Thursday, May 31, 2007

Notes from Sydney, Part 1

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...All right mates, we're back from our Australian holiday and I'm ready to write something about our trek down under (well, down-er under-er and a little to the left of New Zealand, I guess). Sydney is magnificent, and a fantastic place to spend nearly a week. I'm totally infatuated with Australia now and ready to hop on a dingo and blow a didgeridoo. But lest I gush too much, here's a look at the first couple days of our trek – and there's more photos up on our Flickr page with more to come, too!

Some dimwit dude (ahem) booked our flight out of Auckland for 7 a.m. Wednesday; which of course meant we had to get up around 4 a.m. to get to the airport two hours before we took off; which meant that by the time we got to Sydney, with a 2-hour earlier time zone, we had been up since 2 a.m. that day. Urk. In any event, we were rather fried after the 3-hour flight, and somehow stumbled out of the airport and onto the subway (whee! I love subways!) into downtown Sydney, where we'd booked what turned out to be a fantastic, quiet Travelodge hotel tucked in the middle of the downtown business district.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAfter recuperating from the flight for a little bit, the three of us toddled out to explore the town, walking down to the world-famous Sydney harbour and the Circular Quay, home of the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and more. The Opera House is one of the most famous sights in the world, and didn't disappoint on first viewing – it's an astoundingly alive creation by Dane Jørn Utzen. While smaller than I'd imagined (like most such things), the sharp angles, vivid shades of white and ivory and kind of geometric feng shui created by the building are fascinating. It's a building that looks different from every angle, that's assertive but not aggressive. It's like a broken set of china cups, yet it's somehow harmonious. After a stroll around the outside of the Opera House and the adjacent Rocks district (some of Sydney's oldest streets, where the first convict settlers lived), we were worn out and ready to crash after a very long day.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDay two was more Opera House goodness – First thing in the morning, I took an hourlong tour of the building, while Avril and Peter went to wander the Botanic Gardens. Getting inside the Opera House, it may not be quite as immediately gripping as the outside, but it's still worth seeing. Architect Utzen actually left the project in a huff before the interior was completed, so it's kind of a mish-mash of heavy-duty industrial design, some purely functional performance space, and occasionally gorgeous rooms like the wood-lined, gigantic Concert Hall (which unfortunately they don't let you take photos of, but you can see it here). It's all impressive, but save that Concert Hall it doesn't have the imposing shock of the exterior. Later that week it turned out I'd go back for a performance at the Sydney Opera House, more about which in another post.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThen we had lunch in the Rocks district and walked up onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge, another of those iconic Aussie sights. I only walked about halfway out onto the bridge (which is much shorter than you might think), but it's a dazzling view. I also watched the bridge climbers moving like ants along the top arch - people climb up there on tour groups all day long, apparently. We'd see big groups up there of 20-30 people, all tethered to safety lines. I don't know - I had a pretty good view of the harbor anyway from the bridge just at street level, and imagine you'd have to be pretty confident in heights (and strong winds) to want to walk up to the top of it! (You can see them clustered next to the flags in the photo.)

That afternoon, we journeyed over to the Australia National Maritime Museum, showcasing all things naval. An excellent commemoration of Australia's considerable sea legacy, it included fine exhibits on the early settlers, plus lots of history on Australia's Navy, a submarine replica and more.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAnd finally it was on to one of the true highlights of our trip – stepping aboard legendary Captain James Cook's boat, the Endeavour. All right, not the real Endeavour, but an excellent, seaworthy replica boat built about ten years ago that is a stunning evocation of life nearly 300 years ago. The Maritime Museum includes several boats and a submarine moored outside to tour, but Endeavour was the only one we had time for, and one I've long wanted to see. Cook's voyages – the first European to see New Zealand, most of the Pacific, Bering Sea and more – are like the dictionary definition of "intrepid exploration," as the man mapped much of the unknown world in the late 1700s. Getting a chance to see the space he and his crew spent three years in was remarkable – talk about tight living! The replica was tricked out just as it would have been in 1788, even with botanist Joseph Banks' samples and notebooks laid out on his desk.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBelow decks, the crew slept in hammocks tightly together, and the ceiling room is rarely over 5 feet tall (at one point dipping under 4 feet). Even the captain's quarters were barely the size of most people's closets today. But at least he had a door, a luxury most of the crew didn't. Above decks, you stand with countless masts and ropes and imagine what it would've been like, sailing into the unknown so long ago. A most excellent historical stop in this living time machine of a vessel. (I highly recommend Tony Horwitz's book "Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before," which combines a history of Cook's travels with Horwitz's funny and informative tale of actually sailing on this modern Endeavour replica.)

Next: Up into the Blue Mountains!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Where I spent my weekend

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...So I spent most of my weekend perched 20 to 40 feet above the ground, helping some friends put a new roof on their house before winter sets in. This is not my usual forte – I figure I earned 100 manliness points for this act, which raises my total manliness points to a whopping 123. (I'm not known for my handyman skills but at least this weekend I neither injured myself or my partner, and nobody fell off the roof to the ground far far below.)

In any case, the family and I are off for our trip to Sydney in a day or two, so there'll be no posting until we get back with full details of our Australian adventure. G'day, mate!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Music reviews: The Stooges & The Arctic Monkeys' latest

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe Stooges, The Weirdness
The Weirdness is the first Stooges album in nearly 35 years from one of the most lionized bands in rock. Iggy Pop has gone on to a decent solo career, but the most cutting-edge time of his life was in the molten thrash-punk of the Stooges, who recorded three classic albums before calling it quits. Now, Pop has reunited with brothers Ron and Scott Asheton to see if that old fire can be summoned up again by men close to getting Social Security. Is The Weirdness anything like the old Stooges? Of course not - good lord, Iggy Pop is 60 years old now, and you can't expect this band to thrash and blast about quite like they did when they were young 20-something punks. So change your expectations accordingly, and The Weirdness is an enjoyably sloppy mess that rocks hard.

Unfortunately, Iggy's voice has gotten weaker and thinner (it's noticeably strained in a few tunes), but it's still got echoes of the sleazy croon of yore. Time hasn't tarnished the stomp of guitarist Ron Asheton (whose barb-wire riffs help save this album) and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, while Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE fame steps in on bass to replace the late Dave Alexander. Producer Steve Albini gives it all a bone-dry, clattering feel. It's like overhearing a band jam in the garage. The Weirdness clearly aims to be the opposite of high-profile, slick band reunions – it feels like it was knocked out in a night or two, and it takes the feral chaos of the old Stooges and reduces it into a kind of Tourette's syndrome geezer rock. All that said, I still find this album rawly appealing.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBut with winkingly juvenile lyrics like "My dick is turning into a tree," or "My idea of fun / is killing everyone," it's impossible to take The Weirdness seriously. And I don't think you're supposed to. It's garage punk by dirty old men, taking more than a hint of its sound from the decrepit modern-day Delta blues like the late R.L. Burnside. The lyrical stupidity doesn't always work – rhyming "Dalai Lama" and "baby mama" in "Free & Freaky"? Oy. While the haze of time has leant the Stooges' original three albums the gloss of hipster-approved perfection, they too were gritty, raw and sloppy albums by dirty young men. (The endless drone of "We Will Fall" on their 1969 debut comes to mind.) There's always been an element of amateurism to the Stooges.

While it rattles along, there's high points on The Weirdness, like the title track where Iggy summons up his deep Bowie voice for a churning anthem. Goofily inane "I'm Fried" roars with a fire close to the Fun House-era Stooges, while "The End of Christianity" aims to piss off liberals and conservatives alike. The Weirdness might not rise to the level of classic, but neither is it an embarrassment. Don't expect the sinister menace of the 1960s Stooges, but something kind of like a greasy old man ranting away in an alleyway with a mean backing band. If that's your bag too, this Weirdness might be for you.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketArctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare
The UK music press takes band hype to interstellar levels (every band is the biggest thing since Jesus), but last year's hot pick, the Arctic Monkeys, actually lived up to the accolades with a stinging, hook-filled first album. The pop-punk Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not was more of a cult hit in the US, but it broke records in Britain, becoming the fastest-selling debut in British history. And heck, it deserved it a lot more than, say, Oasis – the Monkeys crafted a potent stew of punk rhythms and ennui-filled lyrics, capturing the feeling of the MySpace generation.

Now a year or so later, here's the follow-up, Favourite Worst Nightmare – get out your carving knives for the sophomore slump, right? Well, record #2 doesn't kick you in the bollocks the way the first record did, red-hot with its own fresh immediacy. But the Monkeys (barely a member over age 21) still smash together influences like the Clash, Green Day, The Streets and Blur into a bitter stew that is cynical but never hateful, often surprisingly insightful and consistently rocking.

Frontman Alex Turner's wiser-than-his years vocals snap and crackle with a cynical bite. His light-speed lyrical delivery, influenced by hip-hop, is faster than ever, almost like a cockney auctioneer at some points. But there's also a newfound wry romanticism to Turner's voice this time round, although let's not start calling him Michael Bolton – unless lines like "do me a favour and break my nose" make your heartstrings tickle. In another tune, he sighs, "true romance can't be achieved these days." The music rockets along with an adrenalized momentum with the knife-sharp dueling guitar lines by Turner and Jamie Cook and skittering drums by Matt Helders. It slows down for a few ballady-type numbers, but generally the mood is even more amped up than the first record.

What is missing is some of the lyrical specificity that in Whatever made you feel like you'd lived through nights with the band. The telling details of life in the band's native Sheffield are gone for a more global view. Yet the best numbers on Favourite crackle with empathy and contempt all at once, like the lover's kiss-off "Flourescent Adolescent" or the bouncy fame's-not-all-you-thought tune "Teddy Picker" (with witty one-liners like "the kids all dream of making it /whatever that means"). With their second album, the Arctic Monkeys prove that they're managing to overcome the hype to build up an actual career.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Meanwhile, in the world of paying journalism

...So if you're interested in seeing a sample of some of that freelancing I'm doing lately, here's a pretty decent-sized piece by yours truly that appears in today's Weekend Herald (New Zealand's largest newspaper) -- a profile of the CEO of the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Kia ora koutou kua haere mai nei*

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketKia ora, ko Nik ahau! Ko wai koe? He paatai? Ka pai!

...And well, that's about all the Maori tongue I can spin off at the drop of a hat after two weeks of Tuesday classes.

Translation: Hello, my name is Nik. What's your name? Any questions? Good!

I'm taking a 10-week night class on "te reo" ("the language") - NZ's second official language – a free class, which is sponsored by the government in an effort to spread the language to as many as possible. The Maori, although only about 15% of the population, are hugely influential in the modern culture of New Zealand. If you've ever been to New Zealand, Maori is pretty inescapable, with a lot of Maori words in everyday use, or used for many of the place names; public signs are in both English and Maori, and there's also a Maori television network (you haven't lived until you've seen cartoon Bible stories dubbed in Maori). It's interesting to compare it to Spanish in the U.S., which is definitely not officially encouraged. Of course, the Maori arrived in Aoteorea (literally, the "land of the long white cloud") at least 500 years or so before the pakeha ("white man"), so it is an entrenched part of the culture here.

I've never been much of a languages guy – a smattering of French and German in high school and college. French ended with me being booted from class by a teacher who had it in for me, and I never quite progressed enough in German to be fluent. Maori, though, is totally different from all those European languages, and that's part of the allure. A big difference is the vowel sounds (we spend lots of time chanting ah-eh-ee-oh-oo), and it has only 20 or so letters (including such non-English ones as "wh" [pronounced "f"] and "ng" [pronounced like the noise cartoon characters make when embarrassed – "nggggg!"]). It's got a musical, kind of clattering sound alien to the ear, and is based on a Polynesian culture us U.S. folks know next to nothing about.

So far, it's pretty cool. There's about 20 or so of us in the class, from native kiwis to Americans like me and even some Swiss and Venezualan. Rodney, our teacher, does lots of singing (there's a celebratory, ceremonial aspect to a lot of Maori, including ritual karakia ("prayers") and more). I doubt I'll leave the class able to rattle off Shakespeare in Maori, but I'll definitely get a better picture of what te reo is all about.

*"Greetings to you all who have arrived here to this assembly"
**The picture of the Haka (the ferocious traditional Maori posture dance, sometimes called a war chant) has nothing to do with the class so far, but it sure looks cool.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Movie review: 'Spider-Man 3'

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"Part III" movies don't usually fare too well with folks – I'm thinking "The Godfather Part III," "Superman III," "Batman Forever," et cetera. "Spider-Man 3" is certainly coming in for a surprisingly strong amount of bashing, but y'know what – forget the pundits and fanboy nitpickers. While not quite in the same league as the first two movies, maybe, this dyed-in-the-wool webhead fan found "Spider-Man 3" an action-packed summer movie romp that still keeps the characters in mind at center stage. If it tries to do a little too much with its triple villain storyline, it mostly pulls it off – in its very excess, "Spider-Man 3" is consistently entertaining.

I think what keeps "Spider-Man 3" afloat is the same steady hand of director (and co-writer) Sam Raimi, who's helmed the entire trilogy, and the returning cast. It makes all three movies feel like a single story to have this consistency.

Is it perfect? No – there is an awful lot going on. Sure, the Venom plot could've been an entire movie on its own, but I kind of liked the pack everything in go-for-broke feeling of this flick, as Peter Parker's entire life careens out of control. Raimi pulls this chaos off a lot better than, say, the godawful "Batman Forever," which also crammed in several villains, a new sidekick, love affairs, etc., but came off as pop-colored cornball kitsch. Character is king in these movies, despite some great action sequences and special effects.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketMy random thoughts (SPOILERS ahoy, of course):
The good:
All right, so the movie is balancing three major plotlines at least (and that's just the villains) – yet for most of its running time, Raimi is a master juggler as he zips around the tales. The final act is a bit rushed (and you can practically feel the strain where, rumor has it, the studio forced Raimi to include Venom in the film), but it really does all tie together pretty nicely in the end.

OK, so this movie is basically about Peter Parker's ego and its rise, fall and redemption. And thanks to a plot device that introduces his "dark side," Tobey Maguire has a heck of a lot of fun with "evil" (or perhaps "ego") Peter Parker. Raimi balances the nasty acts of Parker with the silly, pushing the envelope in how over-the-top he can go with his behavior. Was the "disco Peter" stuff ridiculous? Of course – that was the point! Parker's a nerd, so when he becomes cool he's still going to be a cool nerd, isn't he? I had fun watching Maguire break out of the "noble suffering Parker" mode for a few scenes, and thought he brought a nice barely-contained rage to these sequences.

I loved James Franco's Harry Osborn in this movie (the underrated Franco has also been a bright spot in the previous flicks). The arc of his character is a tragic one, and in lesser hands might strain credulity, but Franco really sells the character's personality changes throughout.

Thomas Haden Church is a terrific Sandman – in that silly striped shirt, he looks exactly like the comic character. While he turned into too much of a muddy King Kong ripoff in the final act, I thought the effects used to bring Sandman to life were remarkable (particularly in the "birth" sequence, which attained a haunting beauty).

The not great:
Unlike some, I do think Topher Grace gave a mighty good show as Eddie Brock/Venom, and think the movie script considerably bettered the character's tangled comic origins (some of the disappointment by fans seems to be that Venom isn't precisely like he was in the comics; having never considered him one of my favorite foes, I don't mind that he is a little underused). I love Brock here as Peter Parker's twisted mirror, a Spider-Man without soul or conscience; as opposed to the steroid freak, inconsistently motivated comic goon Venom became (the superb Madgoblin has a two-part essay series looking at how the comic Venom's potential was lost, by the way).

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAll that said, it was just too long in the movie until Venom appears, and his story feels very rushed. Grace packs as much scenery-chewing as he can into his limited time, but another 15 minutes or so could've fleshed this arc out and kept the same action-filled four-way battle at the end. There are some very awkward transitions into the final act (The overwrought television camera crew narration, very lazy storytelling, was my least favorite part of the film). Venom and Sandman's abrupt alliance also feels very forced.

I kinda fell in love with Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane in the first two movies (the final shot of her in "Spider-Man 2" might just be one of my favorite movie moments), yet it felt like she phoned it in on this one. Her conflicts with Peter Parker weren't as organic as they might have been, and she often seems glaringly self-absorbed. Although she was really a minor role in this movie, Bryce Dallas Howard's Gwen Stacy was enjoyable eye candy – fans shouldn't go in expecting anything much like the comic character, though.

The ugly:
Isn't it a little absurd that the climax of all three of these movies revolves around Mary Jane getting kidnapped?

There's no real elegant way to do an "alien symbiote" entrance into what's been a kind of earthbound series, but the meteor from the sky was clumsy – if a nice nod to old-school monster flicks like "The Blob." I might've liked to see the symbiote be the result of a science experiment instead, though.

So why does Peter Parker spend half these movies without a mask on? It got rather ridiculous in "Spider-Man 3," but y'know, I thought about it, and actually, it makes a lot of sense from a moviemaking angle. That mask is hardly very emotive, and even Marlon Brando couldn't deliver a great performance shackled by it. While it looks awesome in the comics, there's a reason that Maguire keeps ripping it off in the films – it's the only way he can really act in a scene (I know some folks think he's a little too stoic an actor, but he works for me). There was an awful scene in the first "Spider-Man" with Spider-Man and "Power Ranger" Green Goblin having a heart-to-heart talk, yet you didn't see a single mouth move during the scene. So awkward as it can get, I can understand the "Amazing Mask-less Spider-Man" being so prominent in these movies.

Like I said, though, quibbles aside, I had a fine time at "Spider-Man 3," which I'd give a strong "A-/B+." I'd have to say these three together make the finest superhero trilogy we've yet seen (with "X-Men" following close behind, I think). A "Spider-Man 4" is probably inevitable, but part of me wishes they wouldn't think about it without Raimi, Maguire and even Dunst. Through the highs and lows, they have defined Spider-Man on screen, and without 'em, I'm not sure I'd like what I'd see.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

...Signed, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Peter

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketJust a brief note that I'll likely not be posting any more this week … it's all full-on with a big freelancing assignment to work on, my first Maori night class starting, Playcentre and pub visits and of course most importantly, tickets to the Auckland premiere of "Spider-Man 3" on Thursday night. All or most of which will probably be the subject of future blog posts. And I really just wanted an excuse to post this picture up.