its glory - and its accompanying zeitgeisty but ill-advised Cobain-eqsue locks and plaid - in this 1992 outdoor performance of the Doobie Brothers' soft-rock classic 'What A Fool Believes' with Michael McDonald. He certainly can sing, that Kenny, you have to give him that.

13 December 2012

Channelling Catch-22

Having recently enjoyed British science fiction writer (and literature professor) Adam Roberts' books Yellow Blue Tibia and Salt, this week I've also zipped through his 2006 novel Gradisil, a 21st and 22nd century tale of high Earth orbit and three generations of a pioneering family who help to found an anarchic, free-for-all orbital nation of billionaires, freaks and runaways known as the Upland. While Gradisil displays the expected inventive Roberts soothsaying about life in orbit and on Earth in the centuries to come, and displays a typically strong writing style - there's a fantastic sequence with a man in a borrowed spacesuit, floating alone in space, anticipating a lonely doom - it is also a story of carefully-nurtured longing for revenge and the distances that can fester in families inhabited by singular individuals. There's also a bit of transmogrification of English spelling in the later chapters as the language and alphabet evolves.

Having recently read Joseph Heller's classic Catch-22, I enjoyed Roberts' delving into the American military psyche in the chapters dealing with US orbital ambitions to rule the Upland. War planners in the late 21st century are highly aware of the legal ramifications of their actions, including but not limited to the problem of making sure that the conflict lasts long enough to qualify as a proper war, and the practical concern that the de facto Upland leader, the titular Gradisil, is secured and formally surrenders. Here military analyst Lt Slater runs through the potential scenarios:

-----

Everything is in a high state of readiness. All the possible eventualities of Upland resistance have been stochastically appraised, these being:

[1] No Upland resistance, and immediate surrender, the problem here being the need to keep the war going for more than forty-eight hours. They have a dozen schemes for this necessary prolongation.

[2] No Upland resistance, but surrender delayed because of lak of national coherence and leadership. This would be very good; enabling the US to secure their territory before piking up a national leader and encouraging them to utter the critical words.

[3] No Upland resistance, but Gradisil refuses to surrender. Much Legal time has been devoted to listing which other prominent Uplanders would have the necessary legal plausibility to offer surrender. Since she has never been officially elected, it is arguable that Gradisil's actions are a legal irrelevance anyway.

[4] Some limited Upland resistance. This is the best scenario of all, because it would justify US action, enable them to prolong the war as long as they wanted, and give the troops something of a workout. With any military resistance the game becomes mainly military, and that's where Slater's confidence is highest.

[5] Significant Upland resistance. However unlikely this is, given the lak of Upland resources, the lak of a national will to fight, and the precariousness of Upland supply lines, it cannot be entirely ruled out. Gradi is the wild card. It's conceivable - just - that she will inspire at least some of her people to an heroic stand against the Americans [shout defiance in the maw of - !]. And this, number '5' is wat Slater, in his truest heart, yearns for: a useful military target, a task to stretch the troops a little. The more military resistance they encounter, the stronger the US position; for they are, wholly, the dominant party in military terms. Nobody denies that. Slater has promised a seventy-two hour war; but there is a great deal of leeway in this. Anything over forty-eight hours and less than one solar year is legally optimal. And there is simply no way the war could last as long as a year: for one thing, without food or the ability to travel downbelow the Upland population would starve to death before that. Which would not be ideal PR, but would still be a military result.

- Adam Roberts, Gradisil, London, 2006

08 December 2012

Alcohol sponsorship

The thing is, there will be people who stop buying alcohol if the price goes up. But it won't be the drunken yobs or the alcoholics or the children, it'll just be poorer people. Because putting up prices, even to stupidly high levels, doesn't stop middle class people from buying things - you just have to look at Apple computers. £42 billion is spent on alcohol per year in England and Wales, and half of that was spent in a round at Mahiki on Prince Harry's birthday. Because alcoholism and problem drinking aren't poor peoples' diseases - they can affect everyone from world leaders all the way down to British MPs. It comes down to more than just unit price - we need a cultural shift. For starters, let's have some consistency in advertising with other unhealthy products like smoking. Alcohol sponsorship is attached to pretty much every facet of culture, from the Carling Cup to Fosters Comedy to Stella McCartney.

- Holly Walsh on plans for a minimum alcohol unit price, The Now Show, BBC Radio 4, 7 December 2012

07 December 2012

Et tu, Brute?

The debacle of New Zealand's cricket captain Ross Taylor's sacking from the captaincy today has all the hallmarks of a traditional New Zealand Cricket farce, replete with poor judgement, cack-handed management and a stunning tone-deafness to the views of cricket fans. The Herald's Andrew Alderson thinks it all stems from new coach Mike Hesson, and asks 'how could one man who has been in charge for two test tours and the World T20 possibly command such executive powers?' Perhaps the cricket bureaucrats who engineered the great John Wright's exit from the coaching role are now finally getting their way in the captaincy stakes as well.

Certainly, Taylor's captaincy has not been a golden 16 months for the sport in New Zealand. There have been a great many losses, typically resulting from batting capitulations. In the 13 tests with Taylor at the helm since November 2011 there have been only four wins (two against Zimbabwe, one against Australia in Hobart and last month's victory over Sri Lanka in Colombo). These four wins are balanced by a mere two draws and seven defeats, including the horror run of five straight test losses that ended in Colombo. Taylor's captaincy figures for the other two forms of the game are not particularly pleasant reading either:


  • Tests: Played 13, won 4, drew 2, lost 7
  • ODIs: Played 21, won 6, lost 12, no result 3
  • T20s: Played 14, won 6, tied 2, lost 4, no result 2

This is a poor showing, certainly, apart from the middling achievement in knockabout T20s. But Taylor has been scoring good runs as captain, which is his main role as the team's strongest batsman. Here's his comparative stats for all three forms:


  • Tests: As captain: 49.85 average. Not as captain: 41.12 average
  • ODIs: As captain: 46.7 average. Not as captain: 35.79 average
  • T20s: As captain: 43.83 average. Not as captain: 20.34 average

These figures make stark reading. Taylor has clearly blossomed as a batsman during his time as captain. It would be ridiculous to question Taylor's batting achievements, but the new coach Mike Hesson and, it is rumoured, a cadre of disgruntled players, have determined that Taylor's non-batting captaincy skills are what's holding the team back.

Granted, the team results highlighted above have not been encouraging. But this is no excuse for the way Taylor has been treated. He was appointed to the captaincy role because he displays more on-field maturity and leadership than his rival Brendon McCullum, and because the role of captain traditionally goes to the team member (usually but not always a batsman) whose selection is virtually guaranteed if he is fit. Taylor's record demands automatic selection; McCullum's does not, despite him displaying plenty of potential for many years. Part of this stems from the ongoing attempt to reinvent McCullum as an attacking opener, a compromise which has been given life by one strikingly successful innings in India but which has yet to yield reliable and consistent results. (McCullum's test batting average: 35.63; McCullum's test batting average as an opener: 38.43 - pretty good, but hardly threatening)

McCullum was unlucky to emerge into the cricket scene during the heyday of Adam Gilchrist, and his place in the team was forever linked to expectations that he would play a similarly explosive role, despite not being as naturally talented as Gilchrist. (This is no criticism of McCullum - rather, it is a criticism of those who expect miracles from stripling players and throw them to the wolves before they're ready, thereby setting back their careers by years. New Zealand Cricket is particularly fond of this approach). The electrifying opening innings of the IPL made him a cricketing household name and helped kickstart his bank balance, but it also set the seal for his bash-'em-up cameo batting style that often leaves middle-order batsmen struggling to repair the damage in tests and one-dayers after McCullum has departed early for a run-a-ball innings of not very much.  

By way of comparison, here's McCullum's batting averages, including the figures for games in which Taylor was captain as a reference:


  • Tests: 35.63 average (29.54 average under Taylor)
  • ODIs: 30.24 average (35.25 average under Taylor)
  • T20s: 36.00 average (56.12 average under Taylor) 

So while Taylor's batting form as captain has been exemplary, McCullum's form during the same period has only been world-class in the T20 arena; in tests and ODIs he has been only a moderate success. This means that to some extent at least, the team's poor performance has in part been down to McCullum's failure to gel as an opening batsman. That is hardly Taylor's fault.

Perhaps McCullum will make a better captain than Taylor due to some latent leadership skills, I couldn't say. It doesn't bode well that McCullum claims that he doesn't bother listening to the sound advice of New Zealand's best batsman of the modern era, Martin Crowe. Taylor might conceivably be a complete klutz in the dressing-room, getting players off-side and selecting unwise onfield tactics. But one thing that's certain is that New Zealand can ill afford to lose a batsman of Taylor's quality, as is happening for the tough upcoming tour of South Africa. (We've already been down this road before with the talented rogue Jesse Ryder, now playing again for Wellington).

In a way it's pleasing that the long out of favour 33-year-old Canterbury batsman Peter Fulton gets one last shot at making his mark in international cricket due to Taylor's sabbatical, and we should all wish Fulton the best of luck. But have you seen the T20 side that's been selected for the three internationals at the start of the South Africa tour? A tour against the strongest cricketing nation in the world? In a squad of 15 there's five players without international experience. This tour could be a bloodbath of epic proportions.

From his comments this afternoon it appears that Taylor just wants a short break from the game while he comes to terms with the way he's been treated by New Zealand Cricket, but he'll be back for the England tour. We can only hope that Taylor can swallow his pride and return to the national side under the new captaincy of Brendon McCullum, and play more innings like his devastating birthday knock against Pakistan in the World Cup. Perhaps it will do him some good to sit back, score plenty of runs, and let someone else carry the can for the team's poor performances for a change.

05 December 2012

Give those strings that rip 'n zing

Dutch singer Caro Emerald's real name is Caroline Esmeralda van der Leeuw, but her stage name is a tad more catchy. And that comes in handy because this track of hers, Back It Up from her 2010 album Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor, is also a mighty catchy slice of jazz-influenced English-language Europop. The lyrics are largely immaterial and somewhat nonsensical, but seem to comprise an ode to the art of vinyl scratching. The main attractions are the infectious beat, the playful Caro vocals, and in this video made for the international market, the snappy '40s film motif. And it doesn't hurt that Caro can certainly fill a cocktail frock.   



See also:

Video: Caro Emerald live on Jools Holland's New Year Hootenanny, Mad About The Boy & A Night Like This, 31 December 2011.

04 December 2012

'I hate onions with a furious passion'

Overall I would compare this album to a recent dining experience I had. I love mushrooms, and jumped at the opportunity to pour mushroom sauce all over the dish I ordered. Then after a mouthful I realised the sauce was full of onions. I hate onions with a furious passion, they are the abomination of vegetables. Not only was I disappointed, I was left with an empty feeling in my stomach. Much like I felt after listening to this.

- John Hobbs reviews Rihanna's 'Unapologetic', Waitaki Herald, 30 November 2012. 

02 December 2012

The bare necessities

Hands-up if you’re a nudist? OH GOD PUT THEM BACK DOWN AGAIN! I didn’t think that through. New game! Gesture with your elbows, but do not in any way move your hands, if you’re a nudist? Okay. Listen up, wrinklies, because I’ve invented a thing called “clothing”. This will allow people to be naked, but others will not be able to see it unless they’re underneath the clothes.
- PC Gamer, 1 December 2012

Yes, it definitely must've been a slow news day yesterday in Wellington, because the Dominion Post's front page story featured naturist Andrew Pointon, who recently had his appeal against a December offensive behaviour charge upheld. He had been charged for nude jogging in a forest near Tauranga last August; a woman using the bike path Pointon was running on was surprised and offended by his lack of clothing and complained to police, and he was charged by police three days later at the same location. Justice Paul Heath, according to the Dominion Post, upheld Pointon's appeal and compared the naked jogging case with a hypothetical scenario of two patched gang members strolling along the same track:

It would not be surprising for a person in the position of the complainant to be concerned and discomforted by their presence, and even to feel threatened. However, on any view, their behaviour would  not be regarded as offensive behaviour. Should the sight of a naked man, in the circumstances in which the complainant found herself, be treated any differently? I think not.

Pointon cited his appeal success as a victory for libertarianism, adding, 'It's just another lifestyle and I want respect for it'.

It would be interesting to be exactly sure what offence Pointon was charged with. I presume it was an offence under the Summary Offences Act 1981, which is where a whole load of miscellaneous naughtiness is dealt with. He might have been charged under section 27, indecent exposure, but given the potential imprisonment involved that's probably reserved for more serious cases, i.e. serial flashers. Presumably he was charged under section 4, offensive behaviour or language, which is a more nuisance-level charge. Under that section, 'every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who, in or within view of any public place, behaves in an offensive or disorderly manner'. Simple, right? 

However, it all depends on how you define offensive behaviour, which is why judges have a hard job. Last year an offensive behaviour conviction for activist Valerie Morse, who burned a New Zealand flag at an Anzac Day dawn service in 2007, was quashed by the Supreme Court:

Wellington District Court judge Oke Blaikie found offensive behaviour to mean behaviour capable of wounding feelings or arousing real anger, resentment, disgust or outrage in the mind of a reasonable person. He considered a tendency to disrupt public order was not required. But the Supreme Court thought otherwise, ruling unanimously that offensive behaviour must give rise to a "disturbance of public order". Because the district court proceeded on a wrong basis of law, the conviction was thrown out.
- Clio Francis, Dominion Post, 7 May 2011

The Supreme Court judgement in Morse's case seems to set a relatively high barrier for offensive behaviour charges, and it would be interesting to learn if any successful prosecutions have occurred since that judgement. Personally, I think Morse's actions were calculatedly offensive, but she should be free to burn a flag if she wishes to, despite the insensitivity of the action and the offence this might cause. Her actions might have annoyed and upset onlookers, but they hardly endangered the safety of public order by ensuring that those present were (in the words of Justice Tipping) 'substantially inhibited in carrying out the purpose of their presence at the place where the impugned behaviour is taking place'. New Zealand society is sufficiently robust and tolerant to permit actions like Morse's, and while we may not agree with attention-seeking protests, it's better that these actions are out in the open and judged on their own merits (or lack thereof).

Having made a case for free speech, it is interesting to debate whether naturism or nude jogging is analogous to free speech. Of course people should be able to live however they wish - we live in a free society. But our collective freedom is always limited in part by the desire of other citizens for quiet enjoyment of their own way of life. Naturism has been around for decades, and with time we have evolved a reasonable balance in which the relatively small number of devotees can enjoy the freedom to take their clothes off in public but only in certain areas. This compromise works well, because generally everyone is aware where these areas are, and can avoid them if they wish to. In most other areas, therefore, we rely on people to leave their clothes on in public. 

This delicate balance is disrupted by cases like Mr Pointon's, in which public nudity is taken out of its expected environment. The example cited by Pointon's lawyer, of the legal Boobs on Bikes parades organised by a sex industry promoter, just goes to prove the point. New Zealand society tolerates Boobs on Bikes not because it is a shining example of free speech, but because if you don't like Boobs on Bikes parades, they're pretty easy to avoid. Just don't go into town that day and you won't see any mammaries on motorcycles. Mr Pointon's brand of naturism is harder to avoid because he is mobile. In effect, he is attempting to make forest trails like the one he was arrested on into naturist reserves. Perhaps that's a laudable goal, I don't know, but it definitely changes the equation in favour of clothes-free activity in areas outside 'traditional' naturist locales. 

Going back to Justice Heath's scenario of patched gang members, perhaps this was more convincing in the context it was delivered, but on the face of it the analogy seems peculiar. Wearing a gang patch or uniform is not in itself a criminal act (notwithstanding recent efforts to ban them), and nor is it offensive. A woman happening upon two gang members on a forest path might be surprised and feel concerned for her own safety, but that's got nothing at all to do with offensive behaviour because the court case was not just about the aspect of surprise. The alleged infringement of the law is generated primarily by the behaviour (naked jogging), not the aspect of surprise. The fact that Pointon was running would have added to the suddenness of the encounter, but would the woman's reaction have been different if Pointon had been walking, or had stopped for a rest? (Probably not wise - it was August after all. Best to keep moving to avoid hypothermia).

Clearly this is a matter of context. If Pointon had been going for his naked runs through the middle of Tauranga I believe his appeal would have been far less likely to succeed, because far more people will have seen him and a reasonable number of them (perhaps a minority, but still a fair few) would probably have been offended by the sight of him. The isolation of the forest track plays a part, in that there would likely be few people around to see. So is the test that public nudity like in this case is a minor nuisance, but a nuisance that is magnified if more people are exposed to it? (Pun unintended). No, because plenty of people are exposed to the Boobs on Bikes, and most of them have chosen to be. So they can, like, see boobs. (And bikes. But I'm guessing mainly boobs). It's the combination of surprise and an unexpected location of nudity that's the issue.

Perhaps Pointon should bear in mind that public nudity in an unexpected location is also the purview of flashers, who are often regarded as low-level nuisances but are potentially more serious cases with psychological problems that could lead to worse offences. It will be a fine line to tread if he wishes to advance his cause further. Either way, while we might salute Pointon for standing up for what he believes in, equally I think it should be acceptable to say that if I'm out for a casual stroll on a forest path I really, really, REALLY don't want to see anyone's junk. I mean, seriously? It's just a matter of good manners. Keep it to yourself, dude.

28 November 2012

The Hobbit premiere: red carpet pictures

Photos from Courtenay Place this afternoon, in the lead-up to this evening's world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in what has now become a trilogy of Tolkien's classic fantasy novel. The capital was packed with visitors and locals and Courtenay Place was heaving. Traditional Wellington film premiere weather had also turned up, with clear skies, sprightly sunshine and a rising thermometer. I wasn't able to get a particularly good vantage point, but still managed to secure a few good shots, particularly of return visitor Elijah Wood and the legendary Barry Humphries, who flattered red carpet interviewer Carol Hirschfeld outrageously and unstintingly. Just like last time at the King Kong premiere I wasn't able to get a good shot of actor and now 2nd unit director Andy Serkis - he just moves too quickly!

Click to enlarge any of the photos below.

Neil Finn performing

Martin Freeman on the big screen

Andy Serkis

Courtenay Place panorama

On every lamppost

Hugo Weaving's beard (+ Hugo Weaving, somewhere in there)

Air NZ 777 fly-over

Sylvester McCoy

Hugo stopped by to say hello

Cate Blanchett

Ian Taylor

Barry Humphries!

Peter Jackson (top right)

Dean O'Gorman

Dean O'Gorman

Avatar & Titanic director / NZ resident James Cameron

Aidan Turner

Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman

Adam Brown

Elijah Wood

Elijah Wood

Three generations of hobbits

See also:
Photos: Eastern Promises premiere, London, 17 October 2007
Photos: King Kong premiere, Wellington, 14 December 2005

26 November 2012

Precisely how jazz music is made

In tonight's final Film Society movie for 2012, High Society from 1956, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong deliver 'Now You Has Jazz', a rousing Cole Porter number, as a statement of the charms of a uniquely American musical institution. It's the most animated moment in the film for the 53-year-old Crosby, and it's delightful to see him messing about with the gurning, ebullient Armstrong, who appears to be in a wonderfully daft mood.

It's slightly poignant, however, to note that this type of music was soon to be eclipsed by a rebellious, rambunctious younger sibling. High Society was released in July 1956, just over a year after the release of the film Blackboard Jungle, featuring the global smash hit 'Rock Around The Clock' by Bill Haley & His Comets. The days of jazz as the mainstay of American popular musical culture were numbered, and the mighty youthquake of rock & roll was ready to overpower everything. But for a moment, Crosby could still sing:

From the coast to the coast
Jazz is king
'Cause jazz is the thing
Folks dig most!




The film features Grace Kelly in her final role before jetting off to become Monaco's Princess Consort. She does a fine line in the mandatory trans-Atlantic accent that was required of many stars at the time, is charming both acting drunk and acting hung over, and is of course gifted with an astonishing natural beauty. Who could fail to fall in love with her? Well, her three (three!) suitors, Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and stick-in-the-mud fiancee John Lund certainly do. There's the standard rampantly comical and perhaps a little creepy age differences involved too, which were quite common in films of the time. Kelly was 26 during filming. Sinatra was 14 years older (at one point he is referred to as 'over 30', hmm!); Lund was about 18 years older; and Crosby a full 27 years older! That's an entire generation of difference. Mind you, in High Society Crosby also sings an (entirely innocent) love song to an 11-year-old girl. It was a different age.

See also:
Music - Iggy Pop & Deborah Harry - Well Did You Evah? (1990)

25 November 2012

Battle squirrels and combat frogs

The Gloaming
by Johnny Fraser-Allan
New Zealand Portrait Gallery
24 November - 6 December 2012
Free exhibition

A quick visit to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery on the Wellington waterfront this afternoon was rewarded with an excellent free exhibition of sculptures and concept art that Weta Workshop's Johnny Fraser-Allan has produced for his 'The Gloaming' project. The artworks are intricately detailed, carefully and precisely produced and thoroughly realistic in appearance. In viewing the exhibition I had assumed that it was a tie-in for an American or British series of children's books, or perhaps for a fantasy movie in the spirit of The Dark Crystal, but it seems not - the creatures exist only in Fraser-Allan's workshop and in his imagination. But surely the potential for a great story is obvious to all involved in the exhibition - just get a Hollywood exec in the same room as these beautiful, whimsical and engaging artworks and a huge movie deal should be inevitable. Someone make it happen!

Note: All artworks are copyright Richard Taylor. Images are reproduced here to encourage you to visit the exhibition. If there are any official objections to their presence here, please leave a comment.

Please also note the presence of a fearsome pinecone armour-clad Battle Squirrel, who deserves his own show. (Click photos to enlarge).

A bloody great dragon, having a dragon snooze



Badger badger badger!

Lysistrata's gambit

Lysistrata, the title character in Aristophanes' bawdy comic play first performed in Greece in 411 BC, brought together the women of ancient Greece in a conclave to bring to a halt the ruinous Peloponnesian Wars. Her method: organising the women of Greece to refuse to provide sexual favours to their menfolk - not even the renowned Lioness on the Cheese Grater position - until they relent and end the war. Here she explains her reasoning to an angry magistrate, who demands to know why the womenfolk have seized and barricaded themselves into the Acropolis with the all-important treasury, without which the war cannot proceed:


Lysistrata: In the last war we were too modest to object to anything you men did—and in any case you wouldn’t let us say a word. But don’t think we approved! We knew everything that was going on. Many times we’d hear at home about some major blunder of yours, and then when you came home we’d be burning inside, but we’d have to put on a smile and ask what it was you’d decided to inscribe on the pillar underneath the peace treaty. And what did my husband always say?—“Shut up and mind your own business!” And I did.

Stratyllis: I wouldn’t have done!

Magistrate: [ignoring her—to Lysistrata] He’d have given you one if you hadn’t!

Lysistrata: Exactly—so I kept quiet. But sure enough, next thing we knew, you’d take an even sillier decision. And if I so much as said, “Darling, why are you carrying on with this silly policy?” he would glare at me and say, “Back to your weaving, woman, or you’ll have a headache for a month. Go and attend to your work; let war be the care of the menfolk.”

Magistrate: Quite right, too, by Zeus.

Lysistrata: Right? That we should not be allowed to make the least little suggestion to you, no matter how much you mismanage the city’s affairs? And now, look, every time two people meet in the street, what do they say? “Isn’t there a man in the country?” and the answer comes, “Not one.” That’s why we women got together and decided we were going to save Greece. What was the point of waiting any longer, we asked ourselves. Well now, we’ll make a deal. You listen to us—and we’ll talk sense, not like you used to—listen to us and keep quiet, as we’ve had to do up to now, and we’ll clear up the mess you’ve made.

- Quoted from Lapham's Quarterly, 24 November 2012

22 November 2012

The great high road to his reason

Lincoln’s wit was indirect, friendly—Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes him as describing laughter as “the joyous, universal evergreen of life” in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, on which the movie [Steven Spielberg's Lincoln] is partly based. But it was also purposeful. [US Representative Thaddeus] Stevens was a man of unmitigated principle. Lincoln got some great things done. What Lincoln, played most convincingly by Daniel Day-Lewis, says to Stevens in the movie, in effect, is this: A compass will point you true north. But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?

That’s a key moment in the movie. It is also something that I wish more people would take to heart—people I talk with about politics, especially people I agree with. Today, as in 1865, people tend to be sure they are right, and maybe they are—Stevens was, courageously. What people don’t always want to take on board is that people who disagree with them may be just as resolutely sure they are right. That’s one reason the road to progress, or regression, in a democracy is seldom straight, entirely open or, strictly speaking, democratic. If Lincoln’s truth is marching on, it should inspire people to acknowledge that doing right is a tricky proposition. “I did not want to make a movie about a monument,” Spielberg told me. “I wanted the audience to get into the working process of the president.”

Lincoln came out against slavery in a speech in 1854, but in that same speech he declared that denouncing slaveholders wouldn’t convert them. He compared them to drunkards, writes Goodwin:

Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel” [Lincoln said], the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”

As it happened, the fight for and against slave-owning would take the lowest of roads: four years of insanely wasteful war, which killed (by the most recent reliable estimate) some 750,000 people, almost 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time, or the equivalent of 7.5 million people today. But winning the war wasn’t enough to end slavery. Lincoln, the movie, shows how Lincoln went about avoiding swamps and reaching people’s hearts, or anyway their interests, so all the bloodshed would not be in vain.

- Roy Blount Jr., 'Mr Lincoln Goes to Hollywood', Smithsonian Magazine, November 2012

Letting off steam

Well, not just steam actually - there was a fair bit of ash as well in yesterday's eruption at Tongariro. GeoNet keeps a close eye on this sort of thing, and has a camera poised to record anything lively. The time-lapse video of the eruption is as boisterous as you might expect:


Ash samples from the eruption are being analysed and volcanologist Nico Fournier thinks that this eruption might be the start of a series of such outbursts, with further eruptions likely this week and more likely in the coming months.

See also:
Photo Ruapehu eruption 1995
History - Tarawera eruption 1886
Music - Ash - Burn Baby Burn

21 November 2012

Rottnest Island wildlife

A menagerie of animal inhabitants of Rottnest Island, which lies 18km off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, taken on my visit last week (12-14 November 2012). The island was named "Rats' Nest" by Dutch explorers who mistook the local quokkas (small friendly marsupials) for vermin. It's also home to some rather larger species, as you'll see.

Quokka, Geordie Bay
Lizard, Porpoise Bay
At the Oliver Hill gun emplacement
Feeding time (mother at far right)

Mysterious three-footed gull, Geordie Bay
Black snake (approx. 1m), Pink Lake
Stingray under Geordie Bay pier

Humpback whale breaching in City of York Bay

Humpback whale breaching in City of York Bay