30 July 2012

Movies on New Zealand free-to-air television 2012

Back in 2009 I surveyed the state of free-to-air television in New Zealand with a particular focus on the movies that the free-to-air networks screened, in the post How terrestrial TV sells movie lovers short. In that survey I discovered how mediocre much of the movie output really is, and how little variety there was on offer. Seeing as I've ended up buying the past two copies of the Listener and it's been a while since my last review, I thought I'd replicate the experiment to see if anything's changed.

The listings cover the two weeks just past: 14-27 July. Six channels are included in the survey - TV1-4 plus Maori and Prime. I've listed all the movies screened, whatever the hour. Like the last time round, the ratings come from the user surveys on IMDB, which isn't perfect but was the best I could do in 2009 and I want to be able to compare the two sets of results. This time I've also added the Metacritic movie scores where available, to give a better idea of the overall quality of the movie in cinematic terms. Where there's no Metacritic score - often but not always a mark of resounding crapness - I've taken the film's IMDB rating and multiplied by ten. (Interestingly, I've noted the IMDB ratings appear to have firmed up for some of the films I would otherwise expect to have relatively poor ratings. Either viewers' tastes have declined, or perhaps studios are gaming the ratings by voting up their own offerings...) 

TV1 just screened one measly movie, down from five in 2009 - a late prime-time outing for Enemy of the State (1998) featuring Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Hardly groundbreaking material, but relatively solid. The other channels seem to have regular movie slots so their film lists below are in multiples of two, but this film appears on its own. Does TV1 not bother with movies now?
Average movie rating: 7.2 IMDB, 67 Metacritic

TV2 was the biggest conduit for free-to-air movies in this fortnight, showing 14 films, although this is considerably fewer than its 2009 total of 21. The films shown were all from 2000 to 2010, with seven screening in prime time, five screening in late slots after 10pm, and two screening during daytime. The channel's film selections are steadfastly mediocre both in terms of popularity and quality, with a bunch of strictly average films hovering near the 5/10 mark like Jackie Chan's The Spy Next Door (5.2), the D-list late-night pap of The Operator (5.3), and Bubble Boy and the 2010 remake of Death at a Funeral (both 5.4). TV2 avoided screening films that were too highly-regarded in this survey period - its highest-rating film with IMDB users was the sappy but watchable Will and son Jaden Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness (7.8), with all the other 13 movies rating at fives or sixes in IMDB terms. TV2's material was the least popular with critics, scoring a bare average of 50 on Metacritic, where anything under 60 usually rings alarm bells. Particularly poor cinematic efforts screened by TV2 include the aforementioned The Spy Next Door (27), the feeble Rob Schneider / David Spade / Jon Heder 'comedy' The Benchwarmers (25) and the simply risible 88 Minutes (17!). (Sample review for the latter Pacino film from Manohla Dargis in the NYT: 'Although it's often laugh-out-loud laughably bad, 88 Minutes is mostly just a slog'). And finally, the acid test: would I record any of these 14 movies to watch? Well, probably the 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that's about it. My mate Craig did the bit with the squirrels, you know.
Average movie rating: 6.1 IMDB, 50 Metacritic

TV3 only played six movies in this fortnight, which is down on its 2009 total of eight. Four were in prime time and two were late night screenings. In terms of audience appeal, its material was almost identical to that shown on TV2 and Four, which is disappointing when in 2009 TV3's movies were cut from slightly finer cloth. Still, the ribald but genuinely amusing Knocked Up and the well-regarded drama My Summer of Love (Emily Blunt, Natalie Press), which won the Bafta for Best British Film in 2005, are both definitely watchable and score highly with the critics, and Get Him To The Greek and Fantastic Four might do in a pinch. Only the B-grade no-name actioner 12 Rounds dilutes the pool with its 38 score on Metacritic. 
Average movie rating: 6.2 IMDB, 60 Metacritic

Four can play whatever it likes, because only young people watch it and clearly they have terrible taste. Who could possibly relish the prospect of spending 93 precious minutes watching Jean-Claude Van Damme and none other than Dennis Rodman go through the increasingly hackneyed motions in the action movie Double Team from 1997? Its only saving grace is presumably that it can be watched, you know, 'ironically', and that it presumably cost approximately fifty cents to broadcast. (The trailer is marvellous watching, pitting one Belgian martial arts expert against one basketballer-cum-'media sensation' in a death spiral towards the jaw-droppingly lowest standards of acting ever imaginable). And the less said about the Cosby-endorsed and co-written cinematic remake of Fat Albert the better. At least Four isn't afraid to play slightly older (and therefore, no doubt, cheaper) films - it screened the two oldest films broadcast this fortnight, 1990's The Hunt for Red October and 1988's Crocodile Dundee II. (Well, I might've watched the former if I was desperate). The former submarine-based thriller scores surprisingly well with IMDB users, netting a 7.6 on the back of Cold War nostalgia or simple derangement. But remember, the currency of excellence is rather diluted in IMDB user land - 2001: A Space Odyssey only scores 8.4.
Average movie rating: 6.0 IMDB, 52 Metacritic

Maori TV played only four movies, but they were all interesting choices and all of them looked both palatable and, refreshingly, they offered a point of difference amongst the mass-produced studio fare of the other channels. Brazilian crime story City of Men, heartbreaking Australian Aboriginal drama Samson & Delilah, French whimsy and multiple baby-name generator Amelie and Norwegian Resistance saga Max Manus: this shows Maori TV in its guise as New Zealand's own mini-version of Australia's world cinema-showing SBS network. Quite how this fits with the remit of a channel given Government funding to promote the use of the Maori language is beyond me, but when the other channels are so reluctant to offer quality films like these, who's complaining?   
Average movie rating: 7.5 IMDB, 66 Metacritic

Prime didn't show any movies in the 2009 survey, but this time the network managed to fit one per week into its schedule. Both were B-grade offerings from the 1990s screened in the 8.30pm slot - the 1993 Jeff Bridges / Kiefer Sutherland drama The Vanishing and Prime's answer to Double Team, a Steven Seagal schlock-fest, 1997's Fire Down Below featuring co-stars Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton and, for some unknown reason, Levon Helm from The Band (!). Neither of Prime's movies features on Metacritic. Which is not, as you might imagine, a good sign.
Average movie rating: 5.3 IMDB, [53] Metacritic

Aside from the appealing offerings on Maori TV and one or two screened by TV3 the films on display in the fortnight surveyed were typically mediocre. Certainly, networks are operating under financial constraints and are attempting to maximise profits while minimising outlays. But the quality of the films they broadcast seems to be at odds with the dynamics of the cinema business. TV networks should be screening films that the audience wants to see, rather than - as appears to be the case - the cheapest possible filler they can lay their hands on. Where are the cinematic blockbusters from previous years? Where are the Oscar-winners that represent the highlights of the cinematic arts, and that often achieve great successes at the box-office? Missing in action, if this two weeks are anything to go by.


The 35 films screened free-to-air in New Zealand, 14-27 July 2012
(D = daytime, L = late night)

Enemy of the State 1998

Inkheart 2008
Talladega Nights 2006
88 Minutes 2007 (L)
St Trinian's 2007 (D)
The Spy Next Door 2010
1408 2007 (L)
Disturbia 2007 (L)
Charlie & the Chocolate Factory 2005
Bubble Boy 2001
The Ramen Girl 2008 (L)
The Operator 2000 (L)
The Benchwarmers 2006 (D)
Death at a Funeral 2010
The Pursuit of Happyness 2006

My Summer of Love 2005 (L)
Get Him To The Greek 2010
Fantastic Four 2005
I Think I Love My Wife 2006 (L)
Knocked Up 2007
12 Rounds 2009

Fat Albert 2004
Crocodile Dundee II 1988
Accepted 2006
Double Team 1997
Peter Pan 2003
Cruel Intentions 1999
Road Trip 2000
The Hunt for Red October 1990

City of Men 2007
Samson & Delilah 2009
Amelie 2001
Max Manus 2008

The Vanishing 1993
Fire Down Below 1997

24 July 2012

King Landfill Here

No, not some mysterious monarch of refuse - rather, an apparently disused shed on Broken Hill Road in Kenepuru, Porirua, on a dank and rainy day. Stately pukekos picked through the roadside grass nearby as the clouds opened and soaked the earth. The writing refers to the Spicer Landfill at the end of the road, which is overlooked by the Colonial Knob reserve. I like both the important qualification ('Open all week - Not Sunday!') and the slightly obscured demand at the bottom: 'No crap'. Or perhaps it was meant to be a selling point.

Broken Hill Rd, 15 July 2012

15 July 2012

'If all else fails, we can Pee-at them'

The American infantry in the Normandy campaign had their own particular method of hunting German panzers:

As in all armies, the combat performance of American troops in every battalion varied greatly. During the bocage battles, some GIs began to get over their terror of German panzers. Private Hicks of the 22nd Infantry with the 4th Division managed to destroy three Panthers over three days with his bazooka. Although he was killed two days later, confidence in the bazooka as an anti-tank weapon continued to increase. Colonel Teague of the 22nd Infantry heard an account from one of his bazooka men: 'Colonel, that was a great big son-of-a-bitch. It looked like a whole road full of tank. It kept coming and it looked like it was going to destroy the whole world. I took three shots at it and the son-of-a-bitch didn't stop'. He paused, and Teague asked him what he did next. 'I ran round behind and took one shot. He stopped'.  Some junior officers became so excited by the idea of panzer hunts that they had to be ordered to stop.
- Antony Beevor, D-Day, London, 2009, p.250.

PIAT - Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank
The British and Commonwealth forces, on the other hand, had to rely on the 'altogether less impressive' PIAT - the Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank - which struggled to deal with anything more robust than the lightest armour: 

Awkward to carry, cock and fire, it was of limited value against heavier German armour. "Our soldiers used to say if all else fails, we can Pee-at them', [Lieutenant] Edwin Bramall [of the 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps] recalled.
- Andrew Williams, D-Day to Berlin, London, 2004, p.147.
Major John Howard of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry wasn't impressed with the PIAT either, but it emerged from at least one encounter with a creditable performance. Here he recounts a meeting with some German armour:
...[W]e heard the ominous sound we most dreaded and that was the sound of tanks, and, sure enough, round about half-past one, two tanks were heard slowly coming down the road. The only anti-tank weapons we had were PIATs and we didn't have much faith in them. Even under ideal conditions they had a maximum range of fifty yards.  They threw a three-and-a-half pound bomb and, if it didn't hit directly whatever it was firing at, it had a nasty habit of not exploding and there wouldn't have been much time to reload, of course, with a tank under fifty yards away. We didn't like using them at night anyway. But the tanks came rumbling along.- Roderick Bailey, Forgotten Voices of D-Day, London, 2009, p.133.

Private Denis Edwards, part of Howard's company, takes up the story:

Wagger Thornton let these tanks get really up close to him and then he let fly. We never thought those PIAT bombs would ever do much damage to a proper tank but this flaming tank literally blew up, exploded. The whole thing went up. It was well loaded with ammunition, I don't know what sort of ammunition, but within moments of Wagger firing there were great spurts of green and orange and yellow as all the ammunition inside was exploding, making a hell of a din. And the other tank did a quick revving of engines and disappeared, backed off up the road, and we never heard from them again. -Ibid, p.134.
New Zealand forces also used the PIAT, particularly in the Italian campaign, when they replaced the outdated Boys anti-tank rifle. Many of the references in the official history of the campaign mention New Zealand PIATs damaging enemy tanks rather than destroying them, indicating that 'hitting the right place' might have been a challenging task. In December 1943 during Operation Torso C Company of 28 Battalion (the Maori Battalion) was forced back onto a ridgeline at Pascuccio near Cassino but managed to damage two of the German tanks attacking them with PIAT fire. And in the battles around the Sillaro River, Sergeant N.H. Mitchinson rushed a self-propelled gun and with his PIAT 'at very short range scored three direct hits. Its crew then fired on him, but he killed three of them with his tommy gun'. Mitchinson was later awarded the Military Medal, but note that despite three hits on the vehicle the crew were still able to retaliate and it took a sidearm to resolve the situation.

Similarly, during the assault on the Senio Line in April 1945, a fellow New Zealand eyewitness reported a close encounter:

After a wait of a couple of minutes the first two 88 SP guns came out of the mist nose to tail followed by a Tiger tank. For a few tense moments we thought they were going to spin round the corner but to our relief they passed straight by within 3 feet of us. When the Tiger had passed us about two yards L/Cpl Parker squeezed the trigger of the Piat but to our amazement nothing happened. He squeezed again and still nothing happened. He suddenly realised the safety catch was still applied…. By that time the tanks had disappeared in the mist so L/Cpl Parker picked up the Piat and went charging down the road after them. As soon as he caught sight of the rear of the end tank he got down and let a shot go, which hit the Tiger and put it out of action.’ When a Panther tank rushed and overran one of C Company's platoons, Lance-Sergeant Begley and his Piat gunner gave chase and at a range of eight yards scored three direct hits, which forced it into a ditch.

The PIAT was generally best used against softer targets. In this case, in the Normandy village of Le Port, south of Carentan. Lt Richard Todd of the 7th Battalion, Parachute Regt, explains:

B Company was in Le Port. They were pinned down by quite well-ensconced Germans and movement was very difficult. They were just pinned behind our headquarters position and they were really, really pinned down, particularly by snipers in the church tower. But we had this Corporal Killeen, an Irishman. Well, Corporal Killeen had a PIAT, a shoulder-firing anti-tank missile - very inaccurate, not very strong, very cumbersome, but quite effective if you happened to hit the right place. He mouse-holed through cottages, got from one to another, till he got to within range of the church. Later he described all this to the great BBC war correspondent, Chester Wilmot: "I got to within range of the church tower and I let fly with a bomb and I hit the church tower, knocked a bloody great hole in it. So I fired a few more times, and each time I hit the tower, and I made a real mess of that little church tower. I stood up and there was no firing. I walked across to the church - I reckoned it was safe for me then - but, oh, God, I was sorry to see what I'd done to a wee house of God. But I did take my hat off when I went inside". Absolutely true. He was a devout Irish Catholic boy. And there were twelve dead Germans in the tower. He'd killed the lot of them.-Bailey, p.330-1.

Lt Todd later met up with Maj Howard to repel German counter-attacks. Incidentally, Richard Todd later became a well-known film actor, starring as Wing Cdr Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters (1955), and in the classic 1962 war film The Longest Day he actually played the role of Maj John Howard. Another actor had to play Todd himself! 

08 July 2012

Clearly they express their love differently in Brazil

Paris Hilton is trying her hand at DJing. But her first set, at a Sao Paulo music festival, didn't go quite as well as she'd hoped:

"The fans loved the set and it felt so amazing to be up there," she comments. Judging by the cameraphone footage, the fans demonstrated their love of the set largely by booing – indeed they give the outward impression of having done everything to show their displeasure short of slinging their caipirinhas at her – but clearly they express their love differently in Brazil. Understandably bucked by this show of hysterical support and devotion, she brushes aside suggestions that she might be worried as to how she's perceived by "more established DJs". "I think the whole club scene is about love, music and not judging: it's all about playing music you love." Indeed, no sooner had her set finished than a selection of more established DJs took to Twitter to offer their glowing endorsements. They came to praise her from every area of the dance music spectrum, from former Big Brother contestant Basshunter ("what a sad day for dance music") to Chicago house legend DJ Sneak ("get off the DJ train, not for you"), to techno maven Dave Clarke ("I think she's set the cause of sexual equality back by being vacuous"). Luckily, her collaborator DJ Afrojack was on hand to offer his unreserved backing for her latest career choice: "I saw and I was like … ugh," he enthused. "I think it's really important that if you go in front of a crowd and DJ, you actually take the time and practise becoming a DJ. You can't just … wave a flag. Also, it was pre-recorded. I'm not supposed to say that, my management's going to fucking kill me, but it's true."

- Alex Petridis, 'Paris Hilton's DJ debut: was it a complete fiasco?', Guardian, 5 July 2012

07 July 2012

The new kings of Ireland

Crusader Kings 2
A few weeks ago I mentioned my anticipation of the strategy game Crusader Kings 2, in which you take control of medieval European nobles and attempt to emblazon the name of your dynasty across the history pages. After I returned from my Europe trip (more about which soon) I quickly downloaded the full game from Steam and started experimenting. As I expected, it was intriguing and addictive. Beginning to play CK2 felt rather like previous early experiences with Civilisation 3 and 4, in that there was clearly a great deal of gameplay and the ever-present danger of not being able to stop playing once you've started means you have to be fairly structured in when you play the game and for how long.

CK2 might disappoint fans of high-spec graphics and endless 3D animations, because in some respects it's actually a somewhat old-fashioned game. The action takes place on the European map, augmented with frequent pop-up messages to highlight new developments and decision points. When soldiers move around the map the animations are satisfactory but hardly cutting edge; two men with swords meet in battle and swing at each other like they're chopping firewood, and a number representing the size of the army counts down until one or the other army is defeated. While there are some modifiers for leadership and terrain, the larger army nearly always wins.

But the map itself is a beautiful thing. From Ireland to Iran and Nordkapp to the Nile, you can flit across the whole of Europe and its neighbouring lands. The various map filters allow plenty of tinkering that any map or history buff will relish. Aside from the simple terrain display, a multitude of political boundaries can be displayed, from small counties to massive kingdoms and empires. The designers have put a lot of effort into making the political maps look just as good as the best maps from historical atlases, and when your dynasty's colours and the serif capitals of your kingdom march across the map in a regal arc it's a proud sight indeed.

The gameplay is so varied and involved that it's hard not to become rather addicted to manipulating the lives of these rulers and subjects. Every individual has their own abilities and personality traits that affect their actions and their relationship with you, their ruler. Choosing your advisors wisely is a good start, but after that there are also important decisions to be made - who to marry, who to plot against, how to expand your demesne, what to build in your castles, towns and bishoprics. The importance of marriages to cement alliances and bring valuable character traits into a bloodline is paramount, not to mention the value of producing a large brood of offspring with which to secure the succession and marry off to create yet more alliances.

After a few false starts in various locations I made good progress playing the rulers of Munster in Ireland. The game starts in 1066, but by 1131 my Ua Briain clan had established the Kingdom of Ireland. Less than half a century later they had even added a second kingdom to their dominions, which is no mean feat. For the details of my Irish dynasty, read on - but be warned, things went downhill fairly quickly... 

Duke Murchad I 'the Careless' of Munster (1063-80)
The first Ua Briain ruler post-1066, Murchad established himself as the Duke of Munster, ruling over the lands in the south of Ireland. He died a natural death at the age of 53.

Duke Brian II 'the Wise' of Munster (1080-1108)
Brian II expanded the Ua Briain lands further northwards. His son and heir died imprisoned in a rival Irish lord's donjon aged only 22, so when Brian died a natural death at age 60 he was succeeded by his grandson.

Duke Brian III of Munster (1108-10)
The short and unhappy rule of Brian III was marked by war against his Irish rivals as he attempted to solidify his claim on Munster. He died in battle against the villainous Harald Crovan, aged only 22. Luckily for the dynasty, he had a son...

King Cormac I of Ireland (1131-41) and Duke of Munster (1110-41)*
Only a toddler of two years when he succeeded his slain father as the Duke of Munster, Cormac grew into a powerful ruler. By the time he was 23 he held sufficient lands to reunite the Kingdom of Ireland and proclaim himself king. (If only the pesky Scots hadn't poached the county of Ulster when things were looking hairy, Cormac would have ruled the entire island). Cormac was able to rule as king for ten years until an infected wound carried him off. Alas, his son and heir Brian was only a mere boy when he took the Irish throne...

*Henceforth only the main titles will be mentioned.

King Brian I of Ireland (1141-44)
Poor, unlucky Brian was cursed with an ambitious and cowardly regent, who conspired to rob him of his young life in numerous plots. When one after another of his devious schemes failed to kill young Brian, Duke Kalman II of Meath took matters into his own hands and slew the 12-year-old king with his own dagger.

King Dunlaig I 'the Ironside' of Ireland (1144-80) and Galicia (1176-80)
With the death of Brian, King Cormac I's second son Dunlaig took the throne and became one of the greatest rulers in medieval Irish history. In his long reign he built numerous fortifications and city improvements across Ireland, but he is probably best known for his successes on the battlefield and in diplomacy. With the sword he won an entire kingdom, that of Galicia in northwestern Spain, from the infidel occupiers after the Pope had declared a holy crusade to win back the lands for Christendom. And with diplomacy he arranged clever marriages that won him the Duchy of Northumberland out from under the nose of the King of England.

King Cormac II 'the Careless' of Ireland (1180-1201) and Galicia (1180-1201)
Alas, when a king as resourceful and talented as Dunlaig is followed by the merely average, his son Cormac, history can only take a turn for the worse. Unable to hold onto his father's gains in Iberia, Cormac lost every scrap of Galicia to vengeful caliphate soldiers by the end of the 12th century. He then lost his life in battle against the invading forces of the greedy Queen Emma I of England, falling on the fields of Ulster in 1201, aged 43.

King Dunlaig II of Ireland (1201-02)
While the death of his father Cormac II may have provided temporary relief from the rampaging forces of the English Queen, it also brought on a major rebellion by the new king Dunlaig's Irish vassals. The young king lasted a mere year on the Irish throne before being killed in battle against the rebellion leader Earl Fergus of Breifne, aged only 25.

Queen Xene I of Ireland (1202-22) and Countess of Tyrconnell (1202-48)
What - no sons? The Irish were therefore forced to pay homage to a woman as their monarch. The oddly-named Queen Xene may have sported an exotic moniker - her mother was a Princess from a mysterious royal court in the East - but she was able to hold the kingdom together for two decades despite coming to the throne at the tender age of six and spending all but one of her years as Queen engaged in a vicious struggle for her title with the avaricious Queen Emma of England. The Duchy of Northumberland was the first to go - unable to protect it from huge English armies, it was given up with little fuss. Then came full-blown war with England and years of invasions. After 20 long years of battle in which Ireland was ravaged by English troops and fortress after fortress fell to the invaders, Xene was finally deposed as Queen of the Irish in 1222 when the Scots joined the fray on the side of the English. Xene had been hoping that by dragging out the war as long as possible, either the pretender (her craven aunt Cacht) or the perfidious English Queen Emma (known as The Great in England, but as The Bitch in Ireland) would die. Xene risked her reputation and immortal soul by sending assassins after her aunt at least three times, to no avail. But now the Irish crown that was so cherished by her ancestors passed to her aunt Cacht, may God rot her soul. 

So for the last 26 years of her life, Xene was reduced to the role of a mere Countess in the far north of Ireland. At least she was no vassal of Queen Cacht, and at least she could console herself by styling herself in correspondence as Queen of Galicia, even though she had never set foot there and no scrap of Galician soil was ruled by Irishmen. And while her luck in battle was limited, Xene proved more fortunate in affairs of state, marrying one of her daughters to the young King of Lotharingia and another to a cadet prince of the Byzantine Empire. Xene died a natural death in 1248, aged 52.

Count Finnsnechtae I of Tyrconnell (1248-)
Can Count Finnsnechtae overcome the isolation of his meagre lands, the japery of those who mock him as a king who lacks not one but two kingdoms, and the potentially ruinous unpronounceability of his name to bring the Ua Briain clan back to greatness? Possibly, but now I have a hankering to play as a Swedish earl or perhaps the King of Sicily. Wish me luck and good counsel!