Monday, February 24, 2014

Young Montalbano

We began watching the crime series, The Young Montalbano tonight. I've mentioned the original series, Inspector Montalbano on a couple of occasions recently, and how we've enjoyed it. The Young Montalbano has a different cast, of course, though some of the characters from the others series gradually make their way into this one, a decade or so younger than before. Montalbano has plenty of hair at this point; his older persona is close to bald. Michele Riondino in no way plays under the shadow of his future self; he's as confident in his role as Luca Zingaretti is in his.

It's a little weird trying to match up a different set of actors in your head, but you find you quickly become attached to these ones too, because the series has been as well cast as the original, and the opening episode had plenty of verve and energy, along with the typical sharpness of mind that characterizes Montalbano; the delight in seafood; the craziness of Catarella (younger, but no less dense and no less frenetic); the bending of the rules to make sure justice prevails, and those wonderful old Italian faces that seem as true to their situation as if they were brought in off the street to play themselves.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Italian crime series

Back in December we started watching a series on DVD called Inspector Montalbano. I think we've managed to get through all that available now, and have a different set on hand called The Young Montalbano, which we haven't started yet, because we're still finishing off Fog and Crimes. More about that in a minute.

The Montalbano series was always worth watching, with intriguing characters - there are some marvellous well-aged Italian faces amongst the casts - and stories that kept your interest up throughout, even though there were often little by-paths that only minimally connected to the overall picture. Montalbano is a man of considerable integrity, amongst other things, but there's one curious element to his character which bothers me. He and his longstanding girlfriend, Livia, who live in separate cities most of the time, have an on-off relationship that never seems to quite come together enough for them to actually marry each other (and we're talking about a couple who are in their early forties when the series started).  Occasionally Montalbano has wound up with another woman in an episode, (wound up in the sense of being intimately involved) and while you can kind of understand that his true love is far away, it does seem to undercut the integrity of the character as otherwise seen. This is emphasized more because on a number of occasions, when one of the less savory characters in the stories is boasting of his/her love life and various women/men, Montalbano and his offsider, Fazio, frequently exchange glances of disapproval, and Fazio (whose home life is never mentioned) in particular seems to have a high moral sexual code.

When we started watching Montalbano we had also been watching Judge John Deed, a British series in which a maverick Judge deals to the law as he sees fit, much to the irritation of the other Judges. This series isn't a patch on Montalbano, but again there's this curious contrast between integrity on one hand and lack of it on another. Deed seldom makes it through an episode without having some sort of an affair with one woman or another, to the annoyance of the woman who is the regular in the cast. These women include his ex-wife.

Which brings us to Fogs and Crime (Nebbie e delitti), another Italian series. This also has a police inspector, Soneri, who's in his forties, and has a live-in girlfriend whom he can't quite make up his mind to marry. In the most recent episode, Soneri was sorely tempted to have a little affair with a young girl he met in the course of his investigations. Wisely he opted out, and turned around to make some repairs to his normal relationship. Let's hope he retains his integrity in this sphere, which will make him a better man than Montalbano or Deed.

Natasha Stefanenko,
the co-star of Fogs and Crimes
Montalbano is set in a fictitious town in Sicily, where the sun never stops blazing and where everything is light. It's so hot you seldom see anyone on the street - we're always wondering where all the extras are. There's an element of sophistication too, to Montalbano's lifestyle, and lots of eating of seafood. Fogs and Crimes is set in the real town of Ferrara, in the north of Italy, and lives up to its series title: there is an almost continual fog, heaps of rain and a dreariness about the place, the people, and the settings. Soneri spends a good deal of time in his favourite ristorante too. Ferrara is a World Heritage Site, and certainly the buildings are lovely, but you wouldn't want to live there if the weather is anything like the series presents. I imagine it's not, and probably the citizens of Ferrara get fed up of seeing their counterparts scurrying out of the rain or barely being able to see through the fog.

Though the two series have many similarities in characters: the helpful offsider; the bumptious lieutenant character who's good at his job but knows it; the annoying Chief of Police, always wanting things wound up; the wonderful blonde leading lady (a part Russian in Fogs and Crimes); the innumerable transients: Tunisians, Poles, Russians and so on.  But there are enough broad differences to make both series well worth engaging in.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A series of sentences on helmets of various kinds

From the (mostly) wonderful Kim Fabricius:
There are some churches that, for their παρρησία, [frankness] should have crash helmets in the pews – and others, for their bullshit, Wellington boots.

And from the equally wonderful Dave Pell:
There is no tantrum like a Put-Down-the-iPad Tantrum.
First I need to prepare. I put on my hazmat suit, helmet, and thick, dark goggles to make it less likely that I too will be pulled into the light. Any parent of an iPad-era child will be familiar with the other tools in my arsenal: Ear plugs, body padding, iron manacles, shock paddles, a straight jacket, an inflatable kayak (speaking in tongues while the head spins exorcist-like 360s can release a significant amount of saliva), WiFi jammers, tear gas, tasers; and for re-entry, candles, classical music, smelling salts, and several black and white paper printouts of familiar places and loved ones.
And even with all that, I give myself about a 50% shot of bringing my son’s attention back to the terrestrial world before the iPad battery runs out.

From my book, Grimhilda! - when I picked up on this paragraph I realised it had a typo in it! Now fixed...
The Sergeant Major marched out accompanied by two of his corporals. His uniform was a resplendent red, with gold braiding - unlike the drab combat kit of his Yankee counterparts. He wore a shiny gold helmet shaped rather like an old-fashioned policeman’s hat, except this one had a spike on top, with a white plume. Under his arm, he carried a pace-stick, which he used to prod people when necessary.

From an essay by Andre Dubus:
Because he and his father could not really talk to each other, this test of manual labour passes between them as a kind of spiritual gift from father to son. The gift is the opportunity to attain manhood, and the older Dubus reflects that "it is time to thank my father for wanting me to work and telling me I had to work and getting the job for me and buying me lunch and a pith helmet instead of taking me home to my mother and sister." If he had quit, Dubus writes, "he would have spent the summer at home, nestled in the love of two women, peering at my father's face, and yearning to be someone I respected, a varsity second baseman, a halfback . . . yearning to be a man among men, and that is where my father sent me with a helmet on my head." "Going home" to the women would have been to settle for passivity, to consign oneself to a world of yearning instead of a world of action.

And lastly, and most recently, a paragraph from an article on the Skully P-1, an upgraded motorcycle helmet that incorporates a digital head-up display, projecting a live feed from a 180-degree rear-facing camera, which eliminates the blind spots that affect other enclosing helmets.  The system can also broadcast turn-by-turn directions and pair with a smartphone to read back text messages, so the rider’s eyes can stay glued to the road.  It could get to be the driver's own cosy little world inside there.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


We watched the harrowing movie, Tyrannosaur, on DVD tonight. It's one of those remarkable movies where no one puts a foot wrong, not the actors, not the production team. It's also so tension-filled (but not in a thriller kind of way) that you feel at times as though you're barely breathing.

Joseph, played with extraordinary depth by Peter Mullan, is a violent man who can't bear to be crossed. At least at the start of the movie, where the opening scene has him saying almost nothing but swear words, and then giving his loved dog such a vicious kick that the poor animal dies that same night. Next we see him smashing a shop window because the shop-owner dared to tell him not to shop there again (with good reason).  But Joseph knows he's all wrong somehow, even though he seems to revel in the violence.

Something happens in his head after a drinking session, and, as though something is chasing him, he runs into a charity shop (NZ: op shop) and hides himself amongst the clothing. The woman running the shop (Olivia Colman) tentatively offers him a cup of tea, offers to pray for him...and does. This is the beginning of an odd relationship in which ultimately he will be protecting her (within his limits) as she hides from her abusive husband (Eddie Marsan, at his nastiest).

In spite of the Christian tone in that early scene, and some more genuine praying a bit later on, God doesn't turn up and rescue everyone. There is change, and there is a breakthrough, though it's hardly the sort that most Christians might recommend. God isn't seen as the answer to the prayers in any straightforward way. He does seem to be at work, though he plainly finds it hard to keep some idiots from being their own worst enemies. Whether Paddy Considine, the writer and director of the film (his first feature, incidentally) intends us to believe in God or not is a moot point. No doubt other darker readings of the film are perfectly possible.

Colman's character, Hannah, in spite of her genuine praying, is almost as mixed up as Joseph. She has good reason to be, given her husband's violence towards her, and her inability to change it. She's the character who brings the most surprises to the story.  On the other hand Joseph seems to be easily read by us as viewers from early on, but Considine never writes according to any routine script-line. Joseph has subtleties that are explored in due course, and though he's probably not entirely trustworthy, because he struggles to trust himself, he still has some integrity left.

At first it seems as though we're never going to get past the foul language (which for once is appropriate to the situation), but the film goes deeper and deeper with every scene. It's like sliding down into muck in order to find something of value at the bottom.


We watched the first episode of Wallander last night, and felt distinctly underwhelmed. I'd read about the series some while back - it stars Kenneth Branagh as the main character - and it sounded as though it was not only a top quality production, but that it had enthralled viewers.

I think the issue was the feeling of things being underpaced. Lines that really didn't warrant several seconds pause got several seconds pause before being spoken, and everyone in the cast seemed to have been told that to make the thing feel more Scandinavian they should all talk slightly slower than normal and fill their lines with a kind of Ingmar Bergman-like subtext. Regrettably there wasn't that much subtext.  The mystery itself was plain as day to the viewer - I very rarely guess who the villain is in a mystery but he was obvious from his second scene. And the overall plot was clear from much too early in the piece. There were four deaths within a quarter of an hour or less until it was beginning to feel like some Grand Guignol CSI, not helped by having a serial killer profiler who seemed to know less than the viewers and less than Wallander himself.

Furthermore Wallander's father was plainly in the first stages of dementia. Did Wallander realise this? Nope. It had to be spelled out for him by the old man (played by a grizzled, long-haired David Warner).  'Gosh, Dad, you've got Alzheimer's - I never realised,' might as well have been Branagh's line, but of course it wasn't. Everyone around Wallander (apart from the serial killer profiler) seems more clued up to things than the man himself, so it's a bit difficult to understand what his charisma is supposed to be.

The series is beautifully filmed, and the locations in Sweden are magnificent. I'm just not sure what all the fuss is about. And I'm not alone, it seems. Tom Sutcliffe praised Branagh's acting but felt the Wallander character was "shallower than the performance, the disaffection and Weltschmerz just another detective gimmick.

And plainly things don't improve: John Beresford wrote about the second episode that it "went quickly downhill" from the murder of the taxi driver in the opening minutes; "Pedestrian plots, characters that wander aimlessly about with next to nothing to do or say, and a format that seems better fitted for radio than it is for television. By that I mean the endless shots where there's a someone on the left of the screen, someone on the right, and they stand there for hours to each other with absolutely nothing else happening.

Pretty much my feeling. A bunch of fine actors wasted on a script that doesn't really say very much. Disappointing.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Illustrious Energy

Just caught up with the movie, Illustrious Energy, after not having seen it since it first came out in 1988. I'm not alone in not having seen it. Apparently the production company went bust about the time the movie came out, and it was seized by the receivers, and sold to a company in Los Angeles. It was re-sold and retitled, and then the master negative was lost. It looked as though it would be the end of the movie, apart from random copies on video and such that still existed. Finally, as recently as 2011, the negative was discovered in West London, and restored. I've just seen it on DVD, and the beauty of the photography is one of its marvels.

The cast is a bit variable. Shaun Bao, a Chinese actor, is very good, though his English isn't always as clear as it might be - he was in NZ learning English when the film was being cast. Harry Ip from Hong Kong plays his father-in-law, and since a good deal of his dialogue consists of shouting at some 'white devil' or other, it's not important that we can't always understand him. Peter Chin, of Dunedin, later to be its Mayor for a number of years (and a friend of mine for decades, through accompanying him when he was singing), is the third main Chinese character. His normal NZ accent appears occasionally; otherwise he sounds a bit stilted in trying to be a Chinese for whom English is a second language. There are a few other familiar Dunedin Chinese faces too.

The Chinese aren't the only ones having trouble with accents: two women are supposed to be Irish. Their accents are surprisingly weak. 

The white members of the cast mostly play villains, or people who might be villains. They're all a bit stereotyped, which isn't the fault of the actors. Peter Hayden plays the Christian minister Alexander Don, an actual historical person who had a real heart for the Chinese 'lost' in the goldfields, both literally and spiritually. Here he's presented as bumptious, know-it-all and pushy in his evangelism; he's seen from a typically secular point of view, and given no credit for the work that he actually did.

The story is a typically gloomy NZ one: Bao and his father-in-law are trying to get gold in Central from a claim that's probably already played out. They owe money to Chin's character, as well as lacking cash to get back to China, where Bao has a wife, and a son he's never seen. Unexpectedly they strike gold, and do very well, but through a series of unfortunate incidents, the gold is hidden by Ip, who dies before he can reveal where it is.

There are scenes in a small Central goldfields town, a circus, some calls to Bao to change from digging for gold to actually making a real living. And the tragedy.  These are all small-scale events, but what makes the movie is the grandeur and oddity of the scenery (shot in Alexander and other places close by), the brightness and harshness of the landscape - especially where the two Chinese have their claim - and the way things are placed in front of the camera: there are a great number of evocative shots, mood shots, that have Leon Narby's hand all over them. He was actually the director, but plainly he had a great deal to do with how things were filmed.

Probably not a film you'd watch over and over for the story or acting, but certainly that appeals to the eye. And the ear: the music is superb.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Maybe multitasking

Sometimes the things you write about have a kind of surreal lack of sense, such as the following item:
good zoom h4n at Guitar Center.

The individual words seem clear enough, but combined together they're strange. And unfortunately clicking on the link doesn't seem to help much either. Maybe I've been doing too much gardening today, in the heat, and my brain has lost its capacity to think clearly.  Or maybe it's because I've spent the week working on my next book, which is about prostate issues and their complications, and I've lost my ability to focus on anything else.

Or maybe it's because my wife is speaking Italian at me and I'm trying to think in two languages at once.  Or, as she's now doing, reading some ridiculous maths problem on Facebook out to me. How many things does she think I can cope with at once? Plainly she reckons I'm much more capable of multitasking than I thought.  Except that I had to ask her to remind me of the word multitasking anyway.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


We watched Spielberg's Lincoln last night. I fast-forwarded through the opening battle scene, thinking I was going to be subjected to another opening like that in Saving Private Ryan. In fact, the battle scene is relatively short, and is the only one in the whole movie. Spielberg eschews physical battle in favour of battles of words, and what magnificent ones they are. A wide range of characters orate and mock and insult within the House of Representatives, and use a quality of language seldom heard in movies these days. (Surprisingly there are a few four-letter words scattered about, which seem out of place in this world of men who speak top quality English.)

This is an epic story without the casts of thousands (even though to begin with it seems we're inundated with new politicians in every scene), or the huge set-pieces. It focuses for more on real people speaking real thoughts, expressing deep emotions and seen in many small-scale scenes.

The cast is full of well-known faces, but Daniel Day Lewis trumps them all with a performance that's magnificent in its understatement. Only occasionally does he get to shout, or orate, and it's all the more impressive for it. He also gets all the best lines, with some wonderful scenes in which he tells stories of considerable humour and wit. Sally Field turns out a wonderful performance too as his wife, a woman whose turmoil and grief isn't easily switched off, and who is as capable as her husband of speaking forthrightly. In fact, the women in the cast, though they're few, have excellently written roles, and aren't merely treated as adjuncts to the vocal men.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Tommy Lee Jones, as always, but his character is rich in verbosity and he revels in the chance to speak lines that are short and succinct, as he's had to do in many of his better-known movies. Picking out anyone else in the cast is difficult; everyone makes a top-notch contribution, no matter how big or small his or her role.

It's interesting to see how things have changed in the White House, or its 19th century equivalent. Plenty of staff, but none of that checking at every door as to who is who, and security creeping around everywhere, and people struggling to treat other people as ordinary human beings. Lincoln's young son Tad (who is the one we see when we hear that Lincoln has been shot - offstage, as it were) breezes around the house, in and out of offices, without so much as a flicker of concern from anyone. The servants are friends, and the staff are known by name and touched on the shoulder by Lincoln in an affectionate manner. Compare this to the controlled chaos of the White House in The West Wing series...

I didn't think I'd enjoy Lincoln, and it does take a while to get to grips with the debates and arguments that are going on, but this film has a clever and thoughtful script (by Tony Kushner, the third of three scriptwriters to work on the film), and has been directed impeccably by Spielberg.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Writers, illustrators, and photographers

I received this as an email this morning. There may be others who'd be interested who haven't received a copy. 
An invitation to an information evening for writers, illustrators, and photographers

Where: Vodafone conference centre, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 55 Cable Street, Wellington 6011

When: Monday evening, March 3, 6.00–9.00 pm

Do you contribute to the Ministry of Education’s teaching and learning resources? Are you interested in doing so? The Ministry of Education publishes an extensive range of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short plays, teacher support material, illustrations, and photographs within the Instructional Series (Ready to Read, the Junior Journal, the School Journal, the School Journal Story Library, and Connected).

This is an opportunity to find out more about content needs, the Ministry of Education’s preferred suppliers for resource development and design services, and the commissioning of content.

With the closing of Learning Media Limited as a Government-owned educational publishing company in 2013, the Ministry of Education welcomes this opportunity to provide writers, illustrators, and photographers – and the agents and organisations that represent them – with up-to-date information about contributing to the Ministry’s Instructional Series publishing programme.

Virtual attendance through a live webcast will be available to anyone who cannot attend in person. Wellington-based writers, illustrators, photographers, course tutors, agents, and organisations are encouraged to attend in person.

By attending the presentation in person, you accept the possibility you may be filmed, with the understanding that this will be used in the live and recorded webcast and may be used for further Ministry of Education informational purposes at a later date.

Parking is available at Te Papa in the evening from 5.00 pm for $6.00.

Handouts will be provided on March 3 and will be downloadable from the Ministry of Education’s website ( afterwards. The event will be recorded for edited playback afterwards.

RSVP: By February 15 to Peggy Nesbitt ( Please let Peggy know whether you would like to attend in person or virtually. If you are only able to attend virtually, you will be sent a weblink and a password when you RSVP.

Questions: Participants attending in person are encouraged to submit questions by February 15 but may also ask questions on the night. People attending virtually must ask questions by email by February 15 to ensure that they are addressed on March 3

Forward this invitation: The Ministry wishes to encourage new contributors – including Māori and Pasifika contributors – to become involved in its publications and online resources and would like to broaden its contributor base. Please forward this invitation to other writers, illustrators, and photographers that you are in touch with.

For further information: Contact Peggy Nesbitt (, phone 04 381 2251)