26 January 2016

1st ODI vs Pakistan, Basin Reserve

Yesterday ODI cricket returned to the Basin Reserve in Wellington for the first time in 11 years and for only the second time this century. Pakistan faced New Zealand with the advantage of putting New Zealand in to bat, and with the mercurial Brendon McCullum out to injury, Kane Williamson led the home team. A fine late order recovery from 99/6 led by new boy Henry Nicholls (82) and ably assisted by skilful batting from numbers eight through ten, Mitchell Santner (48), Matt Henry (48no) and Mitchell McClenaghan (31rh) saw New Zealand post 280/8. Mohammad Amir and Anwawr Ali both picked up three wickets, with the latter returning expensive figures of 9.5-0-66-3.

The New Zealand score never seemed sufficient with Pakistan cruising at 118/2, but paceman Trent Boult (9-1-40-4) and medium-pacer Grant Elliott (10-1-43-3) embarrassed the Pakistan middle order, with only Babar Azam (62) passing fifty. Pakistan were all out for 210 after 46 overs - a win to New Zealand by 70 runs. And a prime example why more one-dayers should be hosted at the Basin, which is a far more pleasant environment for a match than the impersonal and uncomfortable Stadium.  

25 January 2016

Wellington Cup 2016

It was a scorching day in Trentham on Saturday for the Wellington Cup race meeting, and an impressive throng turned out to watch the horses and the people watching the horses. I'd not been to the races for more than 10 years so it was fun to return and weave my way through the finely-dressed crowds. I was with friends in a trackside enclosure, so there was also the opportunity for some close-up views of the racing. Not being a gambling sort, I didn't bet much - but I emerged with minor success by picking Pentathlon in the Cup, which led into the final straight until being pipped at the post. I took home a massive $6 return on a $5 bet, so I probably won't be giving up the day job just yet.

Pentathlon strives for the line

19 January 2016

Rafael Edward Cruz

As much as the mainline GOP loathes Trump, it may detest Ted Cruz even more. Cruz led the pointless and counterproductive shutdown, hurting the bottom line of the party’s business wing, and then got the last laugh when Republicans, despite dire warnings to the contrary, still won the next election going away. He has called Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, a liar on the floor of the Senate. Big-business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce find him “totally unacceptable,” and he wears their revulsion as a badge of honor—a credential that proves he may be in Washington, but he is not of it.

Some Republicans who have moved through the stages of grief from denial to bargaining, if not yet acceptance, have begun to suggest that Trump might be preferable to Cruz. Trump is, if you squint, a sort of moderate Republican; he’s a dealmaker; and surely he’s craven enough to reverse his most alienating positions and say what people want to hear if he gets to the general election. Cruz, on the other hand, is an ideologue. The scariest prospect of all is that he really means what he says, and might, if elected, take it upon himself to actually upend the establishment’s cherished status quo.

- Molly Ball, 'Portrait of a Party on the Verge of Coming Apart', The Atlantic, 18 January 2016 

See also:

16 January 2016

And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Like many millions of fans, I felt this week's loss of David Bowie keenly. His music has played a huge role in my life since my teenage years. It was such a thrill to discover that the pop star I knew from the radio in the first half of the 1980s and from the Labyrinth soundtrack (my first Bowie LP - a true gateway drug to a lifelong musical addiction) had actually produced a myriad of amazing albums in the 1970s that were all just waiting to be discovered and treasured.

In 2004 it was a huge thrill to see the man perform a powerful set at the Stadium here in Wellington, even though the filthy weather dampened the occasion and the farm-boys in the row behind talked all the way through the gig as if they weren't particularly interested in what was unfolding on the stage. And late last year I was lucky to be able to visit the V&A exhibition 'David Bowie Is' at the ACMI in Melbourne and see first hand the amazing range of Bowie costumes, stories and ephemera that helped shape this most intriguing of artistic careers.

Now as I prepare to listen to his final studio album Blackstar another time, and heartened by the news that the UK album charts are awash with people buying Bowie's music anew - ten Bowie records including Low, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs in the top 40 in 2016! - I'd like to share five great Bowie tracks that helped us all turn and face the strange:

Eight Line Poem
(Recorded June-July 1971; released Hunky Dory LP)

A brief but beautiful hippie interlude on my favourite Bowie album, Eight Line Poem features a typically obtuse lyric melded with two fine, languid Mick Ronson guitar bookends and the squelching echo of producer Ken Scott's top secret recording bunker. It may not mean anything much, but sandwiched as it is on Hunky Dory's side A between the classic world-beaters Oh! You Pretty Things and Life On Mars it's a thing of rare quiet beauty, and I totally want it played at my funeral.

Waiting For The Man
(Written by Lou Reed; recorded live 20 October 1972, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium; released on "Live Santa Monica '72" LP in 2008) 

All bow down to the incendiary epicness of Mick Ronson's lead guitar on this strutting, menacing declaration of Bowie's Lou Reed fandom. Definitely my favourite song ever about a debilitating attack of paranoia whilst waiting to purchase some tasty, nutritious class-A drugs.

Young Americans
(Recorded live for the Dick Cavett Show 2 November 1974, broadcast 4 December 1974)

'Hope you like my new direction!' Bowie hits Philadelphia and goes all soulboy on this crisp, punchy introduction to his new musical addiction. Great band (that sax from David Sanborn!), great backing singers (including new boy Luther Vandross, who got his start here) and simply a devastating performance. (For the full Cavett show see here).

Sound & Vision
(Recorded September-November 1976; released Low LP)

Bowie scholar Peter Doggett: 'Sound & Vision was Bowie's admission that his creative inspiration had disappeared: cunningly, he used a confession of artistic bankruptcy to spark his muse back to life... Sound & Vision didn't promise that he could reconnect with the outside world (it was telling that he chose not to promote this record in any way), but it did at least reconnect him with himself; and as such it was arguably one of the most important songs he had ever written'. The female vocals are provided by former pop star Mary Hopkin ('Those Were The Days', 'Goodbye'), who was then married to Bowie's producer Tony Visconti. As with much of the Berlin-era Bowie, this track may have been recorded 40 years ago but it still smacks effortlessly of music's future.

As The World Falls Down
(Released July 1986 on the Labyrinth original soundtrack LP)

It's presence on a children's movie soundtrack shouldn't distract from the fact that in the Labyrinth songs Bowie produced some of his most impressive work of the 1980s. As he entered middle age Bowie's voice suited the swooping torchsong medium even better, and this is a fine example of MOR material performed professionally to great effect. And the video has Hoggle.


14 January 2016

Ranger 15

Exploring a broad ice moon canyon in the SRV
I've just returned from another short exploration hop in Elite Dangerous, an expedition out about 1000 light years from Empire space to survey a few systems. The reliable DSS Pipitea, my Asp Explorer vessel, clocked up 101 systems visited. This entailed setting out from my base in the Gende system, pausing only for a refit in the high-tech system of Pangilagara. Then the Asp's nose was pointed in the direction of the blazing giant star HIP 77638, which after a journey of many jumps into witchspace to cover the 912 light years, turned out to be orbited by a peculiar solo water world. Cruising the nearby systems towards HD 116041 occupied a few days, and I took advantage of the new Horizons game expansion to land on a few planetary surfaces to prospect for minerals and explore in my SRV buggy, picking over the remains of ancient wrecked starships. In the end the Pipitea returned to civilised space at the Evans Enterprise outpost in the Camundju system, where I handed in nearly 3MCr of survey data and hocked off a few illicit items of salvage that I'd turned up on desolate, unsettled moons beyond the frontier. Then it was back to the nearest high-tech system for a refit - and it turned out to be Pangilagara again. Only problem was, the blighters in the shipyard sold me missile launchers without the actual missiles. Quite a nuisance when you're being chased by pesky pirates demanding your valuable cargo of Progenitor Cells bound for the hard-working citizens of Mirolunts 1.

See also:
Games: Elite Dangerous ship size comparison, 15 December 2015
Games: Pathfinder 60, 12 July 2015
Games: Realising childhood sci-fi dreams, 27 April 2015

08 January 2016

Fit to be plucked

Salons dedicated to men’s grooming are usually tricked out with leather chairs and badger-bristle shaving brushes. An assistant trying to make a guy comfortable may even proffer a cigar. But Sania Vucetaj’s new men’s eyebrow-grooming bar in the Flatiron district [of Manhattan] isn’t stereotypically masculine — and there’s not a razor in sight. The only tools are tweezers, and the d├ęcor includes a blue velvet couch, silver beaded throw pillows and smoked mirrors.

“There’s not, like, stacks of Playboys and beer mugs everywhere,” said Noah Neiman, 31, a trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp and a star of the Bravo reality show “Work Out New York,” who has his eyebrows tamed by Ms. Vucetaj every two weeks. There is a bar cart stocked with Johnnie Walker Red Label and Johnnie Walker Double Black (bottles selected by Ms. Vucetaj’s husband, Steve) in case a guy needs a stiff drink before the tweezing begins. “I’ve had guys with tears down their faces,” Ms. Vucetaj said. “They had tattoos and piercings, but they couldn’t take the pain.” [...]

The lighting on the men’s side is dimmer than on the women’s side because Ms. Vucetaj said that men usually don’t scrutinize her work the way women do. “They’re so pleasant,” she said. “They’re in and they’re out. They don’t even want to look in the mirror.”

- Kayleen Schaefer, 'A brow bar when men get a room of their own', New York Times, 5 January 2016

02 January 2016

My top 10 films of 2015

In 2015 I watched 174 films, a slightly more manageable total than the rather frenetic 199 in 2014. There was even time for basic hygiene and occasional glimpses of the sun! 2015 may not have been a vintage year for cinema, but the sample of films in this list shows that there was solid quality on offer in cinemas, ranging from animation to documentaries to sci-fi blockbusters and the odd drama.

10. Inside Out

The beauty of the animated world of Inside Out is not necessarily in its accomplished visual expertise, because high-quality animation is taken for granted now, particularly from Pixar. Nor does it lie in the talented voice acting, particularly from lead Amy Poehler (who is fast approaching national treasure status). Rather, it is because the film offers a pleasantly nuanced examination of a relatively humdrum premise - the upset caused to a young girl whose family moves from Minnesota to unfamiliar San Francisco, and how her emotional processes react to the challenge. That this is no sugar-coated cheer-sprinkled snow-job is a testament to courage in the filmmakers, and the ensuing lessons the film teaches about child development and emotional maturity are both welcome and deftly handled. If only they could have toned down the Jar-Jar-like annoyance of the imaginary friend character Bing-Bong all would have been perfect, but this is a small gripe when presented with a family film that is this solid, this mature.

9. Amy

For a recording artist who only produced two studio albums before her untimely death, Amy Winehouse left a larger-than-life mark on the music scene, stunning audiences with her peerless singing voice, emerging as a potential superstar and ultimately succumbing to the ravages of addiction and tabloid persecution. This biopic charts her rise and fall, making liberal use of personal video footage taken by friends and Winehouse herself. The portrayal of an addictive personality burdened with a talent that virtually guaranteed stardom is touching in that it provides equal time to the voices of the singer's loyal childhood girlfriends and confidants alongside those who through self-centredness, carelessness or inaction helped bring about Winehouse's early death, her young fragile body shattered by years of self-medication. In a clean patch near the end of her life, Winehouse is excited about plans for her next album and we are reminded of the enormous potential that has been lost - the natural songwriting talent that brought Back to Black to life would have travelled in many intriguing directions had she stayed in good health. There is a beautiful moment in the film around this time in 2008 when on stage in London at 2am to perform for the Grammy timeslot in Los Angeles the then 25-year-old Winehouse realises that her idol Tony Bennett is going to read out her name as the winner for Rehab. The utter captivation on her face is both riveting and heartbreaking, given what was to come later. Perhaps a little over-long at 128 minutes, and relying a little too often on swooping drone cityscapes as a link mechanism, Amy is solid documentary work with a fine heart, and brings a tragic figure to the screen in a sensitive and respectful fashion.

8. 13 Minutes (Elser)

The 13 minutes in the title is the time by which the ingenious bomb secreted by Georg Elser missed killing Hitler at a rally in 1939, in this true story of one of Germany's small number of rebels who defied Nazism. A small-town musician and carpenter, Elser was a Christian pacifist and apolitical as the Nazis seized power and conquered the German soul. As democracy and tolerance dissolve, Elser sees taking matters into his own hands as the only way to save Germany from itself. The facts of his failed attempt are on record, and the film opens with the bombing and Elser's almost immediate capture by the Nazis. Predictably horrible torture ensues, to extract both a confession and to implicate the non-existent Communist backers Hitler was certain were behind the elaborate plot. Fortunately for the squeamish, the film spends most of its time illustrating the transition from pre-war bystander to determined regicidal martyr, and it is these scenes of the grim descent into rampant Nazism that swept across Germany that are the most compelling. Throughout, Christian Friedel is unmissable as the charming, philandering Elser, an ordinary man driven by his innate humanity to extraordinary feats of bravery. And in one heart-stopping scene a massive close-up of Friedel's panicked eye is a shocking reminder of the power of the big screen that can never be replicated on television.

7. Sicario

I'm glad to have caught the US-Mexican crime thriller before it leaves the big screen, and can confirm Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin give the strong performances write-ups have highlighted. It was a wise choice to add Blunt to the mix, as an outsider both in terms of her character's profession (FBI officer) and as a woman embroiled in the predominantly male world of CIA south-of-the-border black ops. The film features a number of fine set-pieces, including the first scene's grim charnel-house discoveries, a Valkyrie-ride through the benighted streets of Juarez like an excerpt from Black Hawk Down, and desert crime scenes harking back to Brolin's No Country For Old Men role. There are moments of striking beauty too, such as the silhouettes of stalking special ops soldiers against a multi-hued dusk sky, that rival some of the best cinematography. And the brooding, thrumming semi-industrial soundtrack keeps the viewer on edge in a highly effective fashion.

These strong qualities, and the intriguing sense of moral ambiguity that Blunt's character Kate Macer encounters as she learns more about the way her government is choosing to fight the Mexican drug cartels, are somewhat offset by curious lulls in the plot that were presumably meant to ratchet up the tension even further - for example, a scene shot as if through night-vision goggles is surprisingly pedestrian. While Sicario lingers on the crime-ridden hellscape of the Mexican borderlands, there is only a single snippet of dialogue that reminds viewers that the entire cause of this bedlam is the US craving for illegal drugs and the mammoth failure of America's War on Drugs. All this crime, the film tells us, can only be dealt with by more crime. And without offering spoilers, the film's denouement is surprisingly far-fetched and even just a little bit silly - the final reel squanders some of the taut momentum developed to that point. Despite this, Sicario is a solid modern thriller, and definitely worth delving into.

6. The Ground We Won

So I still don't know exactly where Reporoa is, but after seeing this well-made New Zealand documentary following the town's rugby team through an entire season in the rural league, I learned that farming looks like bloody hard work, farmers swear like absolute tartars even in front of little children, and by Christ they don't half drink enormous amounts of piss. Seriously though, this is a marvelous glimpse inside the life of a group of amateurs who play, bond, drink, boast and crack wise without the camera ever seeming to be intrusive. The crisp black and white photography is sumptuously beautiful as it lingers on dawn fields wreathed in mist, the backs running their passing drills under floodlights, or a young buck dejected at a clubroom rejection. And by the end, jaded city folk might even come away thinking that farmers are almost human!

5. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Young English actor Bel Powley lights up this compelling and brave feminist coming of age tale set in mid-1970s San Francisco, which is a welcome female-focused take on the traditional teenage male sexual journey. Testing all the boundaries by starting an affair with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), teenager Minnie flirts with adulthood but naturally encounters plenty of challenges as she discovers what she wants from sex, love, family and life. It's noticeable that despite the boyfriend acknowledging the problems of the ongoing relationship, those concerns revolve around the dishonesty to Minnie's mother (the wonderful Kristen Wiig) rather than, say, the moral and ethical quandary of having sexual relations with someone under the age of consent! Which is particularly alarming if you've read Nabokov's Lolita recently. But this is no victim tale: rather it offers hope, because whatever legendarily ill-advised mistakes and trials Minnie falls into, the film makes it clear that despite her youth, she is well and truly in charge of her own life and these experiments will only inform the rich adulthood that is just around the corner.

4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Since I've written about this so recently, here's a link to the review instead. But suffice to say, this is super big-screen fun.

3. Inherent Vice

By rights a two-and-a-half hour film with an often baffling plot and a lead actor whose dialogue is frequently incomprehensible should be an experience of cinematic torture. Why then did I find Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice such a thrilling watch? All the way through this puzzling, hilarious, fascinating film I felt like Tim Robbins in The Player was chanting, "It's The Big Lebowski meets Chinatown!", and Inherent Vice has every bit as much charm and intrigue as those two memorable and influential classics.

Joaquin Phoenix's hippie stoner PI could easily have crashed an burned on screen, but he inhabits Pynchon's role with just the right balance of wry humour and chemical befuddlement to inspire a thousand undergraduate cult viewings. The early-70s setting was perfectly pitched, and I was reminded of the most dialled-down subtlety of Quentin Tarantino's under-rated Jackie Brown, in that the decade isn't used as a throwback gimmick to freight the goings-on with kitsch nostalgia, but rather as a valuable backdrop to an off-kilter, counter-culture take on the hoary old crime investigation flick.

Unsurprisingly, Anderson has assembled a great supporting cast around Phoenix, and Katherine Waterston in particular gives a stand-out performance, particularly in one powerful, drawn-out monologue delivered to Phoenix's serially recumbent detective Sportello. Critics might argue the film is uneven, lurching from comedy to drama to thriller across its running time, but for me Inherent Vice had all the hallmarks of a modern classic that will be rewatched for years to come, perhaps for a variety of reasons, but certainly for all the right ones.

2. The Martian

A winning example of populist film-making with a serious intellectual bent, The Martian is this year's Gravity - and isn't it noticeable what a renaissance the sci-fi blockbuster is going through at the moment? Apart from the gripping story, told straight with no flab and no frills, one of my favourite aspects of The Martian is that its focus is on the heroism of, wait for it, nerds. Nerds In Space! Just about everyone in this film is a complete nerd, and this is a completely great thing. No blasting space aliens with massive guns, no gratuitous space shagging, just solid bulkhead-to-bulkhead astrophysics, applied biology and on-the-fly engineering. Not since Apollo 13 has a DIY in space film conveyed the harshness of life far from Earth, where anything could and usually does try to kill you in a dozen ways.

It's one of those films that benefits from being seen on the best possible screen, with expertly-designed 3D effects and splashes of awe-inspiring sonic atmosphere. Mars itself is bleak and beautiful, perhaps quite a bit more 'red' than in the actual images, to liven up the colour palette, and when castaway astronaut Watney (Matt Damon) drives his rover across the vast uninhabited wadis and valles of Mars there is certainly a hint of the lavish widescreen treatment of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

One pleasing aspect of this centre of nerdly excellence is the Star Trek-like multicultural vibe, which also harks back to the Cold War era writing of Arthur C Clarke; it's great to see actual international cooperation and nerds of many colours, when 'space' on the big screen tends to be inhabited mainly by white, middle class American males. You do have to wonder how many films will include respectful (even kowtowing?) nods to China in future, with that burgeoning filmgoing market in mind.

And as in the pop hit Guardians of the Galaxy, nostalgic music cues are peppered without, as Watney delves into the 70s-heavy music collection left behind by his mission commander. It does eschew the obvious Bowie reference of Life on Mars? but I have to confess tearing up a little at the extended use of 1971's Starman. This motif could get old quickly, so other filmmakers take note - and perhaps Ridley Scott might have noted that despite the title, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive is about escaping an abusive relationship... perhaps not the vibe they were aiming for. But this is a very minor quibble, because The Martian is proper brainy cinematic fun.

1. Our Little Sister

Hirokazu Kore-eda's wonderful family drama is a typically gentle and compelling glimpse of three adult sisters who invite their newly-met 15-year-old half-sister to live with them. As with the other Hirokazu films I've seen, it feels like a privilege getting to know the utterly beguiling and believable characters portrayed on screen. He has perfected the delicate balance of film-making with complex but appealing characters that draw audiences in, wanting to know more about their lives and aspirations. Like Richard Linklater's Boyhood last year, this is a film I didn't want to end, and with three well-nigh perfect films in a row (see also I Wish, Like Father Like Son), Hirokazu's work is amongst the most impressive being made today. And with a cast of four main female actors and plenty of female associates, Our Little Sister certainly passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours.

See also: