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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

On Seventh Son, and films you don’t want to waste your time on

March 5th, 2015

“Fire will only make me stronger,” says a witch to a witchfinder early on in Seventh Son. So the witchfinder sets fire to the witch.

Had he killed her, we would have been spared the tedious, pointless, meandering hour and a half that was Seventh Son. Instead, the witch, whose name, we eventually learn maybe half-way through the film, long after we care, is Mother Malkin, played by Julianne Moore, in what could very nearly have been her very own Norbert Moment, survives to gurn and groan through this hound of a film. Moore is, usually, an exceptional actress. Even she isn’t up to the task of making a decent film of this nonsense. There was, I’m sure, a story somewhere in the minds of director Sergei Bodrov and Matt Greenberg, who has a “screen story” credit but whose adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s novel The Spook’s Apprentice warrants less credit and more shame. I’m sure there was, but it didn’t translate onto the screen.

Half an our into Seventh Son, my daughter, usually an aficionado of the sword-and-sorcery genre, leaned over to me and whispered “This is rubbish, isn’t it?” She was, I felt, rather generous. There’s no sense in dressing it up — Seventh Son is unmitigated shite. The witchfinder — the “spook,” he’s called — is played by Jeff Bridges, chewing scenery like no scenery has ever been chewed before as some sort of ill-defined ninja-magician, who has to train up an apprentice to fight witches. Cue, then, all the predictable tropes — unlikely candidate plucked from obscurity, hopeless at first, is trained up through humiliation and impossible tasks to become a deserving successor to mentor in a surprisingly short period of time. You’ve seen this nonsense before; you don’t need to waste your time seeing it again.

Bridges has been, in the past, a talented actor, but here he pulls the hood of his cape down and hides behind his beard, declaiming absurd lines in a voice — not simply an accent, but an entire way of speaking — that sounds like a constipated James Earl Jones after the helium’s starting to wear off. He does his best, I suppose, to put a little life into an otherwise utterly pointless and dull film. There may be a story, but it’s hard to tell — this happens, then that happens, then something else happens, with no apparent connection between events, no sense of narrative flow or coherence. A little exposition — even exposition as honking as Basil in the Austin Powers films — wouldn’t have gone amiss, a little explanation to the audience to help us to understand what’s going on. By the time it comes, we don’t care — even with the gorgeous scenery of British Columbia to distract us, the film is just crap.

Plot holes — at least I think they’re plot holes; the plot is so sketchy that I possibly dozed off briefly — abound; a minor, but named, character is killed off, only to reappear in the next scene, not even an “Oh, he’s immortal” or some other such device to explain why he’s not dead any more. Perhaps the writers got too bored even to bother trying to explain what the hell was going on.

Bridges and Moore, Oscar-winning talent both, should be embarrassed by this film, deeply and thoroughly ashamed to have had anything to do with it. Kit Harrington clearly isn’t making as much from his turn as Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones, as one might imagine; he must be in this disaster for the money, because there can’t possibly be any other reason why he agreed to show up in the obligatory tavern sequence early in the film. But he’s only in the film for a few minutes; presumably he realised how awful it was and decided that, no matter how badly he needs the money, he can’t possibly need it this badly. For all the beautiful scenery and richly-detailed and lovingly-filmed sets, the dialogue is clangingly absurd, lots of “You can’t fight your destiny” drivel that’s meant to sound meaningful and profound but simply red-lines the cliché-ometer.

Please don’t go and see this film. It cost, apparently, ninety-five million dollars to make. It doesn’t deserve to make ninety-five cents. Don’t go and see it — you’ll only encourage them.

On Fifty Shades of Grey, and great big choppers

February 12th, 2015

There’s a scene, about half an hour into Fifty Shades of Grey, in which Christian Grey takes Ana Steele for a ride in his helicopter. Setting aside the obvious chopper gags for a second, the scene is full of basic aviation-based mistakes — helicopter pilots fly from the right seat, not the left; callsigns in the US are four or five characters long, not six; “your flight plan is cleared” has no meaning. This isn’t a scene about flying a helicopter; it’s a scene about what the filmmakers imagine flying a helicopter is like.

Christian Grey's chopper — my, it's a big one. (Fifty Shades of Grey)

Christian Grey’s chopper — my, it’s a big one. (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

And that, then, is the film in microcosm. The entire of Fifty Shades of Grey is how director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and indeed E.L. James, who originated this whole sorry little mess, imagine people talk, what they imagine a dominant-submissive relationships looks like, what BDSM sex is like. In trying to make a film about things they clearly have no understanding of, they’ve managed to make one of the funniest films of the year.

Well, that’s true of the first half, at least, before the film just gets boring. The audience at last night’s media screening in Auckland, the best-attended press showing I’ve been to, laughed their way almost continously through the first hour of the film, and through much of the rest. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were laughing with the film, or at it. If they were finding wit in the cliché-ridden dialogue, or sophistication and humour in the mechanical delivery, then I must have been missing something; but when Christian sat at his piano for a swift post-deflowering tinkle, the laughter was more cynical than sympathetic. Fifty Shades of Grey,  although I’m sure its creators didn’t intend this to be the case, is bloody funny.

Which is good, because it saves the film from being almost completely without merit. Dakota Johnson is the nearest thing the film has to acting talent; she does her best with plodding dialogue, which, even stripped of the utterly absurd “my inner goddess” bollocks of the source material, is simply flat and dull. She lacks range, though — she simpers and whimpers her way through the majority of the scenes which feature both Ana and Christian, and she demonstrates just how difficult playing drunk effectively is. Jamie Dornan does little with Christian Grey, but it’s not entirely his fault. The character is woefully underwritten — “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” he declares toward the end of the film, but we don’t see more than one or two of them. James’ characters are vehicles to drive her own S&M fantasies, and Marcel does little to flesh them out any further; by the time Grey offers Ana a few broad-strokes nuggets of information about his background, we simply don’t care.

And not caring is the worst thing an audience can be allowed to do. But there is so very little in Fifty Shades of Grey, from the characters to the flimsy-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence story arc, to encourage its viewers to care. When, as Christian was trying to seduce Ana for the first time, a woman two seats down from me told her friend “Oh my god, this is so funny,” it was clear that last night’s audience, at least, had totally failed to engage with the characters they were watching. Even as the musical cues from Danny Elfman’s score told us that something significant, something meaningful and poignant, was happening onscreen, the audience were giggling. This is, simply, a boring and badly-made film. It’s not bad enough to be good — Showgirls, which remains the gold standard for “so bad it’s brilliant,” was overegged and fun, but Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t even have the courage to be remarkable in its badness. It’s just dull. Had it managed to be actually bad, I’d have warmed to it — monumentally shite is entertaining, but tedious is just tedious.

What makes this harder to bear is the fact that — twice, just twice — there are glimpses of a much, much better film. In the first, Christian wants Ana to sign a statement of consent to his little hobbies, and they meet in the boardroom of his ill-defined company to thrash out the details. For the very first time, I believed that Sam Taylor-Johnson was capable of more than simply by-the-numbers filmmaking. The setting, the lighting, the colour palette, the costumes — if I were being generous, and there was bugger all else on display last night that really encouraged me to be at all generous, I’d possibly suggest hints of Peter Greenaway in the one scene where the acting and the script manage to rise above the clankingly shite. As Ana works through a list of activities she will or won’t allow, we are teased with hints of an entirely better film, one full of arch dialogue and camp delivery, a film I’d likely enjoy much more than I enjoyed this one, which instead sees the two characters talking at each other, Dornan’s Christian reciting most of his lines in an urgent monotone. Johnson finds more depth as she contemplates fisting — anal and vaginal both — and genital clamping than ever she does when James, Marcel and Taylor-Johnson have her trying to analyse Grey. But then the scene ends, and we’re left wondering if the grey palette of many of the outdoor scenes around Vancouver, playing Seattle better than Dornan or Johnson play their characters, is a conscious choice of the director or just a happy accident. I’m thinking it’s likely the latter.

The second glimpse comes, appropriately, when Ana finally enters Christian’s playroom. The first of three S&M scenes, and by far the best three or four minutes in the entire film, this sequence is intriguingly edited, sharply directed, an honestly well-made piece of cinema. As a piece of soft-core porn it’s very restrained: Ana’s naked, we see her chained up, we watch Christian use a riding crop on her, and that’s all just fine and suitable for a grown-up film, but as she writhes and thrashes around, her knee rises up just enough to prevent us seeing anything truly naughty. It’s an oddly coy affectation in a film that, presumably, intends to be daring and bold and sexual. But then it’s over. When they return to the dungeon later, there’s little new to see, and Taylor-Johnson simply rehashes the first scene, Johnson sounding less like a woman in the throes of ecstasy and more like Kenneth Williams. And when he actually hurts her, when he uses his belt on her, it feels nasty, squalid, wrong. It’s not even shocking — it’s just ugly.

Fifty Shades of Grey will, of course, make absurd amounts of money at the box office. At last night’s screening, two days before the film opens in New Zealand, I heard that it had sold 20,000 tickets already; bookings to see it on Valentine’s Day evening are, it appears, as hard to find as moments of interest in the film itself. The film ends as the first book in James’ trilogy does; there will, of course, be two more films. I hope, fool that I am, that they might be better than this one. Oh, dear Lord, they could barely be worse.

On The Theory of Everything, and brilliance

January 29th, 2015

The Theory of Everything is based on the memoirs of Jane Hawking, once the wife of Stephen, and so it’s perhaps appropriate that the strongest, richest, most fully-realised performance in the film comes from Felicity Jones as Jane. Jones offers a quite outstanding depiction of a woman who gives up a career, and, to a large degree, her own independent identity, in order to devote her life to supporting a husband who increasingly relied on her.

The film is, of course, ostensibly the story of Stephen Hawking, one of the finest, and certainly one of the most famous, physicists in history. The broad strokes of his life to date are well-enough known; an astonishingly brilliant mind in a less-brilliant body. But as Eddie Redmayne superbly portrays Hawking’s physical decline as motor neurone disease progresses from clumsiness to almost total paralysis, Hawking’s character slowly starts to develop. Hawking the man starts the film as something of a cipher, a blank slate; he’s a somewhat one-dimensional, slightly clichéd, collection of twitches and dropped pencils; while his friends, all chummy, plummy 1960s Cambridge types, and Jane, the most developed character in the film, are actual people, Hawking is, to begin with, simply, it seems, along for the ride. But as his illness starts to take over, as he moves from one walking stick to two, and then into his wheelchair, and then his motorised chair, so his character starts, subtly, to emerge. But even then, it’s a slightly simplistic character — yes, he’s playful, and he appears to have a sense of humour, but that’s about all we really know about him, and perhaps this could have emerged earlier in the film. He has the occasional sharp line — he explains cosmology, when he meets Jane, as “a religion for intelligent atheists” — but there’s little depth to the young Hawking. And when he’s given comedic lines and situations, one is tempted to ask whether the fulsome laughter they get is solely due to the scene or the line, or whether there’s just a little sympathy for the man in the wheelchair.

But there’s an alternative reading. For most people, motor neurone disease would be a prison — what could be worse than to be trapped inside a body that doesn’t respond, to be left with only your thoughts? But then, most people aren’t Stephen Hawking, and there is a case to be made for the idea that a man as monumentally cerebral as Hawking, a man who, one gets the impression, lives to think the most sublimely insightful thoughts. One could read Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking in The Theory of Everything as an evolution that happened because of, not in spite of, a catastrophic illness.

At any rate, Redmayne does a magnificent job of inhabiting the role. The problem is, he inhabits the role of Stephen Hawking’s Illness, but not, really, of Stephen Hawking. He’s quite likely to pocket award after award for this performance, but he’s played an illness more than a man, which is a shame. The Theory of Everything is a serious contender for the best-picture Oscar. It’s a very good film, a story well-told of a woman who lived in the shadow of a brilliant and challenging man, but it’s less the story of Stephen and more the story of Jane. And on that level, it’s an excellent film.

On Selma, and hard stories

January 11th, 2015

Selma is not a film about Martin Luther King. King does, to be sure, feature prominently, but this is the story of a particular event in the history of the American civil rights movement. King was a major player in that movement, but this is a story about events, not players. And it’s an ugly, nasty story, but one that needed telling, and one that Ava DuVernay has told with clarity, honesty and power.



The film charts the events that led to two marches to promote voter registration among the black community of Selma, a small town in Alabama, in 1965. King is played by David Oyelowo, a British actor who does a magnificent job of recreating King’s oratory — or, at the very least, a close approximation; King’s estate hold the copyright to his speeches, and jealously guard their rights. Oyelowo shines especially in the set-piece scenes, the church speeches, the courthouse-steps speeches, where delivers his lines with a passion that becomes almost musical. He also presents, in the more intimate scenes, a vulnerable side to King that’s rarely contemplated in most American depictions of King, which paint a picture of a myth, more than of a man, shying away from the behind-the-scenes deliberations with his lieutentants which  reveal a human, conflicted man who experienced doubt. Selma is even bold enough to address the issue of King’s infidelity, a subject that Coretta Scott King, played wonderfully by Carmen Ejogo, broaches once, briefly. This is not a film about King, but he is a central character — possibly the central character — and it depicts him, honestly, avoiding the hagiography that attends the man in most American discourse. It’s a little jarring, indeed, to hear him addressed, even by his wife or his confidantes, simply as “Martin.” To the extent that Selma is about King, it offers a rounded, rich picture of him.

Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon Johnson as somewhere between the man himself and Ronald Reagan, but the film does risk whitewashing his role in the civil rights movement, presenting him as a willing supporter of the black cause who wishes he could do more but whose hands are tied by Congress. Less attractively portrayed is George Wallace, portrayed as a whiney little toady with a pleasing odiousness that manages to stay out of cartoon-villain territory by Tim Roth (why, incidentally, did it take this many British actors to tell so very American a story?).

The events of the Selma to Montgomery marches have been well-enough documented that there’s no need to detail the events in great depth. But it must be said that DuVernay tells the story powerfully. The first march ended in horrific violence, and DuVernay shows it unflinchingly. DuVernay slightly overuses the standard view of King as speaker, the back of his head filling most of the frame with his audience visible in the distance, but overall her direction is outstanding. She takes a story full of the most unbearable attrocities — a church bombing early in the film is quite shocking — and manages to find humour, in particular in an early scene that sees Annie Lee Cooper, played by a slightly incongruous Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Productions were behind the making of the film, so I suppose we can find room for her), being denied voter registration once again, this time, even though she could recite the preamble to the US Constitution, for being unable to name all the judges in the county.

This is not an easy film to watch. But it is fascinating. The cast — with Oyelowo and Ejogo as standouts — are superb, and the story is one that needs to be told. Award nomination, at time of writing, have not been announced. But expect to see Selma, and its two leads, feature prominently. DuVernay has made a film that is likely to be awarded quite extensively, without it simply being Oscar-bait.

On Paddington, and simply wonderful films

December 18th, 2014

The hardest film to make is one that appeals to children and adults alike. Make it too kiddie-friendly and the grownups will simply get bored; if it’s pitched at the older audience, it’ll go over the heads of the little ones. Paddington, then, is that rarest of things, a film that works — oh, and how it works! — on both levels.



This is, simply, a delightful, wonderful film. From the black-and-white intro in — where else? — Darkest Peru to the not-cheesy-at-all Doogie-Howser-esque ending, the film barely puts a single foot wrong. Paddington himself is voiced perfectly by Ben Wishaw; Colin Firth, so we’ve been told, was originally in the frame for this role, but, magnificent though he utterly and undeniably is, his voice would not have suited Paddington. He’s too mature, too sophisticated. Wishaw, instead, plays Paddington with simplicity, naivety — an innocent voice for an innocent abroad. Firth might have worked better as Mr. Brown, but that role is handled to fantastic effect by Hugh Bonneville, who manages a near-perfect combination of grump and humour. Sally Hawkins is similarly effective as Mrs. Brown, as are Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin, as Judy and Jonathan Brown. Peter Capaldi, as Mr. Curry, and Jim Broadbent, as Mr. Gruber, are criminally underused, but when they are, briefly, on screen, they are a joy to watch. Less convincing is Nicole Kidman as the baddie of the piece, a Cruella-lite character that doesn’t quite work.

Indeed, if there is a weakness to the film, it’s the shoehorning of the essence of Paddington — a bear-out-of-water story, a refugee story that needs a little more Mr. Gruber to really make it work — into a narrative arc. And that’s where Kidman’s character, Millicent, comes in, and I could have lived without her bleached bob and insufficient evil.

But that really is the only criticism I could level at Paddington. It was, from start to finish, it was faithful in character and tone to Michael Bond’s source material, animating and rejoicing in its central character without feeling the need to reinvent him or reimagine him or force some contrived backstory. Instead, it’s the story of a real, developed, engaging and relatable character, but one who just happens to be a bear. Part of the joy of the film, indeed, is the fact that nobody seems to find the presence of a bear — a four-foot-tall, dufflecoat-wearing (of course), English-speaking bear — in the middle of London especially remarkable.

Paul King, who also directed, has written a very, very funny film. The humour is, to be fair, mostly compressed into the first half of the film, but it is truly, seriously, funny, and this, at least partly, thanks to the outstanding supporting cast — Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Matt Lucas, even Michael Bond himself, make cameo appearances. The biggest laughs come from brilliantly-staged set-pieces, but the overall tone of the film is one of humour and joy and light.

King has also directed a film that’s exquisite to look at — this is a film that has nothing but affection and respect for its characters and its settings. Paddington himself is, of course, a digital creation, but such an excellent one that the computer animation fits into its physical surroundings seamlessly, and you’ll forget that you’re not looking at an actual bear. The film inhabits a version of London that probably doesn’t exist, but perhaps should. Windsor Gardens’ pastel colours, the steampunk of the Geographers’ Guild, the utterly superb lighting and shooting of the Natural History Museum — the city is treated with as much respect as the characters that people it.

In the end, it’s not a Children’s Film. It’s a fantastically entertaining, enjoyable, sweet, wonderful film. See it. You’ll be very, very glad you did.

On Dick Cheney, torture and being a total dick

December 14th, 2014

Dick Cheney thinks that anal rape is acceptable behaviour for civilised countries. We already knew he’s a dick; now we know he’s a complete and utter wanker.

We’ve learnt recently that the United States, in the form of the CIA, has tortured men it has captured and held prisoner, as part of an “enhanced interrogation” regime. The United States, therefore, can no longer claim to be a civilised country. It can no longer sit at the grownups’ table among proper countries, countries that understand that some things are simply wrong.

What a Dick.

What a Dick.

America has long claimed to be uniquely righteous among the nations of the world, to be uniquely honorable. And Americans are brought up, almost from birth, to believe that their country is exceptional, that it is the greatest nation on earth, that it is special, a nation apart. America, they’re taught, is the great beacon of freedom and liberty in the world. This is, of course, bollocks. But American exceptionalism is a firmly-held belief, a conviction that America is, almost by definition, right.

But America has been revealed — by its own government — to be anything but. The CIA tortured its captives — physically, psychologically, sexually — on an ongoing basis, with the full knowledge of the president and vice-president, for years. For this George W. Bush and Dick Cheney should be deeply ashamed, as should every single American who voted for them in 2000 — and then voted for them again in 2004, when these men were already revealing themselves to have the morals of pondslime.

Torture is wrong. It’s always wrong. Don’t believe me? Here’s what the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights has to say: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. That’s pretty unequivocal, isn’t it? It doesn’t even work, which simply rubs salt in the wounds, but even if it did work, it’s still wrong. Ends do not, despite what Cheney, the utter tosser, might claim, but even if they did, the CIA have, at the direction of Total Dick Cheney, been torturing under the most circular logic. The men the CIA tortured were guilty of terrorist acts; therefore, anything America does to them is justified. No trial is necessary; the enormity of the acts they’ve been accused of are sufficient to justify anything their torturers can throw at them — or shove up their arses. Complete And Absolute Dick Cheney would deny them anything resembling due process; he, an American citizen, would, I’m guessing, be appalled to be convicted on the same basis, but, really, why shouldn’t he? By his own admission, he was part of these atrocities; if the magnitude of the offence is inversely proportional to the need for a trial, as his own logic would imply, then he needn’t bother calling his lawyer.

Cheney plays, of course, the 9/11 card in his defence of the disgusting behaviour he endorses. America has done this for far too long. Through September 2001, the entire world was on the side of America — the attacks of that day were so utterly awful that America had the sympathy, the goodwill, of even the French. But by the end of the year, that goodwill was largely squandered by George W and Dick. America, so long a supporter of terrorism, had finally discovered what terrorism on its own soil felt like, and now considered itself empowered to act without limit, without question, without let or hindrance, to visit its revenge as it saw fit. And if anyone dared challenge America’s right to act, then America simply pointed to the southern tip of Manhattan, simply invoked 9/11 — as though that made everything all right. And Cheney continues to invoke tragedy to justify atrocity.

But he’s wrong. America has become a secular, nation-state version of ISIS. It has chosen a standard — ISIS has Islam; America has liberty — and defined, refined, distorted that standard to suit its own prejudices. It has then decided that this standard is a universal value, one that it is uniquely entitled to impose across the globe because…well, because we’ve bloody well decided it’s right, so who are you to argue? And since America is, as America has established, always and unequivocally on the side of right, anything is justified in the course of imposing that value.

America has long defined itself as the land of liberty, of freedom, of all that is right and good. But America is now just one more country that violates international law, that disregards international treaties that it has signed, that ignores fundamental standards of decent behaviour. America has long held up its Constitution as a model of government; indeed, the eighth amendment to the constitution prohibits “cruel and usual punishment.” It’s worrying, then, that a vice-president has considered the CIA to be above the law, but more worrying is that a Supreme Court Justice has also decided that there’s nothing in the Constitution to outlaw torture. The fact that Antonin Scalia, after making such an inane declaration, is still a Supreme Court justice is deeply concerning. He should step down immediately; if he doesn’t, he should be removed. But neither will happen.

Cheney, Bush, and everyone else who authorised, ordered and carried out this appalling behaviour should be brought to trial. This is the only way America can demonstrate to the world that it understands how badly it has screwed up, and how urgently and desperately it needs to put its house in order. But the reality is that it won’t. Its people won’t demand it, and its politicians won’t push the matter too hard. The handwringing has begun, but that, so far, is all that’s happened, and there’s little indication that anything more will be done. The people of America, of course, won’t vote out the people who are failing to act on the matter, just as they didn’t vote out the people who were committing these crimes through the last decade, and that, then, makes them complicit in the acts that were done in their name.

The reality of America, sadly, is that it is no longer the shining city on a hill. It is just another failed state.

On AC/DC, and staying power

December 5th, 2014

Rock Or Bust is the fifteenth album from AC/DC; less charitable reviewers have argued that AC/DC have only ever made one album, which they’ve released fifteen times. It’s a good gag, to be sure, but it’s the kind of throwaway comment that would only come from someone who isn’t really paying attention.

AC/DC — Rock Or Bust

AC/DC — Rock Or Bust

And, since it’s very easy, of late, to be distracted, let’s get rid of the distractions before we listen to the music. This is the first album the band have released without input from Malcolm Young. At 61, Malcolm (forgive the first-name familiarity; such are the numbers of Youngs in the band that it simply makes life that bit easier) has retired from music, dementia leaving him unable to play; Stevie Young, the son of the oldest of the Young brothers, Steve, takes his place on the album. (Malcolm gets a writing credit for the songs on Rock Or Bust; in reality, they’re Angus compositions based on fragments the two Young brothers had been working on over the six years since Black Ice.) Phil Rudd, at time of writing embarrassing himself badly and almost daily across the Bay of Plenty, plays drums on Rock Or Bust, but this will likely be his last recording with the band. He was kicked out in 1983, after picking a fight with Malcolm Young, but returned ten years later to replace Chris Slade, a technically excellent drummer who simply didn’t have the swing the rest of the band wanted. But Rudd was an unreliable performer during the Vancouver recording sessions for Rock Or Bust, and wagged the video shoot for Rock Or Bust, the second single from the new album, leaving the band to replace him with Welsh drummer Bob Richardson during filming. Rudd is also noticeably absent from much of the promotional materials for the album, AC/DC clearly looking to put a Tasman Sea-sized distance between themselves and an increasingly toxic and increasingly ex member.

So what’s the album like? Well, to be fair, if you’ve heard recent AC/DC recordings, then you’ll know what to expect. There are only so many ways a classic five-piece guitar-rock band can play the same few chords, and there is, inevitably, a clear lineage from earlier classics to the tracks on Rock Or Bust, but to dismiss the new material as a retread of past glories is to do the band a disservice. The title track is classic AC/DC, a rhythm-guitar workout that, while not actually featuring Malcolm Young, has his fingerprints all over it, Rudd’s steady, unfussy but insistent drumbeat accompanied by the usual unrelenting bass pulse from Cliff Williams. Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder is similarly primitive, even when the verse threatens to descend into the glam rock that singer Brian Johnson clearly hasn’t forgotten from his days with Geordie. The song, like much of the album, has a significantly lighter sound than many of the band’s Johnson-era albums, possibly due to producer Brendan O’Brien, who also produced the band’s last studio album, 2008’s Black IceHard Times, appropriately for its name, has a harder sound, closer to the classic heavy-metal vibe that many fans will be hoping for.

But the album is not, easy joke though it may be, the AC/DC tribute album that some have suggested it is. This is a band who haven’t meaningfully experimented with their music since Crabsody In Blue, on 1977’s Let There Be Rock. But Play Ball, the album’s first single, is a Highway To Hell outtake, to be sure, but there’s some fantastic deep-south noodling in the right speaker. Rock The Blues Away — more a genre declaration than a song title — is the closest AC/DC come to easy listening; you could almost be forgiven for thinking that Angus’ guitar chimes were an electric piano, until the solo kicks in and the unmistakeable scream of his Gibson SG scythes through the mix. The sub-Finbarr Saunders lyrics are back, of course — Emission Control is weak enough a title to be unnecessary, but the song makes a great album closer, a simple, mid-paced riff-rocker that works better than it should.

What makes this album truly remarkable is Rock The House. The best song AC/DC have written since 1981’s For Those About To Rock We Salute You, it owes more than a tip of Johnson’s flat cap to Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, but is unequivocally an AC/DC classic. Not far behind is Baptism By Fire, another riff-and-boogie pounding, a song that, again, shows a spark of creativity and imagination that’s been lacking on recent AC/DC releases, but that also knows where the band have come from. Rock The Blues Away, like Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder, has glam-rock roots, and could easily have found a home on Powerage, the band’s sinfully-underated 1978 masterwork; at the same time, I can’t listen to it without thinking of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Almost Saturday Night. And that’s really not a bad thing.

AC/DC are a vexing band. They are, apparently, an “Australian band,” but the only native Aussie in the band, Phil Rudd, is likely soon to be the last native Aussie to leave the band. With Malcolm Young’s departure, Angus is the only member of the band left who was there when their very first album, High Voltage, was recorded in 1975. Angus’ famous schoolboy outfit has become a caricature of itself. Their music cleaves closely to the simplest of formulae, and yet manages to find, even thirty-nine years after their first release, something — not always very much, but something — new. How much longer they have left in them is another question entirely, but for now, they’re still current.

On the Rolling Stones, and having sympathy for some old devils

November 24th, 2014

Most bands would struggle, at least a little, to put together a nineteen-song, two-hour set that didn’t include even a small amount of filler. But most bands aren’t the Rolling Stones.

As the sun set over Mount Smart Stadium, Keith Richards chopped out Start Me Up, and for two hours thirty-six thousand fans were reminded of why the Rolling Stones are still performing. The music is legendary, of course — Sympathy for the Devil remains one of the most magnificent, powerful spectacles any band has ever produced, while Gimme Shelter is a masterpiece of brooding, sinister and tense. Brown Sugar is as perfectly-constructed a classic rocker as you’ll ever hear; It’s Only Rock And Roll, an unexpected addition to tonight’s set, is anything but — it was a tight, sharp number with more depth than its title lets on. Sympathy was almost absurdly overblown — of course it was; that’s part of the joy of it — but this is a song that sounded every bit as fresh, and as intimidating, as it did when it first emerged almost fifty years ago.

The setlist offered few real surprises — the omission of Paint It, Black was a touch disappointing, but Brown Sugar, which hadn’t been performed in other shows on this tour, was a fine replacement. What’s worth writing about, then, is the performance. And what a performance it was.

Mick Jagger is, of course, the frontman, the focus of the show, but he’s just one member of an astonishingly tight, slick and professional outfit. He minced — oh, dear Lord, can the man mince — and skipped and twirled around the stage like a little girl; his trademark “shrug the jacket off the shoulder” move is a little overused, and moves like Jagger aren’t really anything to brag about. But he can sing. His voice was in exceptional form tonight, powering Miss You and Tumblin’ Dice and, of course, Gimme Shelter, to new heights. And on Midnight Rambler, when he pulled out his harmonica and traded licks with Mick Taylor, he reminded the fans who stood — there was alarmingly little dancing among the crowd — in the rain on an early-spring Auckland evening that he is much more than just one of the great rock singers of our age.

The heavy guitar lifting, as in increasingly the case at Stones live shows, was done by Ron Wood. The man is a superbly talented guitarist; gone are the days when Keef’s and Ronnie’s guitars were extensions of each other, and Wood is, quite clearly and quite deservedly, the band’s lead guitarist. His soloing on Gimme Shelter was fluid and effortless and a thing of beauty, as was his pedal-steel work on Happy, cigarette never out of right hand.

Charlie Watts is, of course, the beating heart of the Rolling Stones, and he was, of course, on form tonight. No drum solos, please — Charlie provided what he always does, a perfect, understated, exquisitely restrained drumline with precisely the flourish that each song needs. When Jagger brought him up to the front of the stage to take a bow, he heard the biggest cheer of the evening, and there’s a good reason for that. Even on a song as rhythmically straightforward as Miss You, Watts slipped in, almost subliminally, fills and details that made the song soar.

But Miss You needs a bass player, and the Stones found a master of the instrument in Darryl Jones. When Bill Wyman — the Ringo Starr of the Rolling Stones; there’s a reason why Keith Richards recorded the bass lines to Sympathy For The Devil, or Live With Me — left the band in 1993, he left much less of a gap to be filled than Mick Taylor did eighteen years earlier. He might not be an official Stone, but Jones’ bass solo in Miss You is proof that he’s an essential part of their sound. “Sometimes I want to play bass like Darryl Jones,” Mick Jagger sang before Jones let rip; don’t we all, Mick, don’t we all?

The Stones have assembled a remarkable backing band to round out their sound. Lisa Fischer is a remarkable backing singer, and Gimme Shelter offered the perfect showcase for her power and range — she delivered the “rape, murder” line so famously sung by Merry Clayton on the original recording on 1969’s Let It Bleed with an intensity that makes it quite clear why she’s in the band. Chuck Leavell, long one of the most sought-after session keyboardists, played some remarkable organ on Like A Rolling Stone, the audience choice song (I’d voted for All Down The Line; Jagger teased us with the possibility that they might play Lorde’s Royals, shameless crowd-pleasing tart that he is), and a boogie-woogie piano roll that Ian Stewart himself would have approved of on the play-out to the first song in the encore, the fabulous You Can’t Always Get What You Want, which had been introduced by the wonderful New Zealand Youth Choir. Bobby Keys, the Stones’ long-time saxophonist, was absent tonight, but Tim Ries and Karl Denson showed, on Happy, that they were quite up to the task.

And then there’s Keith Richards. What can one say about Keef? Well, we can start by admitting that he’s not the guitarist he once was. The Ancient Form of Weaving, as he’s labelled it, the legendary interplay between his and Ron Wood’s guitars, is a thing of the past, Wood taking care of lead guitar quite adequately. There were a few mis-steps tonight, most notably at the beginning of Satisfaction, which saw Keith screw up a riff that he can, quite literally, play in his sleep — screw it up so badly that Charlie, that most unflappable and reliable of timekeepers, could be seen on the giant screen behind him holding his sticks in confusion before realising that Keef was pressing on. Sympathy For The Devil, as it’s arranged for the stage, has Richards supply some chiming guitar before the line “Pleased to meet you,” but tonight his guitar was harsh, and he sounded like he was playing just a tad off the beat. Gimme Shelter felt similarly slack, Wood keeping the song together and Richards, after he’d picked out the intro, dropping in a few lines here and there just to keep his hand in. When Mick Taylor, looking old and jowly and slightly uncomfortable, joined the band for Midnight Rambler, three of the Rolling Stones’ four guitarists played together, and Taylor showed quite convincingly why the band chose him, at the age of 20, to replace Brian Jones. He’s a phenomenal blues guitarist, a lead player who gave Keef the space to create remarkable riffs and rhythms, and tonight he and Wood almost made Richards irrelevant as the two jammed with Jagger, unbeatable on harmonica, through one of the show’s many highpoints.

There is a degree, then, that Keef — the human riff, the walking laboratory, the winner of the Ugliest Man In The World title for the last 427 years in a row — is trading on goodwill. He is, after all, the Rolling Stones. He wrote the songs that had the audience on their feet tonight — this is, let’s face it, his show. He played a few duff notes tonight, but it would take a lot more to lose the sympathy of the audience, and a Stones show without Richards would simply be unthinkable. Remarkable, possibly; quite enjoyable, perhaps. But it wouldn’t be the Rolling Stones.

But when Mick left the stage and Keef walked up to the front and the microphone stand, all was forgiven. You Got The Silver was a gem, a throwaway little thing of a song elevated by the warmth of Richards’ voice and the simple joy of the song — and, of course, Charlie Watts’ wonderful drumming. But then he strapped on Micawber, his fabled butterscotch Telecaster, and let rip on Before They Make Me Run. A sinfully-underproduced number on Some Girls, live it rocked, with Richards’ voice rich and full, and, more importantly, Keef on rhythm guitar, where he belongs, where he shines, where he excels, cranking out a riff that was only equalled by the next song.

Happy almost didn’t make it on to Exile On Main Street. The original recording didn’t even feature Charlie Watts — he wasn’t in the studio when Richards tinkered with a riff that evolved into Happy. It’s a song of great joy and simple passion, and tonight Richards put his heart and soul into it. Happy? Yes, I was indeed.

After ten minutes of Satisfaction, bum notes in the intro forgotten, the show ended. And what a show it had been. The Rolling Stones have been playing for more than fifty years; they’ve been putting on shows like tonight’s, massive, spectacular stadium events, for well over forty. The production was superb; the sound was exceptionally clear. There has never been a band to equal the Stones; there may never be again. And with their average age well over 70, it’s unlikely that they can maintain this momentum too much longer. They’ll likely never play Auckland again; it was a joy to be there tonight when they said goodbye to New Zealand.

Set List
Start Me Up
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)
You Got Me Rocking
Tumbling Dice
Like A Rolling Stone
Doom And Gloom
Out Of Control
Honky Tonk Women
Band Introductions
You Got The Silver
Before They Make Me Run
Midnight Rambler (with Mick Taylor)
Miss You
Gimme Shelter (with Lisa Fischer)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Sympathy For The Devil
Brown Sugar

You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with the Auckland members of the New Zealand Youth Choir)
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

On Elsa & Fred, and why not all remakes need to be remade.

November 13th, 2014

In 1996, Suo Masayuki made a quite delightful film called Shall We Dance? It was a deftly-crafted comedy of Japanese manners, and while it may ostensibly have been about Yakusho Kōji’s sarariman character learning to dance, it was in reality an exploration of Japanese social mores. In 2004, an American remake starred Richard Gere; this time, there was no exploration of anything, and the film was simply about a middle-aged bloke dancing with a younger woman. It entirely lacked the charm and the depth of the Japanese original; it was dull, it was crap.

Elsa & Fred

Elsa & Fred

I mention this by way of trying to figure out what went wrong with Elsa & Fred. The film is a remake of a Spanish-language Argentinian original that was clearly successful enough to convince Michael Radford to make an English-language version. I’ve not seen the original, but I’ll assume that it had depth and wit and character, just as Suo’s original of Shall We Dance? did. Certainly, Radford has done as good a job as Peter Chelsom did with Shall We Dance? in sucking any charm, any life, out of his American remake.

The setup is simple enough — Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine, who both really ought to know much, much better, are the eponymous pair, living in adjacent flats in a building in New Orleans. He’s grumpy; she’s eccentric. Actually, she’s a pathological liar — or is she? (I offer this as an attempt to tease the story; after about half an hour you really won’t care.) They don’t hit it off the first time they meet. Guess how the story plays out — go on, just guess.

If you can’t figure out every single plot development, if you can’t predict how the story will work out almost from the beginning, then you’re simply not paying attention. MacLaine and Plummer do their best with woefully underwritten and under-developed characters; Plummer is the better of the two, finding more detail in the character of Fred than Radford and Anna Pavignano bothered to write into it, his accent wandering across the Atlantic almost at random and often straying into Patrick Stewart territory, while MacLaine simply dials the dotty up to eleven and delivers a performance with all the subtlety and complexity and sophistication of a Spinal Tap album. If you’re not going to invest any real time in a story, then fair enough. Not all films need a powerful story, if they have characters, or dialogue, or something, to underpin it — David Mamet’s almost perfect About Last Night is the standard reference text here. Elsa & Fred has none of this.

Much about this film is misjudged. The score is a series of aural signposts telling the audience what the director wants us to see: tinkling piano — look, she’s eccentric and crazy and zany; sweeping fiddles — look, they’re about to do something all madcap and fun and unexpectedly romantic. The supporting characters — Chris Noth is almost criminally wasted as Plummer’s son in law — are wheeled in and out to drive plot contrivances, not to do anything as interesting, or satisfying, as character development, something that is sorely lacking throughout the film.

There are moments when Radford appears to be trying to entertain and amuse — an attempt at a running gag at the expense of Fred’s late wife falls so flat as to be awkward. But for the most part Elsa & Fred simply plods along toward its inevitable, predictable ending. Along the way, however, it manages to exhibit some highly questionable racial politics. All the main characters are white — reasonable, I suppose, given that the majority of Americans are white. But there is a quite clear, quite obvious, caste system at work in the world of Elsa & Fred. Fred lives alone, so he has a home-help, Laverne. She’s black. She’s also a single mother whose daughter, mentioned in passing once, lives with Laverne’s sister in Pittsburgh. Armande, the super in Elsa and Fred’s building, is black. Shop assistants are black. When Elsa needs to go to hospital, the doctor is white, but just guess what race the nurse is — go on, just guess. It’s subtle at first, about the only thing in the film that is, but after a while there’s an inescapable apartheid at work. It felt wrong.

Racial issues notwithstanding, there’s nothing actively wrong with Elsa & Fred. It’s the kind of film you’d expect to see George Segal making with Glenda Jackson in the 1970s — indeed, Segal shows up as Fred’s best mate. But while the films that Segal was making forty years ago — A Touch of Class remains a high-water mark of the genre — were full of character and charm, Elsa & Fred falls flat. It wants to be a quirky, sharp, tart little comedy of manners. Instead, Radford has taken what was, we must assume, a very good Argentinian film, bled it dry of any actual human dimension, and instead delivered something quite devoid of joy, passion or any particular interest. Sad, really.

On Kasey Chambers, and how bluegrass should sound

October 5th, 2014

Bittersweet, the ninth studio album from Australian country singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers, is a quite confounding collection of songs. Set opener Oh Graceis a very polite, very well-mannered blend of country and traditional folk, but while it is an undeniably well-put-together song, it is, essentially, a tad forgettable. It’s a lovely song, to be sure, beautifully sung by a woman who has the confidence she’s entirely entitled to have in her voice. The accompanying banjo and brushed drums are discreetly and respectfully withdrawn, low down in the mix to give Chambers the chance to showcase her voice. It’s unremarkable but entirely pleasant. Much the same could be said of I Would Do, which sees Chambers channelling Michelle Shocked to decent effect, with a quite agreeable little bit of acoustic-guitar plodding but not really doing anything terribly remarkable.

kasey-chambers-bittersweetRemarkable comes in the form of songs like Wheelbarrow, an exceptional bluegrass stomp that opens with Chambers’ voice, backed by Ashleigh Dallas (Chambers’ banjo, fiddle and mandolin player)  and in full-on country twang, and builds into something rather magnificent, a powerful number that shows off what Kasey Chambers is capable of. Lyrically it’s harsh — “He gonna be rich until my money’s gone” — and the song’s mood is sharpened by the gloriously nasty and brittle guitar of Dan Kelly. It’s a very, very good song. Too Late To Save Me, similarly, rises high above the ordinary and reminds the listener why Kasey Chambers is as enduring a presence on the Australian music scene as she is. A slow-paced, slow-burning rock classic, Too Late To Save Me is, structurally, a very simple song, but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in rawness and venom, Chambers’ voice showing edge and sharpness over an insistent, driving rhythm, a relentless mandolin line and some intricately beautiful percussion, Kelly’s guitar again adding spice to an already fierce number.

The rest of the album is a somewhat peculiar mix of moods, ideas and sounds. A Hell Of A Way To Go sounds, in so very many ways, like a Sundays out-take, while Heaven Or Hell, all minor-key mandolins and rousing chorus, is standard bluegrass-lite. It’s extremely agreeable, entirely pleasant music, but when you’ve heard what Chambers can do, it can be a tad disappointing to hear what she does do.

Bittersweet contains some rather questionable lyrical choices. Is God Real— “I don’t know if God is real/does he breathe or does he feel?” — with its jaunty rhythm and almost mocking tone, comes off almost as a comedy song; if it’s meant to be an honest exploration of Kasey Chambers’ faith and spirituality, it fails and simply comes across and glib. The God-bothering continues with Christmas Day, a retelling of the Christmas birth narratives that really offers very little by way of insight or profundity, and simply seems unnecessary. It’s an odd song, and its refrain — “There’s a new boy in town” — can’t help but bring to mind New Faces from the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, possibly not the reference Chambers was hoping for. But most peculiar is Stalker — “I would wear a locket round my neck with a drop of your blood, and I’d show all my friends if I had one.” It’s a catchy, fast-tempoed Celtic-flavoured whirl, and an agreeable enough song, but lyrically perhaps works less well than Chambers would have hoped.

Bittersweet is Kasey Chambers’ ninth album. It’s not likely to be the record that wins her new listeners — she’s well-enough established that she can record the album she wants to make. It’s a strong, polished record, a highly enjoyable listen. It’s also the first time she’s brought in an outside producer — Nick DiDia, who has previously worked with artists including Pearl Jam and Powderfinger, replaces Chambers’ brother Nash at the mixing desk, and the result is a clean, polished album. And, in tracks such as Too Late To Save Me, it has moments of true brilliance