Sunday, December 30, 2007

How we're spending the New Year

Photobucket...Yeah, I know, we're rubbing it in. But I have to admit being able to go to the beach in late December is rather nice.

Yes, I have been working out!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Movies: The Darjeeling Limited

Jack: "I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people."
Brotherhood is the focus of Wes Anderson's beautiful fifth film, The Darjeeling Limited. I'm a gigantic fan of the works of Wes Anderson, and I'm glad I saw this one five days before the end of 2007 so I could confidently declare it one of my favorites of the year. It's the tale of three brothers who come together a year after their father's funeral for a "spiritual quest" led by the quixotic Francis (Owen Wilson) on a train ride in India. Lothario Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and nervous Peter (Adrien Brody) join Francis for a wild ride through their own hopes and fears in India's hinterlands.

PhotobucketThe Darjeeling Limited is like Anderson's other movies -- you'll either find it a bit fussy and mannered, or you'll fall for its whimsy whole-heartedly. I think it's up there with his best work (although I pretty much consider all his work near his best, especially the underrated The Life Aquatic). Every one of Anderson's major films -- Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic -- focus on the notion of family and grief being intertwining vines, of the bubbling traumas that link in family interactions. This is an utterly inexhaustible subject, of course, and Anderson has mined it well. But he also adds his kind of precious and finicky storybook sensibility to it all, investing a ton of energy in the environments, stylizing every gesture and moment. Judging from The Royal Tenenbaums DVD, Anderson spends a lot of time thinking about things like the wallpaper on sets. The Darjeeling Limited is his first movie to take place entirely in another country, and visually, it's a colorful dazzle.

PhotobucketFirst off, you simply have to watch Darjeeling in tandem with the short film Hotel Chevalier, a prologue to the events of the film. (Apparently in the US Darjeeling actually played in theaters without Hotel Chevalier, kind of like lopping off the first 10 minutes of the movie.) Chevalier is a very European, brooding and enigmatic opening act that focuses on Jack Whitman and his estranged girlfriend (a luminous and battered Natalie Portman). It's a brief scene but it kind of sets up the themes of the film – trying to leave the past behind, but trapped in its waves.

Francis: "I want us to become brothers again -- and to become enlightened."

Watching Darjeeling on the big screen, I kept catching the loving details Anderson added to the setting. His movies are about setting as much as they are about character, a meticulousness you don't tend to see often in modern movies. I've never been to India and don't know how much of Darjeeling's kitschy design is merely Anderson's fantasy verison of India, but either way it's a beautiful evocation of a place. The Darjeeling Limited train, with its endless filigrees, religious icons and colorful characters (an angry manager, a sexy stewardess), is one of the great film train settings.

PhotobucketOwen Wilson is an actor who often cruises along amiably playing the same indignant, good-natured clown but Anderson's movies bring out his best instincts. He's great here, a control freak who's impotent, battered in a mysterious accident and covered with bandages for most of the movie (it's a shame the real-life problems in Wilson's life have overshadowed what I'd call one of his best roles). Schwartzman returns to the Anderson fold for the first time since Rushmore with a great turn as Jack, a would-be writer, barefoot and mustached, a ladies' man despite his short, vaguely porn-star appearance. Oscar winner Brody is perhaps the most mysterious of the brothers, Peter, who's run away from fatherhood to India. In cameos you'll find familiar Anderson repertory players like Bill Murray and Angelica Huston, but the three brothers carry most of the movie and their jocular surly bonding propels it. I'd say this is the funniest of Anderson's films despite the undercurrent of tragedy which swims to the fore in the final acts.

There's a warmth to The Darjeeling Limited and its battling brothers that is nearly the equal of The Royal Tenenbaums, and in some ways it feels like Anderson's trying to wrap up his big themes of screwed-up relationships and forgiveness. He's at the point in his career where he could either begin repeating himself with diminishing results or start heading off on new paths. There's a lot of old Anderson in here, but enough hints of a new perspective that I feel like this train ride is a step forward. Either way, I get enough pleasure out of his flicks that I'm along for whatever journey Wes heads out on.

Peter: "I love the way this country smells. I'll never forget it. It's kind of spicy."

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Year in Review: My Top 10 CDs of 2007

I know, CDs, how old-fashioned am I? But while I do download music, I can't quite give up the tactile pleasures of owning an actual CD. Auckland's awesome Real Groovy Records is one of my favorite haunts, a place a record-store geek can while away hours digging through the bargain bins. Here's the tunes that perked me up this year nearly gone by:

Photobucket1. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver - Irony turns into something a bit deeper in James Murphy's fantastic second album as "dance-punk" act LCD Soundsystem. Catchy electronic beats marry to smooth, dry songwriting. The goofy satire of his earlier work is here with "North American Scum," but an elegant wistful beauty comes to light too with the superb "All My Friends." An aging hipster's lament that it can't all stay the same as it ever was, and the disc from 2007 I played more times this year than any other. (Full review here.)

Photobucket2. Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger - Ryan Adams is so prolific that it's often hard to appreciate his output, but even his throwaways will stick in your brain. But with "Easy Tiger" he's put out his most polished disc since "Gold." The soulful country troubadour crossed with a burned-out junkie's passion matures into a fine crafter of songs with gentle gems like "Two" and "Goodnight Rose." He's like watching a young Neil Young and marveling at all the songs that might come out in the future.

Photobucket3. Neil Young, Chrome Dreams II - Speaking of Neil, here's a surprisingly lovely and eclectic set by one of the greats, considering it's a "grab bag" of miscellany including one epic that dates back nearly 20 years, the sprawling 18-minute "Ordinary People," one of the best songs of this or any year. It's packed in with a varied but overall very good set of Neil songs that try out everything from garage-rock to sentimental ballads, like a greatest hits that never was.

Photobucket4. Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? - Early Bowie and T Rex in an electronica blender, with a dash of Pavement. A strangely fey and dazzling disco-pop album about the rise and fall of one man's soul, with the smashingly intense, 11-minute long "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal," the beating heart at the middle of it all. Like the sound of a nervous breakdown with a beat you can dance to. (Full review here.)

Photobucket5. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible - Their 2004 debut "Funeral" got a lot of ink, but this dense and melodramatic follow-up is just as good I think. Few bands can pull off the over-the-top rock 'n' roll savior thing they're going for, but tracks like "Black Mirror" and "No Cars Go" make it happen. A towering noise that casts a glittering spell. I get to see them live next month at Auckland's Big Day Out, can't wait!

Photobucket6. I'm Not There original soundtrack - Tribute albums never quite work, but somehow, this two-disc ode to Bob Dylan is a marvel, with artists from Cat Power to Wilco to Antony and the Johnsons putting their spin on Dylan's legacy – props to them not going for the obvious songs and pulling some rarities out for a go. More than 30 songs and most of them put a fine spin on Dylan's world. Bonus points for the mesmerizing 1967 Dylan and the Band tune "I'm Not There," finally getting an official release from the Basement Tapes. (Full review here.)

Photobucket7. White Stripes, Icky Thump - The most consistently eccentric band that sells top 10 albums, and another gem-packed ramble through Jack and Meg's closets. The Mexican wrestling theme "Conquest," the fuzzed-out "Icky Thump," the charming ditty "Rag and Bone" - it's all kinda sloppy and silly, and that's its charm. Keep on doing what you're doing, guys. Maybe less bagpipes less time, though.

Photobucket8. The National, The Boxer - This one snuck up on me, a dour, moody suite of rock anthems that reveal themselves on repeated listens to be miniature masterpieces of tone and longing. Brooding bartione voice, fantastic drumming and songs that build in power. Perfect for a 3 a.m. post-nightlife chill-out. Or spiral into despair, whatever floats your boat. (Full review here.)

Photobucket9. The Stooges, The Weirdness - Men in their sixties trying to pretend they're still punk, this comeback should've bombed (and a lot of people did hate it), but heck, I found this pure dumb rock fun at its clearest – music that's disorderly, inelegant and crude, with a slight wink to it. Not The Stooges of 1969, and really, how could it be, but an amusing revival. (Full review here.)

Photobucket10. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky - A retreat from the dazed psychedelia of their last discs into mellow country pop, it's a "taking stock" album but still a welcome back porch singalong, Jeff Tweedy sounding relaxed and at peace and he can't help but spread that vibe a little bit. Better than I thought on the first few listens.

Honorable mention: The latest by New Pornographers, Björk, Foo Fighters, The Shins, and Iron and Wine are all good stuff.

Best live shows:
The New York Dolls were terrific fun and so loud I think they broke my ears, and Bob Dylan was a living legend in fine form, but despite my qualms about the staging, I have to admit my trip to see Ryan Adams in August is the show I remember the best of 2007 – outstanding solos, riveting vocals and a passion that while occasionally misguided (really, couldn't they turn up the lights a bit?), it worked in the end and the songs certainly stuck with me.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Enjoy the holidays!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Oh, my back hurts

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...A quick post to verify that we have indeed moved and we are alive. The shortest move we've done in years (across town, as opposed to 6,000 miles, 500 miles and 2,000 miles among moves I've done in the last decade) but still hard work and sweaty. Moving would be so much easier if I was illiterate (less books to move).

And yet here we are in our very own house that we actually really own for the first time ever and it's pretty darn cool. Peter even got to put our (borrowed) Christmas tree up! We still need about a million things from a coffee table to dish soap but it'll come. Our garage stinks of elderly Newfoundland from the last tenants and it's suddenly turned extremely hot as NZ cascades into summer. But we are well.

Thanks kindly for everyone chipping in on the last post to say they like the blogging. I'm looking a bit of a tweak and rethink in the coming weeks to better fit the blog into the "life" so to speak and allow me to post more frequently and with more to say. In any event, thanks for reading and now I have to go hammer something into a wall somewhere.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is anyone there? Anyone?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...Egad, I know, it's been almost a month. An utterly insane month -- packed with a wonderful, very busy 2 1/2-week visit by my parents, and a lot of stressing about the new house -- which we're moving into this weekend! Ackthpp! We're settling earlier than we thought (at first it looked like early January), and so there's been an orgy of packing, furniture-buying to replace all the stuff we sold in Oregon over a year-and-a-half ago now, and learning about utilities, home repairs, etc. Oh, and working a very busy job.

Anyway. I've been mulling over the future of this here blog a lot too in the past few weeks, trying to decide if I want to continue it in 2008. It's been a tremendous amount of fun for me for nearly four years now, but lately it's felt harder and harder to find the time and inspiration. I've been wavering between "call it a day" and "take a break" and "dive into it with new inspiration". One of my problems is that my posts always turn out longer than I think, so maybe I need to just do shorter, more frequent posts. Or maybe I should step back and concentrate on paying writing efforts in my so-called free time.

I've also kind of become "that guy" who looks a lot at his hit statistics and comments and wonders who he's writing for and so forth, if anyone's reading, etc., which isn't any way to really run a blog if you're just doing it for fun. So perhaps I'll just throw this rambling ramble open to the floor and ask – should I keep the Spatula Forum going in 2008? What say you, humble readers?

Friday, November 16, 2007

...So by the way, we bought a house last week. We've been reluctant to publicize it all too much until everything is settled with the contracts and such ("we almost bought a house"), but now we're 99% set (just waiting for a final lawyer sign-off on a quibble about a few repairs). We are homeowners! Or rather, I should say,

We are homeowners!

Yeah, it all turned out fairly easy in the end – incredibly stressful of course, and spending far more money than I've probably spent the rest of my life put together, but in a month or two we will be the proud residents of our own 3-bedroom home with 2-car garage.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIt turned out this was a house we actually looked at in the early days of our real estate hunting, a month or two ago. In the meantime the market in Auckland has continued to stagnate, a bit like the US is right now but not quite as dramatic. We kept it on our list of "maybes" and returned to look at it last week now that we had a better idea of what we wanted. It had even had a nice little price drop in the meantime, and on a second look we really liked it. Fenced yard, quiet neighborhood, a bit of land which is a rarity in Auckland central, and in very nice shape with a good deal of space. And just 3km (a little less than two miles) from where I work!

Once you make a decision – "I want that" – the process suddenly gets mighty fast. We looked at the house Wednesday morning, and by Thursday afternoon the owners had accepted our offer after a bit of batting back and forth. Egad! The last week has been filled with zipping around (mostly by lovely wife) to make the final deals, get the place inspected, et cetera. We should go "unconditional" by Monday and be able to sit back and wait until we move into our own house for the first time since August 2006, and the first place we've owned, well... ever!

Now that we decided to buy a place, we've realized how we basically have no furniture to our names (having sold our Wal-Mart vintage fare in the US before we left). So we get to start shopping so we actually have something to put in our house! After saving a lot of money this past year, it's suddenly going to start going away real soon, ain't it?

Now that I've dropped our big news, I'm going to take a little blog break right now. My parents are visiting from the US for a few weeks so there's much time spent with them, my day job is absolutely full-out crazy busy, and there's much to do before we move into our future home in early January. See you soon!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Birthday greetings from ... Michael Palin!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWell, not really, except that for my birthday outing last night Avril and I did get a chance to go out and enjoy a very fun talk by Michael Palin, my favorite ex-Monty Python and a fantastic documentary travel filmmaker. Palin was out promoting his new BBC series, "New Europe" and spoke over on Auckland's North Shore. We had great seats, just 5 rows from the stage.

Palin has done an excellent job re-imagining himself post-Python and "A Fish Called Wanda" with his travel docs and accompanying books – "Around The World In 80 Days," "Pole To Pole," "Full Circle," "Sahara" and "Himalaya." Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHis latest, "New Europe," takes a spin around the former eastern bloc countries and how they've changed in the past 20 years. Palin gave a great off-the-cuff 45-minute talk about his travels, digressing all over the place from his Python days to visits to the South and North Poles. We heard about nudist Albanian chefs, leeches in Estonia, falling off mountains in Italy, mines in Bosnia and his favorite movie role (the reluctant centurion in "Life Of Brian," curiously enough). As you might expect, it was all pretty hilarious, with Palin doing some excellent impressions of the people he's met in his travels. He also was interviewed and took some audience questions. I can't imagine too many other second acts in public life quite as cool as what Palin's been doing these last 20 years.

Great talk, great fun, and left with a head full of amazing journeys. Missed out on getting Palin to sign a just-purchased paperback of his "Diaries 1969-1979" which I've been wanting to read, as the line was a couple hundred people long, but I've never been huge on signed books anyway. The talk itself was great, and can't wait to see "New Europe" when it starts screening here next month.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...It's been a really crazy couple of weeks down under (more details on that forthcoming), so when I woke up this morning it took me like an hour to remember I'm another year older today. 36, egad, which has a weirdly lop-sided feel to it, leaning heavily toward 40 and beyond. In my head a good two-thirds of the time I still feel rather like a clueless 18-year-old still trying to figure out the way the world works, the sudden understanding and authority I expected to be here by now not quite in play.

Anyway. 36. An age I actually remember my parents being, which seemed incredibly god-like at that time. And as you can see, in 1973, fashion was at its height. 36. Whoa.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Walking through Winnipeg with the Weakerthans

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe winds of Canada blow wild and cold. At least, that's what I hear – I've never been to the depths of Manitoba, but after listening to the last few albums by the Weakerthans, I have a firm sense of place built up in my head. They make me feel like I've been there.

The Winnipeg band was forged in the fire of punk rock, with singer/lyricist John K. Samson coming from the band Propaghandi. He created The Weakerthans after looking for a less rigid form for his intricate songwriting. The Weakerthans combine a kind of country-tinged post-punk with sweeping storytelling that's like hearing a Raymond Carver story set to music.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketTheir fourth and latest album, Reunion Tour, doesn't break huge ground from their stunning last disc, 2003's Reconstruction Site. Instead it's merely lovely, warm and dense, another gem-filled tour of hooks and wry lyrics and better than 90 percent of the bands out there. It's full of telling details that evoke some of their fellow Winnipeg singer, Neil Young, but it's got a kind of humble awe all its own.

Samson's subject matter reveals his eye for the downtrodden and worn-out folk of life. The power-chord guitar rock of "Tournament of Hearts" is actually about the terminally uncool Canadian sport of curling – as the narrator at a curling match thinks of his lost love: "I slide right through the day, I'm always throwing hack weight." The gorgeous "Civil Twilight" pays ode to a worn-out bus driver lost in his thoughts: "My confusion-cornered commuters are cursing the cold away," goes another note-perfect couplet of lyrics.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe songs skirt the edge of pretentiousness – for instance, one song on both this album and the last are narrated by a cat named Virtute – but the nonchalant air of Samson's voice pulls this off, like a combination of Robyn Hitchcock, Wilco and an Elvis Costello who grew up on the Canadian prairies. Samson's work is intricately married to the Winnipeg surroundings, with local characters and legends all mythologized in his work.

Even that mysterious denizen of the north woods gets his own tune in "Bigfoot!," which features a sasquatch believer holding faith despite the mockery of his small town neighbors:
"I'll go through it all again
watch their doubtful smiles begin
When the visions that I see believe in me."

Perhaps my favorite song on Reunion Tour is the wistful "Sun In An Empty Room," a delicately drawn portrait of leaving a home behind that's inspired by an Edward Hopper painting:
"The black on our fingers smeared the ink on every door pulled shut /
Now that the last month's rent is scheming with the damage deposit."

Samson's lyrics offer rewards on repeated listens – it's worth the somewhat lengthy wait between Weakerthans albums (four discs in a decade; they haven't broken up, so I guess the Reunion Tour title is a bit of an in-joke). The Weakerthans provide surpassingly intelligent, yet hook-filled and accessible rock. They're a Canadian treasure worth searching for.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Big bang boom

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...One of the odder New Zealand institutions I've seen is that of Guy Fawkes Day, which, as "V For Vendetta" taught us all, "remember, remember, the fifth of November," commemorates a failed plot by a crazed Catholic activist to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the King of England back in 1605. Which somehow turned into a holiday where people blow up lots of fireworks, a kind of British version of July 4. Although considering the origins, it's kind of like having an Osama Bin Laden Day, when you think about it.

you say? Not that different from the ol' US of A's tradition every July 4 and New Year's, eh? Well, not quite. The fireworks they sell here are major caliber, the kind that shoot up in the air 50 feet and explode or make huge thudding booms. They're far larger than any fireworks I've seen for sale to civilians in the US in the several states I've lived in. And they are LOUD, ye god – the prime minister (who lives in our neighbourhood) was quoted as saying it "sounded like Afghanistan" which isn't too far-fetched, minus the bombings and death and what-not. It's all a bit over the top.

Worse still, people seem to hoard their fireworks so you don't just have one or two nights of fireworks, but local Beavis and Butthead-types will regularly blow a few off from now until February.

And of course you get accidents like this one. Or this one.

Yeah, I like the idea of Guy Fawkes, and the sight of all those fireworks from the top of Mt. Eden last year was truly an amazing canvas, but I have to fall on the side of those who say it's a little too extreme a celebration here for its own good. Particularly when you consider we're thousands of miles from Britain and well on the way to being a true republic one day anyway. I'd love to see 'em ban the fireworks sales and just put on a few public spectacular shows.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The great house-hunt update #1

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...So things are looking quite optimistic on the house front for us. No, we haven't found our dream home yet, but perhaps more importantly, we have the money lined up to do that. We met our mortgage broker the other day and now have what's know as "pre-approved financing" for a decent amount – more than I'd imagined we could get when we started looking, but still within our budget so repayments don't kill us. Hurray, we can go into debt! We've also gone to 20-25 open houses in the past month or so, and have considerably refined our views from "we need a place to live" to "we'd like a 3-bedroom standalone house with a bit of yard space in a quiet area" and we're focusing quite closely on one area of Auckland now. So that's good.

As our broker (still feels funny talking about "our broker") said, "Now you just have to go out and find that house!" Which is the most complicated part of all, I guess... We've seen probably 4-5 places we could imagine living in, although none of them were totally perfect and none probably will be. But heck, the idea of being in our own place again by the start of 2008 isn't looking too far-fetched these days at all...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Five freaky films for Halloween

Hey, who doesn't like scary movies when it's this time of year? I've never cared for the whole slasher-serial killer mode (no "Friday the 13th"/"Saw" for me, thank you). But a good horror movie gets the blood pumping and the fear coursing out of your system. A great one haunts you like a half-remembered nightmare. Here's what I would call my five favorite horror movies, admittedly heavily weighed to stuff from the last 25 years or so.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe Fly (1986) - This one has had a creepy fascination for me ever since it first came out. A remake of a goofy '50s flick, it takes the notion of transformation to its furthest possible extent, with a stunning performance by Jeff Goldblum as an eccentric scientist who goes way too far. David Cronenberg pushes the limits of our unease as we watch a man disintegrate, turning into something utterly alien. The ending may be as gory as you've ever seen, but the whole enterprise carries a wounded human soul that keeps it from just being a nasty piece of exploitation (unlike the utterly awful sequel starring Eric Stolz). In Goldblum's Brundlefly, we find a metaphor for anyone who's ever felt like a stranger in their own skin, from a teen with zits to a man being consumed by cancer. Best moment: Brundlefly's "insect politics" speech, a man's farewell to his own life.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketCreature From The Black Lagoon (1954) - OK, admittedly a man in a giant rubber suit isn't as cutting-edge today as it once was. But this one scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid, the freaky gill-man emerging from the depths to claw and destroy the human invaders. The gill-man is as iconic as all the rest of the big scary monsters that are actually a little sympathetic, from Frankenstein to King Kong. I actually did a long post on this classic flick and its sequels a few years back, so go read it here. The gill-man is one of the great, campy aspects and all, and perhaps my favorite "classic" horror film. Best moment: The gill man "swims" with the lovely Julie Adams.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe Thing (1982)- Another remake that blew wide open the ideas of the original. John Carpenter remade a '50s monster mash as a kind of existential, gore-splattered "Ten Little Indians," with a team of Antarctic researchers being whittled away by an ever-shifting menace. The special effects remain nauseatingly effective today, leaving you with the sense that flesh is just meat waiting to be reshaped. The setting may be the true star here, although Kurt Russell is at his gritty best as the leading man. Best moment: That grim ending, as stark and cold as the Antarctic ice itself, punctuated by Ennio Morricone's relentless drone of a soundtrack.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSilence of the Lambs (1993) - Hmm, is this horror, precisely, or thriller? Either way, the movie scared the heck out of me, often with nothing more than the imagery of a madman behind a glass wall, teasing his way into his interrogator's mind. As smoothly machined a piece of storytelling as you'll find, it still has a bleak, soulful unease that lifts it above the conventions of the genre – still hard to believe this won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It dives deeper into the notion of purely human horror than any movie I can think of, with Anthony Hopkins' indelible portrait of Hannibal Lecter a chiller despite being watered down in poorly imagined sequels galore. Best moment: The escape of Hannibal Lecter, and the moment when you realize how he did it.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketEvil Dead II (1985). I personally like my horror to have a hint of humor in it (which is why torture-porn like "Saw" has absolutely no appeal for me). The second screen adventure of Ash is easily the best, balancing the claustrophobic freakiness of the original with the cornball humor of the third movie. Bruce Campbell's take-charge he-man is the template for a thousand adventurers, and that whole cabin-in-the-woods horror schtick has never been put to better use. As wacky as a "Three Stooges" short, but still with some genuine scares as well. Best moment: Ash's own severed hand attacks him, of course!

What's not on my list that could've been: I like "Alien," but just feel like it's a science fiction flick. "Psycho" is great as is much of Hitchcock, but not as scary now as it once was. "The Shining" by Stanley Kubrick is a gorgeous looking, hugely unsettling movie, but somehow, it's a little too over the top in its glacial chill. I have to admit I find Stephen King's original book better develops the story and characters. "The Bride of Frankenstein" was a near-miss – awesome movie, not really too scary to modern eyes though. And zombie movies – I had like a three-way tie going between "Shaun of the Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) and "Dead-Alive" (aka "Brain Dead"), but couldn't quite settle between 'em. So I gave it to "Evil Dead II" instead. And as for "Halloween" itself - I have to make a guilty confession - I've never seen it! Good lord, how dare I write about Halloween movies?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful trip...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSo today (or Thursday, depending on what time zone you're in) marks one year since we arrived in New Zealand, starting our so-called brand new lives!

We stumbled into Auckland a year ago laden down with overly burdened suitcases, knowing we had a place to stay with my in-laws but really, not much else. We weren't exactly huddled masses on Ellis Island, but it was still a jarring change from all we knew. But here we are – we're jobbed, day-cared and relatively settled, with the exception of having a nice little house truly of our own. Hopefully we'll get that nut cracked by year's end or so as signs are pretty positive on that front.

It's strange, though, to realize that it's been one year since I set foot on that American soil I spent most of my first 35 years on. I've lived in a "foreign country" for an entire year. The thing is, New Zealand doesn't feel entirely foreign to me. What with the language and British culture, it's not like living in Rio or Ulan Bator. Instead, it's rather like a kind of parallel universe to the American-centric one – many things are the same, some are similar, and some are just different enough to confuse you.

It's been interesting defining my identity as an American and my relationship to the US of A in this time. You definitely realize how low the current US political scene is held in view by pretty much everyone, particularly the British tabloid news services that are popular here. You do get a sense that Americans are viewed as a bit arrogant, a bit blundering and oblivious – a stereotype I try to do my best to dispel. I've met a couple kiwis that are real yobbos ("uncouth") too but I don't imagine they're all like this, and neither are all Americans loud, uncurious and insulated.

I do miss America, quite a lot, the generosity of spirit and casual kindnesses that aren't always transmitted to the broader world. I miss the landscapes, which are infinitely varied and the sense of sheer space that is missing in a sometimes-claustrophobic place like Auckland. There's a frontier poetry to America which sometimes gets obscured in the latest political screw-ups, but I do believe that the idea of America is very much alive and well, and worth being a part of. And of course I miss family and friends quite a lot. I can't rule out living there again one day.

But overall I'm very glad we did this, that I got to be the foreign one in this marriage for a while. We tried not to set goals when we moved here, knowing it might not work out (another couple we knew who moved here at the same time only lasted 9 months, after all). But now that we've got good jobs and are house-hunting away, I guess it's safe to say I'll be a kiwi for a while to come. Cheers mates!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Incredible Question Kid*

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDo you know monster trucks ride in the water?
Did you know snakes eat worms?
Why are there barnacles?

Yeah, this is kind of what life with a 3 1/2-year-old is like... one big question. These past few months, Peter has suddenly become the Question Machine constantly bubbling over with queries, qualifications and quizzes, either seeking to expand his knowledge or tell us what he knows.
Did you know that aliens are wet?
What is moisture?
Why am I saying why?

It is kind of cool that our little man has become so interested in all things (volcanoes are his latest subject of obsession, followed by the still-fascinating notion of tractors, diggers and things that come out of one's butt). On the other hand it's a bit like being interrogated by a really determined midget all the time. In a few years he will of course assume he knows it all and reply to all new information with haughty disdain, so I guess we'd best enjoy it while it lasts.
How long is it done?
Why is my picture on the computer?

*And holy moses! This is my 800th post!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Favorites #2: Music, blogs, TV

I know, I know, I'm an appalling blogger. Something like 6 entries in the past month, way off my heyday (can a spatula have a heyday?) and my daily hit rates show it. Unfortunately work, childcare and the ongoing house hunt are all eating up most of my so-called life, with what little time left over spent watching "Doctor Who" episodes, because I do prioritize after all. But I'll attempt to keep throwing something up here as I can, long as you don't forget about this kiwi wanna-be down under...

So anyway, here's a few things I've been digging and grooving on in my Favorites #2:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFAVORITE BAND TO LISTEN TO AT 5:45 a.m.: After I switched to my early-morning shift, I realized that say, Nick Drake wasn't really what one wanted to listen to at the crack of dawn on the 20-minute drive to work. Instead, I've found the lounder and harder the better, and for some reason, the Foo Fighters have been fitting the bill lately for me. Not terribly deep, really, but Dave Grohl and co. can certainly thrash with the best of 'em. If I had any hair left I'd be head-banging through the streets of Auckland at dawn.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFAVORITE BLOG SERIES: Hey, it's almost Halloween, which I tend to forget about now that I'm too old to trick-or-treat, but my old pal and comics writer Will "Violentman" Pfeifer has been doing a swell series, a Horror Movie Marathon that has been terrific fanboy film writing. Besides the obvious picks like "Bride of Frankenstein" and John Carpenter's "The Thing," Will's been throwing all kinds of cool obscuro stuff into his movie essays (Seriously, "Sh! The Octopus"?). He even riffed on a truly awful forgotten horror movie I saw around age 12, "Dracula Vs. Frankenstein." It's been a real treat to read these witty, trivia-filled pieces and there's still nearly half the month to go!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFAVORITE TV ON DVD: We just powered through the Season 3 DVD set of the American "The Office," and this sitcom just continues to be a satirical delight. Like most I was leery when I heard of plans to "Americanize" the UK show, but if anything, I find the American version outshines the original now – it's cuddlier, true, and less bleak and cynical, but that also makes the characters a little more sympathetic. (Steve Carell's deeply flawed but essentially caring Michael Scott is a lot more admirable than Ricky Gervais' more sinister boss.) There's despair here, but it's done in a less grim fashion. It's the supporting characters that make this series so strong – from office sad sack Toby to weirdo Creed to layabout Stanley, they've all evolved from bit players into rounded, hilarious characters. Ed Helms was a marvelous addition in season 3, also. But what a drag it is that TV New Zealand isn't airing the American "Office" anywhere near the U.S. schedule (they just started season 2, while season 4 is underway in the U.S. – and they're airing at 10:30 at night or somesuch. Hence us buying the DVDs). (And don't even get me started about TVNZ starting to air the very funny US sitcom "30 Rock" -- and then pulling it off the air after only 4 weeks. Bastards!!) If you come to New Zealand, don't come for the TV.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

At least Norway has some sense

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWay to go, Al Gore! I had a gut feeling the former VP and would-be President was going to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and I'm pleased to see it happened. Global warming has hit the "tipping point" as an issue in the past year or so – and it's far more obvious if you live overseas rather than in America, where FOX News and the denial machine still continues to hold an undue amount of influence. I don't know what will happen in the long run, if we're headed to disaster or mere inconvenience, but I do know the whole "head in the sand" thing isn't working. And it's great to see Al Gore's message - which he's been pounding away at for more than 15 years - is gaining traction.

I've long admired Al Gore even when he became unfashionable. I've "met" him twice - once in 1992, right before his selection as Clinton's VP, when he was on a book-signing tour in Mississippi, and then again in a huge crowd when I saw him and Bubba speak in 1996. The 1992 encounter was pretty amazing, because it was the first time I'd been in a small room with a force of personality like Gore. Anyone who makes it in politics on a national scale, be they Democrat or Republican, has to have a bit of charisma, and I just remember Gore's voice booming through the room and sheer way he rode a crowd of 50 people or so. I'd never seen anything like that in person and was quite amazed.

I maintain that Al Gore (and John Kerry) would've been above-average presidents but were dismal campaigners. Every time I've seen Gore solo, or read interviews or seen him onscreen, I've been dazzled by the man's intelligence and curiosity. I could write an entire treatise on how I think Americans hate feeling like someone is smarter than them and how being a well-learned, intellectually questing figure simply ain't cool -- but y'know, it's been done. Sure, Gore can take on a lecturing tone, can seem arrogant, and lacks Bill Clinton's masterful touch of being really, really smart but really down-home at the same time. But I think Gore as a public figure is going to have a far longer shelf-life than the man who narrowly squeaked into the Oval Office instead of him. I have far more respect for him than I do most politicians.

Sadly of course this is all seen through the insipid political filter that's taken over American life, where everything is "left" or "right", black or white. Anyway. Congrats, Al.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Darkness falls on Kiwiland

"Our national psyche has been wounded."
"There's a sort of desolate decay and the stench of death."
"The country is in mourning."
"Our darkest hour -- ever."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketNo, nobody died, believe it or not. If you heard the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments coming from vaguely southwest of the US, it's because New Zealand got stomped right out of the Rugby World Cup Sunday. By France, which just makes it even more humiliating. As I mentioned a few weeks back, rugby is Kind Of A Big Deal Here. It's hubris come to roost because the All Blacks have been pegged as the team to beat, the future champs, best team in the world, etc., but they were ejected in the first quarter-final game. Even though I'm not a real rugby follower, I can say that's a bit of an owch. For a nation of 4 million that apparently puts a great deal of its national identity into the fate of their rugby team, it's a rather stiff kick in the scrum so to speak. It's been interesting to watch all this as a rather uninvested observer -- I cannot even begin to calculate the thousands, perhaps millions of words of World Cup-releated copy generated the past month or so in the papers. Including at least 412 photos of the All Blacks reclining on the beaches and pools of France.

It all seems rather drawn-out to a novice, padded with games against weak teams like Namibia and Japan. The All Blacks rolled over their outmatched opponents in the early games, only to get French-fried in the first real match of consequence. And so the country mourns -- the level of All Black fandom is something an American, with zillions of teams and sports, can't quite imagine. Not everyone is a rugby nut of course, but the ABs certainly unify a nation. Would've been interesting if they'd won. Ah well. There's always 2011 -- when the World Cup is played right here in Auckland, about a mile from my in-laws' house. Egad. Might want to book a holiday for that month.

(And go read my expatriate comrade Arthur's take on the Cup fallout and what it all means down under.)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBut forget the rugby, I'm all about the music, man. Australia and New Zealand's answer to Lollapalooza is the Big Day Out festival, an all-day concert that draws some of the world's biggest acts. My wife's been many a time but I'm a virgin to it. Until 2008, that is -- they announced this year's line-up last week, and we're definitely going. It's an excellent roster led by Björk, LCD Soundsystem (whose Sound Of Silver is one of my top 5 albums of 2007, easily), Arcade Fire and Billy Bragg. Plus, Rage Against The Machine, who I'm not a huge fan of but hey, I'll see them too, and a bunch of smaller NZ and international acts including Battles, Shihad, Dizzee Rascal and more. I'm particularly excited to see Björk, who puts on quite the theatrical show I've heard. This year's line-up generally seems a little more "adult" than last year's which had a surplus of teenybop emo acts like My Chemical Romance, Jet and The Killers (hence the reason we didn't go to the 2007 gig). It ain't cheap - around $150 a ticket - but actually works out pretty well considering a typical NZ concert ticket for one act runs about $100. And again, Björk, dammit! Can't wait for January 18!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Hey look, I'm a real businessman

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSo I went on my first official business trip for Pagemasters Wednesday, flying with my boss across the country from Auckland to Napier. (Which, to give you an idea of how wee NZ really is, took about one hour of flight time.) We were visiting the Hawke's Bay newspaper which is about to become one of our clients, and I always enjoy visiting the art-deco haven of Napier -- although the freakish Spring winds from Antarctica nearly froze us half to death. Our company is gradually taking on the layout and copy editing for the newspapers in Napier, Rotorua, Tauranga and Whangarei, and I'm one of the team helping this get off the ground, so hopefully I'll get a little more North Island traveling in during coming months. I realized that was the first time I'd actually gotten out of the Auckland metropolitan area since we arrived here nearly (gasp!) one year ago, with the exception of our trip to Sydney earlier in the year. I really must get out and about more.

Peter: "Daddy can we go to the wave pool and the museum and the beach and maybe the ice cream shop?"

Yes, it must be my day off....

Monday, October 1, 2007

Let's all go to the picture show

Recently seen and reviewed for your pleasure:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"300": So I finally saw Frank Miller's "300" movie adaptation the other weekend. And -- well, if I was 14 years old, it would've been The Coolest Movie Ever. But as it is, I thought it was a visually impressive, rather empty-headed diversion -- much like the graphic novel, which is far from my favorite of Mr. Miller's works. The tale of the Spartans battling the Persians is all testosterone and posing, dramatic stands without any real emotional heart to them ... which is totally fine as long as you're in the mood for it, really. The Spartans are so tough, so manly that it's hard to really get any pull into the story. You know they'll beat everyone up until the moment that they don't, and Gerard Butler's burly King Leondias is merely riffing on everyone from Charlton Heston to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The action in "300" is visceral but too often director Zach Snyder jumps right into self-parody (can we please for the love of God have a moratorium on "slow-motion/fast-motion" violence with blood pausing artfully before spurting out onto the ground?). The heavy-metal soundtrack merely accented the film's resemblance to one big video game. That said, it's got a nifty, burnished burnt skies look to it, and there admittedly is a ton of invention to the grotesqueries of the Persian army of the damned. But if all you're going to do is throw the graphic novel directly on the screen, what's the point? I have to admit I was a lot fonder of the "Sin City" movie by Robert Rodriguez -- the noir material there just leaned itself more to a movie adaptation, it featured better acting and cleverer use of the "panel as film frame" idea. But for what "300" aspires to be, I guess it does the job pretty well. Grade: B-

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"Ace In The Hole": It's fashionable among some of the younger set to think of older films as innocent, that black-and-white movies don't really capture the complex landscape of life today. Not true, of course, and an excellent example lies in Billy Wilder's 1951 morality play "Ace In The Hole," a dark, bitter and cynical fable that with a little tweaking could've been made last week. Kirk Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck journalist who stumbles upon a huge story -- a miner trapped in a cave-in -- and he spins it into his own personal meal ticket. A media circus erupts around the trapped man, with Tatum orchestrating every inch of the coverage. Douglas' square-jawed he-man chews the scenery with such gusto that you can't help but be charmed at the same time you're revolted by his oily self-interest. Douglas may not be the most subtle of actors, but that's a strength here. He's the warped idea of a journalist at their worst, all ego and no compassion. With the exception of the poor doomed miner, there are no heroes here – the miner's cruel, gold-digging wife is one of the nastiest pieces of work I've ever seen ("I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons"); the town sheriff is utterly corrupt; and Tatum himself is a black hole of greed. What's fascinating about "Ace" is how it hasn't lost a moment of relevance in more than 50 years. Substitute "Man in hole" for "Madeline McCann," "OJ Simpson," "Utah cave-in" or about a zillion other tabloid frenzy moments in our all-sensation, all-the-time world. It shows how quickly a human tragedy turns into a motive of profit, something that's never changed. Bleak and yet strangely invigorating, "Ace" remains an utterly contemporary film. Wilder's career includes some of the finest movies of all time -- "Some Like It Hot," "Sunset Boulevard," "Double Indemnity" -- but "Ace" remains a kind of lost sibling, largely forgotten following its release. There's a tart meanness to it that still stings. Now it's finally getting some of the attention it richly deserves with this Criterion DVD, which also includes a great hour-long 1980 interview with Wilder, and a fine commentary. Grade: A

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"Sunshine": "Trainspotting" director Danny Boyle goes futuristic in this sci-fi cross-breed of "Solaris," "Event Horizon" and "2001," featuring a spaceship crew in the year 2057 carrying a gigantic bomb in an attempt to restart the fizzling sun. The plot may not be particularly original, but the utterly stunning, scorched visuals and claustrophobic vibe make the style win out over substance. A solid crew of actors including Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans and New Zealand's own Cliff Curtis make up the crew of desperate adventurers trying to save mankind, even as they face their own demons. Boyle really excels at setting up atmosphere -- juxtaposing an intense melancholy with a lonely beauty. He constantly uses shots of space's vastness and the sun's boiling size to remind us how tiny his human characters really are, focusing on the isolation of the years-long mission. There's a kind of art-film meditation going on here combined with more traditional elements of danger and plot twists. It moves along faster than "Solaris" or "2001," but still takes the time to contemplate a bit. It all falls apart a little in the final act, which goes in rather pedestrian directions (however, if you choose to look at it more as a metaphor, it still works as a climax that follows through on the movie's themes). Sure, the science is probably wonky (could the sun really burn out on us in just 50 years?), but the movie delivers a convincing combination of mystery and wonder that I dug. Overall "Sunshine" leaves a haunting impression on the mind -- it's certainly one of the more memorable science fiction films in the past couple years. The things that linger are the images of a ruined spaceship, vast corridors, waves of solar fire, and an infinite that can never quite be pinned down. Grade: A-

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Our house, in the middle of the street

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketNearly a year since we arrived, the whole Moving to New Zealand thing has been going pretty darned well, really -- Avril got a swell job just after we arrived, I got a fine job myself in my first week of looking, Peter is settled in and happy at daycare, we love the country and I can eat meat pies and fish and chips whenever I like -- all of it is done of course except for the final piece of the puzzle, a place to call our own. We've been relying on the amazingly grand hospitality of Avril's parents since we arrived, staying in an apartment built on the back of their house, but this was never meant to be more than a temporary fix in the expensive Auckland housing market.

And so we've begun the dreaded house hunt, for the very first time in our lives attempting to move from perpetual renters into bona fide property owners. It's pretty damned daunting, I must admit, and we've only just begun to dip our feet in the water by going to a few open houses and doing a lot of research. And I met with our banker today to get an idea what we can afford and freely admit I only understood about 40% of the conversation.

Pretty much everywhere we've lived the last decade – Lake Tahoe, Oregon, here – we've had the uncanny knack to move there just after the property market explodes in value. Auckland home prices have doubled in value several times over since the 1990s unfortunately, which severely limits our options. No sweeping sea views and matching guest house, in other words. But we're hopeful we can afford a decent townhouse or, fingers crossed, small standalone house, in one of Auckland's less ritzy suburbs but without a gang or crack dealer next door. We're making decent, if not spectacular money, and have next to no debt which is always good. And after getting shafted by our last landlords, we're well and truly sick of the renting thing. But there seems like a hell of a lot we don't know and the uncertainty of it all is creating one heaping helping of stress stew.

I imagine house-buying is like those other big things in life – marriage, having a kid, moving – in that it hopefully isn't quite as bad as you make it out to be in your head before doing it. Or maybe not. Is it worse?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Excuse me while I kiss the mattress

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...Egad, is that the time? So this week I began my new work schedule, which is on the one hand is grand because I'm now working only four days of the week, but which is bad because I'm now working four 10-hour shifts starting at 6 am. Which takes a little getting used to. I generally like working early rather than later (no 3-12 midnight morning paper shifts for me, thank you) but it's still been rather a shock to the system to get up at 5 am in the morning these days. I'm starting to adjust but the first week there's been a lot of yawning and excessive coffee consumption. It is swell to get off while it's still light (and the clockwork chirping of the tui birds lets us know it's nearly spring), and, the main reason for this schedule, it allows us to put Peter in day care less of the week. So if it gets me greyer and wrinklier (a 10-hour shift is a little like a mini-marathon I think) it's worth it in the end.

And of course New Zealand has gone mad for the Rugby World Cup right now and I've been doing a lot of work relating to that. I know about as much about rugby (and well, sports in general) as I do about Swedish tax systems, and so I admit I've had a lot of baffled moments as I try to sort out the difference between the scrum and the pitch and why the Wallabies and Springboks are such bastards. Which doesn't help when you're trying to edit copy about the game. (Which I realized to my utter astonishment lasts something like 40 days. Eat that, Super Bowl!) NZ is pretty sport-mad in general, even more than the US I think I'd say. Not all New Zealanders but Joe Kiwi (if there is such a person) is pretty well into the rugby and the cricket and so forth. I've never really been anti-sport, but neither have I been particularly into it ... too much time spent on books, music, comics and movies, and, oh yeah, family. But with American sport, you at least just sort of pick up some of it in the culture and I know the general workings of football and baseball and the like just through osmosis. However, rugby and the rest baffles me and I have to play catch-up just to get what I'd otherwise have picked up growing up here. I will say these players are sheer giants who put wimpy US football (with its padding and helmets) to shame. Never get between a 400-lb. Tongan and his ball. It's unhealthy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It was eight years ago today...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...That some crazy kiwi married some wacko American journalist. A lot's changed since then - the manic toddler, the moving around America and then to New Zealand, a couple of cars, travels everywhere from Alaska to Mississippi, but it's all been grand indeed. This last year has maybe been the toughest yet to deal with and keep our sanity, but so far, we're still here. I haven't always been the best husband, but as Jules in Pulp Fiction put it, "I'm trying. I'm tryin' real hard to be a shepherd." By which I don't mean New Zealand sheep, honest. It's all pretty remarkable when you think it began with a random letter sent across an ocean in 1992 from a New Zealand gal looking for foreign pen-pals. Happy anniversary, sweetie!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Favorites #1: Actress, Song of the Week, Blog

In the interest of trying to keep this blog a valuable destination point in your Internetting experience, here's a new occasional feature I'll do just to tell you what I'm into right now (and really isn't that mostly what a blog is about?). Today's Favorites that I'm digging:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFAVORITE ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett has taken the crown from Nicole Kidman, who's almost always worth watching but who has the knack of picking some really crummy movies to waste her gifts in (Bewitched, The Invasion, The Human Stain, anyone?). Cate, on the other hand, is really taking on some extraordinarily varied roles lately, and this fall promises to be the winter of our Blanchett -- I'm dying to see her playing a version of Dylan in the wacky new Bob Dylan biopic, "I'm Not There," and quite intrigued to see her take on a sequel to the role that brought her stardom with "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." Most recently I watched "Notes On A Scandal" the other night, starring Cate as a ditzy young teacher who becomes involved in a parasitic relationship with a bitter colleague (an excellent Judi Dench). It reaffirmed my notion that Cate can play nearly anything -- a sex object in "Scandal," a wounded housewife in the otherwise overwrought "Babel," an elf queen in "Lord of the Rings," and that marvelous take on Katherine Hepburn that won her an Oscar in "The Aviator." (A role Kidman passed up, reportedly -- doh!) Blanchett brings an intelligence to her roles that's rarely calculating, a kind of gentle realism that obscures her remarkable talent a bit. I don't think of her as "flashy" or tabloid material, but as a serious actress who just happens to be rather gorgeous. As if we needed further evidence she's the queen bee of acting these days, she'll be in 2008's fantastically titled "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." No word on whether she's Indy's love interest or nemesis -- but personally, I'd love to see her take a crack at playing a villain. Heck, I might even have to root for her against Indiana Jones.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFAVORITE NEW BLOG DISCOVERY: Todd Klein is the niftiest letterer in comic books, perhaps best known for his work on Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Alan Moore's Americas Best Comics. And he like everyone else has a blog, which is a remarkably fun site for anyone interested in comics trivia and design. I flipped out like a monkey on crack over his amazing ongoing essay series Logo Studies, which dissects the genesis and varying appearance of iconic logos such as Superman and Batman over the decades. I know, I know, it's like a 10.8 on the Geek Scale, but Klein is a fascinating guide through the years showing how approaches to these iconic type designs have changed (and you're hearing this from a guy who watched an entire documentary on a type font not too long ago, so it's kinda up my alley). That sturdy "Superman" logo pretty much defines the character in letters alone, and it's been really nifty having Todd look at how these designs came to be. An excellent "behind the scenes" look at the comic industry that is quite different than the norm.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A quick dip into 'Mister Pip'

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"Mister Pip" is a haunting New Zealand book by Lloyd Jones that's being pipped (er, sorry) to win the Booker Prize next month. It's a brief but lingering read, a kind of combination of "Dead Poets Society" and "Hotel Rwanda" that pays homage to the mysterious power of storytelling. Set on a remote New Guinea island during a time of violent revolution in the early 1990s, it's the tale of village girl Matilda and the bond she forms with her eccentric schoolteacher, Mr. Watts, the last white man left on the island. With next to nothing in the way of resources, the ragged, exiled Mr. Watts tries to teach the children by reading his way through a copy of Charles Dickens' novel "Great Expectations." But the novel becomes a startling focal point in the battles between the army and the rebels and Matilda's entire world is drawn into the fight. Matilda comes to identify with Dickens' prodigal orphan Pip, despite them coming from two very different worlds.

The novel's biggest strength is how it undercuts dreamy reverie with startling bursts of real-life horror. Jones creates some finely drawn characters in his direct, toned prose, and he mostly manages to avoid the cliches inherent in the whole "kindly white gent educates the natives" plot. Jones genuinely probes at the clash between "native" and "white man" culture, and comes to interesting conclusions about it all. He makes Mr. Watts a haunted, flawed figure, particularly in a brilliant final act in the novel in which Matilda goes in search of the truth. Given the choice between a life of war and torture and one of fiction, which would you choose? A fine book and I certainly wouldn't be upset if it took home a big international honor on behalf of Kiwi lit.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Of newspapers, vampires and the Tardis

Random thoughts:

• Work, work, work, work. It's been good but extraordinarily busy these last couple of weeks as we constantly add new publications and magazines to the roster of those we're dealing with, which means learning whole new styles and designs pretty much every week. At some point by the end of the year it will settle down into more of a routine but until then, very hectic but mostly enjoyable. I've been busily designing many of the pages and sections in the NZ Herald, which is pretty nifty – a year ago I'd worried what I would do once I left my job in Oregon, but I've ended up working with the country's biggest newspaper and seeing my fingerprints in there daily. ("Whole lotta love for Zeppelin fans" – oh yeah, that's my headline, baby!). And next month it looks like I'll get to do a little traveling around NZ to some of the smaller regional newspapers we're also adding to the roster.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket• But when I haven't been working, I've been slaying. Vampire slaying, that is. One or two of you may recall way back before we emigrated I mentioned that I had never watched the famed "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" TV show before, and having sampled it, was determined to catch the entire 7 seasons worth of DVDs from start to finish. So how's that ambitious project going? Well, the wife and I have been zipping along renting DVDs in Buffy-land lately, due largely to the fact NZ Television's five or six channels have next to nothing to watch. We're about midway through Season 3, and it's been some of the best TV I've watched in eons. I missed "Buffy" first time 'round as by the time I noticed it the mythology seemed too daunting – and the main character was named Buffy, so I figured it was Beverly Hills 90210 with fangs. But really, as a zillion others have pointed out before me, "Buffy" has a rich subtext using horror as a metaphor for high school and life in general. The second season found the show settling into a wonderful groove combining angst, romance and monster-of-the-week kung fu with flair, and the great tragic Buffy/Angel love affair packs a real sting. Joss Whedon's characters are so great that I sometimes find the marquee violence and kung fu distracting to the quieter scenes. I can't wait to see what happens next (Spike came back in the latest one we watched – hurray!), and it's cool to know I've got 3 1/2 seasons to go. (The hard part is avoiding spoilers on the Internets about the future of Buffy.)

• And did I mention I've never ever watched "Dr. Who" before either? Well, not until last weekend... Yep, I'm a failure as a geek. The next obsession lurks ahead in the Tardis, I guess!