29 December 2014

My top 10 films of 2014

So another year ebbs into the sunset, and it's been a bumper year for film-watching for me. Spurred on by the Film Society, the Film Festival and the movie-list site Letterboxd, I've watched an infeasible and possibly unrepeatable 199 films this year. There's been a few duff outings - that 15-minute indie short film at Filmsoc of a cat sitting around doing nothing will go down in ignominy - but that's been more than counterbalanced by a fine crop of quality offerings at the cinema. Here's my top 10 list of new films seen in 2014. It's in reverse order, commencing and concluding with two particular highlights from the film festival - the latter of which I've been raving about to anyone who will listen since I saw it in August.

10. The Young & Prodigious T.S. Spivet
This splendid work of imaginative French film-making is perfectly in its element on the big screen at the Embassy in Wellington - glorious 3D cinematography displayed to full effect on the largest canvas possible, allowing the whimsical Spivet spectacle free rein. Young T.S. (Kyle Catlett) is a gifted 10-year-old inventor who receives an invitation to the Smithsonian in Washington DC to receive an award for his remarkable invention, but only because the museum doesn't realise he's only a boy. Striking out on his own from his home in the Rockies, this is an impressively rendered fantasy suitable for most ages (apart from some naughty swearing near the end). Fans of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's earlier whimsical work (Delicatessen, Amelie, Micmacs) will be on solid ground here. It's a pity that most people may end up seeing this on DVD release rather than on the best screen possible, because it really does make superb use of the visual storytelling power of properly-thought-out 3D film-making. Now if only the boy could be convinced to speak his lines a little more clearly so we could make out exactly what he's saying, it would be near perfect.

9. Gone Girl
David Fincher's Gone Girl is one of the increasingly rare films that deserves and makes engrossing use of a 2-hour-plus running time. It benefits from a strong performance from not just the main players (Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, both in pleasingly multi-faceted roles) but also the supporting players - particularly the coffee-swilling detective and the suspect's twin sister played by the actress with the unfortunate surname. It's also nice to see an all-grown-up Patrick Fugit (from the marvellous Almost Famous) as the detective's sidekick. And: the things Neil Patrick Harris will do for his art! Also, despite the hysteria when it was released about the tone and themes of the film, one should remember that Gone Girl is about as representative of marriage as Black Swan was of ballet. It's not a documentary, folks - it's entertainment. Bleak, mordant, gripping entertainment.

8. 12 Years a Slave
It is no surprise that a film about man's inhumanity to man should shock and confront its audience, and 12 Years A Slave certainly does that. This is an unflinchingly brutal depiction of the harsh reality of centuries of black slavery in the American South, and many scenes are very difficult to watch. Through it all, Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a most powerful performance as the educated kidnap victim Solomon Northrup, who must pretend ignorance to survive and who suffers the multitude of cruelties that were inflicted on many generations in the bleak and shameful history of the South. I don't know if director Steve McQueen intended 12 Years A Slave as a direct riposte to the jokey badinage of Django Unchained, and I haven't seen that other famous film set in the pre-Civil War days, but if that was intended then it has definitely succeeded. This is undeniably superior and serious work of lasting importance. Its British director and British star should be proud for having made this year's classic film of American history - an epic to rival 2012's Lincoln.

7. Short Term 12
It would be easy for a drama like Short Term 12 to descend into a soap opera, depicting as it does the struggles of youthful social workers working to support troubles teenagers in a California residential centre. But it's anything but a melodrama; instead, this is a warm, challenging and commendably unsentimental glimpse into the powerful difference a committed advocate can make in the lives of young people who have been set off the rails by personal tragedy and abuse. The performances of the social workers and the teenage cast are uniformly compelling, lending this an air of realism missing in so much TV drama, and the personal dilemmas faced by the staff are sometimes just as powerful as those faced by the youths in their care. This is a powerful and intriguing film that shows contemporary drama is in good health at the fringes of indie cinema.

6. Interstellar
Finally after all the waiting, Interstellar came out and it's definitely worth seeing. Is it perfect? No, there are noticeable problems. A reasonably large chunk of the dialogue was undecipherable thanks to McConaughey's close-mouthed drawl and the cacophonous background noise, which the film-maker later claimed (unconvincingly) was intentional. The long Earth-bound setup drags somewhat and commits the ultimate sin of actually being boring in places - Michael Caine is surplus to requirements and much of the plot explanation is superfluous too. For example, Christopher Nolan certainly does not need to explain what wormholes are to sci-fi fans, or indeed to the highly experienced astronaut receiving the information, who is on a mission to a wormhole. Everyone knows already. And like Gravity, some of the physics involved are rather showbizzy in nature. But despite those quibbles, Interstellar is essential viewing for Nolan and sci-fi fans alike. Visually the film ranks amongst the finest of the art, with superb space sequences and imaginative alien planet environs. It asks interesting questions about the personal consequences of journeying across space and time, and the challenges of maintaining humanity and sanity, both individually and as a species. And the ending, which I won't spoil here, is pleasingly unexpected. See it on the best screen you can - at home on TV will simply not do justice to Interstellar.

5. Nebraska
This little film with a lot of Oscar nominations is a road movie with an endearing family dynamic at its core. Bruce Dern and Will Forte are both excellent as a decrepit senior citizen Woody and his dutiful son David who take a road trip to redeem a million-dollar piece of junk mail in Nebraska. En route they bicker about the father's incessant drinking, stop in with relatives who get a sniff of the riches and form designs on a share, and revisit scenes and the ossified associates from Woody's youth. There are moments of brilliantly understated family comedy, gentle pathos, the occasional missing set of dentures, and constant scene-stealing from June Squibb as Woody's vinegary and long-suffering wife Kate - her graveyard scene will be remembered fondly for years to come.

4. Mr Turner
Director Mike Leigh and lead actor Timothy Spall have together created a top-flight costume drama of impeccable pedigree in Mr Turner, the biopic of the distinguished painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), whose masterful and at times unconventional maritime scenes enlivened the art world in the first half of the 19th century, and which still reach out to visitors to the Tate Britain gallery in Pimlico. Spall inhabits the role of Turner with gusto, all huff-puffing, porcine grunts, and suffering no fool gladly. In lesser hands this would be a portrayal given to gurning over-acting, but Spall pitches the performance perfectly, particularly as he depicts the declining Turner of his later years. Aside from Spall's surely Oscar-nominee-worthy performance (he has already won Best Actor at Cannes), the supporting cast is also highly skilled, including those playing Turner's long-suffering house-woman Miss Danby, his second mistress Mrs Booth, and art-world folk like the young John Ruskin (a hilariously foppish turn by Joshua McGuire) and the temperamental and unreliable artist Benjamin Haydon. The film is lovely to look at too, with several of Turner's finest works mirrored onscreen with the careful and discreet use of CGI. So many of the scenes are memorable for their unhurried gait and Leigh's welcome touch, allowing the natural humour of life to play out before our eyes without dashing on in the service of the plot. My only quibble with the film is the casting of Paul Jesson as Turner's father - while he gives a good performance, there is only 11 years age difference between him and Spall, and it is a small obstacle to believability in the first half of the film. But aside from that, Mr Turner is every bit as strong a production as 12 Years A Slave.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson's new film will probably not win new converts to his particularly meticulous and idiosyncratic way of film-making, but for his fans The Grand Budapest Hotel is something to savour. A superb cast all eager to work for a director is often a good sign, and Anderson's cast list boasts an embarrassment of riches. The casting of Ralph Fiennes as the florid, voluble Monsieur Gustave, champion concierge and romancer of elderly grand duchesses, is note-perfect, and under Anderson's stewardship it's as if he was born to play deadpan comedy. As ever, the film is a delight to watch, unfolding in impressive detail onscreen with familiar Anderson touches - exquisite framing, multi-storey tableaux with cameras whizzing through buildings, never cutting when a 90-degree pan will do, and particular attention to Ruritanian follies like brocaded hotel uniforms and Austro-Hungarian-style army get-up. While this may not be to everyone's taste, I definitely appreciated the wry, dry humour at work, and can't wait for Anderson's next outing.

2. The Great Beauty
Jep Gambardella has just turned 65, and despite living the dream life amongst the careless Roman elite, he can't help but feel his hedonistic lifestyle is empty, lacking completion. Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza follows Jep (the dapper Toni Servillo) through a myriad of Bacchanalian excess and frivolous conversation as he questions the purpose of his life as a writer who produced one good book four decades ago and who has lived off that fame ever since, partying til dawn, sleeping through the day, and arising to begin anew each night. Throughout, Jep flirts with memories of his first, lost love, and ponders what to do with his remaining years. Whereas Woody Allen's recent To Rome With Love was an entertaining trifle, this is an enduring glimpse inside a world of ageing gigolos, dissolute literary gods, exploited artists, would-be lechers, gluttonous cardinals, aspiring playwrights and fading beauties, partying through the night because they know no other way to live. The film has so many memorable scenes that it definitely calls for repeated viewings, particularly on the big screen, which can show off the sumptuous cinematography. The classical music sprinkled throughout is also thoroughly gorgeous, although the same cannot be said for the traditionally awful - but thoroughly authentic - Italian pop music in the party scenes. Aside from that, this is a real cinematic treat.

1. Boyhood
Twelve years to make one film - checking in with the cast each year to film new scenes in the developing story of one boy, his sister, and his separated parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) - equals an enormous and ambitious endeavour, and one that has paid huge dividends for director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Boyhood is both compelling and engrossing, and it's a rare compliment to emerge from a 164-minute film wishing there was more to see. There are no villains and no saints, just a very real depiction of a series of friends, stepfathers, relatives, boyfriends and girlfriends that spread out over more than a decade in Texas, director Richard Linklater's own home state. Young Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) as his sister Sam sprout before your eyes from a mop-haired urchins to college-departing young adults, making this the dramatic equivalent of the famous documentary Seven Up. It's remarkable how effective the narrative remains when it could easily have been disjointed, and how the segments combine into a seamless mix of drama, comedy and social realism. The performances are all uniformly excellent, too. Boyhood is an absolute treasure. Someone should put it in a time capsule immediately, because film-making doesn't get much better than this.

In conclusion

I will watch the Oscar nominations with interest, in the hope that some of the deserving but lesser-known films in this list receive the attention they deserve. And perhaps in 2015 I might make an effort to watch a more modest and reasonable number of films, because 199 is just about too many!

See also:
Movies: My top 10 films of 2013
Movies: My top 10 films of 2012
Movies: My top 10 films of 2011
MoviesMy top 10 films of 2010

How to fix America's broken democracy

America has changed since the days of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Money is splurged on elections and, many argue, this corrupts lawmaking. The parties are far more polarised and suspicious of each other. America’s political architecture is part of the problem, for two reasons. First, the electoral system rewards extremists. Many members of the House represent gerrymandered districts which their party cannot lose. Their only fear is that they might lose a party primary to a challenger who accuses them of being soft on the other side. So they pander to the zealots who vote in primaries and treat opportunities for compromise like invitations to burn Old Glory.

Second, the federal government has so many checks and balances that it is all but paralysed. The Senate filibuster gives 41 out of 100 senators the ability to block anything except a budget (they could in theory represent just 11% of the population). Attempts to limit campaign spending tend to fail—and to infringe the constitution’s free-speech guarantee. The best one can hope for is that donors will have to reveal who they are. More can be accomplished with reforms that empower the centre and remove road blocks, without requiring a federal constitutional amendment. Here are three suggestions:

First, scrap the filibuster in the Senate. Second, stop gerrymandering. Four states have already handed control of redistricting to independent commissions. California did so in 2010. Between 2002 and 2010 the state’s House members held on to their seats 99.6% of the time; in 2012 a quarter of them retired or got the boot. The reforms also moderated California’s state legislature. Once dominated by doctrinaire Democrats, last year it rejected 39 out of the 40 bills that the Chamber of Commerce said would kill jobs. One day, with luck, computers will design voting districts without taking party preferences into account.

Third, other states should copy California’s open primaries. Instead of letting just registered Republicans pick a Republican candidate and Democrats pick a Democrat, the Golden State now holds primaries in which anyone can vote. The top two candidates then proceed to the general election, even if they are both of the same party. This gives candidates an incentive to pitch to the political centre from the very start.

- The Economist, 8 November 2014, p.13

28 December 2014

Devon Dairy

Devon Dairy, 223 Onehunga Mall, from Paynes Lane

27 December 2014

23 December 2014

Christmas music for people who don't like Christmas music

I was reminded of the first of these tracks by my workmate Maria, who cited it as her favourite Christmas tune - and why wouldn't you? It's a heady mix of genuine seasonal tradition plus plenty of additional weird incongruity from the most unlikely of intergenerational showbiz pairings. Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy was recorded on 11 September 1977 for Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas TV special. Bowie later told Q Magazine [in 1999], 'He was not there at all. He had the words in front of him. "Hi Dave, nice to see ya here..." And he looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool. He'd been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know? It was the most bizarre experience. I didn't know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him' (quoted in N. Pegg, The Complete David Bowie, 2000, p.121). Crosby died in Spain at the age of 74 just over a month after this recording. It's surprising how well the lead-in sketch works, given that preamble! And note the ostentatious Bowie crucifix. When in Rome?

And then there's Tim Minchin's White Wine in the Sun: 'And yes, I have all of the usual objections / To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion / To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian, press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer / But I still really like it'.


A true British Christmas classic replete with jaunty brass section and slightly clandestine anti-war message, Jona Lewie's Stop the Cavalry reached number 3 in the UK charts in 1980, at the height of the Cold War and 16 months before Britain entered its war with Argentina over the Falklands. For a richer brass experience, try this 1981 version by the Cory Band and the the Welsh voice choir the Gwalia Singers.


22 December 2014

Roger Daltrey's place in The Who

The story of [Roger] Daltrey arriving at [Pete] Townshend's flat, after a hard day cutting sheet metal, to rouse the stoned art student from his reverie and drive him to play a gig is unfolded so piquantly you genuinely feel Daltrey's frustration and hurt when, two years later, Townshend suddenly becomes the group's clear 'leader', writing songs the blues-loving Daltrey doesn't know how to sing and creating concepts with managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp he doesn't understand.

One interviewee observes that "no one liked" the bruised, alienated Roger; but then The Who were so ill-tempered, self-centred and gleefully rotten to each other that this doesn't seem to have mattered. Their behaviour seems simply to have mirrored the casual violence of working-class, mid-'60s London - indeed, previous accounts of bloody Mod-on-Mod warfare and Daltrey getting stuck into fights at gigs seem to have been, if anything, understated.

- Pat Gilbert reviews Pretend You're in a War: The Who & the Sixties by Mark Blake, 2014, in Mojo, November 2014, p.118

'Good old Rog. What a good lad he is. Woke me up bright and early to get me to gigs in the old days. Such a pot-head I was back then in 1962 that without his driving, tin-plate, cutter-uppers force I would still be languishing in the garret of the visual artist I was training to be. Probably only as rich as David Hockney or William de Kooning'

- Pete Townshend, in liner notes for the Thirty Years of Maximum R&B boxset, 1994

21 December 2014

Elrond's lieutenants

An Elven warrior lieutenant's armour from both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, made by Weta Workshops and on display at Te Papa in Wellington, 22 December 2014.

19 December 2014

Something in your eyes gives me a wild idea

From the 1978 Stiff Records album Stateless, the born-in-America but UK-resident Lene Lovich had her first hit with this track, the commendably hooky 1979 new wave single Lucky Number. It reached number 3 in the UK charts in February 1979, and Lovich went on to have two further top 40 UK singles that year: Say When (number 19 in May) and Bird Song (number 39 in October).

See also:
Music: Madness - House of Fun, 5 September 2014
Music: The Godfathers - Birth School Work Death, 4 July 2014
Music: Split Enz - I Walk Away, 28 February 2014

17 December 2014

The tars react to Omdurman

From Rudyard Kipling's A Fleet in Being (1898, subtitled 'Notes of two trips with the Channel Squadron'), an account of Royal Navy sailors' reaction to fleet signals detailing General Kitchener's major victory in the Battle of Omdurman against Mahdist forces in the Sudan on 2 September 1898:

One peaceful morning the Yeoman of Signals came to the captain's cabin at the regulation pace, but with heightened colour and an eye something brighter than usual. 'Signal from the flagship, sir,' said he, reading off the slate. 'Omdurman fallen: killed so many, and wounded so many.' 'Thank you,' said the captain. 'Tell the men.' On this, I went forward to see how the news would be received. We were busy painting some deck-houses, and the work continued to an accompaniment of subdued voices--the hushed tones of men under the eye of authority. Word was passed to the lower deck and the stokehold: and the hum of talk rose, perhaps, half a note. I halted by the painters. Said one, dipping deep in the white lead: 'Um, ah! This ought to make the French sickish. Almost 'ear 'em coughin', can't you?' Said another, reaching out for the broadest and slabbiest brush: 'I say, Alf, lend us that Khartoum brush o' yours.' After a long pause, stepping back to catch the effect of a peculiarly juicy stroke--head a little aside and one eye shut: 'Well, we've waited about long enough, 'aven't we?' Bosun's mate with a fine mixture of official severity and human tolerance: 'What are you cacklin' for over there! Carry on quiet, can't you?' And that was how we took the news of the little skirmish called Omdurman.
- Rudyard Kipling, A Fleet in Being, 1898

Today Omdurman is a suburb of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

16 December 2014

Ships that pass in the night

Liner Voyager of the Seas departing Wellington, 16 December 2014.

15 December 2014

Meet the gang 'cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you

Today's special find in the second-hand bookstore was this fine example of New Zealand social history: The Songs We Sang, by Les Cleveland and the D Day Dodgers, on Kiwi Records (LA-3). It's in excellent condition, and contains 11 examples of military tunes belted out in quick succession. You can hear the recordings here, and that website thinks the LP was released in 1959 - it's not clear from the disc itself, which is not dated. Historian Jock Phillips has written an excellent biography of Cleveland, who turns out to have been a multi-talented chap who (amongst other things) was a lecturer in the Political Science department at Victoria University of Wellington.

The back cover of the LP contains a blurb for each of the tracks. Here's the one for track 4, side 1: My Africa Star:

This is a satire based on one of the red-hot grievances of the New Zealand Division in the Middle East. The Eighth Army was formed in September, 1941. To qualify for a small metal figure eight which was worn with the Africa Star ribbon, it was necessary to have served in the Eighth Army on or after October 23, 1942. But the formation had been fighting for a year prior to that arbitrary date, so that all those men who had been knocked out with wounds, invalided out with illness or transferred to non-operational units were denied this small but significant award. Some of them were veterans of the first desert battles and their remarks were often voluble and loud when they saw less-worthy soldiers—including girls serving ice-cream in army canteens and "those who were in Palestine"—wearing "the eight".
Les Cleveland died in January 2014.

See also:
History: NZ Film Unit - Behind Our Planes (1942 WAAF short) 

14 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

After more than a decade of film-making, Peter Jackson's Tolkien saga has finally ended, with the third and final film in what unfortunately became a trilogy of the 1937 children's book The Hobbit. Seeing The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies at Wellington's Embassy Theatre, it was prefaced by a brief recap of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit productions, with warm reminisces from the main cast-members. Then it hurtled straight back into the action with the dragon Smaug's assault on Lake-town, which is suitably wrack-and-ruin until this trilogy's Aragorn substitute, Bard the Bowman, plies his trade. Harking back (or, chronologically speaking, forwards) to the corrupting influence of the Ring on Gollum, Thorin Oakenshield has his judgement clouded by possessiveness and paranoia over the mountains of gold he has won from the dragon. That lasts until the made-up-for-the-movies jolly nasty orc fellow, Azog, the one who has serious difficulty picking his nose, turns up with a whole heap of iron-clad orcs and trolls for a mighty old ding-dong that you were kind of expecting from the title.

It's to Jackson's credit that the enormous barney at the end is a proper highlight and not just a re-hash of the sturm und drang at the end of the second and third Rings films. The film's High Frame Rate 3D imagery shows the action in razor-sharp detail and sets a very high standard for those hoping to follow in the fantasy genre. At times you just want to press pause and savour the beauty of the scenery, the intricate detail in the set-dressing, and the effort that's been put into the costumes and armour. It's also fortunate that nearly all of the regrettable video-game-like moments from The Desolation of Smaug are missing from this film. (Well, there is one now-traditional moment for Super Legolas, but that can be forgiven). The sound design is adept too, of course, making full use of the subtleties and power of a great rig like that in the Embassy.

Apart from an inconsequential love story, which is serviceably handled (Evangeline Lilly already has an elf name to begin with!), there is little in the way of particularly meaty acting for the cast to do, unless fight choreography counts as acting. That's not a complaint, because the fighting is excellent. But The Hobbit hewed much closer to the action film genre than the previous trilogy, and it's only near the very end of Five Armies, when Ian McKellen and Martin Freeman provide a wordless scene with a commendable spot of acting 'business' that you remember that characters can interact with each other without the scenery crashing down around them or gigantic orcs bearing down to cleave them in two. And while the desire to tie up the loose ends and link back to the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring is understandable, Jackson again shows his unwillingness to opt for a snappy ending; instead, goodbyes must be drawn-out and somehow profound.

No matter - at least in the rush to expand two films into three the resulting finale was an entirely bearable 144 minutes long. This is a much more humane length than the epic runtimes of the earlier films. And now we can hope that Jackson & co. leave Tolkien for good, because the last drops have surely been squeezed from that particular source. No Silmarillion, no The Children of Hurin, please! I think like many people I've had my fill, and that's from someone who was a big fan when the series commenced. Now after umpteen views of those smug Air New Zealand inflight videos I'd like a healthy break. Maybe now's the time to make that Tintin sequel, Peter?

See also:
Movies: Sunset Boulevard, 25 September 2014
Movies: Die Nibelungen, 8 July 2014
Movies: The history of film aspect ratios, 28 June 2013

13 December 2014

How to park a skyscraper

A time-lapse video of the US$750m cruise liner Celebrity Solstice arriving at the port of Wellington this morning. Naturally, the weather turned to custard shortly after the ship arrived, which seems to be the hard-and-fast rule during the cruise season.

12 December 2014

The Green Manalishi

Fleetwood Mac, in its pre-Californian guise as a British heavy blues-rock quartet, perform their Peter Green-penned single The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown) to a Swedish audience in 1970, its year of release. The single reached number 10 in the UK charts, and was their last charting single in the UK for three years until the 1973 re-entry of their classic instrumental Albatross. Then it would be another three years before the next chart appearance with Say You Love Me, which commenced the radically reshaped band's mid-70s soft-rock avalanche. There's also a well-known cover of Green Manalishi by Midlands metallers Judas Priest on their 1979 album Hell Bent for Leather (the US version of their UK album Killing Machine), which added Manalishi as an extra track for the American market. This 1983 US outdoor performance is so Spinal Tap it will hurt your brain.

11 December 2014

The influence of Chinese sage Lao Tzu on Scottish League One football

Back in the sixth century BC, when Babylonia fell, the Persian Empire rose from its ashes and toga-wearing Greek philosophers first started to look quizzically at tortoises, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu delicately laid down the first few brushstrokes of the Tao Te Ching, the text that would go on to become the bedrock of Taoism.

Lao Tzu had faith in the duality of the universe. ‘When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly,’ he declared. Yin and yang. Each thing must, by its very nature, have an opposite.

So perhaps that in order to have that mouthwatering Old Firm derby drawn out of the hat on Saturday evening we first had to sit through this: 90 minutes of the most tedious, excruciating football imaginable […]

- Callum Baird reports on a 0-0 draw between Morton & Airdrieonians, The Herald, quoted in Private Eye 1380, 28 November – 11 December 2014, p.28

[Sample picture caption from original article: 'Morton goalkeeper Derek Gaston calls for a Socratic dialogue']

10 December 2014

Let's (not) live in Timaru

Why it's not for everyone:

It has been called a "dying" town by an academic, who found the population is hitting old age at a fast rate of knots, and it was unable to host a team during the Rugby World Cup due to the lack of suitable accommodation.

The residents are taken over by an inability to move rhythmically when frequenting the local bars after indulging in a few beverages - it is not a choice, but some magical mist that descends on all inhabitants.

It could also be why the local Super rugby team, the Crusaders, doesn't want to stay the night and party after any matches they play here.

- Audrey Malone, 'Let's live in Timaru', Stuff.co.nz, 9 December 2014

See also:
NZ: 'Psychics' 'helped' search, 3 April 2014

09 December 2014

Rising inequality and slower growth

The west’s leading economic thinktank on Tuesday dismissed the concept of trickle-down economics as it found that the UK economy would have been more than 20% bigger had the gap between rich and poor not widened since the 1980s.

Publishing its first clear evidence of the strong link between inequality and growth, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development proposed higher taxes on the rich and policies aimed at improving the lot of the bottom 40% of the population [...]

The OECD said that the richest 10% of the population now earned 9.5 times the income of the poorest 10%, up from seven times in the 1980s. However, the result had been slower, not faster, growth.

It concluded that “income inequality has a sizeable and statistically negative impact on growth, and that redistributive policies achieving greater equality in disposable income has no adverse growth consequences.

“Moreover, it [the data collected from the thinktank’s 34 rich country members] suggests it is inequality at the bottom of the distribution that hampers growth." [...]

Rising inequality is estimated to have knocked more than 10 percentage points off growth in Mexico and New Zealand, nearly nine points in the UK, Finland and Norway, and between six and seven points in the United States, Italy and Sweden.

The thinktank said governments should consider rejigging tax systems to make sure wealthier individuals pay their fair share. It suggested higher top rates of income tax, scrapping tax breaks that tend to benefit higher earners and reassessing the role of all forms of taxes on property and wealth.

- Larry Elliott, 'Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth', Guardian, 9 December 2014

05 December 2014

Thoughts rearrange, familiar now strange

From the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers, the Greenhornes with Holly Golightly perform the theme 'There is an End'. I greatly enjoyed the Greenhornes' set at the Big Day Out in Auckland in 2006. Two-thirds of the Greenhornes went on to form The Raconteurs with their friend Jack White (who also worked with Golightly when he was with the White Stripes). Presumably White helped get the Greenhornes on the BDO setlist, and I'm glad he did, if so.


03 December 2014

To do right by his own inclination

From the 2nd century BC play 'The Brothers' by the Roman playwright Terence, who was a North African slave educated by his master, the character Micio, a bachelor who has brought up his nephew as his adoptive son, discusses his approach to bringing up a true gentleman:

Micio: In my view honour and gentlemanly feeling are better curbs on a gentleman's son than fear. My brother and I disagree on this, he is quite against this view. He comes to me perpetually, crying, "What are you about, Micio? Why are you bringing the boy to ruin on our hands? Why this licence? Why these drinking parties? Why do you pile him up the guineas for such a life and let him spend so much at the tailor's? It's extremely silly of you?" He himself is extremely hard, past right and sense, and in my opinion it's a great mistake to suppose that the authority which is founded on force has more weight and stability than that which hangs by the link of friendliness. My system, my theory, is this: he who does his duty under the lash of punishment has no dread except in the thought of detection; if he thinks he won't be found out, back he goes to his natural bent. When you link a son to you by kindness, there is sincerity in all his acts, he sets himself to make a return, and will be the same behind your back as to your face. That's the spirit of a true father, to accustom his son to do right rather by his own inclination than by fear of another, and that's the difference between the parents of sons and the owner of slaves.

- Quoted in Jon E. Lewis, Rome: the Autobiography, London, 2010, p32.   

30 November 2014

The Irish police force

It's only when you've been and experienced American cops that you're so glad to be either Irish or British, where our Old Bill don't get a gun routinely. Does everybody know about the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána? They're a quality police force, and they're the friend of the comedian. When I was sixteen, I got arrested for teenage drinking in a park when I asked the cop, 'Have you got a gun?' And, I quote, he said: 'Why would I need a gun when I can take off me shoe and beat you wit' it?'

Less guns, more shoes! That's why Ireland has no history of tragic school shoeings.

- Andrew Maxwell, The News Quiz, BBC Radio 4, 28 November 2014

16 November 2014

Mr Putin departs Brisbane

Walking up Elizabeth Street in Brisbane on a furnace-like Queensland Sunday during the G20 conference (16 November 2014) I spotted a collection of crowd barriers and a phalanx of motorcycle cops in the middle of the road, awaiting something important. They were outside the Hilton hotel, and a young chap with a camera nearby informed me that the officers and several dozen spectators were waiting for the departure from the hotel of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had stated that he was departing the G20 conference several hours early in order to catch a few extra hours of sleep on his way back to important business in Moscow.

After about 20 minutes of waiting in the 40-degree Brisbane heatwave, during which time the traffic backed up down the length of Elizabeth Street, the Russian party emerged behind obscuring glass shields placed in front of the hotel parking zone, and boarded a fleet of vehicles. Putin's Mercedes limo emerged swiftly with the Russian leader in the rear right-hand seat; he waved briefly to the crowd and was soon out of sight as the convoy headed to the airport. Despite the icy diplomatic conditions of Putin's visit there was no animosity in the crowd; like me, people just seemed to be keen to spot a world leader in person.  

While waiting for the Russian leader's departure I took a few scene-setting photos in case they turned out well later. One prominent sentry in front of the hotel cut a particularly imposing figure - the man pictured below. I assumed he was a scary Russian secret service officer, trained to snap enemies of the Russian state in two with his bare hands. Upon returning home and examining the image more closely, I noticed from his name-tag that it was in face Officer Mark Fyfe of the New Zealand Police. So for frying for nearly half an hour in direct sunlight in 40 degree temperatures whilst wearing a full business suit and tie, and looking appropriately mean while doing so, I salute you!

14 November 2014

The Ox

Just the bass of The Who's John Entwistle, otherwise known as 'The Ox', from the epic live recording of Won't Get Fooled Again at the Shepperton Studios on 25 May 1978. This was the last live appearance with drummer Keith Moon, who died on 7 September of the same year. Entwistle was famed for his taciturn stage presence, but anyone would've paled in comparison to his bandmates. He does look rather morose and blasé about the whole thing in this clip - just playing astonishing bass runs on one of the most enduring rock tracks of the 20th century, nothing to see here...

See also:
Music: The Who at Monterey Pop, 31 January 2014
Music: L-o-o-o-o-ng songs, 11 June 2008
Music: The Who - The Real Me (live, 1979)

12 November 2014

Competing in a market of fluff and titillation

From an interesting discussion with Russell Brown on 'Media Take' the week before last, on the outsourcing of Maori and Pacific broadcasting from within TVNZ to external providers:

'[These shows] have been around for 30 years. [Like] Tagata Pasifika: there is nothing else on TV for our Pasifika whanau. And Waka Huia and Marae, [they] are the programmes that have documented our histories. We can't compete in a market that's looking for fluff and titillation. There needs to be a place that by purpose and by design records and represents the oral histories, the recorded histories of our people in this country, in a mainstream way. Not everything has to come through Maori TV'.
- Marama Fox MP, 'Media Take', Maori TV, 28 October 2014
I completely agree with Fox - it's vital that Maori stories and culture are shared by dedicated experts to the largest possible audience. But I'd go one step further and point out that the same exposure should be everyone's right in New Zealand, and is what we had via TVNZ until its public service remit was killed off, and which was then extinguished more comprehensively by the closure of public service digital channel TVNZ7. What we have now - a corporate, ad-driven national broadcaster that only serves advertisers, not the public interest, is a ridiculous embarrassment. And as commentator Richard Pamatatau points out in the same programme, it's a broadcaster that increasingly fails to reflect the diverse multicultural reality of modern New Zealand:

'What will happen is that the expertise from inside TVNZ that can correct what will become an increasingly white broadcaster or publisher won't be there. So when TVNZ risks making a mistake around broadcasting something that is connected with the Pacific population, the in-house expertise won't be there, and then it becomes an organisation that is less credible, and it's not best practice. It becomes "the white man's view of the world"'.
- Richard Pamatatau, Pacific Island Media Association, ibid.
See also:
TV: Watching 7 Sharp (so you don't have to), 10 August 2014
TV: Diversifying TV1's schedule, 25 March 2014
TV: TV flashback 1976, 12 February 2014

11 November 2014

Obama's domestic legacy

Joe Biden called it straight. When Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010, the vice-president was heard to whisper by his side, "This is a big f...... deal!" It really is, too.  This is as good as it gets for Democrats of every vintage [...]

This is a political legacy all on its own and Obama has his name on it. Ten million Americans who had no insurance before 2010 do so now. Premiums are lower than feared and the rate of the uninsured has fallen from 20 percent to 15 percent. Into the bargain, Obamacare has also created 9 million jobs.

Which is the second part of the case for Obama. The inheritance from George W Bush was awful but, where Reagan inflated the deficit, Obama has reduced it. The unemployment rate, which almost doubled under Bush, has fallen from 10 percent to less than 6 per cent under Obama. The US$800 billion pump-priming plan attracted criticism but it helped to stimulate a recovery that has been quicker than in any European nation [...]

Obama has also won victories in the chronic culture war. His first executive act was to sign the Fair Pay Act into legislation. Two women have been appointed to the Supreme Court and Obama lifted the ban on gays in the military, another cause that eluded Clinton.

Obama has actually done, in other words, what Democrats have before only talked of doing. The gap between the appearance and the reality is precisely because Obama was such a good talker. Ascending to the White House on a wave of gorgeous sound, Obama excited hopes that could never be satisfied but that should not obscure the fact that he has achieved more than the Kennedys or Clintons that British politicians so oddly revere.

- Philip Collins, The Times, 7 November 2014 (reprinted in Dominion Post, 8 November 2014)

09 November 2014

Cadets at Parliament

150 cadets from around New Zealand commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Cadet Forces, on the steps of Parliament, 9 November 2014.

Guy Fawkes 2014

Photos of last night's Guy Fawkes fireworks display in Wellington harbour, taken from Queens Wharf. It was a perfect night for the display: mild, with no wind.

See also:

08 November 2014

Two-thirds of the distance to the Moon

Lyall Bay, 8 November 2014

During my recent long weekend drive to Hawke's Bay my own little exemplar of vintage motoring had a significant birthday. Not content with merely passing 20 years on the road this year, my 1994 Ford Laser GL wagon (KE model) also passed 250,000km. I've had the Laser slightly more than three years, and in that time have added only 18,000km to the odometer, so it's hardly been a challenging workout. It's been a good reliable runabout, particularly good at long-distance drives. And it's nice to think that it was actually made in New Zealand too, having been turned out by the Ford factory in Wiri before that was closed down in 1997.

07 November 2014

Something For The Weekend

Commemorating the 44th birthday of Northern Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon today, here is the first charting single of his band The Divine Comedy, which climbed to number 14 in the UK charts in June 1996. This was the first of a run of 12 UK top 40 singles for the band over a period of eight years. Something For The Weekend, if memory serves, was written for Kate Beckinsale - note the repeated lyrical references to Cold Comfort Farm - and features her giggling at the opening and during the bridge. The track was from the band's breakthrough album Casanova, which also contains two songs that were originally written as potential themes for the classic sitcom Father Ted. The video, shot in and around Venice's St Mark's Square, features the typically dapper Hannon and a model (not Beckinsale). Aside from 10 Divine Comedy albums, Hannon has also gone on to make two appealingly eccentric concept albums about cricket with collaborator Thomas Walsh of the band Pugwash, under the name The Duckworth Lewis Method.


06 November 2014

How to do good sentences

Why sentences? Well, that question answers itself, really. Look at it: “Why sentences?” There’s something missing, isn’t there? I’ll tell you: yes. What’s missing is the rest of the words. And it’s shoddy. It’s shoddy and lazy. It’s shoddy and lazy and frustrating, sticking out there like a bad piece of junk. I’m disappointed on both our behalves. It could have read:

  • Why is sentences good?
  • Why are we be using sentences?
  • Why sentences appropriate?
  • Why should I do sentences?

All of the above is correct. Give yourself a clap if you knew that. You’re well on your way to being really good at this!

- James Thomas, 'How to write a sentence', New Yorker, 24 October 2014

04 November 2014

Nature's fury caused 'by atheist excretions'

‘The immediate reason for last year’s floods in this region may have been excessive rain,’ [India's] water resources minister Uma Bharti told a committee meeting of the Himalayan Institute of Glaciology and Forest Research in Dehradun (northern India), ‘but I know the real cause. The underlying reason was defecation and urination by atheists near to the shrine of Kedarnath.  Human excretory activities have been forbidden within the area around the shrine since 1882, and for a century all was well.  But in recent years, non-believers started coming here for business purposes, and they used the area as a toilet.  This angered the Gods and resulted in nature’s fury at Kedarnath in 2013’.

Despite protestations that her comments defied scientific logic, Bharti explained that ‘I am here to discuss the reconstruction of the Kedarnath shrine. I intend to restore the status of no-man’s land around the shrine, and have already reinstated the ban on human excretion. And as you can see, the Saraswati river has since reduced to a mere trickle’.

- Hindustan Times, 16 September 2014, spotted by Tim Poston & quoted in Private Eye 1377, 17-30 October 2014

03 November 2014

Bill Bailey

Bailey gets one up on Mamma Mia
Bill Bailey – Limboland
Michael Fowler Centre
2 November 2014

In last night’s Wellington performance, English comedian Bill Bailey showed the advantages of knitting together a comedy set with good-natured tangential rambling, strong energy and physical humour, and by not dumbing down a routine for international audiences – for example, leaving in a Wildean reference to a seemingly ageless David Cameron ‘having a portrait in his attic’.  

Commencing with an introductory conversation about the recent New Zealand election, Bailey showed that he’d done more research than just scanning that morning’s newspaper, but fortunately he swiftly moved on to more interesting fare, issuing a mild but entertaining rant about the underwhelming world of British politics. (On Labour leader Ed Miliband: ‘The man looks like he’s just caught the bouquet at a funeral’).  

Satire soon merged into Bailey’s traditional mix of musical comedy and observational whimsy, both of which still work admirably on stage with Bailey having honed his performance skills over many years. Tales of run-ins with wounded geese, Buckingham Palace security, the perils of taking your elderly in-laws dog-sledding to see the Northern Lights, intimidating catchphrase-quoting Estonian airport security, and the marvellously British phrase used to appraise weekends: ‘Not too bad really, all things considered’, all attracted Bailey’s deft mock outrage and bewilderment.  

The musical aspects of Bailey’s act still provide many of the most memorable highlights, including his justifiable scorn for the jelly-legged performing chimps in boyband One Direction, the strident Teutonic joys of rendering pop songs in German as if they were performed by Kraftwerk or Rammstein, and an updated foray into dub reggae for his reimagining of the Downton Abbey theme, replete with ironic dialogue clips (‘a bouillon spoon!’). He also made a daring venture into impersonating the New Zealand accent (emerging largely unscathed) for his spiel on inappropriate accents for metal bands - ‘Sux Sux Sux, number of the Beast’.  

Bill Bailey might be a pricey night out in New Zealand, but with his years of experience and well-honed affable stage presence he’s still worth every penny.   

See also:
ComedyReginald D. Hunter, 8 May 2014
Comedy: Bill Bailey, 3 October 2012
Comedy: Dylan Moran, 23 April 2006

30 October 2014

The Dissection of Jeremy Bentham, or the Auto-Icon

On the unusual events that occurred immediately following the death of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), one of the key founders of utilitarian thought:

He had specified in his will that his body was to be offered up for public dissection, a useful thing in itself. At that time, because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh (when Christ will supposedly return at the Last Judgement to open the graves of the dead), there was still a Christian taboo against not burying bodies. This meant there was a general shortage of specimens for pathologists to work on. 
Before the dissection began, at London's Webb Street School of Anatomy, twenty-eight of Bentham's friends gathered to say farewell. His corpse lay before them in a simple nightshirt. In a scene straight out of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (then just into its second edition), the funeral oration was dramatically accompanied "with thunder pealing overhead and lightning flashing through the gloom". Once the eulogy had finished, Dr Southwood Smith made sure, as Bentham's will had specified, "to ascertain by appropriate experiment that no life remains". He then carefully stripped the flesh from the bones and placed the internal organs and "the soft parts" in labelled glass containers "like wine decanters". His cleaned bones were then pinned together with copper wire and the skeleton dressed in a suit of Bentham's clothes, padded out with hay, straw and cotton wool. A sachet of lavender and naphthalene was placed in the stomach cavity to discourage moths. Again adhering to the instructions in his will, the body was seated in "a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought". The whole ensemble was to be enhanced by the presence of Dapple, his favourite walking stick, and topped off with his actual head (well preserved and with a suitable hat on it). 
- John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, The QI Book of the Dead, London, 2009, p390-1.

The head preservation didn't go according to plan, so a waxwork model was put in its place, but the real Bentham's mummified head was placed into a display cabinet with the rest of the 'exhibit' and lay at Bentham's feet, until it was placed into safe storage much later, on account of it being subject to many university pranks. These resulted because Bentham's body has been on public display since his death. Since 1850 the body, which Bentham described as his 'Auto-Icon', has resided in University College London, and his remains can still be seen today.

The Times of 7 June 1832, the day after Bentham's death in London aged 84, carried an obituary 'from a most respectable [unnamed] gentleman well acquainted with the deceased':

In conformity with the desire of his father, he practised for a short time in equity, and was immediately remarked for the ability he displayed; but the death of his father left him with a moderate fortune and the free choice of his course of life, when he at once abandoned all prospects of professional emoluments and honours, and devoted the whole of his subsequent life to those labours which he believed would produce the greatest happiness to his fellow-creatures. His extreme benevolence and cheerfulness of disposition are highly spoken of by all who had the honour to be admitted to his society, which was much sought after, and also by his domestics and by his neighbours who were acquainted with his habits. The news of the Reform Bill having been carried greatly cheered his last hours.     

28 October 2014

Te Awanga British Car Museum

Having recently enjoyed a return visit to the Southward Car Museum in Paraparaumu, New Zealand's finest car museum, I was looking forward to paying a visit to the smaller, more specialised collection at Te Awanga near Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay during my Labour Weekend visit there. The British Car Museum (at 63 East Rd, Te Awanga) didn't disappoint, and for aficionados of British cars it's definitely worth a spot on your trip itinerary, as long as you don't mind the slightly idiosyncratic curatorial approach taken by its owner, Ian Hope.

What I like about the museum is that it's not a pristine, hermetically-sealed time capsule. These are working cars that have been used by real families, and it often shows with rust spots here and there, and some cars on display that still require restoration. Couple that with the huge task of organising the place and you'll understand why the captions on the cars aren't necessarily word perfect and visitors are bombarded with the curious message to 'not touch the cars unless you're naked', attached on laminated cards pegged to every vehicle. WOF and maintenance slips are sometimes stuffed between car radiator grilles, a fair bit of dust mounts up in hard-to-reach places (Ian jets about on a mobility scooter to save his legs), and space is at such a premium that most cars at ground level have another suspended above them on a metal frame to save space - in the event of a serious earthquake, run like hell! These observations aren't criticisms - it's just fair warning that the British Car Museum is a bit 'rough and ready' - but there are plenty of automotive highlights for people who remember the days when New Zealand's roads were dominated by mostly weedy-engined, unreliable yet wonderful British cars (and quite a few German ones). Some highlights:

This is the first impression that awaits you

Rare 1970 MG Mk.2 1300 2-door coupe 

1967 Austin 1100 Vanden Plas mini-limo

Austin 1100s (in various guises)

1961 Bedford van, which served as an electrician's van in Wainuiomata from the early '60s

Plenty of Morris Minors

Also: Old piano player rolls, incl. 'Mr Jelly Lord' & 'Canadian Capers'

26 October 2014

Te Mata Peak

A visit to the spectacular vantage point of Te Mata Peak just south of Havelock North, overlooking the Hawkes Bay, on a sunny Labour Weekend, 26 October 2014.