29 August 2013

The delicate art of US diplomacy

Nicholas Kralev, in the Foreign Policy journal, discusses Congressional dismissiveness of diplomacy as a foreign policy tool, through a survey of Congressional staff from both the Republican and Democrat sides. The upshot: diplomats aren't held in high esteem by American policy-makers, their special skills are discounted, and their budgets are seen as fair game for big cuts:

[O]nly half the respondents in the study said they consider diplomacy a serious profession. "Would I say that you need some specialized training to do it? Probably not. Probably any smart person who has an interest in living abroad could do it," said one Senate Republican aide. A senior Senate aide from the Democratic side seemed to agree: "When you say you are a diplomat, I don't know what that body of knowledge is." Another senior Senate Republican aide even took issue with "use of the word profession," saying it should imply a specific body of knowledge and a clear and published set of skills that are tested. Law and the military are proper professions, in the aide's view, but the Foreign Service entrance exams don't rise to the same level.
In this way, misperceptions and lack of understanding seem to drive members' reluctance to support better funding for diplomacy and foreign aid, which together represent just over 1 percent of the federal budget. "It's hard to sell that you need money to have more nice dinners," a House Republican aide explained. Another Senate Democratic aide said that some members think "diplomacy is cheap" because it's just "people talking to each other and not something that they think requires large amounts of money." 
So why don't many members of Congress have a full and accurate idea of what the Foreign Service does? And why don't they see a more direct link between diplomacy and the security of the American people at home? Part of the blame falls on Congress, according to many of the study's respondents. "Members of Congress, just like staff, don't stop long enough to understand much about much, since these phones are always ringing," said one House Democratic aide. In addition, while the Benghazi attack raised the Foreign Service's visibility, all respondents expressed doubt that the service will ever truly have a domestic constituency, including on Capitol Hill, mainly because "they are not bringing any votes to the table," as one Senate Republican aide put it. 
- Nicholas Kralev, 'The Diplomatic Doldrums', Foreign Policy, 1 August 2013
See also:

27 August 2013

Canny vandals take note

Belmont's long awaited expanded Northboro Pipe bridge has been vandalised with the culprit leaving behind a clear set of clues.

And in an attempt to lure out information, two highly sought after tickets to the Beyonce concert are being offered as a reward.

Last Friday it was discovered that the newly poured concrete on the ONeill's Point Cemetery side of the bridge had been tagged overnight with the name Lauren, some small footprints and dog paws.

It is believed that it will cost contractors Brian Perry Contractors more than $10,000 to replace the 30 metres of concrete that was vandalised.

- Marnie Hallahan, North Shore Times, 27 August 2013

[Canny vandals take note: dob yourself in to score A-list gig tickets!]

25 August 2013

Bledisloe Cup: NZ 27-16 Australia

Last night's second Bledisloe Cup test at the stadium in Wellington was my third All Black test, and the first New Zealand win I've attended. (I also went to two England matches: the 26-all draw at Twickenham in December 1997 and the 13-15 loss at the stadium in June 2003). It was a fun night out, and a full house at the stadium enjoyed the New Zealand victory. It was a pity that more Australian fans didn't make the journey over because their side put in a good performance, particularly in the first half, but there were only a few yellow jerseys in the audience to watch them. Replacement All Black kicker Tom Taylor from Canterbury landed four penalties and a conversion, but the main star on the night was winger Ben Smith, who scored his 6th and 7th international tries in his 16th test. And the hot chips were tasty, but then they should be for five bucks. The only downside for me was the churlish booing from the crowd when New Zealand-born Quade Cooper came on as a replacement for the Wallabies. Such childish rudeness reflects poorly on the more one-eyed and charmless sections of New Zealand rugby crowds.

Photos from the match (taken from the northern end near Aisle 2) - click to enlarge:

Wallaby lineout practice

Ka Mate

Tom Taylor shoots his first penalty

Ben Smith's 2nd try

Nice Wallaby raid on the All Black line

Israel Folau's intercept try

Full house at the stadium

21 August 2013

Dynamite's in the belfry playin' with the bats

So Bruce Springsteen will be playing a gig in New Zealand next March, for the first time since 2003. I was never much of a Springsteen fan until I saw a film of him playing live. Before, I'd always assumed (wrongly) that his singer-songwriter stylings were too American, too bar-room, too colloquial for my indie-flavoured tastes. I also bought into the misguided notion that 'Born in the USA' was a jingoistic clarion call, when it was actually a deeply critical protest song about the lingering stigma of the Vietnam War in America. (Hearing lyrics properly has never been a strong point).

Then I watched a compilation from the Old Grey Whistle Test, the venerable BBC live music show that ran from 1971 to 1987. The precursor of the often more accessible Later With Jools Holland, the Whistle Test usually featured in-studio performances recorded in a freezing cold BBC studio under harsh lights with no audience present. But as Bruce Springsteen was such a rare commodity in Britain in the mid- to late-1970s, a film clip was shown instead. And what a clip! Shot in Phoenix, Arizona at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on 8 July 1978, the performance of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) from Springsteen's second album is a classic example of rock showmanship, conveying the huge connection the performer enjoyed with his audience. Particularly the female ones, if the multiple stage invasions are anything to go by. (Bruce, they're meant to chase you, not the other way round). Aside from Springsteen's imperilled virtue - which is sorely tested and ultimately proves conquerable - there's a wonderful camaraderie with the E Street Band, all duelling breaks and playful duck-walks. This clip is the bottled essence of a rock 'n roll show.

I just hope this was the set-closer of the night in Arizona, because a number like this it would be a impossible to top, even for a consummate live performer like Springsteen.

n.b. Turn the clip up to 1080p if you have the bandwidth. And turn the volume up.

See also:
Music: Talking Heads '75, 5 July 2013
Music: Jackson Browne - Doctor My Eyes, 8 March 2013
Music: Later With Jools Holland s38 e05, 5 May 2011

17 August 2013

Knuts and spats

Yesterday I finished reading Sophie Ratcliffe's compilation of the personal letters of P.G. Wodehouse, which is a remarkable survey of a life spent scribbling correspondence. How he found time to write letters amongst all the hundreds of writing projects he completed is a mystery. Reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters reminds me that I should read more of these epistolic works, because a writer's letters give such an insight into their demeanour and their work processes. I haven't enjoyed a similar book as much since devouring the letters of English author Fanny Burney (1752-1840), a skilled novelist and diarist of note.

Near the end of his life Wodehouse contributed a long letter from his house in Remsenburg, near the shores of Moriches Bay on the south coast of Long Island, New York. The correspondence was in response to the organisers of a Wodehouse seminar being held at Manor Park in Farnham, Surrey, in 1973, and discussed the criticism of the outdated social settings of his comic novels. Here he discusses how his 'dude' characters, the most famous of which are of course Bertie Wooster and the inhabitants of the Drones Club, ceased to populate the real world, instead living on in Wodehouse's fiction:


[T]here has been no generic name for the type of young man who figures in my stories since he used to be called a knut in the pre-first-war days, which certainly seems to suggest that the species has died out like the macaronis of the Regency and the whiskered mashers of the Victorian age [...]

Two things caused the decline of the drone or knut, the first of which was that hard times hit younger sons. Most knuts were younger sons, and in the reign of good King Edward the position of younger sons in aristocratic families was roughly equivalent to that of the litter of kittens which the household cat produces three times a year. He was always a trifle on the superfluous side.

What generally happened was this. An Earl, let us say, begat an heir. So far, so good. One can always do with an heir. But then - these Earls never knew when to stop - he absentmindedly, as it were, begat a second son, and it was difficult to see how to fit him in.

'Can't let the boy starve,' the Earl said to himself, and forked out a monthly allowance. And there came into being a number of ornamental young men whom the ravens fed. Like the lilies of the field, they toiled not neither did they spin, they just existed beautifully. Their wants were few. Provided they could secure the services of a tailor who was prepared to accept charm of manner as a substitute for ready cash, they were in that blissful condition known as sitting pretty.

Then the economic factor reared its ugly head. Income tax and super tax shot up like rocketing pheasants, and the Earl found himself doing some constructive thinking.

'Why can't I?' he said to his Countess one night as they sat trying to balance the budget.

'Why can't you what?'

'Let him starve'

'It's a thought,' the Countess agreed. 'We all eat too much these days, anyway'

So the ravens were retired from active duty, and Algy had to go to work. 

The second thing that led to the elimination of the knut was the passing of the spat. In the brave old days the spat was the hallmark of the young fellow about town, the foundation stone on which his whole policy was based, and it is sad to reflect that a generation has arisen which does not know what spats were.

Spatterdashes was, I believe, their full name, and they were made of white cloth and buttoned around the ankles, partly no doubt to prevent the socks from getting dashed with spatter, but principally because they lent a gay diablerie to the wearer's appearance. The monocle might or might not be worn, according to taste, but spats, like the tightly rolled umbrella, were obligatory. I was never myself by knut standards, dressy as a young man (circa 1905), for a certain anemia of the exchequer compelled me to go about my social duties in my brother's cast-off frock coat and top hat bequeathed to me by an uncle with a head some sizes smaller than mine, but my umbrella was always rolled as tightly as a drum and though spats cost money, I had mine all right. There they were, white and gleaming, fascinating the passers-by and causing seedy strangers who hoped for largesse to address me as 'Captain' or sometimes even as 'M'lord'. Many a butler at the turn of the century, opening the door to me and wincing visibly at the sight of my topper, would lower his eyes, see the spats and give a little sigh of relief, as much to say, 'Not quite what we are accustomed to at the northern end, perhaps, but unexceptional to the south'.

Naturally if you cut off a fellow's allowance, he cannot afford spats, and without them he is a spent force. Deprived of his spats, the knut threw in the towel and called it a day.

- P.G. Wodehouse, letter to Norman Murphy et al, 19 May 1973, in S. Ratcliffe (ed.), P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, New York, 2011. 

See also:
BlogWodehouse in Hollywood, 12 February 2013
BlogWodehouse outwits the critics, 23 September 2012
Blog: The fine art of stage direction in musical comedies, 15 February 2012

14 August 2013

Entertaining a two-year-old megalomaniac

David Haywood explains the delicate art of entertaining a two-year-old megalomaniac:

We would often indulge ourselves with a gentle bike ride beside the river. Bob would entertain me with shouted philosophical observations. “Look at those lovely flowers, Daddy,” as we glided past an elaborate council garden of tulips and violets. “I could come here one day and do a wee on those.” [...]

Sometimes, when intending to meet Jennifer after work, we would cycle as far as Riccarton Bush. This was dangerous territory. Wildlife and verdure seemed to give Bob an irresistible desire to exert his mastery over nature.

On one occasion, an elderly lady took a kindly interest in Bob. “Did you know that there are kiwis in Riccarton bush?” she asked. “Would you like to see a kiwi? ”

Bob nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, if I saw a kiwi I could shoot it with my gun, and its head would explode. Ha ha!”

I attempted my own chuckle of laughter, as if to imply that Bob was indulging in sophisticated two-year-old irony, and then grabbed his arm to beat a hasty retreat.

On another occasion, we met a mother and her children in the kahikatea grove. “Look at these magnificent trees, everybody,” said the mother. “Let’s all just sit here quietly and soak up their majestic beauty.” A deep silence followed her announcement. Into this silence Bob felt moved to make a contribution.

Bob: Those trees are very tall.

Me: [whispering] Yes, and they’re 600 years old as well.

Bob: [loudly] Daddy, you should go and get your chainsaw and chop them down.

- David Haywood, My Life As a Palm Tree, 12 August 2013

13 August 2013

Latitude-based currency valuation

[Jane] Clifton raises the spectre of a population imbalance towards Auckland resulting in myriad financial and social problems, whereas the solution is simple. Base the value of the dollar on latitude. Luckily, New Zealand is a long, skinny country running roughly north and south so we won't have longitudinal problems of any substance, but by making the dollar worth 100c in Bluff and, say, 65c in Auckland, all our problems should soon disappear.

- Russell Garbutt, Clyde, letter to the Listener, 10 August 2013

12 August 2013

Film Festival 2013 roundup

This year's Film Festival has been an enjoyable few weeks spent delving into family secrets, life in polar climates, the nature of parenthood, indie comedies and quality documentaries. As usual I've relished the opportunity to investigate the 14 films I chose when I emerged on a dismal winter's day a month or so ago and trudged to the railway station to make my purchases. For me the Film Festival is always the highlight of the New Zealand winter, something to plan a long way in advance, and naturally it's crucial to get the festival guide on the day it's released to make one's selections in plenty of time to plan a ruthlessly effective campaign of ticket purchases on the first day of release, to ensure decent seats.

Here's a quick run-through of the films I've seen, in chronological order.

Village at the End of the World (UK/Denmark, 2012, dir. Sarah Gavron, trailer)

A year in the life of a minuscule Arctic settlement of Niaqornat in northern Greenland, offering an engaging glimpse into the lives of the locals and their hopes for the waning community in an era that appears to be passing them by. By focusing on some key characters the various strands of village life are explored. (But there's only around 57 of them, so you probably end up seeing most of them during the film). Taciturn Karl, the head hunter, is always seeking the next big kill - be it whale or bear - to sustain the village. Affable Ilanngauq moved in from southern Greenland to be with his internet-met wife - he now acts as the town's odd-job and sewage collector man, but it doesn't seem to get him down at all - rather, he thrives. Well, apart from an occasional grumble about his fellow villagers' defecatory capacity. Annie, one of the oldest villagers, remembers all too well the days before electricity came to Niaqornat, but after all that was only in 1988. And, most endearingly, teenager Lars seeks action and excitement in a settlement without the delights of city living and without any eligible teenage girls to chase. Staying with the villagers for a year shows just how hard their lives are, despite some modern conveniences. Even if their attempts to reopen the town's tiny fish factory succeed, you can't help but wonder how much of a future this wild, isolated place has. Perhaps tourism will assist. The cinematography is, of course, spectacular, with umpteen dogs howling in unison to greet the spring dawn, summer icebergs tumbling in the harbour, pristine expanses of autumn pack ice, and the endless, reclusive gloom of the long, sunless winter with no light, no visitors, and precious little cheer.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice (NZ, 2013, dir. Anthony Powell, trailer 1 below, trailer 2)

Another day, another snowy year in the life tale. But what a location! New Zealander Anthony Powell has been tending radio gear in Antarctica for over 10 years, working in some of the most isolated places on Earth, and in his spare time he shoots stunning time-lapse photography. This film stitches together the astonishing imagery into a world-class nature documentary, with the welcome addition of a dry New Zealand sense of humour (Powell: ‘When you’re out on the ice it pays to remember which bottle is for your water and which one is for your pee’) and a strong focus on the psychology of that rare breed who winters on the ice. The sun is absent for four long months and for six months no ships or planes visit – this is what it must be like to live in a moon base. The inhabitants of the neighbouring McMurdo and Scott Bases tell their stories of both the gripping, unforgettable beauty of the Antarctic and the many challenges it poses: enduring solitude, brutal hurricane-strength storms, missing key family events such as the death of a parent, and ceaseless fantasising about feeling rain on your face, clenching grass beneath your toes, and gorging on ripe, fresh vegetables. In the darkest weeks, everyone goes slightly mad, and many seem afflicted with curious memory lapses brought on by the isolation. All through the documentary, Powell’s labour of love is his epic photography, captured on conventional D-SLRs with home-made dolly mechanisms, which evokes the grandeur and ferocity of the empty continent. Most stunning are the night-time sequences of auroras flickering as the constellations wheel overhead, and a single 9-second shot of an ice field surging into the air, which took a full five months to shoot. One can only hope that as many people as possible around the world get to enjoy Powell’s remarkable endeavour, because he has created a classic nature documentary with universal appeal. (See also: Kim Hill interviews Lou Sanson, head of Antarctica NZ 2002-13, 10 August 2013).

Stories We Tell (Canada, 2012, dir. Sarah Polley, trailer)

Sarah Polley: "Can you describe the whole story in your own words?"

This family history of Canadian actress Sarah Polley digging into the secrets and lies of her larger-than-life mother Diane, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11, has its own share of surprises but is no bitter tale of recrimination. It is both a personal journey of discovery, seeking to fill in the gaps in her knowledge, but also an experiment in zeroing in on what might be closest to the truth without her mother being able to offer her side of the tale. Diane Polley’s story is expertly told through the recollections of her family and friends, but the film also wrestles with the notion: who really owns this story? Who owns the truth in the complicated, messy world of families, and how can you piece things together when your entire perspective is challenged? Throughout, Polley displays a deft but firm hand, allowing her siblings, father and associates to give their side of things but also pressing harder when tough questions need to be asked. This is no sob-story or hatchet job – the mystery of Diane Polley is celebrated and no-one seems to begrudge her failings at all. Rather, everyone still feels her loss keenly. Perhaps in some small way this frank film will bring them closer together, and give viewers a refreshingly honest appraisal of what it is to grow up in that strange and chaotic thing, a modern family.

Oh Boy (Germany, 2012, dir. Jan Ole Gerster, trailer)

Niko is a feckless wastrel, messing around in Berlin in his 20s while his rich dad pays the bills, thinking he’s persisting with his studies when actually he quit two years ago. That is, until dad bumps into Niko’s long-unseen professor and cuts his son adrift. Following a day in the Niko’s life, Oh Boy offers a solid and likeable lead performance from Tom Schilling, whose Niko is no tortured soul – all he wants is a plain, ordinary cup of coffee to get his life back on track. In this quest seemingly insurmountable obstacles thwart him at every turn, lending this dry German comedy a silent-film era knowingness with Schilling as a put-upon modern Harold Lloyd. A series of encounters with friends, oddballs and intellectuals buffet our hero about the city, which is lovingly filmed in black and white and etched with a jazz soundtrack – Woody Allen is another definite reference point. There is no great quest for meaning here, just an engaging set of performances in a sprightly, well-crafted film.

Frances Ha (US, 2012, dir. Noah Baumbach, trailer)

Greta Gerwig & Mickey Sumner
Indie goddess Greta Gerwig may have the sort of poise and bearing that leads otherwise sensible men to long to brush a stray lock of hair away from her perfect, perfect eyebrows, but aside from that she also boasts a usually impeccable taste in scripts. This one she co-wrote with director and boyfriend Noah Baumbach (who wrote the Fantastic Mr Fox screenplay, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou).  Frances Ha manages to portray a convincing slice of Brooklyn twenty-something apartment-hopping life without peppering in a slew of irritating hipsterisms. These slightly callow but oh-so-worldly city folk move through the itinerant life of would-be dancer Frances (Gerwig), particularly her wry best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter - and who also plays Patti Smith in the newly completed CBGB). Frances Ha is loosely about the enduring nature of female friendship, the quest for meaning when you haven’t found your calling in life, and the transience of youthful relationships. (It’s no coincidence that one of the two well-known songs licensed for the film is Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’). Perhaps this sounds dire, but in these capable hands Frances Ha is a charming and surprisingly engrossing comic character study with unexpected emotional heft. Stumbling from career setbacks to middle-class poverty to embarrassing ‘grown-up’ dinner party rambling, any-port-in-a-storm dead-end jobs, catastrophically ill-advised credit card splurges, and finally telling your friend’s boyfriend what you REALLY think about him, Frances Ha packs a lot in. Perhaps my favourite line is when a self-possessed young fellow texts a newly-single Frances with ‘Ahoy, sexy!’ and Frances enquires of her girlfriend: ‘What, now I’m nautically sensual?’ Throughout, Baumbach’s glowing black and white cinematography shines.

The Bling Ring (US, 2013, dir. Sofia Coppola, trailer)

This frothy commercial for ultra-consumerism and celebrity worship is an enjoyable confection, which fortunately lacks some of the flab that should have been excised from Sofia Coppola’s last work, Somewhere. The gang of five vapid, rather privileged LA teens discover that A-list celebs are notoriously lax in their home security regimes, and decide to burgle their lush abodes for the trappings of stardom – shoes, accessories, jewellery and sunglasses. The main purpose of these escapades seems to be to provide the perfect set-dressing to their endless duck-faced selfies on Facebook, rather than for personal financial gain. As with 2006’s Marie Antoinette, Coppola is most fascinated by depictions of hedonistic revels, so there are plenty of pumping club scenes and the script is dominated by exclamations of ‘Oh wow,’ and ‘That’s so ill,’ when the kids raid the celeb treasure troves. The Bling Ring is no deep examination of the human soul, nor a masterclass in character development or plotting. You can’t help but wish that the film had focused more on the aftermath of their inevitable downfall and the ensuing court case rather than the comically straightforward crimes themselves – Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan seldom locked their doors and have so much stuff that it took quite a few burglaries to notice anything was missing. Though not the ringleader, Emma Watson excels as the empowerment-spouting, mendacious Nicki, and her scenes with on-screen mother Leslie Mann are ripe with satire of the moneyed New Age Californian set. There’s also a stand-out scene when one of the girls discovers a chic little handgun and delightedly pretends to menace her partners in crime like a white-bread gangsta; it’s utterly tense and all-too-short. Throughout, Coppola displays her traditional deft touch when selecting the soundtrack, which only goes to confirm that there’s few things funnier than rich white kids pretending to be ghetto rappers while driving around in their Lexus. (See also: Sleigh Bells - Crown On The Ground, from The Bling Ring OST)

Linhas de Wellington / Lines of Wellington (Portugal/France, 2012, dir. Valeria Sarmiento, trailer)

When the elderly Portuguese director Raul Ruiz died in 2011 he left behind plans for the follow-up to his successful historical epic, Mysteries of Lisbon. His widow Valeria Sarmiento has brought Ruiz’s plans to the screen in this hugely ambitious Napoleonic war tale. Like Mysteries, it weaves together numerous strands and characters to recount the long retreat of the Anglo-Portuguese forces in the face of a massive French invasion in 1810-11 – a retreat to the titular Lines of Wellington, the (hopefully) impregnable English defences around Lisbon. Sarmiento has produced an adept war story, that does not shy away from the gruesome aspects of bitter conflict, particularly for the ordinary folk caught up in the devastation. Some of the characterisation is perhaps a little too melodramatic, and perhaps some of the acting is a little stilted due to the multi-lingual cast, but the film cannot be faulted for the scale of its ambition, and the attention to detail in its production values.

The Human Scale (Denmark, 2012, dir. Andreas Mol Dalsgaard, trailer)

Like 2011 doco Urbanised, The Human Scale deals with the shaping of modern cities to avoid the mistakes of the past and to make urban dwelling more enjoyable and efficient as humanity shifts towards a highly urbanised future. In a swift global survey the film charts the sometimes painful process of challenging car-centric sprawl in the face of vested interests and outdated worldviews. From an Antipodean perspective, the chapters on smarter growth in Melbourne and the gruelling reconstruction in Christchurch (with doomy music for Gerry Brownlee’s attempted usurpation of the public-led city plan) hit close to home. But it’s the eye-opening dilemmas faced by the tumultuous ‘giga-cities’ of India, Bangladesh and China that are where the fate of 21st century humanity is being decided. The chapter on Dhaka was most worrying – gaining half a million population every year, the city is increasingly prone to devastation and huge loss of life from even relatively mild earthquakes as building standards are shirked and ground-water is squandered.

2 Automnes 3 Hivers / 2 Autumns 3 Winters (France, 2013, dir. Sebastien Betbeder, French clip 1, clip 2)

For a film that’s not really about very much, 2 Autumns 3 Winters is surprisingly entertaining. That said, you will not learn much about the human condition from this 90 minutes of 20- and 30-something Parisians accidentally falling in love, having relationship problems, experiencing random bouts of hospitalisation, and discussing the merits of the latest Judd Apatow comedy. In a way it’s immaterial: the actors are adept enough, the monologues delivered direct to camera are self-conscious like a reality TV confession but naturally far more lyrical because these are arts graduates after all, and French ones to boot. The film flirts with pretentiousness but fortunately reins back – this is no pseud’s thinkpiece. Nor is it a cloying slice of whimsy like Amelie. Perhaps the chief characteristic of 2 Autumns 3 Winters is that it’s hard to pigeonhole.

Fallout (Australia, 2013, dir. Lawrence Johnston)

It makes perfect sense to make a documentary about the world-changing Nevil Shute book On The Beach and the ensuing Hollywood film that ensured its notoriety in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The tale was in many ways deeply shocking, both then and now – depicting the effects on Australian society of a creeping plague of radiation sickness sweeping southwards from a nuclear-war ravaged northern hemisphere. In an age where nuclear weapons were little understood, the accomplished engineer author (who had established his own aircraft company and worked on the dam-busting bouncing bomb during the war) saw huge dangers in nuclear weaponry and deployed his populist writing panache to bring the message to a much wider audience. Shute’s book and the film were most baby boomers’ first exposure to the concept that would become known as Mutually Assured Destruction, and the potential for all human life to be extinguished in a single conflict. The story's focus on regular lives and the harrowing decisions that would be required in the event of imminent destruction successfully brought the message home to a wide cross-section of society. Casting Hollywood A-listers helped immeasurably too: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins all graced the film version. It even shaped policy-makers’ views – Churchill for one read the book and was powerfully affected by it. This studious recap, almost academic in nature but no less effective for it, revisits Shute’s greatest achievement and reminds us that we have become all too complacent about the nuclear threat.

Twenty Feet From Stardom (USA, 2013, dir. Morgan Neville, trailer)

This year’s compelling music doco, Twenty Feet From Stardom offers a glimpse into the world of the overlooked but vital heartbeats of the rock world, the backing vocalists. These unheralded performers – many of whom you will never have heard of – have graced the greatest records of the past 50 years and made them what they are. As Stevie Wonder points out in the film, try listening to Ray Charles’ What’d I Say without the backing vocals and it’d sound ludicrous. As with the best documentaries, Twenty Feet covers its ground adroitly but also casts a spotlight on a few memorable personalities, including pop pioneer Darlene Love, killer glam queen Claudia Lennear, the supernaturally talented Lisa Fischer and the young striver Judith Hill, whose career was derailed by the death of mentor Michael Jackson in 2009. It’s sad and a little worrying that the art of backing singing is endangered by the headlong rush to autotuned anodyne anonymity where the ability to sing is relegated far down the list of priorities for pop stardom. If only half the people who bought the overcooked Rodriguez soundtrack bought the Twenty Feet From Stardom soundtrack too, then the balance would be tipped slightly back in favour of the artists who never stopped singing their hearts out. (See also: Merry Clayton - Southern Man).

Much Ado About Nothing (USA, 2013, dir, Joss Whedon, trailer)

There's much to like in this knockabout, slapped-together Much Ado, filmed at Whedon's own house during a break in The Avengers. Amy Acker is versatile and lovely (perhaps too lovely?) in the role of Beatrice, but Alexis Denisof is not quite as nimble as the crucial Benedick, occasionally delivering his lines in the wooden fashion of his lookalike, Will Ferrell. The crucial wooing scene in which Benedick performs a volte-face and tries to charm the waspish Beatrice is played over-heavy with slapstick - but it did get a laugh. A highlight is the ever-reliable Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle) in the comic role of police chief Dogberry.

Soshite chichi ni naru / Like Father, Like Son (Japan, 2013, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Like his triumphant and exuberant 2011 tale I Wish, this Hirokazu Kore-eda film is another foray into family life in Japan, and again it is a perfectly cast, winning formula. The director is particularly adept at selecting child actors, and in Like Father, Like Son the stand-out is the precious little six-year-old imp Keita, who tips the scales of cuteness in a wholly natural and winning performance. The film’s adults and other children are expertly portrayed too, as the story of a wealthy urban family and a down-at-heel working class family from the suburbs whose baby sons were switched at birth unfolds. Careerist Ryota dismays his wife Midori when he opts to swap the boys to ensure they grow up with their own blood kin, but welcoming a boy raised by strangers into their chic apartment is not as straightforward as Ryota had hoped; and despite Ryota’s snobbish disdain, the shambolic shopkeepers are actually brilliant parents who provide Keita with a loving, carefree home. Only when Ryota begins to question his own understanding of father-son relations does he begin to reconsider what family and fatherhood really mean. Like Father, Like Son is one of those rare and beautiful family dramas that engrosses viewers throughout. I'm put in mind of the equally riveting A Separation, and as with that film, I really didn’t want Like Father, Like Son to end.

Museum Hours (Austria/USA, 2012, dir. Jem Cohen, trailer)

It’s an interesting premise – a visiting Montreal lady strikes up a friendship with an erudite, insightful museum guard who works in the famed Kunsthistoriches Museum (Art History Museum) in Vienna, and through their platonic friendship the viewer explores the multitude of treasures in the galleries. There’s certainly a wealth of Breughels, Rembrandts and many other artworks on display in Museum Hours, and it is a treat to see the galleries and Vienna itself on the big screen. But unfortunately the ad-libbed scenes between Anne and Johann are unengaging and the film drags whenever it strays for too long from the KHM. Perhaps a straight art documentary would have been a better prospect, or even a tour narrated by the admittedly personable fictional museum guard.

See also:
Blog: Film Festival 2012 roundup, 14 August 2012
Blog: Film Festival 2011 roundup, 31 July 2011 
Blog: Film Festival 2009 roundup, 4 August 2009

11 August 2013

NZC provincial contracts 2013/14

A few weeks ago I wrote about the national contracts issued by New Zealand Cricket for their top 20 players - the players NZC believes will be featuring most in the national side in the coming cricket year. Now the New Zealand provincial contracts have been issued, with 14 contracts being offered by each of the six provinces. These contracts provide an income (admittedly rather leaner than an international contract) for a further 84 players, making 104 contracted male cricketers in New Zealand.

What's striking when looking at the list - apart from the prevalence of Cachopa brothers, that is - is how many of the provincial contracted players have international experience. A majority of Wellington's contracted players (8) have played an international match for New Zealand, while six out of Canterbury's 14 players have been internationals. The remainder have five (Otago), four (Auckland and Central Districts), and three (Northern Districts). Naturally each province's roster will be augmented by those players with national contracts, but they're generally not available for provincial duty for the full summer due to national team commitments. Still, that's a lot of players that have been tried and discarded by the selectors, particularly in a country with such a small talent base to work with.

Of the 84 provincially contracted players, 30 (35 percent) have played for New Zealand. (And one, Wellington wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi, has played for Australia before qualifying to play here). With the national contracted players, that makes a total of 50 internationals, or 51 including the uncontracted Daniel Vettori.  In a country of this size, that's quite mad! (For the full list, see here).

Part of the explanation is the rise of T20 cricket, which creates more opportunities for players to represent their country, and often requires players with different skill sets. But it is notable that of the 30 internationals in the provinces, only one - Auckland spinner Roneel Hira - has been selected solely for T20Is. It just feels like New Zealand selectors have been trying and discarding players more frequently of late, and coupled with the increased number of international matches, this has meant that New Zealand caps are far less exclusive than they used to be.

I decided to examine whether or not this was an accurate representation of the state of New Zealand cricket - are caps being flung around to random linesmen and the dudes running the hotdog stands at our cricket grounds, in the faint hope that one of them might prove to be of international standard? It certainly seems like that when you consider the number of test openers New Zealand has churned through in recent years. (I still think Tim McIntosh should be opening in tests with Aaron Redmond, but does anyone listen to me?). However, it turns out that the churn rate isn't quite as high as I suspected, although it has increased for ODI caps in the past few years. Here's a table showing the rate of new New Zealand international caps being dished out for each of the three formats; the figures indicate the rate of caps per match.

Decade Test ODI T20
1930s 2.36 x x
1940s 2.83 x x
1950s 1.16 x x
1960s 0.79 x x
1970s 0.61 1.80 x
1980s 0.39 0.24 x
1990s 0.49 0.25 x
2000s 0.46 0.19 1.40
2010s 0.50 0.32 0.51

The rates show a fairly consistent pattern of initial high rates as NZC discovers which players fit the format, then settling down to a rate of one new test cap every two tests and perhaps one new ODI cap every four matches.  The T20 rate has yet to settle down to ODI levels, but it's still a relatively new game.

It's encouraging to see that the provincial game can produce talented players like Kane Williamson, who will hopefully go on to a long career in all three formats of the game (if the ICC persists with all three, that is). And by the looks of it, the test side seems to be relatively stable and consistent, with the rate of new caps handed out matching a long-held pattern since the 1970s. NZC will need to work to build a core of ODI players to rely upon rather than spraying caps around, but it is hoped that amongst the current crop of nationally-contracted players there should be sufficient talent. One benefit of sticking with the players you've got is that they build their experience through playing. Lastly, although T20Is are still a novelty, with some regarding them as a joke format, it's still important for New Zealand to do well in the matches, and building a lasting team without constant personnel changes would be one good way of starting.

08 August 2013

Southern change gonna come at last

Having just gotten home from watching Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about the illustrious profession of backing singers, the natural response is to hunt down some of the great performers featured. Several performers I'd known came from the backing microphone to the front of the stage were featured briefly, including Luther Vandross and Sheryl Crow.

But it was the lesser-known names that lit up the film - and what stunning voices. While it's no surprise to many, it's worth remembering how omnipresent the art of backing vocals was for perhaps three decades at the peak of rock's creative powers. The connections formed by the most powerful performers are quite legendary, such as Lisa Fischer, a quiet but bubbly woman with astonishing vocal control who has a Grammy in her own right and has sung with the Rolling Stones on every tour since 1989, or Claudia Lennear, who started out with Ike & Tina Turner and went on to inspire Mick Jagger (Brown Sugar) and David Bowie (Lady Grinning Soul).

Perhaps my favourite in Twenty Feet was the steely and determined Merry Clayton. She is part of rock legend due to her short-notice, after-midnight dash to the Rolling Stones' studio in 1969 to fill in the female vocals on Gimme Shelter, in which she issued forth one of the most incendiary, nuclear-strength vocal performances ever recorded. Having sung backing vocals on Neil Young's debut self-titled solo album in 1968, in 1973 she had the ironic duty of performing kick-ass backing on the dubious redneck anthem Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ironic, because Clayton had recorded Neil Young's song Southern Man as the opening track of her own self-titled second solo album in 1971, and it was Southern Man (plus Young's Alabama) that spurred Ronnie Van Zant and his co-writers to take a lyrical pop back at the Canadian singer's critique of Southern racism and the lingering legacy of slavery.  

Sweet Home Alabama might have an enduring place in pop history thanks to its swaggering hook and bombastic jingoism, but part of its success must surely also be thanks to a supremely talented backing vocalist who may well have had her tongue placed firmly in her cheek during the recording.

See also:
Music: George Benson - On Broadway (live), 3 May 2013
Blog: Denmark Street, 18 January 2010
Blog: Lo-o-o-o-ng songs, 11 June 2008

06 August 2013

"You can actually hear the woman wuthering"

I first noticed Alan Partridge's music taste when I realised, with quite a start, that at least some of it coincided with my own. You didn't hear much about what music he liked during Knowing Me, Knowing You, but I assumed it was dreadful: we were clearly both Abba fans, but he'd named his son Fernando, thus suggesting his taste in their songs was lousy. And then, at the end of the first episode of I'm Alan Partridge, he chose to lift his spirits following a disastrous meeting with the BBC by playing Jet by Wings in his Linton Travel Tavern hotel room, which didn't seem to me to be symbolic of terrible taste at all: you didn't have to agree with Alan Partridge's assessment that Wings were "the band the Beatles could have been" to think that Jet is a fantastic record, certainly not the most shaming thing in Paul McCartney's post-Beatles oeuvre.

In the next episode, he took it upon himself to blast out Steeleye Span's Gaudete in his car. If I probably wouldn't sing the lyrics in the face of a lady I was keen to sleep with, as Partridge did, it was still a record I'd had a sneaking regard for ever since I heard it sampled, a little improbably, on the Ashbrooke All Stars' appealingly ridiculous Balearic track Dubbin' Up the Pieces. Things like that kept happening throughout I'm Alan Partridge: for every moment of mortification – his attempt to sing along to Blue Mink's Melting Pot – he'd play something genuinely great ("Kommen sie bitte, und listen to Kraftwerk"). I found myself less horrified by his music taste than intrigued, not least by the suggestion in one episode that he might have once been a Numanoid: he certainly seemed to know the bass part from Music for Chameleons by heart.

- Alex Petridis, Guardian, 5 August 2013

Some highlights:

Hot Chocolate - It Started With a Kiss
Alan Partridge: "It’s a song that reminds me of a date when you’re over 50. It starts with a kiss but usually ends with a hot chocolate."

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
Alan Partridge: "Kate feels every word she sings, never more than in this song. There are times towards the end when you can actually hear the woman wuthering."

Kraftwerk - The Model
Alan Partridge: "A classic piece of ‘techno’, in the days before techno featured rappers shouting about how much their watch cost. Once danced to this until my knees gave way."

04 August 2013

In the spotlight, you get to sit tight

The first - pleasingly loud and crunchy - song to appear in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring soundtrack, Crown On The Ground captures the euphoric release experienced by the film's protagonists as they tap into the shallow materialism of Hollywood A-listers by burgling their mansions for designer labels. Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells released the track on their 2010 debut album Treats, and unsurprisingly it's also been featured in a Dr Pepper commercial in America. See below for two further songs from the soundtrack.

See also:
Music: M.I.A. - Bad Girls, 2012 (Moroccan video)
Music: Can - Halleluwah, 1971 (from Tago Mago)
Interview: Emma Watson at Cannes 2013

02 August 2013

Woodrow Wilson's forward-thinking stance on cyber-crime

Stephen Colbert discusses the Bradley Manning WikiLeaks trial verdict, and offers the comforting suggestion that the Espionage Act of 1917 was President Wilson's finest contribution to the war against Al Kaiser.

- The Colbert Report, 31 July 2013