Aussie: worst performing currency against US dollar this week

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The Australian dollar briefly dipped to a four-and-a-half year low of US85.64¢ on Wednesday. The Australian dollar briefly dipped to a four-and-a-half year low of US85.64¢ on Wednesday.
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The Australian dollar briefly dipped to a four-and-a-half year low of US85.64¢ on Wednesday.

The Australian dollar briefly dipped to a four-and-a-half year low of US85.64¢ on Wednesday.

The Australian dollar’s dramatic plunge on Wednesday night has made it the worst performing currency against the US dollar this week but it remains resilient against the rest of the world’s major currencies.

The Australian dollar slid nearly 2 per cent to a four-and-a-half year low of US85.64¢ during the New York trading session after the greenback surged on a mixture of positive US jobs data, a Republican victory in the US Senate and a $US27 plunge in the gold price during the New York trading session.

The dollar continued its slide in local trade on Thursday, falling as low as US85.54¢ around midday, despite data showing that employment in Australia rose more than expected last month. During the afternoon the currency eventually clawed back some ground and was fetching US86.17¢ in late trade.

But on a trade-weighted basis – against a basket of major currencies – the Aussie is performing much better, trading about 5 per cent above the year’s low it hit at the end of January and just 3 per cent below the year’s high from early July.

The reason for the discrepancy is an emerging currency war where struggling major economies such as Europe and Japan are easing monetary policy in an attempt to spur business lending and lower their currencies to make their exporters more competitive.

The Reserve Bank of Australia also noted its continued concern about the level of the local currency. In its monthly policy statement this week it reverted to earlier language about the need for a broader and deeper depreciation.

“Key steps by the Bank of Japan and also by the European Central Bank to effectively inject more money into the market, is providing extra liquidity, and that tends to support the Aussie dollar,” said Westpac senior currency strategist Sean Callow.

Mr Callow expects to see the Australian dollar trade higher by year-end and closer to US90¢. He also sees the local currency outperforming the Japanese Yen and the Euro.

Most currency strategists believe that the Aussie dollar’s weakness this year has primarily been a US dollar story, and the result of less central bank stimulus and the prospect of higher rates next year. Both of which point to a stronger US economy and increase investor confidence.

But the extent to which the local currency continues to weaken and remain attractive to investors is being debated by senior experts.

National Australia Bank’s global co-head of foreign exchange strategy Ray Attrill, who sees the local currency testing the bottom of the US85¢ range before Christmas, and heading to US80¢ in 2015, said the Aussie was being driven by a stronger US dollar and a revival in the linkage with key commodities.

“Investors are becoming more confident that the US Federal Reserve will rate rates next year and further downward pressure on key commodities such as gold and iron ore,” he said. Australia is the biggest iron ore producer and among the largest gold producers.

The iron ore price on Wednesday fell 1.5 per cent to a five-year low of $US76.46, with further pressure expected. The latest drop was partly due to reports that China had temporary shut down some steel mills in an effort to clear the air ahead of the coming APEC summit.

Gold is trading at fresh four-year lows just under $US1150 a ounce as investors sell out of the safe haven asset.

The Australian dollar had been trading in a range of between US86.5¢ and US88.5¢ for the past six weeks. A drop in New York trading took it to its lowest level since July 2010.

AUD may return to US90¢

“We also expect further support for commodities,” he added, predicting iron ore sentiment to improve towards the turn of the new year.

Underlining the Australian dollar’s diverging fortunes, since the middle of October and up until the start of this week, the currency surged higher against the euro and yen with gains of 2.7 and 6.6 per cent respectively. This was largely in response to expectations of greater stimulus from Europe and Japan.

“The ECB has its back against the wall,” said Mr Callow, adding that regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s European Central Bank meeting, policy makers will be looking towards boosting the ECB balance sheet.

“This effectively means a greater supply of euros and that should chip away at its value,” he said.

Over the past two years, investor appetite for yield in a low interest rate and stimulus rich environment has been one of the main factors supporting gains in the Australian dollar. The dollar was trading around parity for about two years, between late 2010 and mid 2013.

But NAB’s Ray Attrill doubts that the hunt for yield and more stimulus from Japan and Euro will be enough to stop the Aussie from possibly breaking below US85¢ in the near future.

“I would take the otherwise of the argument. The flipside of the US dollar strength is commodity price weakness. That is coming through irrespective of the US, with clear evidence of Chinese demand growth slowing,” he said.

“I think for the next six months, the risk is that the Australian dollar will underperform even against the yen and the euro. That is particularly because the ECB will be slow to mirror what the Bank of Japan is doing.

“The Aussie will probably perform at least as poorly as the euro and even worse that the yen.

The US dollar extended its lead at the year’s best-performing major currency on Wednesday on news of strong private-sector US job growth and after the Republicans won seven seats in the US Senate, giving them control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 2006. The Republicans have been calling for pro-energy and other business policies.

ME Bank aims for aggressive growth

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ME Bank chief executive Jamie McPhee.Super fund-owned ME Bank is pushing ahead with an aggressive plan to more than double the value of home loans it writes, despite the rapid growth coming at a cost to returns.
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Chief executive Jamie McPhee said the bank wanted new mortgage settlements to increase from $3.8 billion last financial year to $8 billion in three years’ time. It plans to sell more loans by using technology and targeting a wider range of customers.

The ambitious plan comes after the bank’s loan book grew by 19 per cent in the year to June, mainly due to quick growth in home lending. Profits were also up 28 per cent to $47 million.

However, return on equity remains low at 6.5 per cent, while its cost-to-income ratio is high at 71.1 per cent. These are two areas where Mr McPhee is eyeing significant improvements.

ME Bank is owned by 30 industry super funds and was established in the 1990s as an alternative lender to the big banks. It has never paid a dividend.

Mr McPhee acknowledged that the rapid growth in lending was coming at some cost to return on equity, but said there were moves under way to make the bank more efficient and ultimately pay a dividend to its shareholders in “about four years”.

“We need to get that [return on equity] into the double digits into the not-too-distant future to give our shareholders the appropriate return,” he said.

Part of the improvement is set to come from lower costs, with Mr McPhee saying he planned to drive a reduction in the bank’s cost-to-income ratio to “industry standards” of around the “mid-fifties” for a regional bank, and ultimately even lower.

While ME Bank lacks the economies of scale held by the big four, he argued that it could reduce its expenses substantially because it did not have the costs of running a branch network, which it has closed. Partnering with industry super funds would also allow it to distribute more loans, he said.

It is hoping to achieve the rapid growth through a heavy emphasis on digital distribution channels and by opening itself to more potential customers.

Until August the bank only served customers who were members of a union or an industry super fund, but this policy has been scrapped, and it is also making greater use of brokers to sell mortgages.

The bank has also in recent years spent $70 million on a technology overhaul and closed all its branches in 2012.

ME Bank’s plan comes as the big four and several smaller lenders such as Macquarie eye rapid expansion in the mortgage market – sparking repeated warnings from the financial regulator over lending standards.

2014 Melbourne Cup: Mumm’s the word – Vain Queen may target Lightning Stakes

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The Lightning Stakes carrot is dangling in front of John Sadler with Vain Queen, now he just has to decide if he wants to take the bait.
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“We’ll give some thought to a race like the Lightning, but the more realistic [option] would be a race like the Sangster Stakes in Adelaide,” Sadler said of his mare, which sped to victory in the group 3 Mumm Stakes on Oaks day.

“With those real good sprinters around at the moment … it might be a bit tough a race for her. But because she goes so well down the straight it is very tempting.”

No doubt fuelling Sadler’s temptation to stay at home rather than a border-hopping mission to Adelaide will be the strength of Vain Queen’s win on Thursday.

Sadler said he did not care one iota if Vain Queen squeaked home by a nostril in the Mumm Stakes. As it turned out, she had more than a little elbow room to spare after exploding under Damien Oliver to flirt with Loveyamadly’s 1100-metre track record at Flemington.

Asked about the time, Oliver said: “I’m not surprised by the way she sprinted. She just exploded when she got clear and it was a super win. She couldn’t have been more impressive than that.”

The winning margin of three-and-a-half lengths may have flattered Bounding and the rest of the beaten brigade, which seemed to be in a separate race of their own.

The ultra-consistent New Zealand-based Bounding, showing no signs of battle scars after emerging from a rough Manikato Stakes, held on for second with Shamal Wind and Lilliburlero dead heating for third.

But the only talking point afterwards was how fast did Vain Queen actually go?

Said Sadler: “It was something else, wasn’t it? I was a little bit concerned she might have been running through the bridle a little bit too hard. She has done that once before here, but she has won four out of five up the straight now.

“One of them was a really good win, but it doesn’t top today. When you get a mare as handy as this, as a trainer you really need to get black type beside her name. We’ve done that now so we can relax.

“I said to my som Tom in the mounting yard, ‘I’m sure that’s the best she’s ever looked’. I was hoping she would just win, but to win like that was really exciting. She has shown today at some stage there might even be a group 1 in her.

“She was very calm and seemed to be in the zone today, like she was looking forward to it.”

No friendships as Klemmer prepares

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After becoming embroiled in a pushing match with fellow Canterbury prop James Graham in his Test debut for Australia against England last weekend, David Klemmer has made it clear that friendships will count for nothing when he comes up against teammates Frank Pritchard, Tim Lafai and Reni Maitua in Sunday’s Four Nations clash with Samoa at WIN Stadium.
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Klemmer, who has a pre-match superstition requiring him to get off the team bus last, managed to get under Graham’s skin after rubbing the England prop on the head following Greg Inglis’ match-winning try in the 64th minute of Australia’s 16-12 win at AAMI Park last Sunday.

The England prop responded by pushing Klemmer, and referee Gerard Sutton had to separate the pair.

“I loved it,” Klemmer said. “We got stuck into each other a bit but we are both competitive blokes and whatever happens on the field stays on the field.

“The play before, he rushed up and got me in the ribs but on the next play he didn’t get back in the line and he missed the tackle that led to the try, so I rubbed him on the head and said ‘thanks for that’.

“There was a bit of push and shove. He was surprised it was me who rubbed him on the head. I always rub his head at training and he doesn’t like it.”

That incident showed that Klemmer is prepared to do whatever it takes to help the Kangaroos avoid the ignomy of becoming the first Australian team to miss a tournament decider since 1954, and he has already identified Pritchard and Lafai as danger men in the Samoa team.

“It is every kid’s dream to be playing for Australia, so when I got the call-up I took it with both hands,” Klemmer said. “But if we lose here Samoa can go to the final. It is all in the points system, so they are going to come out firing and we have got to do the job on them.

“They are a good team, I reckon they should have won both of their games, so it is going to be a very tough game this week.

“They have good go-forward with David Fa’alongo and Frank and they have some big boys in their outside backs like Joey Leilua, Antonio Winterstein and David Vidot running off the back of that, so we have to stop that. Timmy Lafai is very, very good at that too.”

Asked about his insistence to get off the bus last before last Sunday’s Test in Melbourne, Klemmer said: “Once something works for me I just stick with it.

“I am very superstitous about some things. I have to get off the team bus last, I wear the same undies every week, and I put my left boot on first. I am a bit of a weirdo like that.”

David Hussey set to notch 100 shield games

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A century of Shield games will be a bittersweet triumph for David Hussey.
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The veteran batsman will play his 100th Shield match when Victoria meets Tasmania at Blundstone Arena in Hobart on Saturday. He will also captain the team in Matthew Wade’s absence.

But the milestone also indicates his lack of favour at international level on the Test match front – a barrier he never cracked.

And it was only a year ago when Hussey was surprisingly axed from the Victorian team for the shield match against Tasmania last November, an experience he conceded “wasn’t easy”.

But Hussey was buoyant when talking about his achievement on Thursday.

He recalled the backyard matches of his childhood in Western Australia, played with brother and star player Michael Hussey. And he is proud of his legacy playing for Victoria.

“He (Michael) has played a lot of Test cricket for Australia, and I play a lot of Sheffield Shield for Victoria, so it has worked out well for both of us,” he said at the MCG nets.

“I haven’t had much time to sit back. I’ve been playing cricket non-stop since making my debut, so I still look back fondly to those early days in the backyard with Mike. We still talk about that now.”

Hussey will be the sixth cricketer to reach the 100-game milestone. His predecessors include Brad Hodge (140 matches), Darren Berry (129), Dean Jones (110), Matthew Elliott (103) and Ray Bright (101).

Of that group, the 37-year-old was the oldest when he made his debut for Victoria. And he is, of course, somewhat of a senior in the team – the subject of playful banter with teammates. He has grown accustomed to being told by younger players to “get a rinse” or “get a haircut”, he said.

And when a journalist asked him for a “realistic” estimate of the number of seasons he had left – in a manner mirroring a child begging a parent to end a long car ride – the batsman laughed. And he was frank.

“Not many seasons left to go,” he said.

“There are too many young kids coming through. I’ve always said I would never stand in the way of a young kid who is going to play for Australia. So if that means this year I’ll be forced out, then so be it.

“I still believe there is a spot for an older person on this game just to teach the younger kids how to bat for a longer period of time …  that’s the key.”

He pointed to Peter Handscomb, Marcus Stoinis and Alex Keath in his list of rising stars with potential to play for the country.

“These boys have a big future in the game. Hopefully they will get a few runs for us this week.”   

Pace tyro Rabada surging through Proteas ranks

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When South Africa broke its bafflingly poor record at international tournaments earlier this year, in the under-19 World Cup, team coach Ray Jennings predicted its pace spearhead would be playing for the Proteas’ senior team within three years – maybe even two.
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Kagiso Rabada’s progression in that sense has been, like his bowling, rapid. What Jennings expected would take years was instead completed within seven months, on Wednesday night at Adelaide Oval.

At 19 years and 164 days, Rabada became South Africa’s youngest Twenty20 debutant and third youngest in any format over the past half a century – and all before he has even completed his first full season in domestic cricket in South Africa.

That the 191-centimetre paceman consistently reached 140 km/h in the first Twenty20 against Australia, and could do so again if chosen at the MCG on Friday night, would not have surprised anyone who saw him excel in the under-19 World Cup, not least Australia’s batsmen against whom he claimed 6-25 in the semi-final to surge to public prominence in South Africa and the world.

“Ever since I started playing … I’ve always had pace. Always,” Rabada said this week. “I didn’t get lots of wickets in school, but my economy was really low. I didn’t have one single five-for for the first team. But as soon as I got to the provincial ranks, that’s when I started to get wickets.”

South Africa’s determination to expedite Rabada’s progression from the elite junior teams to the elite senior teams was reflected in his selection for South Africa A for a mid-year series in Australia, and then in the top team in the one-day tri-series in Zimbabwe that also featured Australia.

“Things have happened really quickly for me, but I love it. I love the opportunity,” he said.

That Rabada did not play in the series in Zimbabwe – he was deliberately chosen as a non-playing member, to ease him into international cricket – did not grate on him at all.

He was instead rapt to be able to approach the likes of Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel for advice, as prospective teammates rather than just idols.

Because of Rabada’s rapid pace and skin colour, he is likely to generate comparisons to now-retired Proteas fast-bowler Makhaya Ntini. Rabada is less bothered by such comparisons than he is baffled by them.

“To me it [skin colour] is irrelevant,” he explained. “I’m labelled as a ‘born free’ in South Africa. Obviously I know the history, but I didn’t live through that era so I don’t know what it’s like. Obviously there is racism around still, but I don’t see skin colour in anything.

“I’m me, and I’m trying to be like me and no one else. I look up to lots of bowlers, not just one bowler … it doesn’t matter what country you’re from. If I like something … I’ll try and incorporate that into me. But at the end of the day I want to be me, not anyone else.”

Kyle Abbott, who is emerging as South Africa’s most reliable paceman outside its big three of Steyn, Morkel and Vernon Philander, said Rabada had impressed him with his efforts in training and on the field, as well as socially.

“There’s a lot of talent there. For a 19-year-old to be bowling … at 140-odd clicks … is really encouraging,” Abbott said.

“The environment we’ve got here is a perfect one for a youngster to come into. We respect each other and he’s fitted in incredibly well. I definitely think he’s going to be one to look out for in the future.”

Rabada’s rapid progression through the ranks has already forced him to abandon a plan to study law.

He will still study at university, at his parents’ urging, but will pursue a less onerous qualification more conducive to his playing duties in domestic cricket for Gauteng and Johannesburg’s Lions, as well as the national team.

Rabada’s intent to maintain his close ties with family and friends has already helped him adjust to life on the road and “not [be] letting the fame go to my head”.

“Family is important; even on this tour they’ve really helped me. I’ve been on the phone with them and they’re there. They encourage me a lot,” he said.

“When you feel down – and I know I’ve felt a bit down for various reasons – [they’re invaluable] when you’re seeking some advice.

“I do feel nerves, I admit it. I’m not Superman. But they [family] really get your head in the right space, and I’m grateful for that.”

Council awards Buildev Group company sand-mining lease against advice of staff

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Port Stephens mayor Bruce MacKenzie. PORT Stephens councillors awarded a sandmining lease over council land to a Buildev Group company against the advice of council staff and an independent expert, who recommended that it go to another company with decades’ more experience.
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Castle Quarry Products, which was unveiled this year as the Newcastle Jets’ new naming rights sponsor, was issued the lease in 2013 to mine up to 6million tonnes of sand from the 175-hectare Cabbage Tree Road, Williamtown property, amid widespread publicity about the mounting financial woes of other Buildev Group companies and major shareholder Nathan Tinkler.

Criticisms have since been levelled at mayor Bruce MacKenzie for taking part in confidential council deliberations on the matter within a day of his own family sand supply company, Macka’s Sand, withdrawing from the tender process for the lease.

The issuing of the lease also followed council investigations and legal proceedings in 2009 over alleged unauthorised sandmining by another Buildev company, Buildev Properties, at Fullerton Cove.

The Newcastle Herald can reveal the proceedings were dismissed by consent, with Buildev Properties required to pay the council’s legal costs under the settlement.

But it would not agree to pay about $80,000 – the amount that the council estimated the company made from the alleged mining – into a community trust fund, as was sought by the council.

Cr MacKenzie was among councillors to back Castle Quarry Products for the Williamtown lease during a confidential vote in April 2013, because the financial return to council stood to be far more lucrative, he said.

He told the Herald that council staff got it ‘‘absolutely wrong’’ in recommending the lease go to M.Collins & Sons and had given the advice as ‘‘they were fearful of any involvement by Nathan Tinkler’’.

‘‘I wasn’t,’’ Cr MacKenzie said.

Sensing an opportunity for big earnings, the council called for tenders to mine the sand at Williamtown in 2012. It received nine responses and hired an independent specialist to help evaluate them.

According to council documents, M.Collins & Sons was unanimously recommended in February 2013 as the preferred tenderer as it had the highest overall rating against criteria that included royalties and base rent to the council, previous experience, management and technical resources and capabilities.

Councillors were advised Sydney-based Collins ‘‘has been in operation since 1975’’.

Castle Quarry Products, which company records show was registered in late 2010, had the better prices but had not satisfied tender documentation requirements.

But a majority of councillors opted to terminate the tender process on February 12, a day after councillors received a memo that Cr MacKenzie’s family company had withdrawn.

The details remain under wraps and the council has refused to release its tender evaluations, but acting corporate services group manager Carmel Foster cited ‘‘confusion’’ over the different price structures that made the tenders difficult to compare.

Castle Quarry Products and Collins were invited to give presentations to councillors.

Collins upped the royalty payment it was offering but this was still lower than Castle Quarry Products, which had increased its own prices to include annual CPI rises, according to the council.

Ms Foster said all pricing information was kept ‘‘strictly confidential’’.

Councillors voted for Castle Quarry Products in April after being advised again to accept Collins, although Cr Geoff Dingle and Cr John Nell sought to have the meeting open to the public.

Lease conditions included that the council retained intellectual property rights over documents prepared in order to obtain project approvals.

In July that year, Castle Quarry Products deposited $250,000 into a bank account as security.

Ms Foster said the deal was expected to raise more than $20million for the council – about 27per cent more than if Collins had been selected.

Nearly three years on, the mining has yet to start.

The council said the project remained on track, although advice to councillors shows the company was permitted ‘‘to delay progress’’ of an environmental impact statement because of bushfires on the site last year.

Castle Quarry Products is housed at Fullerton Cove – the same site of the alleged unauthorised mining in 2009 – where it operates another sandmine. The property is owned by a third Buildev company, BD (NSW) J001.

The site’s future is unclear, with the Herald revealing in July that receivers had been appointed to BD (NSW) J001.

Buildev co-founder Darren Williams remains a director of Castle Quarry Products, but Tinkler associate Troy Palmer pulled out in August, amid the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings into Buildev’s and Mr Tinkler’s secret political donations and lobbying.

Cr MacKenzie told the Herald he was not afraid to justify the deal ‘‘in any setting’’ and he was ‘‘prepared to take the risk’’ for a higher return.

But Cr Dingle said ‘‘two years down the track, they haven’t even done the [environmental impact statement]’’.

Calls to Buildev were not returned.

Hyundai in bid for top marques with Genesis

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SERIOUS VALUE: Hyundai’s new Genesis has refinement and pricing on its side for its attack on the Australian market.KOREAN car maker Hyundai is set to come out swinging when it makes its first foray into the Australian luxury car market next week with its new Genesis large sedan.
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Hyundai is planning an attack on established luxury brands Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Jaguar and Lexus and will hit its rivals with a package encompassing size, style, finesse, warranty and marketing, the new car arriving on the market with a vast standard equipment list.

If that is not enough, there is always the pricing, Hyundai putting the car on the market for $60,000 (plus on-road costs), a number that could find favour with Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore fans wondering where their next cars will come from once local manufacturing stops.

That pricing brings a staggering amount of standard equipment, with everything from nine airbags to a stack of electronic safety systems, radar-guided cruise control and a spacious, leather-trimmed interior.

But owners wanting more will be able to take the Sensory Pack of extras for another $11,000 or the Ultimate Pack with even more equipment (but including the complete Sensory Pack) for $22,000, making the best-specced variant an $82,000 buy and more than $45,000 less than a comparable Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Hyundai is also making a statement with the Genesis warranty with 10 years roadside assistance, a five year unlimited warranty and five years or 75,000kilometres free servicing.

Hyundai Australia chief operating officer John Elsworth said the introduction of the big luxury car was all about challenging the traditional values in the luxury car category.

‘‘We’re proud to put the Hyundai badge on this vehicle and we are pretty confident this car will stand the test of time and quality,’’ he said at the car’s national launch.

In some markets, Genesis is available with 3.0 and 3.8litre V6 engines as well as a 5.0litre V8 and either rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. For Australia, Hyundai has opted for the 232-kilowatt, 397-Newtonmetre, 3.8-litre engine with eight-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel-drive.

Movie review: Love, Rosie a true love tale

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FAIRY FLOSS: Lily Collins stars in Love, Rosie.LOVE, ROSIE (M)
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Stars: Lily Collins, Christian Cooke, Sam Claflin, Tamsin Egerton

Director: Christian Ditter

Screening: selected cinemas

Rating: ★★

IT would be hard to find a film with less local flavour than Love, Rosie – the work of a German director, Christian Ditter, and an Iranian-English screenwriter, Juliette Towhidi, adapting an Irish novel, Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern.

Shooting took place in Toronto and Dublin, though all the actors speak with English accents. The film involves best friends who seem destined to become a couple, but don’t.

Instead, Rosie (Lily Collins) falls pregnant to her prom date (Christian Cooke), who leaves her. Meanwhile, her soulmate Alex (Sam Claflin) goes off to Harvard where he takes up with a snooty American girl (Tamsin Egerton).

The humour is slightly bawdier than expected.

Despite this, the film remains a traditional Cinderella story, in which the patience of true love is at last rewarded.

Typically for the genre, this entails some callousness: secondary characters are allowed to seem like actual romantic possibilities before being kicked to the kerb.

What all this adds up to is a film with the consistency of fairy floss.

Christian Rein’s cinematography has the inviting warmth of a latter-day Woody Allen movie, cranked up beyond realism.

Collins manages to be sweet and chirpy without being too cloying. Claflin is well cast as a good-looking doofus, although it’s a stretch to think of him getting intoHarvard: given his failure to register Rosie’s extremely obvious passion at the outset, you’d have to presume he’s either not that keen or not that bright.

Movie review: Interstellar, bold sci-fi is on the dark side

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PIONEERING ASTRONAUT: Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.INTERSTELLAR (M)
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Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screening: general release

Rating: ★★★

IN a standout year for science-fiction cinema, Interstellar takes the prize for ambition. Boldly overreaching and fearlessly cheesy, Christopher Nolan’s space travel epic aims to go where no filmmaker has gone before – at least, no filmmaker since Stanley Kubrick.

On near-future Earth, resources are running out. Most have given up on space travel as an impossible dream, but not the ruggedly individualistic Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a test pilot and engineer turned unwilling farmer, who sets off through a wormhole to find humanity a new home.

The situation may be dire but the set-up has a Jules Verne innocence, especially when Coop is puzzling over scientific anomalies with his precocious daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Once the voyage gets going – with Murph furious at being left behind – the tone grows more sober but not less intriguing.

What are Coop and his companions destined to encounter? Aliens? Time travel? God Himself?

Only near the climax does interest start to wane. Rather than preserving a sense of mystery as Kubrick does in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan insists on explaining everything, meaning that much of the thrill is liable to evaporate on second viewing.

Still, there’s no question that Nolan sees himself as an artist, not just an entertainer. Interstellar may be a blockbuster spectacle but it’s also a puzzle that bends the laws of space and time to create different kinds of links between images, like Nolan’s Memento.

Nolan has never been strong on what you’d call the human touch: his insistence on shooting on celluloid seems meant to give his basically mechanical vision a semblance of organic warmth. The rule of thumb is that his films work better the more they verge on horror – as in Memento, The Prestige and parts of The Dark Knight, all of which hinge on the implication that a seemingly upright protagonist might be merely an empty shell.

Unfortunately, Interstellar instead goes in the direction of emotional uplift: there must be more weeping here than in all Nolan’s other movies put together. For Anne Hathaway, who plays another of the astronauts, this is business as usual. But even the swaggering McConaughey has to keep something in the tank for when Coop’s defences come down.

That the big speeches about the need for connection ring hollow is unsurprising, considering that Nolan has yet to direct a convincing love scene. Beneath the schmaltz lies a characteristic chill, evident literally in the harsh landscapes, and figuratively in a plot where most of the characters are loners of one kind or another.

At the heart of it all is a guilt that’s never resolved: why does Coop agree to travel into space and abandon his kids? But given his boredom with farming, it’s clear that part of him can’t wait.