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-