Monday, April 28, 2008

Book review: Haruki Murakami, After Dark

PhotobucketHaruki Murakami is one of Japan's finest authors, and for my money, one of the best writers wielding a pen these days. His works, global in voice but with a uniquely Japanese perspective, are filled with layers that disappear into subterranean mists. Murakami's work is that of a modern man's probing of where Japan today fits into its bloody, mythology-filled history. Underneath everyday doings like feeding your cat and playing a jazz record lie the potential for strange abysses indeed. Murakami's work isn't science fiction, precisely, but it carries a healthy element of the outer limits coloring the edge of everything.

Murakami's most recent American-published work, now out in paperback, is the short novel After Dark, which steps back from the longer epic approach of his other books like the magnificent The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka At The Shore.

After Dark is a series of vignettes set over one long Tokyo night for 19-year-old Mari, a student who can't sleep and is passing time at a coffee shop. She meets a goofily endearing young musician, a burly "love motel" manager, a battered prostitute and more as she passes a most strange, sleepless night. Meanwhile, Mari's gorgeous estranged sister Eri is in a strange coma-like state, her fate somehow connected to Mari's wanderings.

PhotobucketMurakami casts a beguiling rhythm of endless nights, evenings not spent getting loaded and throwing up in an alley somewhere, but rather, a more lonely, mysterious darkness – the people who sit in coffee shops alone at 2 a.m. reading a book, the guy shuffling home from work just as dawn is rising. After Dark is populated with the characters of the sleeping world: "Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night," one character notes sagely. The enigmatic After Dark is almost more of a tone poem than a fully fleshed-out novel, a kind of throat-clearing between bigger tales. Set in "real time" – each chapter ticks by with a clock telling us the hour of the evening – it has a brisk feeling.

Where the novel threatens to derail is in its plot, which meanders enticingly yet never quite gels. Like much of Murakami's work, resolution remains just out of reach – but while that quality works in some of his other books, making the reader feel involved in an open interpretation of events, here it's all just a little too opaque.

The finest parts of After Dark are the teasing, thoughtful dialogue Mari has with the various misfits and strangers she meets during the night. Murakami expertly portrays a thoughtful young girl trying to figure out her place in the world. But in its more overarching symbolic threads, After Dark feels rushed and less haunting than is typical for Murakami.

I wouldn't quite recommend After Dark for someone new to Murakami (try Norwegian Wood's bittersweet romance, perhaps). Yet while it's less satisfying than it might be, it's still got a sheen of mysterious beauty to it that carries through all his work. It's a minor piece, perhaps, but still part of a career tapestry full of often astounding imagery and strangeness.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Misc., I say, miscellaneous

...Yeah, been a busy week and not much blog time in there. And there are few things lamer than a three-day holiday weekend in which you work two of the three days. ('Tis Anzac Day today.) So a few random thoughts so I don't leave the week totally blogless:

• Peter's request today: "Tofu with silly sauce please." (That would be "soy." Yes, we're raising a hippie.)

• Is there a better white female singer than Dusty Springfield? When I say "singer," I mean in terms of pure belt-it-out hit-you-in-the-spleen hollerin'. (Of course there are many other white female singers I love like Cat Power, Lucinda Williams, Linda Thompson and many more, but technically Dusty is the queen methinks.)

• OK, I love Frank Miller, and I love the late Will Eisner. I love Frank Miller's over-the-top gonzo "Sin City" movie. But grim 'n' gritty Frank Miller taking Eisner's pulp hero "The Spirit" and making his movie into what surely looks like "Sin City II"? Ugh, not so much. The levity, invention and sheer good cheer of Eisner's work is really missing from this trailer. Hopefully the movie will be better than this teaser, but I dunno man....

• I'll add to the millions who've already said this, but so long to blogger supremo Dave's Long Box, who closed up shop this week. Easily in my top five blogs to visit list, Dave was totally Airwolf and pushed the Boob War to the max. And if you didn't have a clue what that meant, go page through his archives.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Summer 2008 movies excite-o-meter preview

OK, it's getting all cold and damp down here in the antipodes but in theory it's nearly summer in some parts of the world, which means summer movie season! The time of year when it's all about the bang-bang, boom-boom and cool one-liners. Of course, in my preview I'm probably missing several movies including the ones I'll actually like the most at year's end, but what the heck. Here's a quick look at the main "blockbuster" movies of the season and how excited I am about them myself on a scale of 1 to 10:

PhotobucketIron Man
Excite-O-Meter: 9

This checks all my latent 13-year-old comics fanboy buttons – based on a comic I used to love reading, a nifty man-in-armor concept, absolutely fantastic casting (Robert Downey Jr, genius!) and very fun trailers so far. I expect this one to be a massive hit and hope it's of "Spider-Man" level quality as well.
The trailer

Excite-O-Meter: 6

Hey, it's Pixar, it's about robots in space, and eventually Peter will want the DVD and watch it until it falls apart. It'll be fun, I'm sure.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Excite-O-Meter: 4

Funny thing is I grew up loving the Narnia books, but the first movie was just OK to me. I will see this eventually, but I hope it's got a more engaging feeling than the rather staid and uninspired first one. More excited for the eventual "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" movie, though, as that's easily my favorite of the book series.

PhotobucketIndiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Excite-O-Meter: 8

Shoot, it's Indiana Jones. It's hard to imagine how they can screw this up, but then I think "Phantom Menace" and know it's theoretically possible. Crossed fingers that it'll be a retro thrill-ride blast, though. Extra points for Cate Blanchett as an evil Russian vixen villain. Ay chihuahua!
The trailer

Excite-O-Meter: 3

Yow, another comics-based movie? Apparently this bears almost no resemblance to Mark Millar's notorious comic book about a man who becomes a supervillain assassin, which frankly was more shock than substance anyway. Sure, Angelina Jolie in tight clothing is always interesting, but generally this one screams "rental" to me.
The trailer

Sex And The City: The Movie
Excite-O-Meter: 2

Um, not in the demographic for this one. And aren't they all getting a bit old?

PhotobucketThe Incredible Hulk
Excite-O-Meter: 4

Well-publicized troubles surrounding the production, the stench of the first movie just five years ago, and a trailer that left me going "meh." Replacing the entire cast of the 2003 movie is interesting, but frankly Edward Norton doesn't seem like Bruce Banner to me. I'm geek enough that I usually see most comic book movies in the theater, but frankly, I'm probably waiting for DVD unless the word of mouth is far better than the advance press.
The trailer

Excite-O-Meter: 4

Will Smith superhero comedy (not based on a comic book, believe it or not). Amusing, I imagine, but probably a rental.

Get Smart
Excite-O-Meter: 5

Ah, I liked the TV show reruns as a kid and Steve Carell's always fun, but probably not going to make a special trip to a theater to see this.

PhotobucketHellboy II: The Golden Army
Excite-O-Meter: 8.5

I love the comics and the underrated original movie is great fun. The trailer for this offers bigger bang for the buck than the first. It's interesting that director Guillermo Del Toro followed up his Oscar-nominated "Pan's Labyrinth" with the sequel to an earlier genre picture he directed. Nobody evokes magic and mystery quite like Del Toro. Ron Perlman was friggin' great as Hellboy in the first one, and I expect more demon-punching, cigar-chewing action in the second.
The trailer

Speed Racer
Excite-O-Meter: 0

Not a fan of the cartoon, and this incredibly gaudy quasi-animated trailer is the ugliest thing I've seen in years. For hyperactive video game addicts only, I suspect. Pass.
The trailer

X-Files 2
Excite-O-Meter: 5

Hmmm, I think the zeitgeist has passed. Mild fan of the TV show, so I will catch on DVD eventually.

The Mummy 3: Return Of the Golden Orangutan or something like that
Excite-O-Meter: 1

First one was amusing retro sub-Indiana Jones fun, second one a boring slog with the worst CGI effects I've seen; third one, no Rachel Weisz, and I pass.

PhotobucketBatman: The Dark Knight
Excite-O-Meter: 8

So, anybody heard anything about this one? All the cast and crew from the first movie are back, except the bland Katie Dawson, so it's likely to be very good. Frankly, the only thing that turns me off is a bit of self-generated backlash to the excessive amount of fanboy slobbering about it online ("will Heath Ledger win an Oscar?" "Best superhero movie ever?"), and worries they're pushing the Joker too far into R-rated serial killer mode. The first was very solid entertainment and the first half or so definitely the best Batman movie yet, though, and I expect this one will be a great, dark ride.
The trailer

Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Excite-O-Meter: 3

In theory, "Star Wars 2.5" or somesuch, but sorry if I consider it a cynical cash in on a fading franchise – creepy-looking computer-generated cartoon filling in gaps between sequels, with none of the original cast doing voices – meh, says this 30-years "Star Wars" fan. I'm out of goodwill.
The trailer

Thursday, April 17, 2008

'Stand' in the place where you live...

• What do you do with a sick 4-year-old and torrential rains on your day off? We try to limit the lad's TV watching, which means daddy's brain gets stretched to the max filling up the time. Lego car death match!

Photobucket• So after several weighty nonfiction tomes recently, I felt the urge for some good ol' Stephen King, like the craving for a big messy cheeseburger and fries. So I'm reading "The Stand" for the first time in many years; all 1100 pages (urk!) of it. It's a fine companion on rainy afternoons. I won't say King's the finest crafter of sentences on the block, but no matter how highbrow my literary tastes might get I still find the man can tell a ripping yarn like nobody else (I've plowed through 500 pages of "The Stand" in a couple days). It's interesting to see how books change when you return to them after a few years – the horror of 99% of the world's population being knocked off in a plague hits home to me far more now that I'm a father and husband than it did when I read this as a single 20-something. Sure, the characters sometimes seem a little more one-note than I recalled, but the essential primal notes King hits in this saga of an empty America still sting, as I read and wonder, "what would I do?" Like many folks, I'm a sucker for "end of the world" tales, and this one in its epic biblical sweep and everything-including-the-kitchen-sink storytelling still works for me. (It's funny to read a story originally written in the 1970s that's set in 1990 while you're in the year 2008, though.)

• Hey, congratulations to reader Lefty Brown, who wins the little contest I offered up a week or so back in honour of my Fourth Blogoversary of Spatula Forum. Lefty gets my "NZ Mx" CD featuring 21 of what I consider nifty tunes by New Zealand musicians including SJD, The Chills, Phoenix Foundation, The Clean, Flight of the Conchords and more! Cheers mate, and email me your address so I can zip that out to you!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

You know it's going to be a bad day when...

PhotobucketSo I was at work this morning, and I kept getting annoyed by ants. Crawling on my arms, etc. I was irked at the low level of housekeeping at my job that resulted in ants everywhere. Then I stuck my hand in my backpack for something, pulled it out and my hand was covered in ants, like some horror movie special effect. My entire pack was swarming with the buggers, who had somehow gotten into my lunch packed the night before and colonized my entire pack, which I then unawares brought to work. And sat right by my feet.

Naturally I ran out of the office shrieking like a schoolgirl, smacking ants off my hand, throwing my ant-infested sandwiches out into the rain and shaking my backpack madly. Spent the morning scratching lingering ants out of my clothes, covered in ant bites. And no lunch.

Bloody ants, I say.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

R.E.M. "Accelerate": Call it a comeback

PhotobucketOnce upon a time, 15 years ago or so, R.E.M. was like the Beatles to me. I was one of the "late" fans who discovered them circa 1989's "Green" rather than their earliest work, but that slam-bang series of discs in the late '80s-early '90s won me over. R.E.M. were mysterious, a first hint of the world of "underground" rock to me when I was mired in Billy Joel and Genesis fandom (it's a time I try to block out of my rock memoirs). "Orange Crush" tantalized me – what was this song about, I wondered as I listened to Michael Stipe holler/mumble his way through the lyrics. "Out Of Time" was that rarity, a huge hit album that was actually superb (if you ignore the rap song), and "Automatic For The People" simply is the soundtrack to my early years in college – I remember listening to the CD in the dark with friends in my first apartment, caught up in the forlorn drift of "Drive" and "Nightswimming." They were trying to tell us something, if only we could figure out what it was.

But unlike their 1990s alt-rock superstar contemporaries U2, R.E.M. seemed to go off the rails in the last decade, after drummer Bill Berry left in 1998. The albums post-"Automatic" drizzled away fans, although I still think the barbed-wire angst of "Monster" and the ecclectic fumes of "New Adventures In Hi-Fi" are fantastic work. But 1998's "Up" was a droning bore, while "Reveal" was half great, half-awful (I absolutely love "All The Way To Reno," though), and 2004's rock-bottom "Around The Sun" is the first R.E.M. album I listened to twice and re-sold for credit. It started to feel like the band should've, as Stipe once joked in an interview, broken up at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. There was a sense of sputtering out, and I kind of forgot about the band they way you do when someone you like disappoints you once too often.

PhotobucketAll of which brings us to their latest disc, "Accelerate." As the reviews generally have been saying, it's a real comeback – for the first time in a decade, Michael Stipe sounds excited to be here, Peter Buck's guitar is a soaring delight, and you can even hear Mike Mills doing harmonies just like the old days. The plodding crooning of the last few discs is gone, and Stipe brings back the bellowing revivalist-preacher power of some of his "Document"-era work. It kicks off with a superb one-two punch in "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" and "Man-Sized Wreath," two guitar-drenched full-force raves that have the propulsive momentum that too much recent R.E.M. has lacked. Melody is there, but this is also the loudest R.E.M. record since "Monster," and Buck's guitar is fantastic -- that patented R.E.M. jangle is back, man! "Supernatural Superserious" is a fine sing-along crowd pleaser, while title song "Accelerate" carries the disc's metaphor of momentum to a hard-driving, head-banging extreme. It's got that yearning passion that the best of R.E.M. offers.

Much of this record has echoes of the past, but it never quite devolves into an exercise in nostalgia (even if the song "Sing For the Submarine" actually quotes a line from their '80s number "Feeling Gravity's Pull"). It echoes their prevoius work, but heck, the band's been around almost 30 (urk) years – they're allowed to look back a bit. The campy album closer "I'm Gonna DJ" seems like a direct rebuttal to the band's critics: "I don't want to go until I'm good and ready." Stick around, guys, I remember you now.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A quick zip around volcanic fields

PhotobucketIt was getting to feel weird that we've been living in New Zealand now over a year-and-a-half, but we'd barely been out of the Auckland vicinity. Work, buying house, et cetera... we did a lot of touring on previous trips, of course, but heck, there's still lots to see. So when we finally had some joint vacation time last week, it was off exploring areas of New Zealand I've never seen before, down in southwestern corner of North Island in the Taranaki and Wanganui areas, and visiting the fearsome Mount Ruapehu.

There are really two New Zealands, as most kiwis will tell you – Auckland and everywhere else. There's a lovely rural beauty to the Waikato region just south of Auckland stretching along the spine of the North island. It's full of farms, sheep and cows, endless agriculture and green hills. Lovely stuff, mind you, but a lot of New Zealand looks like that, and we wanted new – the Taranaki area is quite grand, a peninsula jutting out of southwestern North Island with the pointy majesty of dormant volcano Mount Egmont (or Taranaki, as it's usually called these days) plopped right in the middle. We spent several leisurely days camping our way around this peninsula (which is quite tiny by American geography standards -- only a couple hours to go round the whole thing, really). Desolate beauty, the often cloud-shrouded mountain looming in the distance, the rough waters of the sea bashing around all the surfers who love this area (I kept having "Point Break" flashbacks, myself).

PhotobucketUnfortunately our digital camera decided to temporarily spaz out and I have no pics to show of the Taranaki area, so I picked a nice wintry shot I found online to represent, at right. You're able to drive right up towards the lower/middle of the mountain, and we stopped at the grand Dawson Falls area where on a viewing platform I was able to see farmland going flat and the sea in one direction, the towering ruggedness of Taranaki on the other. Not too many mountains where you can see the sea, too.

We explored the nice small towns in the area (including Wanganui, which has the single coolest, biggest kids' playground I've ever seen) before working our way back North again on the final day, and stopping at Tongariro National Park for more volcano action. This cluster of volcanoes in the middle of North Island is anything but stagnant – the biggest, Ruapehu, just exploded a bit in September. You can also drive right up to the bottom of Ruapehu, which is a popular ski area. It's very "Lord of the Rings" territory, and lots of the Mordor/Mount Doom action was shot in the area. The ski area, dry of snow right now, fascinated me as it was sharp, nasty-looking piles of lava rock everywhere. Wouldn't much like to fall on that even with snow covering it.

PhotobucketWe also had grand luck with both mounts Taranaki and Ruapehu, where you're as likely to see nothing but cloud as anything. The skies parted nicely for both of them, and we had some gorgeous views up on Ruapehu, particularly. I would love to climb right up and hike around Ruapehu sometime when there's no 4-year-olds around. (But watch out the volcano doesn't blow up on you).

It's a nice reminder that New Zealand mostly isn't the traffic and typical urban annoyances you sometimes get sick of in Auckland. Now we just have to wait for our next vacation!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Now we are four

Egad, can you believe that it's really been four years since I began this blogging business? That's right, on April 8, 2004, I took a hit off the blogging crack pipe and lordy, I ain't never laid down that wicked drug since. Blogs are addictive, kids.

I started this as an editor at a medium-sized paper in rural Oregon, with a bouncing baby boy just a couple months old; I plod on 48 months later living clear on the other side of the globe in New Zealand, still working in newspapers, with that bouncing baby now a rampaging 4-year-old and all in all, it's been quite a wild trip.

Nothing too much to belabor the day or overstate here, but four years in blogging years is like 10 in the "real world" (many of the blogs I read back in 2004 no longer exist, I think). I've come and gone with the inspiration, and definitely post less often than I used to, but I still enjoy sharing my random thoughts on life Down Under, music, movies and books with those of you who stumble on by. Thanks to all the more constant readers who leave comments, as you're the fire that keeps the blogging crack pipe alight (last time I use that metaphor, I swear).

Heck, in honour of Spatula Forum's Fourth, we'll have a little contest – it's been many moons since I had one of those. Here you go -- leave a comment below and you're automatically entered. In a week or so I'll randomly pick one of you out of a hat and send you something nifty from New Zealand. Deal? Deal. Cheers, and thanks again for reading, mates!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

In tribute: The manly art of Charlton Heston

...So did I mention I was going on a week's vacation?

PhotobucketMore on that soon (we had a nifty camping trip down into the southwesterly reaches of North Island), but I had to break my blog-silence for a minute to offer an appreciation for the late Charlton Heston, that manly man's actor -- a brute force who I disagreed with in almost every fashion politically, but whom I still grew up admiring as the clench-jawed hero of "Planet of the Apes," "Soylent Green," "Omega Man" and more. Heston was stone-cold awesome to me at the tender age of 12 or 13, when I first caught the "Planet of the Apes" series in an afternoon movie marathon. ("Beneath the Planet of the Apes," although nearly Heston-free, scared the bejeezus out of me and was the most nihilistic "G"-rated movie I've ever seen -- Dr. K will educate you further.) His earlier work wasn't quite as interesting to me (I've still never seen "Ben Hur"), but Charlton Heston - Mexican detective! in Orson Welles' grand 1958 "Touch of Evil" remains one of my favorite Heston roles.

But it was the first "Planet of the Apes" where we had maximum Heston, bare-chested, growling ("get your hands off me you damn dirty ape!") and at sky-high testosterone levels. I'd easily plop that first "Apes" movie in my all-time top 10 -- it's inventive, satirical and strangely resonant 40 years on. Scared the heck of out of me as a whippersnapper, and still gets to me (the 2001 remake, despite some awesome makeup, is a pale shadow of the original). Heston's cynical, often cruelly arrogant Taylor, is mankind's representative in the world of the Apes - rude and tough, but also human to the core. We identified with him, as he navigated a strange and awful world that -- it turns out -- mankind made in its own war and hatred. Heston's presence somehow made a movie that might've been a silly joke into something that rang real.

Anyway. Heston starred in a blue ton of movies as well as "Apes," and brought a steel-eyed, brutish charisma to many of them. What folks don't recall now is that he was a big supporter of the Rev. Martin Luther King, and of civil rights, at a time when it was impolitic to be so. Later, he became the right-wing president of the National Rifle Association, and that's when many of us Heston fans dropped out -- sorry Chuck, guns never did much for me.

PhotobucketBut I felt a pang of sorrow when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's several years back -- sorry, whatever your politics, nobody deserves that -- and when they announced his death tonight, I realized that the invincible alpha-male hero at the center of so many of my primeval teen movie experiences was gone, even though Heston seemed as eternal as the tides, as ever-lasting as the stone the Statue of Liberty itself was made of. Godspeed, Chuck. We didn't agree often, but heck, you haunted my dreams as an actor, and that's the ultimate accolade for any of your creed.