31 December 2016

My top 10 films of 2016

Another year packed with film watching is almost over, and it's time to select the best of the new films I saw this year. Many of the 196 films I saw in 2016 were filling in gaps from earlier years - the earliest was from 1920 - but there were plenty of enjoyable contemporary releases in the mix too. The film festival was a highlight as usual, and it was a great opportunity to see both of Terence Davies' features, Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion with the director there to provide amusing comments and context. This year's top 10 includes a couple of top documentaries, low-budget comedies and dramas, a German oddity, a New Zealand favourite, and a dash of Hollywood blockbuster for good measure:

10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Pure entertainment is on offer in Rogue One, and unlike last year's similarly popcorn-flogging epic, The Force Awakens, this is a new tale rather than a rehash of the original. This confident war flick throws a cast without major star power through its paces and succeeds in retaining the sense of wonder and spectacle of the first trilogy. It even makes self-assured steps towards an understated comic undertone that is a welcome departure from the familiar comic relief of the 70s and 80s epics. A few minor quibbles about CGI actors aside [spoilers], chiefly a misjudged final scene that should have been rethought, Rogue One is a highly recommended slice of pure big-screen entertainment for the whole family and the whole world to enjoy.

9. Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann is the fictitious, mischief-making alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a semi-retired teacher, who flies to Bucharest to inject some chaos into the life of his work-driven, unhappy adult daughter Iren (). Donning a ludicrous wig and fake teeth, he spins increasingly far-fetched stories amongst Iren's high-powered business world circle: devoted to climbing the corporate ladder, Iren has no real friends to speak of. And while viewers might be expecting a heartfelt meeting of souls in which father and daughter reconcile their differences and emerge happier and closer, Maren Ade's anarchic film takes great glee in confounding expectations. In allowing its actors great leeway to experiment, the film is seriously unhurried - a 162 minute runtime is daunting for any film, let alone a comedy. The lead performances that result are quixotically appealing, particularly as they never veer towards cheap sentimentality or broad farce. Motivations are also often hard to read because the unpredictable characters fail to conform to the usual predictable comedic payoffs, instead preferring a more oblique strategy. And if approached with an expectation of conventional logic and comedic structure, the film will probably prove frustrating. In fact, I expected to find this meandering, inscrutable film powerfully irritating, but instead I developed quite an affection for its wilfully contrary approach.

8. Arrival

The intelligent new sci-fi offering by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), Arrival, begins roughly where Close Encounters of the Third Kind ends: what does humanity do when confronted by First Contact with aliens with no recognisable language? Amy Adams is reliably watchable in the lead role as linguist Prof Louise Banks, given the task of working out how to communicate with the spooky aliens, ideally before any other nation manages it, or before the whole world panics itself into oblivion. Wrestling with international paranoia, political pressure and linguistic theory, this is clever speculative fiction that plainly wears its influences on its sleeve, but unlike many other similar attempts, it retains a sense of intrigue, wonder and inventiveness. Particular note too must be given to the suitably otherworldly sound design and music by Icelandic composer Johann Johannson, who was Oscar-nominated for his scores for The Theory of Everything and Sicario. Finally, as my friend Jessica advised: if you're going to see Arrival, try to read as little about it as possible beforehand, because some numpty reviewer is bound to spoil the genuine surprises in store.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

With each film Taika Waititi grows more confident and assured, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows his earlier two minor local classics, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, into even broader appeal. Derived from an unimpeachable 20th century popular literature source, the writing of bush legend Barry Crump, but deftly updated for modern audiences, Wilderpeople makes powerful use of spectacular New Zealand bush landscapes and harks back to the heyday of local filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s when Sleeping Dogs (Sam Neill's first major film, from 1977), Smash Palace (featuring legendary everyman Bruno Lawrence) and Bad Blood (the Stanley Graham story) all went bush to find drama and self-realisation. Wilderpeople also succeeds due to its accomplished local cast, chief of which is the comedic and dramatic prowess of the Bunteresque Julian Dennison, who never puts a foot wrong despite being surrounded by experienced talent. Veteran Sam Neill builds a perfect craggy bravado, Rima Te Wiata brings a warm and mumsy charm, and a supporting cast of frustrated officialdom, bush-dwelling oddballs and bounty-seeking chancers rounds out a grand chase movie. Commendably, this is Waititi's least indie-styled production: this is a family film, and one with a strong heart. And it has every chance of attaining popularity overseas too, with such universally likeable characters.

6. Hail, Caesar!

Much anticipated due to the delightful prospect of the Coens taking on golden-age Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! succeeds in bringing to life an exuberant mix of star turns that poke gentle fun at 1950s celebrity culture and the ethos of the studio system. Plenty of modern stars decorate this 'prestige picture' (as Josh Brolin's film fixer character Eddie Mannix would say), with George Clooney as the blithe matinee idol Baird Whitlock offering the most stellar of star turns, ably supported by comic turns from Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, and a gloriously on-point musical number from Channing Tatum that mirrors the high camp of many Technicolor extravaganzas. The stand-out performance is undoubtedly from Alden Erenreich as the ludicrously talented cowboy film actor Hobie Doyle; Erenreich has since been cast as Han Solo in the next Star Wars prequel. Hail, Caesar! is a must-see for any fan of classic cinema, and while it may not scale the heights of their finest work it offers a fond glimpse of a now-vanished Hollywood world.

5. Hell or High Water

A very fine Texan crime drama that places great emphasis on the character and motivation of the two brothers on a rural bank-robbing spree (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), and the grizzled, near-retirement Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who makes it his business to stay one step ahead of them. There are similarities with the Depression-era tale of Bonnie & Clyde in that the true villains of the piece are not the criminals - who are flawed, certainly, but far from evil - but rather the banks that inveigle themselves into family finances with a long game of taking everything when things inevitably go wrong. It's also a classic buddy film, with the brothers' grudging cameraderie and personalities covering the bases of nobility and rattlesnake-mad, which is probably not the most reliable pairing for a used-bills armed robbery team. Blessed with a strong supporting cast of incidental players illustrating the idiosyncratic West Texas mindset, a top soundtrack including strong work by Nick Cave, and a keen cinematographic eye for the blasted southland plains and grim decaying strip malls and junkyards, Hell or High Water is both a memorable crime drama and an intriguing glimpse into the fractured economy and society of the contemporary South.

4. Eight Days a Week

Ron Howard's Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years documentary is certainly recommended to all Beatles fans, which is to say, pretty much every human being who likes music. A thoughtfully chosen parade of talking heads provide the expected historical context, with Whoopi Goldberg is a stand-out for her story of her mother taking her to the Shea Stadium concert. For completists it's probably not going to provide any new information, but hey, you're a completist! The chance to see a half-hour cut of the '65 Shea Stadium gig with newly cleaned-up shriek-free audio (Xmas stocking-filler album ahoy) and some of the found footage of the touring years with the Beatles in their prime (including a brief snippet of their arrival at Wellington in '64) means this will definitely pique your interest.

3. I, Daniel Blake

Blessed with simple, naturalistic performances and not restricted at all by its use of non-actors in supporting roles, veteran director Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake is another fine addition to his canon. No-one who sees this film will forget its killer gut-punch scene in the foodbank: a truly powerful moment in British cinematic history. With deep-running themes of human kindness and solidarity, and frustration at a social welfare system that shirks its responsibility to maintain the self-respect of those forced to use it, the film also brings a deft vein of humour in the form of the bluff but gentle title hero, invalided carpenter Blake (comedian Dave Johns), who befriends isolated single mum Katie (Hayley Squires), who is struggling on the poverty line in Newcastle, a town where she has been moved by social services but where she knows no-one. It's sad to say that not many stories like this make it to the big screen any more, but their power is at least recognised by Cannes, which honoured I, Daniel Blake with the Palme d'Or.  (Not to mention the 'Palm DogManitarian Award' for featuring a three-legged dog).

2. Love & Friendship

It was real a treat to see an early screening of director Whit Stilman's period piece at the TIFF Lightbox cinema in Toronto. Derived from an early Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan, that was wasn't published until 1871, Love & Friendship offers an imperious central performance from Kate Beckinsale as the wholly Machiavellian widow Lady Susan Vernon. Seeking to secure her position in the world by arranging a successful matrimony for her daughter, the sincere and callow Frederica, Lady Susan will stop at nothing to engineer society and emotions to suit herself, even if it means setting up Frederica with a confirmed booby, the wealthy but fantastically dim Sir James Martin (a sterling comic performance by Tom Bennett). Filmed in Irish manor houses under glowering skies, Love & Friendship is driven by the scheming and plotting of its female characters, with the males typically oblivious and easily manipulated by Lady Susan, who relies on feminine wiles and misinformation to achieve her aims. The film also reuinites Beckinsale with her Last Days of Disco co-star Chloe Sevigny, who plays Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan's equally immoral American confidant. 

1. Weiner

At the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco I relished seeing this great documentary by  and  about the disgraced former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner (he of sexting infamy) and his 2013 run for Democratic selection in the New York mayoralty. In a way Weiner is still an amazing 'machine politician', and he still has the knack for electrifying political communication; he could wipe the floor with his opponents, if only the press would stop talking about his highly embarrassing humiliation that absolutely, comprehensively, utterly rules him out from seeking US political office. It's both painful and intriguing to watch Weiner's commited volunteers and staff as their commendable loyalty and enthusiasm is undermined so completely as everything goes wrong and the valid political message is drowned in a sea of sleaze. Particularly telling is the scene in the back of a car in which Weiner is bantering with his long-suffering communications advisor, which goes swimmingly until he makes a thoughly inappropriate and completely unnecessary sexual joke; the awkward silence is palpable. The tragedy is the gruesome car-crash politics that reinfect his relationship with his highly talented wife, Huma Abedin, a powerful political fixer for Hillary Clinton. If there's one lesson in this must-watch, agonising slow-motion political suicide in documentary form, it's that it should be Abedin standing for office, not Weiner.

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

30 December 2016

Acacia Cottage

Originally constructed off Shortland St at the heart of the new city in 1841 for John Logan Campbell and his business partner William Brown, Acacia Cottage was moved to Cornwall Park in 1921.

22 December 2016

The Mayor of Thorndon

This Film Unit news clip from 1957 illustrates (from 2:03) a Wellington charity drive based in the Railway Hotel, an inn formerly situated in a prime site in Thorndon Quay now occupied by the fire station (an earlier incarnation, I think, built before the 1926 fire - see Lawlor quote below). The Railway was marked with the required legal notice: 'CJ Dealy, licensed to sell fermented and spiritous liquors'.

The Mayor of Thorndon Appeal, a mock election charity drive to raise funds for 'blind kiddies', was run by Bill Henderson 'full-time for five weeks of the year'. It aimed to collect even more in 1957 than the £5000 collected in 1956, which is an impressive sum given the charity election only cost a penny per vote. (Given the population of the whole country was around 2.2 million in 1957, this is an impressive return of around 1d for every two New Zealanders, despite being an event concentrated in the lower North Island).

Each candidate had a comical single-issue election platform ('so the voters won't get confused'):

  • Merve Kenny (Maori, for 'pipi, kina and paua for counter lunches')
  • Keith Bartlett (Transport, for 'rubber-filled potholes')
  • Frank Miles (Hotel worker, for '10oz beers, 10 o'clock opening & 10 o'clock closing')
  • Danny McLaughlin (Wharf, the incumbent, for 'one big happy family')
  • Erle Taylor (Hutt Valley motor industry, for 'safety first despite your thirst')

And remember, 'If you know of any blind kiddie needing assistance, ring 74-934'.

The Evening Post of 14 May 1889 contains an informative ad from an earlier stage of the Railway Hotel's history, 68 years before the events of the Pictorial Parade clip, when an earlier Mr Dealy was in charge of proceedings. In that year there were two trains per weekday to Masterton, four to Upper Hutt and an impressive 10 per day to Lower Hutt. Each passenger was entitled to take up to 112lbs (50kg!) in luggage.
Proprietor Daniel Dealy, late licensee of the Cricketers' Arms, having purchased the above-named Family Hotel, begs to inform his numerous friends, old customers, and the travelling public that he has refurnished the house right through, and intends to leave nothing undone on his part to promote the comfort of his patrons. As this hotel is within two minutes' walk of both railway stations, it affords all the comfort that travellers by rail need require. Guests' luggage delivered to and from both stations free of charge. Free Stabling for country farmers. Passengers called in time to have breakfast before first train leaves in the morning. Hot, cold, and shower Baths. All Ales, Wines, and Spirits of the choicest brands only kept. Staples XXX Beer always on tap. One of Alcock's Billiard Tables. Night porter in attendance. Travellers to Napier, Wanganui, New Plymouth can receive all information in regard to coach and rail fares, and time of departure by applying at the above hotel. D. DEALY, Proprietor.
Wellington diarist and beer enthusiast Pat Lawlor recorded the Hotel in a brief entry in his comprehensive 1974 survey of the capital's watering holes.

In the days when the old Thorndon Railway Station was operating, thirsty travellers loved to call on Jim Dealy for a quick one. The hotel, which dates back about 90 years, is not so handy these days to our central railway station. Within recent years it has become a tavern. It was destroyed by fire in 1926, was rebuilt and had several transformations under the notable Dealy family regime. There was a time when the trains from Thorndon Station puffed their way past the hotel on the way to Te Aro Station, the smoke giving the hotel a delicate greyish tinge. Today the Railway Tavern ministers to the wants of lower Thorndon.
- Pat Lawlor, Old Wellington Hotels, Wellington, 1974, p.54.
Thorndon Station closed in June 1937 when the current grand station opened, and by July 1937 demolition was well underway. I've yet to determine when the Railway Hotel was knocked down. Leave a comment if you have any clues!

See also:
History: 'Looking for old Thorndon', Evening Post, 3 July 1937
History: The Thorndon Summer Pool, 6 July 2016
History: Ans Westra - Wellington 1976, 30 June 2013

20 December 2016

Real street appeal

So I'm playing Grand Theft Auto 5 for the first time, and the graphics are so impressive that when I'm checking out one of the main characters' accommodation - the dilapidated trailer of petrol-huffing, homicidal psychopath Trevor - all I can think is, 'Man, if he tidied up that yard and maybe painted over some of the rust, this place could have real street appeal'. An ideal doer-upper, bargain hunters!

Trevor's trailer, Sandy Shores, San Andreas

14 December 2016

I don't mean to sound degrading

This 1971 single by Rod Stewart with the (formerly Small) Faces is the epitome of unchivalrousness lyrically speaking, but with its filthy guitar and low-brow swagger it's a whole lot of fun. Even if the dour Euro DJ interviewing wee Rod beforehand seems somewhat underwhelmed.

12 December 2016

Globalisation & nationalism

As economies and societies around the globe become more and more interconnected and bound within transnational rules and institutions, the range of policy options available to domestic policymakers has declined. Such constraints range from formal rules, such as the acceptance of the free movement of peoples within the European Union, or the asylum obligations that are outlined under the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or the limits on deficits stipulated in European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact and the implicit economic constraints imposed by global financial and investment flows. Thus, on issue after issue, from corporate taxation, to control over immigration, to fiscal and monetary policy, national elites frequently find themselves unable to deliver policies consistent with public preferences. Instead they have blamed international institutions for their inability to take actions that they privately do not condone. In this way, politicians feel obliged, in the words of Hillary Clinton, to maintain “both a public and a private position.”

Yet the constraints on national sovereignty entailed by global markets and institutions has weakened the mechanisms that once translated popular views into public policy, leading to a “democratic deficit”’ that has left citizens increasingly frustrated with democratic politics, and increasingly with the democratic system itself. At the same time, the institutions of “global governance” have failed not only to provide avenues for popular participation, but also to deliver outcomes that such participation would be liable to generate, such as compensation for the losers from global trade, or protection of the identities and ways of life of local and national communities. In the words of Larry Summers, one of global integration’s advocates, it is a project “carried out by elites, for elites, with little consideration for the interests of ordinary people.”

This frustration has set up a dangerous dynamic, the consequences of which are now only too visible. In many countries, the only viable challenge to an increasingly homogeneous set of decision-makers comes from political parties or movements established by outsiders, such as the tea party movement and now Donald Trump in the United States, or populist parties of the right and left in Europe. These movements explicitly set themselves against a metropolitan and cosmopolitan elite which, they claim — not always without reason — routinely ignores popular demands and policy preferences. As the differences between establishment parties on the left and right have dwindled in many countries, the only way for voters to effect a change in policy has been to rally to parties that reject many of the traditional rules of the democratic game. In this way, as politicians’ responsiveness to citizens has decreased, citizens have been encouraged to turn away from democracy.

- Roberto Stefan Foa, 'It's the Globalization, Stupid', Foreign Policy, 6 December 2016

10 December 2016

The sergeants played a marching tune

A Falun Dafa band plays on Lambton Quay, Wellington, during a wet Saturday Christmas event, 10 December 2016.

04 December 2016


61 Molesworth St, being deconstructed for safety reasons following the Kaikoura earthquake.

01 December 2016

Prince Buster

Both the brassy A-side and the dubby B-side of this 1976 Prince Buster rocker, to commemorate his death in September. Mandatory stacks of bass required. Via Mojo Magazine Playlist, December 2016 issue.

30 November 2016

The Feast of Fools

For most of the year [medieval Christianity] preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God and sexual decorum, and then on New Year's Eve it opened the locks on the collective psyche and unleashed the festum fatuorum, the Feast of Fools. For four days, the world was turned on its head: members of the clergy would play dice on top of the altar, bray like donkeys instead of saying 'Amen', engage in drinking competitions in the nave, fart in accompaniment to the Ave Maria and deliver spoof sermons based on parodies of the gospels (the Gospel according to the Chicken's Arse, the Gospel according to Luke's Toenail). After drinking tankards of ale, they would hold their holy books upside down, address prayers to vegetables and urinate out of bell towers. They 'married' donkeys, tied giant woollen penises to their tunics and endeavoured to have sex with anyone of any gender who would have them.

But none of this was considered just a joke. It was sacred, a parodia sacra, designed to ensure that all the rest of the year things would remain the right way up. In 1445, the Paris Faculty of Theology explained to the bishops of France that the Feast of Fools was a necessary event in the Christian calendar, 'in order that foolishness, which is our second nature and is inherent in man, can freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together, and this is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God'.

- Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, London, 2012, p.63-5.

See also:
France: Paris chose to be self-centred, 1 October 2016
France: The Paris correspondent starts his day, 30 April 2016
France: City of Lights, 20 April 2009

22 November 2016

Looking for America, and not finding it anywhere

In March, the Washington Post reported that Trump voters were both more economically hard-pressed and more racially biased than supporters of other Republican candidates. But in September a Gallup-poll economist, Jonathan T. Rothwell, released survey results that complicated the picture. Those voters with favorable views of Trump are not, by and large, the poorest Americans; nor are they personally affected by trade deals or cross-border immigration. But they tend to be less educated, in poorer health, and less confident in their children’s prospects—and they’re often residents of nearly all-white neighborhoods. They’re more deficient in social capital than in economic capital. The Gallup poll doesn’t indicate how many Trump supporters are racists. Of course, there’s no way to disentangle economic and cultural motives, to draw a clear map of the stresses and resentments that animate the psyches of tens of millions of people. Some Americans have shown themselves to be implacably bigoted, but bias is not a fixed quality in most of us; it’s subject to manipulation, and it can wax and wane with circumstances. A sense of isolation and siege is unlikely to make anyone more tolerant.

In one way, these calculations don’t matter. Anyone who votes for Trump—including the Dartmouth-educated moderate Republican financial adviser who wouldn’t dream of using racial code words but just can’t stand Hillary Clinton—will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country. Trump is a national threat like no one else who has come close to the Presidency. Win or lose, he has already defined politics so far down that a shocking degree of hatred, ignorance, and lies is becoming normal.

At the same time, it isn’t possible to wait around for demography to turn millions of disenchanted Americans into relics and expect to live in a decent country. This election has told us that many Americans feel their way of life is disappearing. Perhaps their lament is futile—the world is inexorably becoming Thomas Friedman’s. Perhaps their nostalgia is misguided—multicultural America is more free and equal than the republic of Hamilton and Jefferson. Perhaps their feeling is immoral, implying ugly biases. But it shouldn’t be dismissed. If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why.

- George Packer, 'Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt', New Yorker, 31 October 2016

20 November 2016

Infecting their enemies with their own sickness

When a leader is both boastful and indecisive, the leadership vacuum is filled by aides who feed into the posturing but compensate for the indecision. [Trump's National Security Advisor, Lt Gen Michael] Flynn fills that Trump-shaped hole perfectly.

But we know where this leads. [Dick] Cheney cherry-picked manipulated intelligence reports to build a case for the war in Iraq that was the single worst US national security decision in a generation. We are still living with its consequences today, with Isis and a global refugee crisis that is unthinkable without the Iraq war.

Condi Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, was unable to control the hawks inside the cabinet, even as she leaned towards the doves. Flynn doesn’t need to control any hawks, because he is leading the pack.

The opportunity for Flynn to cherry pick intelligence is almost limitless. With his public hatred of Islam and his desire to wage a war of religion, the case for military action will be simple inside the Trump West Wing.

It may be time to concede that one of the biggest winners of this election is the twisted and murderous worldview distilled by Osama bin Laden. Unlike Bush and Obama, Trump and Flynn believe we are engaged in a war with Islam, just as al-Qaeda and Isis believe they are engaged in a war with Christianity and Judaism.

The jihadists have infected their enemies with their own sickness. To be fair, this infection had been growing for many years before Trump started running for office. It broke out when Congress – Democrats and Republicans – voted against the closure of Guantanamo Bay. It is obvious in much of the world’s refusal to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

But now the sickness has given us Trump and Flynn to escalate a religious-fueled war that is unwinnable.

- Richard Wolffe, 'Michael Flynn will be a disaster as National Security Advisor', Guardian, 19 November 2016

19 November 2016

A fleet in being

International naval flotilla assembled in the Waitemata Harbour for inspection by the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, in honour of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal New Zealand Navy.  Viewed in light drizzle from the end of Princes Wharf.

13 November 2016

The Sovereign is not sovereign

Hugh Dennis channels Sir Humphrey in this excerpt from the Now Show, imagining a civil service wallah explaining Brexit implementation to the PM:

HD: It's quite simple, Prime Minister. Judges do not make the law; the Government makes laws which the judges then enact.

PM: So why do I have to go through Parliament?

HD: Because Parliament passed a law made by the Government which says that we are subject to European law. Therefore the Government must first go to Parliament to trigger an article which would make us no longer subject to the European law that a previous Government had proposed and Parliament previously voted that we should be governed by.

PM: But the people voted not to be governed by it.

HD: Ah, but in order to enact the people's vote not to be governed by law that Parliament had voted we would be governed by, you must involve Parliament. In other words, although we're governed by Government, the Government governs by enacting laws passed by Parliament, and what you're trying to do is govern by Government and going through the Sovereign, forgetting that Parliament is sovereign, and the Sovereign is not sovereign. It is really very simple.

- The Now Show, BBC Radio 4, 11 November 2016

12 November 2016

Wellington horsepower

Excerpts from the childhood diaries of Wellington journalist Pat Lawlor (1893-1979), and his accompanying equestrian memories as set out in his nostalgic Old Wellington Days (1959):

3 November 1903

'...Saw the horses swimming when I was round the rocks...'

Oh, those wonderful days of long ago when there were no motor cars; the days when horses abounded, many of them aristocrats. When Sunday came, the stable owners around the city gave their charges a special treat, a swim in the harbour at Oriental Bay. It was great to watch them, though you had to be wary when they came out of the water. Also, it was not wise to be taking a dip at the time when the horses were in the water. This is just where the trouble commenced. Soon there were so many horses in the bay of a Sunday that mere man just had to wait his turn. In 1907 John Fuller approached the Harbour Board for a time limit on the horses' Sunday dip. The Board decided that dobbin had to be out of the water by 8.30am on Sundays.

Another great outing for the horses in the week-ends was to give them an airing on the town belt. This privilege endured until the twenties. I remember Coley's horses being let loose from their stable in Hawker Street to thunder down the hill and take a sharp turn to upper Majoribanks Street. In a few minutes they would be kicking up their heels on the grassy slopes of Mount Victoria.

12 March 1904

'...Saw the tram horses being changed...'

The changing of the guard it might have been called for this transposition attracted the attention of passers-by. There may have been another changing-over place at the Thorndon end of the city but my particular memory is of the considerable area of ground at the Newtown end of the Basin Reserve where the trams would be halted, the horses unyolked to make way for a fresh team to pull the conveyance over the balance of the journey. The whole operation might take five or ten minutes while the passengers would wait with patient interest in the proceedings. The fresh horses, already equipped with their harness always looked so alert alongside their tired predecessors who, even so, were now aroused to fresh interest in the fact that a feed and a rub-down was waiting for them...

The concession cards in the days of the horse trams represented good value particularly for long distance passengers - one shilling for eight rides for the whole or any portion of the journey.

4 May 1904

'...Got a ride in a hansom cab...'

And what a rare, spanking ride it was with an uncle of mine who picked me up in lower Cuba Street. Off we went down Thorndon way with the wind in our faces, a grand horse in front, and a merry-faced cabby "on top". As he helped me in I told him it was my first ride. He had a sunburned face and a scarlet flower in his buttonhole. My uncle called him Jack. Perhaps he was the famous Hell-fire Jack (Jack Watters) but I think he used to drive a landau. It may have been W. Read who was the last man to drive a hansom cab in the city. Anyway, whoever it was, he made that horse fly. With the folding apron in front of me and my uncle by my side, I felt safe in spite of the many bumps in the macadamised roads. Every now and then the cabby would shout down through the trap-door to ask me how I was liking it, and I invariably answered "bosker".

05 November 2016

Farm Cove

Farm Cove, Sydney, 5 November 2016 - the site of the first farm of the New South Wales colony, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, established by Governor Macquarie in 1816.

03 November 2016

The heart of Melbourne

Street scene at Federation Square, Melbourne, 3 November 2016, featuring the Visitor Centre, a prominent ad for the musical Kinky Boots, Flinder St Station and St Paul's Cathedral.

25 October 2016

Bill Bailey - Larks in Transit

Michael Fowler Centre, 24 October 2016
Bill Bailey - Larks in Transit
Michael Fowler Centre
24 October 2016

It's only two years since Bill Bailey performed in Wellington, and this time he's filling the Michael Fowler Centre twice over, which only goes to show that the star of many wonderful TV programmes that are largely ignored by networks here has a massive and eager audience in New Zealand. If anything, Larks in Transit felt like a more coherent and all-around entertaining show than his last, Limboland, while exhibiting the tried and tested structure. Parodic musical silliness, self-deprecating anecdotes and helpless rants at the unfairness of the world are Bailey's forte, and he excels in all of them. 

This show featured a strong selection of signature musical outings, variations on themes he's covered often before but still highly entertaining: death metal covers of Abba's Dancing Queen, crowd participation to build a sampled orchestral opus, effortless diversions into Beethoven's Für Elise as a bridging device, and propulsive Irish mandolin reels to celebrate Celtic rock excess. In poking fun at himself, Bailey set high standards with a hilarious and hopefully exaggerated tale of meeting rock idol Paul McCartney backstage after a gig and the encounter proceeding from awkward to borderline disastrous; Bailey is adept at the physical comedy, becoming a convincingly twitching, gurning wreck of a fanboy. And as for ranting, Bailey has plenty to decry in the shambolic politics of Brexit Britain ('that calamitous act of self-harm'), mis-governed, directionless and awash in social media flamewars. Cheerful stuff, but Bailey always steers towards absurdity rather than helpless angst - ultimately, he'll always be an optimist. Here's hoping he continues to return to this far corner of the world.

See also:
Comedy: Bill Bailey - Limboland, 2 November 2014
Comedy: Bill Bailey - Qualmpeddler, 29 September 2012
Interview: Kim Hill with Bill Bailey, 22 October 2016

16 October 2016

'Whether or not I pay income tax is none of the government's business'

The good citizens of Pawnee, Indiana (in local government sitcom Parks & Recreation) express their firmly held and not-at-all-contradictory views in public forums, displaying the majesty of an informed electorate.

'What am I going to do with my kids all day - keep them in my house? Where I live?'

13 October 2016

Don & Shayne

Don McGlashan & Shayne Carter
Paramount Theatre
13 October 2016

Tonight's musical outing was an experienced pair of frontmen teaming up together on stage for the first time. Don McGlashan (Blam Blam Blam, Front Lawn, Mutton Birds) and Shayne Carter (Straitjacket Fits, Dimmer, Adults) have both moved into solo work in recent years, but decided to tour together as a two-man show. The structural conceit is that each selects the songs from the other's back catalogue for the two to play, so Carter chooses McGlashan's and vice versa. This is an interesting notion and meant that several of the songs selected had never been performed live. For dedicated fans this would be an intriguing prospect, and personally it was tremendous to hear McGlashan perform Envy of Angels and White Valiant, as selected by Carter.

However, the downfall of the experiment was that McGlashan's songbook has plenty of more crowd-pleasing material that would have enabled them to mach shau, as the Beatles were ordered in the Kaiserkeller. Carter generally avoided 'the hits' and favoured the more esoteric, experimental side of McGlashan's material. Still, this meant we were able to listen to the classic Don't Fight It Marsha, It's Bigger Than Both Of Us from the Blams. The tunes alternated between McGlashan's melodic and keenly observational pop songs, and Carter's buzzing, Velvets-influenced indie chords. I'm less familiar with Carter's work, particularly outside the Fits, so I was hearing many of the songs for the first time. Mostly they impressed, even in the two-piece arrangements. There was also a low-key, easy stage banter from Carter in particular, which was welcome. A good night out for fans of New Zealand music.

08 October 2016

Lucius Caecilius Iucundus

An 11 minute video reconstruction of the interior of the sumptuous merchant house of the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, by Lund University archaeologists. (Via SciNews)
House of Caecilius Iucundus from Sci-News.com on Vimeo.

See also:
BlogRoman machines, 16 September 2013
Blog96 hours in the Eternal City, 16 October 2010
Blog: Napoli, 3 April 2008

02 October 2016

Botanical Gardens

Frankie Boyle on America's most important decision

I think this is not so much an election and more of a competition to find the second worst person in the world.  It's maybe the most important decision in 50 years, maybe since the war, and I don't know about you, but anytime there's a really important decision I often think, 'I hope no Americans are involved in taking this decision.  I hope no-one from a country that made seven Fast & the Furious movies... I hope no-one that finds James Corden funny is involved in this decision'.

- Frankie Boyle, News Quiz, BBC Radio 4, 30 September 2016

See also:
Comedy: Boyle on Trump, 7 June 2016
Comedy: The economics of the Fringe, 16 August 2012
BlogMock the Week, 20 February 2010

01 October 2016

Paris chose to be self-centred

Writer Vincent Cronin, on pre-World War 2 Paris' predisposition to misread the diplomatic climate of Europe:

'Parisians occupied themselves fully with their own concerns, notably the production of beauty, art, wit and entertainment. The energy that might have been directed abroad was turned inwards. Paris, in short, chose to be self-centred. And this apparently succeeded, for why else would many of the discerning from all over Europe come to live and work in the city of light?

So absorbed were they by their own dazzling achievements that Parisians rarely travelled abroad. According to a shrewd Belgian observer, Charles d'Ydewalle, 'they treat all Europe other than Germany as part of France': an attitude that becomes less puzzling when we recall that in many countries the intelligentsia spoke French.

'We must learn to escape from ourselves,' Pierre Vienot had pleaded in 1931, 'understand things that are different from us.' His plea fell on deaf ears. Everything was referred to France, even at the expense of the facts: the Joliot-Curies were given sole credit for having unveiled the atom's secret, no mention being made of the great pioneer Rutherford, while in a very different field Josephine Baker of St Louis had been accorded a new birthplace, the French West Indies, and French parents. Even those shaping foreign policy, such as Herriot, Leger and Blum, clung to a static, French-centred concept of this or that foreign country, instead of revising their attitudes in face of a dynamic, fast-changing reality that took less and less account of France'.

- Vincent Cronin, Paris: City of Light, London, 1994, p.302

See also:
BlogGondry at the Pompidou, 22 March 2011
Blog: Le Bourget Air & Space Museum, 18 March 2011
BlogCity of lights, 20 April 2009

25 September 2016

114 hours in New York


Getting into New York can be something of a challenge for a first-timer or a seasoned visitor alike. Following two memorable visits in 2007 and 2010, my main memory of the train from Newark airport in nearby New Jersey was a family delighted by the guttural snoring of their little son and brother, who must have been only five or six.

This time after arriving from a five hour United flight across America (films watched: Mustang, The Lady in the Van) the distinguishing feature of the last few kilometres (or miles, if you prefer ye olde American measures) was the peculiar inability of the transit authorities to send a train down the line to Penn Station. For more than half an hour we passengers waited for a train to take us into New York, with inaudible voice announcements and plenty of electronic screens displaying adverts but none displaying clear information about when we could rekindle our collective love affair with the city over the Hudson River. Because after all, no-one apart from trainspotters aims to spend their holidays moping around train platforms.

Eventually a real train arrived and whisked us eastwards. Despite having used the train service before, it was unclear from the incomprehensible on-train announcements whether the train was about to arrive in Penn Station, some other location, or perhaps one of the small rocky moons of Mars. At the moment the train pulled into what turned out to be Penn Station, two other passengers and me all turned to each other and asked, 'Is this Penn...?' Luckily, it was, in the usual state of bedlam as befitting an American train station. I was glad to finally be back in Manhattan.

From there it was a quick three-stop subway ride south to my digs for the next few nights, the Chelsea Hostel in West 20th St. My single room was small and backed onto a noisy communal hostel courtyard, but at under US$100 it was a bargain. By this time it was late evening, so I retired for the night, preparing for a full day reacquainting myself with the city.

Walking the High Line
After breakfast at the hostel I took advantage of its great location. Walking only a few blocks westward I climbed the stairs to walk the southern section of the wonderful High Line, a former freight rail line converted into a leafy green pedestrian trail through the heart of the city. This was a new addition since I last visited New York, and it's a great example of clever and ambitious urban design that has immediately become a must-see part of any visit to the city. Taking a right hand turn from the end of the Line at Gansevoort St in the Meatpacking District, I walked south along the Hudson River Greenway, admiring the river vistas and checking out the Jersey skyline. As I walked, stressed New Yorkers were busy flogging themselves to near the point of exhaustion, running along the greenway with absolutely miserable expressions on their faces as if the exercise was an exquisite form of torture that is somehow mandatory for true locals.

My first destination was the September 11 Memorial Park at the former Ground Zero site, which is nearly complete. The new One World Trade Center building is tall and rather anonymous, but has the patriotic cachet of  being 1776 feet tall. More impressive is the surrounding memorial park, with the outlines of the two fallen towers now marked with beautiful sunken fountains engraved with the names of the dead. Following my roughly clockwise trail around lower Manhattan, I ambled through the Bowling Green and Castle Clinton at the very southern tip of the peninsula, before heading north again to take in those nerd bastions, Forbidden Planet and Strand Books.

After a detour by subway up to Central Park for some R&R and people-watching, the evening's entertainment was at the Upright Citizens Brigade in W 26th St, Chelsea. Always a go-to option for a cheap night out in New York, the UCB offers improv comedy that's cheap as chips but worth far more. There was just a little time for celeb-spotting as I went in, seeing a bearded Scott Adsit (Pete Hornberger from 30 Rock, the voice of Baymax from Big Hero 6), who had just been onstage for the previous show. My outing was a gig called We Know How You Die, in which four improv artists stitch together a death narrative for one of three audience members. The one they selected turned out to be less interesting than they'd hoped - while the young woman had indeed been to North Korea, that was because she was Korean and lived in South Korea at the time, and she didn't have a great deal to say about the experience because she was a child at the time. Taking an alternate tack, the performers discovered the subject was basically a trust fund dilettante, and so naturally took out their struggling artist envy by turning the exercise into a roast. Which was both incredibly awkward and entirely entertaining, because she was attending the gig on a first date. Ouch.


Despite having been several times before, at least one day in New York has to be spent devouring the riches on display in the incredible Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is one of those collections that is so vast and absorbing that the opening hours of 10-5 can easily be insufficient to take in everything. Indeed, it's the main reason I've still yet to visit the intriguing-sounding Met Cloisters, which can be accessed on the same day as your Fifth Ave Met visit - there simply isn't time to get up to Fort Tryon Park to do both in a day.

I arrived at the Met shortly after opening time and spent the next seven hours engrossed in the amazing collections. For those with a London perspective, the Met is like having the National Gallery and the British Museum in one glorious edifice. I think I covered every room, but my closest attention was reserved for the fantastic Classical and Egyptian sections. The special exhibitions were equally impressive as the permanent collections, and included a comprehensive survey of the history of Pergamon, which I visited with friends in Turkey in 2002, and which has a whole museum dedicated to it in Berlin, which I savoured in 1997 and 2010. Also on temporary display were the riches of the Seljuqs, and a fascinating selection of crime photography throughout history, featuring of course the daunting, bravura work of the crime scene photographer Weegee (warning: graphic). To wrap up a fine day at the Met it's always a literal breath of fresh air to make the climb up to the roof terrace, which offers spectacular views over Manhattan and the imaginative installation art by British artist Cornelia Parker, 'Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)', an architectural confection of the traditional American red barn and the mansion from Psycho.

Greek marble head of a youth, c.2nd cent.BC, discovered Pergamon, 1879

All this museuming was quite shattering, so it was a quiet evening afterwards. I occupied myself taking photos in Grand Central Station and hectic Times Square, thronged with sightseers at all hours.


A more relaxing day followed, starting mid-morning with the excellent free tour of the New York Public Library, a grand egalitarian institution dedicated to the free exchange of knowledge. This was followed by an amble northwards towards Central Park and a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) shop, where I picked up a nifty collapsible coffee mug and an LED torch with a flexi-head to twist around corners, which I mainly bought because it looked all science fictiony. There was plenty of time to catch a subway downtown back to Chelsea, where I met cousin Winnie at her work and joined her on the ride out to Park Slope for a family catch-up and to hear about life in Brooklyn since I last visited in 2007. A very pleasant evening with good wine and far-flung relatives.

Hudson Yards from the High Line

After breakfast in Chelsea I headed to the southernmost tip of Manhattan in Battery Park and walked up the eastern shore through the Seaport as the day turned hotter and hotter. I paused for a white at the Tkts half-price booth until learning that even half-price theatre tickets are more expensive than I'm willing to fork out for.

The highlight of the day came, and perhaps of the entire stay in New York, came shortly thereafter with the guided tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which had been strongly recommended by friends. For over a century the Lower East Side has been a melting pot of new American immigrants, and the museum tells their story by highlighting a few of the lives of families who have lived in one tenement building at 97 Orchard St. The trained guide describes the hard, densely-packed lives of the tenement dwellers, and spun tales of two particular clans in the cramped apartments they lived in: a family of Prussian migrants in the 1860s and Italian migrants in the 1920s. The tour is a fascinating glimpse into the family histories that helped to build New York and contributed to the multi-cultural America of today. If you're in town it definitely pays to book in advance!

97 Orchard St, Lower East Side Tenement Museum
(Plus a ridiculous American pickup)
Taking it easy for the rest of the afternoon, I rode the Staten Island ferry, which has been free to foot passengers since 1997, taking in the views of Manhattan, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Copying most of the rest of the tourist passengers, immediately after disembarking at the Staten Is turn around at St George Terminal, I boarded the return ferry for the 25 minute journey back north. There was time to stop back in at Strand Books, where I picked up Anthony Blond's page-turner, The Private Lives of the Roman Emperors, which is full of the expected bad behaviour including the odd spot of matricide.
Lower Manhattan from St George Terminal, Staten Is

The evening was spent at another UCB comedy gig, this time in the hip environs of their East Village theatre at 153 East 3rd St. Five standups plied their trade for a bargain price, with varying but generally effective prowess, to a young and appreciative crowd. The most notable event was probably the unwanted crowd participation of a young woman in the front row who had seemed sober at the start of the show but after a solitary complimentary beer for playing along with an earlier skit she became increasingly erratic and began to treat the comedians' jokes as a two-way conversation, albeit a conversation in which one party is slurringly incoherent. There is one young lady who seriously can't hold her booze!


My last morning in Manhattan started with a Japanese woman calling home from the courtyard outside my room at 6 o'clock. There was time to mosey around Chelsea, stock up on a few supplies and write some postcards before midmorning, when I departed my room at the Chelsea Hostel, bidding farewell to the hostel cat and to New York, for the time being at least. The train from Penn Station took me back out to Newark, where an Embraer E175 was waiting to take me southwards on the next leg of my trip, a weekend staying in Apex, North Carolina, with my American friends Ruth & Phil. New York, I'll be back one day, rest assured.

Six brief video clips from my New York visit:

20 September 2016

Mazengarb's milk bar panic

Today's the 62nd anniversary of the publication of the Report of the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents, better known by the surname of its author, Oswald Mazengarb (1890-1963). Designed to spark Middle New Zealand alarm over youth culture and behaviour, the Mazengarb Report was commissioned chiefly in response to the moral panic that arose in Lower Hutt:
A missing 15-year-old girl had turned up at the Lower Hutt police station. According to the report, 'she stated that, being unhappy at home with her stepfather, she had … been a member of what she called a ‘Milk Bar Gang’, which … met ‘mostly for sex purposes’; she … was worried about the future of its younger members, and desired the police to break up the gang'.
Te Papa writes in a 2011 blog that the Report stated that the ‘new pattern of juvenile immorality is uncertain in origin, insidious in growth and has developed over a wide field’. But it was confident enough to define the causes as 'excessive wages for teenagers, working mothers, absent parents and lack of supervision, a decline in family life, a lack of recreational facilities in new suburbs, and sexual precociousness in girls. The report was also critical of pop music and movies, pulp fiction and comics, much of which was produced in the United States'.

The Report was a rush-job designed to bolster the conservative of the first National Government under Sidney Holland in time for its re-election drive at the November 1954 general election. The entire report was printed and hundreds of thousands of copies were distributed at public expense to every household in New Zealand that had a child on family benefit, to reinforce the message that stricter moral values would be imposed on the nation's rebellious youth.

Mazengarb led to a range of legislative changes in the areas of crime, censorship and education, clamping down on the 'excesses' of youth culture and contributing to the arch-conservative moral climate that persisted in New Zealand for the next decade and a half. Historian Michael King notes that the Report's calculated moral outrage did not entirely stack up with the evidence: 'Figures printed in the report revealed that juvenile offending in 1954 was scarcely worse than at any other time in the previous two decades and, indeed, was better than it had been during the war years' (King, Penguin History of New Zealand, 2003, p.433).

See also:
HistoryKey events on the NZ waterfront, 11 March 2015
HistoryPaddy the Wanderer, 17 July 2014
History: The Battle of Featherston St, 5 November 2013

17 September 2016

The strange fruit of a strident generation

[I]f the landscape revealed in Cleveland [at the Republican National Convention] felt unsettlingly new to many of those there, it did not appear overnight. The first Republican convention I attended was in Houston in 1992, where one of the featured speakers was the defeated primary challenger Pat Buchanan. He too was a TV star. He too talked darkly of culture wars, of taking our country back, of America First. He too played on fear. But he was not the nominee.

I had a similar thought watching the self-styled America First rally in Cleveland, convened by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the former Nixon operative Roger Stone. The talk there was wild. Jones called Clinton a foreign agent working for the Chinese and Saudis. He hailed the audience, gathered on a hot day on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, as “the resistance” to “a globalist program of enslavement and the new world order.” Stone called Clinton “a short-tempered, foul-mouthed, bipolar, mentally unbalanced criminal.”

This brought back a sharp memory from the 1990s, of reporting on what was then known as the militia movement: antigovernment obsessives convinced that black helicopters were circling overhead, that the US was poised to succumb to the UN, and that the federal government was plotting to inject biochips into every American, the better to herd and control them. Back then, these self-proclaimed warriors for liberty were forever on the outside. But this time, their slogans—Lock Her Up! Hillary for Prison!—were being chanted inside the convention hall, egged on from the podium by Christie and others. One Trump adviser suggested that Clinton be shot for treason. As for Roger Stone, he is no longer the maverick outsider. He is a close friend, even a mentor, of the GOP choice for president. And all this was before the high priest of the hard right, Steve Bannon, was anointed as the chief executive of the Republicans’ 2016 presidential campaign. What was once confined to the margins was confirmed at Cleveland to be the new heart of the Republican Party.

This shift should not have come as a surprise. For nearly twenty-five years, the GOP had indulged rather than confronted the ever more strident attitudes advanced by, at different points, talk radio, Fox News, and the Tea Party. The flirtation with conspiracy theory; the contempt for empirical evidence; the defining of Democratic opponents as dangerous enemies, as people who were not just wrong but illegitimate and criminal; the depiction of Washington, D.C., as a fetid swamp incapable of action and a view of the business of democratic politics itself, with its inevitable compromises, as a betrayal—none of these themes was new. They were seeds that had been planted, watered, and nurtured by Republicans for a generation. Yet when their strange fruit appeared—in the form of an orange-hued would-be strongman, boasting that “I alone can fix it”—a good many had the temerity to look startled.

- Jonathan Freedland, 'US Politics: As Low as It Gets', New York Review of Books, 29 September 2016 issue

07 September 2016

Wellington mayoral debate

Last night's Wellington City mayoral debate at the Ngaio community hall, featuring seven of the eight candidates. In order, left to right, they are Helene Ritchie, Nicola Young, Keith Johnson, Andy Foster, Nick Leggett, Justin Lester and Jo Coughlan. Compere Linda Clark did a fine job as usual, although the elderly gentleman sitting next to me mistook the invitation to question the candidates for an invitation to make a long, rambling speech of his own. The debate was a good-natured affair, with few niggles between the candidates and pretty fair answers to the audience's questions.

30 August 2016

The Tale of Olympia

From last night's Film Society screening of the 1951 operatic production The Tales of Hoffmann by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, here's the undoubted highlight of ballet great Moira Shearer as the clockwork ballerina Olympia, dancing for the magic-glasses-wearing ninny Hoffmann. The dancing proper starts at 8:10 if you're in a hurry.

Moira Shearer - 'The Tale of Olympia' (Part 2) from Nick Wallace-Smith on Vimeo.

22 August 2016

Auckland Prisma

Upper Queen St, 20 August 2016

St Peter's, Onehunga, 20 August 2016

Newmarket, 22 August 2016

18 August 2016

Nebula red

In Elite Dangerous, the freelance Asp Explorer fast trader Hirokazu 824 drops off a cargo of nine tonnes of clothing pods to Davidson Installation on the surface of the ringed Imperial ice world Dugnatlehi 6.

See also:
Games: Ranger 27, 13 April 2016
Games: Fine-tuning the Robigo run, 2 March 2016
GamesElite Dangerous, realising childhood dreams, 27 April 2015

10 August 2016


Ben Sherman shirts at the new David Jones shop in Wellington (formerly Kirkcaldie & Stains), 10 August 2016.  Produced through the Prisma Android app, Mosaic setting.

09 August 2016

Film festival roundup - Part 2

Following on from yesterday's Part 1 covering the first half of my film festival movie-going, here's Part 2 covering films 11 to 19.

The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV, dir. Albert Serra, France, 2016) :: Embassy Deluxe 105 mins :: ★★★½

LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV adds to the canon of Sun King films, alongside the recent A LITTLE CHAOS, directed by the late Alan Rickman, who played Louis himself with suitable gravitas. Jean-Pierre Leaud, on the other hand, is here tasked with playing a much diminished royal personage in the last weeks of his life. Confined to his bedchamber in 1715 with a worsening affliction of deadly gangrene, the film offers a faithful recreation of his grim decline, and the doctors and courtiers who surround him in these final days. Despite the life and death stakes, there is comparatively little drama - merely the struggle of loyal medicos out of their depth and valets who try and fail to encourage the king to eat and drink something, anything. While this ensures the film lacks a broad appeal beyond Francophiles and history buffs, it is a valuable curiosity and one that is sumptuously realised, with a strong central performance from Leaud, who is 72 (almost the same age as Louis was) but looks decades older here, recumbent and massively wigged in his regal death bed while the world waits for news with bated breath. A pungent, striking final scene - which I won't spoil - sticks in the memory long after the film and its titular king have departed.

After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku, dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2016) :: Penthouse Cinema 117 mins :: ★★★★

Kore-eda Hirokazu has in recent years become one of my favourite directors, thanks to his amazing run of deftly observed, whimsical character studies of modern Japanese family life. I WISH, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, and OUR LITTLE SISTER were all charming in equal measure, exhibiting great warmth and respect for the relatively ordinary people who populated their tales. This year's offering, AFTER THE STORM, is similarly a gentle, keenly observed window into its characters' lives. Ex-novelist Ryoto, now a part-time private investigator and full-time failed writer, pines for his ex-wife Kyoko, who is seeing a moderately spivvy new fellow, and longs to be a better father to his 12-year-old son Shingo. Ryoto's sprightly but elderly widowed mother Yoshiko would dearly love if Ryoto and Kyoko got back together too, but knows her son is probably too much like her unreliable gambler of a husband, who died not long before. A glowering typhoon strikes Kyushu and everyone is forced to hunker down at grandma's tiny retirement flat for a long night of home truths, potential reconciliation and discussion of the elusive joys of happiness and fulfillment. While the film's premise and staging is perhaps more subtle and less crowd-pleasing than his three previous films, this is still rich material, and the performances of its lead actors are a real pleasure to behold.

Mercenary (Mercenaire, dir. Sacha Wolff, France, 2016) :: Paramount 112 mins :: ★★★½

MERCENAIRE revolves around a fine central performance by young untrained Polynesian actor Toki Pilioko, who flees the brutal realm of his dictatorial father's New Caledonian shack for a club rugby contract in rural France. There the gentle Soane finds he's expected to bulk up on banned steroids (and urinate on cue through a fake penis that's rather the wrong skin tone), act as a team enforcer, and avoid the dual threats of jealous teammates and his crooked compatriot agent. Marred only by a rather trite conclusion, this is solid material illustrating the French Polynesian contribution to French society. If only a similar film existed to laud the crucial Polynesian role in New Zealand - I mean, does SIONE'S WEDDING count? 

Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols, USA 2016) :: Embassy Theatre 111 mins :: ★★½

Up-and-coming director Jeff Nichols' MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a somewhat frustrating earth-bound sci-fi thriller with a solid and watchable cast (Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver). It manages to maintain the premise of a middling low-budget Spielberg homage for much of its nearly two-hour length, and as such will make for a dependable if uninspiring rental watch. But on the big screen its flaws emerge more strikingly - particularly in terms of pacing and payoffs, which are vital for a successful thriller. When working with a low budget, like Gareth Edwards' 2010 ultra-cheapie MONSTERS, it's vital to string the audience along and keep them engrossed and surprised. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL provides little drama and almost no surprises until its 'big reveal' near the end, which although commendably realised, still ultimately feels like a slim reward after the mechanical join-the-dots of the plot. For a more confident emulation of the '70s-'80s formula see JJ Abrams' SUPER 8 from 2011.

Francofonia (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, France, 2015) :: Paramount 87 mins :: ★★★½

Aleksandr Sokurov's RUSSIAN ARK (2002) is still one of the most striking and daring examples of modern filmmaking, with its bravura hour-and-a-half single-shot homage to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Now turning his focus to foreign soil, in FRANCOFONIA Sokurov romanticises another museum and city he loves: the Louvre and Paris. While plenty of sumptuous art is displayed, this is not a conventional museum biopic, nor is it a behind-the-scenes documentary like NATIONAL GALLERY (2014). Rather, it melds the dramatisation of RUSSIAN ARK or Vienna's Kunstmuseum in MUSEUM HOURS (2012) with personal musings on the Louvre's role in French history. The dramatisations see the camera flirting with a flighty Marianne intoning 'liberte, egalite, fraternite' as she wafts amongst the sculptures, or verbal fencing with an egotistical Bonaparte as he reminds the viewer that so much of the art on display is the legacy of his martial pillage across Europe. Most time is devoted to recreating encounters between Count Metternich, the German entrusted with securing French treasures during the Occupation, and Louvre curator M. Jaujard, who worked with Metternich to safeguard France's heritage from the rapacious German high command. FRANCOFONIA is a distinctly personal view and may be frustrating for those expecting a straightforward documentary, but its idiosyncratic approach offers some gems for the persistent viewer. (See also: DIPLOMACY (2014), a French-German coproduction depicting the delicate negotiations between a Swedish diplomat and the German general ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris before its liberation)

Chimes at Midnight (dir. Orson Welles, Spain, 1966) :: Embassy Theatre 116 mins :: ★★★

Orson Welles had to fight for years to film his dream role as Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, the fat, vain and cowardly knight. In the end it took Spanish and Swiss money and the filming of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966) took place in Spain, with a script assembled around excerpts from five Shakespearean plays. Expecting an ultra-low-budget affair, it was pleasing to see a top-flight supporting cast including John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and ambitious crowd scenes including superb recreation of the Battle of Shrewsbury with 180 extras, in which the bulbous Falstaff capers around in gigantic armour, cowers in bushes to avoid the danger, and alienates the Prince of Wales by claiming in a bold-faced lie to have killed Henry Percy, when in fact the Prince did the bloody deed himself. So much of the film is devoted to barbed jests at Falstaff's massive girth - which Welles was amply equipped to portray at the time - that at times it feels like a Shakespearean celebrity roast. Welles gives a very fine performance, his almost spherical bulk and gnarled white beard creating a perfect depiction of tragicomic excess. The camerawork is very fine too despite the cheap filmstock, and the only place the budget really shows is in the all-redubbed voice track, which is no major distraction.

Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954) :: Paramount 110 mins :: ★★★½

Written under a pseudonym by the blacklisted Ben Maddow, who also wrote THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the Joan Crawford-starring JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) is a striking and rare feminist Western in which the menfolk dither and make foolish decisions, but the ultimate rivalry is between two headstrong, forceful women. Bitter Emma Small is convinced haughty saloon proprietress Vienna (Crawford), an outsider, is responsible for all the town's ills, even including the stagecoach robbery that killed her brother. Emma takes every opportunity to whip up mob sentiment to drive Vienna out of town, or even worse. (As the posse is riled into vigilantism and the sheriff displays an utter inability to uphold the law, there are strong parallels to the McCarthy Hollywood communists witch-hunt). No-one reckons on the return of Vienna's old beau, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who unsurprisingly is a Man with a Past and with Feelings. The film may be named for Hayden's character but it's Crawford's picture through and through, and it fits more within the territory of the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk than of the umpteen male-led Westerns of that decade. What would now be regarded as over-acting is in full display - it's not subtle, but it's certainly effective as 50-year-old Crawford barks her orders, flashes her steely gaze, and the menfolk clamour to woo her. Throughout you're wondering: most Westerns end with the protagonist and the antagonist facing off in a shootout - but surely Hollywood wouldn't when it's women instead of men? Just you wait and see.

Variety (Varieté, dir. E.A. Dupont, Germany, 1925) :: Paramount 95 mins :: ★★★½

The 1925 German silent drama VARIETE was always going to be one of the highlights of the festival, because it's received the live score treatment and was accompanied in the Paramount by a 12-piece orchestra. The film itself has been expertly restored, and depicts a tragic love triangle between Boss Huller, his young mistress Berta-Marie, and a talented but amoral acrobat, Artinelli. The social mores of the time dictate that any expression of female sexuality inevitably leads to ruination (see also: THE BLUE ANGEL, PANDORA'S BOX), but while the pixieish flirt Bertha-Marie (Lya de Putti) vamps up a storm it's Emil Jannings as the Boss who gives the film's most powerful performance, running the gamut of silent film emotions. Jannings would be the first Oscar recipient, although there are claims that he was actually only the second most popular actor after Rin Tin Tin. Only a few years later this style of acting would be rendered redundant by the onset of talking pictures, but here he owns the screen. Throughout, the film's portrayal of variety performers including the three star-crossed acrobats, and its gleeful depiction of Weimar-era excess, are fascinating glimpses into a distant cinematic age.

A Touch of Zen (Xia nu, dir. King Hu, Taiwan, 1971) :: The Roxy Cinema 180 mins :: ★★★

XIA NU (Eng: A Touch of Zen) is a sumptuous 1971 masterpiece from Taiwan that, in its restored and untruncated form, stretches out over three hours to make superb use of its characters and setting, thereby inspiring a generation of martial arts films, not to mention the overwhelmingly popular CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Lingering over milquetoast scribe Ku, the viewer expects a bumbling comedy to emerge, but when fugitive warrior maiden Yang and her mysterious associates cross his path the film shifts into full Kurosawa mode. A lengthy and hugely entertaining battle scene is followed by an elegant, mystical running duel amidst a bamboo forest, which in turn takes a swerve into the metaphysical with the arrival of a troupe of Buddhist monks who Shall Not Be Trifled With. Concentrating both on the physical prowess of the legendary combatants and the balletic beauty of the martial arts, the film is justly regarded as a classic of Asian cinema.