Tuesday, August 18, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Losers Live Longer by Russell Atwood

When it comes to crime fiction I gravitate towards the classics - Chandler, Hammett, Black Mask reprints and the like. Oh, I pick up contemporary stuff here and there, but it's that early wave of hard-boiled fiction that truly wets my whistle. A great provider of vintage crime fiction re-prints is Hard Case Crime. I've delved into their contemporary crime fiction from time to time as well. And it turns out, they're not too shabby at releasing inventive and fun modern crime fiction. Case in point is the soon-to-be released (in September 2009) Losers Live Longer by Russell Atwood, an advance copy of which I was lucky enough to get my mitts on.

There's great energy to Losers Live Longer. Like many great detective stories, it begins with a phone call. Atwood creates an amazing pace in the first chapter. Our detective, Payton Sherwood, scraping by, lets the machine take the call, listens to the message before picking up and then, slowly over these opening pages, Atwood unfurls some amazing observations and excellent turns of phrases. This opening chapter sets up the story, not as an introduction but as a catalyst. Sherwood lurches forward trying to keep up as the story grows more complex and maze-like.

Though the story is complex - running the gamut from white collar criminals on the run to Russian runaways and a few washed-up drug-addled celebrities to boot - it's never convoluted. As Sherwood begins to figure things out, as he travels about downtown Manhattan (more on that later), as the bigger picture narrows to a thin straight line, his thoughts focus and his determination to not only stay alive, but see this case through to its end becomes our coda too. As events began, I wasn't sure what to make of Sherwood. Sure, I love a wise-ass detective as much as anyone, but I didn't think much of this Payton Sherwood guy. Kind of superficial personality. Too loose, maybe. Then as the plot tightens up, so does Sherwood. We see what he's made of. We feel his mettle and understand his code. More importantly, we see how his self-deprecation ("no way it could be a client" he states early on when his buzzer rings) provides the armor for the guy who spends a day and change tirelessly hopping around the East Village labyrinth that he finds himself in.

The East Village setting is a bonus for me as a current resident (hell, one death in the book happens around the corner from me) and native New Yorker. He succinctly paints a clear history of recent changes in the neighborhood, evoking the East village of another era (sometimes with a bit too much nostalgia for the gritty crime-ridden past), but mostly with a passion for people, the smells, the sounds, the buildings, that create the foundation for any great locale. This doesn't diminish the story for non-New Yorkers. In fact, it should enhance it - whereas some books just happens to take place here or there, other books, when torn at their spine, bleed their geography. Losers Live Longer bleeds New York. As with the classics, the sense of place is as important a character as the people who inhabit it, and Atwood makes the East Village come alive.

One last note - Losers Live Longer also has a tremendous final line. One of those lines that makes me smile and shake my head it's so darn good. Don't sneak a peek at it. Get there when you get there. It'll be worth it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

COMIC BOOK REVIEW: Wednesday Comics 1-6



I'm not a regular comics reader anymore. Haven't been for years. I sort of, kind of follow what's going on, and when something really interests me, I usually just wait for a trade rather than get involved in a monthly series. But along comes DC's Wednesday Comics and here I am up to my ears in a weekly comic. But the idea was just too good to pass on - 15 single page stories once a week in large newsprint style. So far it's rewarding my weekly trip to the comic shop. Here's my quick take on each:

Batman
Intriguing but plodding a bit. With issue 6, things start coming together. Looking forward to where this is going

Kamandi
Dave Gibbon's is writing and Ryan Sook is drawing this and it's been a blast. Crisp and straightforward, the action just hasn't stopped. Gibbon's is using the single page format to churn out a great tale thus far and Sook is really taking advantage of the large format (as are most of the artists, I should add). In my top 3 right now and makes the weekly purchase worth it.

Superman
First issue opens with Superman fighting an alien. 6th issue closes with an alien attack on Superman. In between, Superman laments being an alien on Earth. Lame. More aliens, less moping. C'mon Superman. Act like a superman for crying out loud.

Deadman
Pretty good so far. Up and downs over the 6 issues but mostly positives. Boston Brand is always a quality narrator and he's not lagging in this story.

Green Lantern
Wonderful artwork. Flashbacks taking the bulk of the six pages so far but a nice pace and what looks like a great set-up for action in the present. Solid.

Metamorpho
Neil Gaiman seems to be having a lot of fun with this and, to a point, the fun is infectious. However, it also seems a bit frivolous too. Great use of the single large page by Mike Allred, but the story seems to be getting restricted by the format rather than freed by it. But Metamorpho has always been a favorite of mine as has Gaiman. I have faith.

Teen Titans
I have no idea what's going on in this story. That was OK for the first 4 issues. I just rolled with punches and enjoyed the ride. Well, that ride no has a flat tire. My interest is gone. Perhaps if I paid attention to all the various "crisis" things in the DC Universe I would care about why blue Beetle wears armor and is a Teen Titan.

Strange Adventures
Adam Strange has always been a favorite of mine, so I was reluctant to get into this, what with the primitive Allana rather than the space-suit wearing Allana. But issue 5 & 6 sealed the deal. This is a keeper. Interesting take on the Zeta-beam and on Ranagar.

Supergirl
Wow, talk abut frivolous! Supergirl chases down her super dog and cat from causing mischief. It's been a fun ride and Aquaman has a funny cameo in issue 6. Not bad.

Metal Men
Ah, the Metal Men. I picked up their Showcase collection recently and I love it. So far, this story has the same whimsy and humor found in those Silver Age classics. The Metal Men story was a major factor in my picking up Wednesday Comics. I haven't been disappointed. Top 3.

Wonder Woman
Cluttered art. Too wordy. Too tedious for me to even make it out of issue 1. I keep trying to read it. I mean, it's one lousy page. But not happening yet.

Sgt. Rock
Rock is captured by the Nazi's and tortured. Great set-up. Now we're in issue 6 and Rock is captured by the Nazi's and tortured. This story has been spinning its wheels. Fortunately, something is brewing at the end of 6. And Joe Kubert's artwork is stunning as usual. A treat just to see his Easy Company again.

Flash
Barry Allen. Iris West. Gorilla Grodd. Time travel. Multiple Flashes. Simply mind-blowing so far and the best of the bunch. Nice clean art, great plotting for the single page and great POV use for Flash, Iris, and Grodd. Perfect after 6.

The Demon and Catwoman
Well, really The Demon as Catwoman was captured by a witch back in issue 2. But another winner. Etrigan never disappoints.

Hawkman
Great start to this one as Hawkman breaks up an alien invasion masked as an airline hijacking. But it's been stuck in a single action sequence for a few pages and has halted a bit. Kyle Baker's Hawkman is a thrill to look at though.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

ETHIOPIA: Index


Since I am now in the middle of compiling my past travels onto this blog I thought it would be a good time to create an index of all my blogging from my trip to Ethiopia last summer.This index can help anyone find a post that they are interested in. Alternatively, you can use the sidebar to check for the respective months the trip took place (June - September 2008) or use the search function for Ethiopia.

Getting to Ethiopia
Initial impressions
I pontificate about the real dangers living in Ethiopia
Ethiopian censorship
Gettingsick in Ethiopia
Movie watching in Ethiopia
Wedding Ethiopian style
Six degrees of separation in Ethiopia
back to the future and in Ethiopia the future is now
A touching story of my interaction with the children of Ethiopia
The cake is good in Ethiopia. And so is the malawa
Living the routine life in an African country
Small birds make interesting photographic subjects
Name calling
Every country has its con men
Where are all the white people at? And what do I do when I meet them?
Some educational success for me during my internship
I am just monkeying around during my stay at Mr. Martin's Cozy Place
I didn't see any fireworks on July 4
Finally took a trip out of Addis Ababa
Bahir Dar: an introduction
Bahir Dar: Are bus stations the same everywhere? Possibly. But Bus rides are not the same everywhere. But the bus ride is certainly well worth it
Bahir Dar:Eating with Obama
Bahir Dar:Photos
Bahir Dar: An overview with a photo of a monkey
Bahir Dar: Trying to get drunk on homegrown liquor
Bahir Dar: The magnificent Blue Nile Falls
Bahir Dar: Monastaries with 900 year old manuscripts and priests
Bahir Dar: A cool find
Not your typical African weather Well it is the rainy season
The developing pirated DVD industry in a developing country
Living the casual cafe life in Addis
I suppose you can say I am living in a Cocoon
The currency situation
Where I went to school in Ethiopia. And what an education it was
Getting the bull's rush in Addis
Popular children's song heard everywhere even unexpected places
I now drink macchiatos
A visit to the Mercato, one of the largest open air markets in all of Africa. Fist time: No fun Second time: Yes fun this time with marriage proposals
Another trip. This time to Shashemene
Crazy driving again. This time south.
Lake Langano photos
Harar: Hyenas. Nuff said.
Harar: watching the Olympics
Harar: Faranjo
Harar: Wasting the day chewing chat
Harar: The nighttime and interminable bus trip
Gondar: Not to be confused with Gondor. Instead of Sauron there are baboons and coffee ceremonies
Lalibela: Amazing. Just amazing.
Leaving Ethiopia.
Back in New York
Final Thoughts

MOVIE REVIEW: MOON


Moon is a good movie. Teetering on very good. Even better than the movie I like what it represents. Moon hearkens back to a pre Star Wars period of smart science fiction rather than just action/adventure and explosions that seemingly has defined many films of that genre since. Like a lot of good science fiction Moon takes place off Earth in an unspecified future yet acts as a commentary on the current human condition. There is just something missing. While smart and engaging it lacks a cohesive element that makes it work on a level that would elevate it to greatness.

Moon does an excellent job of straightforward storytelling in what could have resulted in a complicated mess. Sam Bell ( an excellent Sam Rockwell) works for Lunar Industries, Ltd. on an isolated outpost located on the dark side of the moon. His only companion is a robot named Gerty (soothingly voiced by Kevin Spacey) and together they monitor the daily mining activities of remote machines. The mining operation is unearthing (unmooning?) a new fuel source that is delivered to Earth in three days and is now a cheap, abundant fuel source for 70% of our blue planet. Sam is coming to the end of a three year contract and is looking forward to being reunited with is wife and daughter in two weeks time. To say anymore about what happens in those remaining two weeks is to give away a nice twist that sets the rest of the movie in motion. (The trailer is spoilerific in this respect and I recommend not viewing it before seeing the film.)

What happens is interesting and sort of obvious although I didn’t guess the exact explanation for the twist. (So maybe it is not that obvious. But I mentally slapped myself when it was explained as I thought I should have figured that out.)Moon is commendable for its efforts in commenting on the human condition. It is about the effect of loneliness, the frailty of memory, and questioning the worth of an individual. I think the main problem I have is that I’m not sure which of these themes the movie wants to be about. While the story itself, especially the very end, is thought provoking, I have spent more time mulling over what different themes actually exist and how they fit together than I would prefer. My preference isn’t that the theme is obvious but that the theme is decipherable.

All in all I recommend Moon. I hope it ushers in more smart science fiction films.

On a related note I certainly hope that when humans do get to colonize or living on other planets or moons that science fiction films can influence the design and scope of such activities. Strange things are always happening in these movies or the living arrangements have crazy psychological effects. Usually the militaristic utilitarian aspects of these habitats become a hindrance. Even taking financial, engineering, and environmental constraints into mind I think that any future other world outposts can be more comfortable and less lonely for those who choose to live or work there. I don’t have high hopes. An example why can be found in Encounters at the End of the World a documentary directed and narrated by Werner Herzog. In it Herzog visits a science outpost in Antarctica and describes it as something that would be found on the moon. In fact it looks eerily like the outpost found in Moon. I’m not expecting the Taj Mahal to be built on Mars just something that is livable and not mentally deranging.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Queuing, Kids, and Gambling on Dinner


Macau is an old Portuguese colony given over to China in a similar way the British gave over Hong Kong. Macau is also a mecca of gambling with casino construction about as far as the eye could see.* For an in-depth article about Macau and all this gambling read James Fallows' excellent article from The Atlantic.**

Macau is about an hour speed-ferry ride from HK. Sister Anne worked on Macau and was heading back so Aunt Helen and some of the other nuns decided to bring me along to see it. Other than the cool town center, which was a remnant of Portuguese rule, and the Temple of AH-MA all I remember of Macau was gaudy casinos and loads of construction. The temples are more out of control on Macau than in HK. The incense sticks were bigger, the smoke thicker, the people noisier (or more devout?), and the animal sacrifices greater. There was one annoying experience, one touching experience, and one funny experience all worth recounting from that day in Macau.

You need to show your passport to get into Macau but not if you are a HK resident. All the nuns were either residents of HK or Macau and breezed easily out of the customs area from the ferry arrival terminal. I was stuck in the terminal with hundreds of mainland Chinese who also had to show passports.*** Evidently, this was before the Chinese government started etiquette classes on proper queuing for their citizens in the run-up to the Olympics. I was stuck in the middle of a mass of humanity just shoving and pushing in every direction. This sea of people swept me to and fro, the jostling as bad as the bumpy ride on the speed-ferry. I just went with it trying to keep moving forward to the five feet of metal rails that constituted actual delineation before reaching the customs officer. Once somebody in front of me stepped on a discarded puke bag from the ferry. This popped open the bag emitting a viscous substance and an ungodly odor. I promptly stepped in it and could hardly hold back my own vomit. Thankfully, the pushing and the shoving drove me away from that area quickly (and dissipated any residue on my sneaker.) After an hour of this I finally made it through and met the nuns, who had the temerity to ask what took me so long.

So I am in Macau. The Temple of AH-MA. St. Paul’s fa├žade. St. Dominic’s church. Some bones of Japanese martyrs. A couple of museums. Some gaudy casinos. Sightseeing out of the way. I venture along with Aunt Helen, Sister Ann Marie, Sister Susan, and Sister Anne to the Macau Social Center where they work. This is an area of town close to the border with China and out of the way from the casinos. Mainly poorer people in this part and the Center provides services for children. The Sisters ask me if I wouldn’t mind dropping in on the kids, as they don’t really see any Westerners other than the nuns. The kids are in an art class and considering their ages, probably from 6 years old to 10 years, old they can all draw spectacularly well. I am pointed out and then stared at with wonder. They are all wearing sports jerseys of American basketball teams or irregular t-shirts**** One little boy asks me “How are you?” Other children giggle. I answer “Fine. How are you?” To which many voices answer “Fine. How are you?” Ignoring the second part of the their response and thinking they may know English I ask about their drawings eliciting only blank faces. Apparently, they don’t know English but do know how to answer “Fine. How are you?” I spent some time laughing with them and playing a bit and looking at their drawings. It was nice.

Then we went to dinner. I forget which casino we had dinner. Maybe the Wynn. Anyway, it was an upscale restaurant within. Aunt Helen knew some vice president of the casino and managed to get us hooked up with a nice meal.***** Or so she thought. This VP never materialized; he was actually supposed to sup with us. Meanwhile, the nuns are ordering whatever they want and even partaking in a glass of nice wine. Good for them. I do the same. Now seconds becomes dessert and still no VP. The nuns begin to panic a bit. Whereas there were little jokes directed to Aunt Helen about “doing the dishes” and such, the tone now became more serious. Aunt Helen, in a near panic, keeps asking the waitress or the maitre d’ to try and find this guy. Every few minutes she is hounding some employee to track him down. The rest of the nuns visibly worry about how to pay for this meal. As calmly as I could I mention that no problem exists, I’ll put it on my credit card and, really, there is no need to worry. This does nothing to squash the sense of palpable despair coming from the nuns. Finally, Aunt Helen gets him on the horn and he apologizes for not being able to make it and gives the word that, of course, the meal is on the casino. Disaster averted. Whew! I don’t think dessert was enjoyed by anyone but me.

So that’s Macau. Photos following my addendums.

*No actual gambling occurred at any Macau casinos. In fact on my quick, brief walk through two ultra-gaudy casinos I didn’t even recognize the table games. If I saw a blackjack table and thought I could extricate myself from the nuns I may have played a little bit.

**For any Sinophiles reading, I suggest James Fallows' blog at The Atlantic website for an always interesting perspective on China.

***A funny quip from Aunt Helen that I heard numerous times during my week stay: “No Hong Kong resident has committed a crime since 1999.” This implied that all crimes and other annoyances were caused by visitors from mainland China.

****I was told that many poor people here get irregular clothes from the multitude of factories in China. When a mistake is made on a batch and they can’t sell it in a western country they place them for sale or give them away in some of the poorer regions. It is doubtful that most of them know what their shirts say. I saw a bunch of shirts festooned with sexual innuendo on very young girls.

*****Aunt Helen knows a lot of people in Hong Kong. She also knows a lot of well off people though charity work she performs. Later on in the trip a priest friend of hers asked what we had been doing and after I mentioned some of the fine dining establishments and places I have been with some of Aunt Helen’s friends he declared, “Oh, Helen is introducing you to all her la-de-da friends.”

Aunt Helen in the quaint town center of Macau





St. Paul's facade




Macau. Lots of casinos. Note the then under construction Lotus casino on the top left. Photo taken from up high in St. Paul's facade.



Temple of AH-MA





At the old Macau-China border. Me and Aunt Helen. The nuns.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Nuns, Nuns, Nuns!!!



My Aunt Helen is a Maryknoll Sister and has lived in Hong Kong my entire life, or at least as long as I can remember. She is also my godmother and even though I only saw her every few years, (if that) while growing up I always had a special fondness for her. She has a remarkable ability to get along with almost anyone and even when seeing her for the first time in years it is as if you just chatted with her yesterday. She is an excellent storyteller and has many stories to tell. Many times she throws in a “See” at the end of a sentence as if she was living in a 1920 noir novel and she has the propensity for sayings such as “She was a big woman but walked with the grace of the Queen Elizabeth coming into port.” She is losing her hearing so can’t hear you (or acts like she can’t hear you) and often keeps on talking and talking. Mostly, you don’t mind because of all the interesting things she has to say.

If there was any sense of danger in Hong Kong it had to do with following Aunt Helen around. People drive much more recklessly in HK than the US but Aunt Helen still barrels straightforward into the street. I jaywalk as much as the next person but Aunt Helen just careens right out into traffic. When I mentioned to her how she was going to be killed by being struck by an truck her response had something to do with how the Chinese respect their elders and watch out for her so she wasn’t worried. Now I had the thought of an errant automobile swerving to miss the white-haired woman and hitting me. Great.

The shock of white hair on her head and the head of most of the other nuns I met stood out the most. Especially when they are surrounded by so many dark haired people. I remember people on the street stopping her and mentioning how much they admire the whiteness of her hair.

Aunt Helen lived in a convent with three or four other nuns and an occasional priest on a different floor. The convent was difficult to get to off of a four-lane main drag with a traffic divider blocking entrance form one direction of travel. It was also buttressed behind a gas station and adjacent to a methadone clinic or maybe a mental health clinic. I’d meet Aunt Helen at the convent for breakfast and had dinner with her and some of the other Sisters – Jean, Mary Lou, Mariah, Ann Marie, Susan, and Anne – a couple times. They were all wonderful and being there with them and speaking with them made my trip to HK that much more fulfilling.

I found it enjoyable to walk around with Aunt Helen or the other Sisters, as they knew many people and commanded respect from all others. These short, white-skinned and white-haired women were of endless energy, boundless enthusiasm, and good humor*. They each had unique personalities and all were very worldly and intelligent. They do a tough job and I only have admiration for them and what they have dedicated there lives to accomplishing. As most have been away from America for a very long time they peppered me with questions and wanted to hear my opinion on the state of things, which I was happy to give. Being 2007 I provided a lot of Bush bashing that they seemed to enjoy.

I’m not sure how Maryknoll produces such nuns but I am glad they do. If your only experience with nuns is getting your hands ruler slapped in the third grade I suggest a tour of HK or Macau with the Maryknoll sisters.

*They all enjoyed the joke I came up with when I was younger and Aunt Helen was home in NY. I believe I told it over a family dinner. The joke:

A priest had consumed a bit too much Eucharistic wine and could no longer contain his amorous feelings for a Sister he knew. He brought this up to her and mentioned how he would “like something.” The Sister reproached him, “You will get none.” To which the priest replied, “Excellent. That’s what I am looking for.”

Saturday, June 06, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Arrival


It is Sunday night, August 19, 2007. It is 10:14 PM. I am sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong. The hot water is running in the shower, ostensibly to straighten out wrinkled clothes. I am told that there is a lunch appointment at a posh Hong Kong location that I am expected to attend. Shirt, tie and possibly a jacket are required. Before I left NYC, I reluctantly placed these items into my large backpack ruing the space they take up. Feeling the humid summer heat of Hong Kong in the evening I realized that the jacket will never, under any circumstances, be worn by me. (Even having had strong thoughts about this I still may have ended up wearing it. I forget but I don’t think I did.)*

It’s over 24 hours since I left NYC. I spent about thirteen of those in the air on the non-stop flight. The rest was the time difference, which sped me 12 hours into the future. I actually like getting into a new place at night after a long plane ride. Since I do not sleep well on planes it allows me to go directly to sleep. Usually after a good first night’s rest jet lag is minimal. By chance, if I don’t arrive to a far-away location at night I try to stay up as late as possible and get a good night sleep and start the next day off on local time. If jet lag isn’t minimal and lasts a few days I usually just get very drunk. This makes me sleep and I am better at dealing with a hangover, due to its more common occurrence, than jet lag. Timing of sleep, drunkenness or a combination of both is my jetlag remedy. Remember that for your future travels.

My Aunt Helen met me at the airport with a friend, Jean. We took a taxi into Hong Kong and then I think into Kowloon. If I remember correctly Hong Kong and Kowloon are on opposite sides of the harbor. I think my hotel was in Kowloon. Aunt Helen seemed especially pleased to see me. What a nice way to end a long plane ride. She was very happy for a visitor and looked forward to showing me around and playing tour guide. I have told many relatives of how gracious a host Aunt Helen is and implored them to go to HK soon based upon my experiences.

Awaiting me in my hotel room was a gift basket set up by Aunt Helen. It included some toiletries, some American snacks such as cookies and chocolate, and a book entitled “The Story of Hong Kong.” It was really too much but well appreciated by me. Aunt Helen told me that the snacks and chocolate were for when I wanted American food that may not be readily available in HK or Japan. I was only going to be away from America for 11 days and thought I could make it without such comforts. For the most part I did do without those familiar items but I did eat all that was in the gift basket during my trip.


Aunt Helen hooked me up with a nice room in a hotel run by the hospital where she works. I forget the price, maybe $75 USD/night, but it was a great bargain. It was clean and spacious.**

It didn’t have a great view but decent and I overlooked a red-tiled church. (Note the bamboo scaffolding used for construction.)

I unpacked my stuff, as I would be staying here for a week. I showered to wash the travel off of me. Which brings us to 10:14 PM, writing in my journal and steaming wrinkled clothes. As the final words in my first journal entry states: Sleep Now***.


*I did have a suit made for me by a Hong Kong tailor. I wore that jacket but just in the act of trying it on for size.

**The photo of the hotel room displays the aftermath of my sleeping in a hotel bed procedure. I remove the bedspread and untuck all covers. I can't stand how tight a hotel bed is made and I don't trust the cleanliness of bed spreads. This goes for all hotels - America or abroad.

***Underlining of those words in original journal entry. Bold added for the blog.

Friday, June 05, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Cathay Pacific


Cathay Pacific is the best airline I’ve been on. For the past three years I have been taking it to Vancouver while on the way to Whistler for snowboarding. So counting back from 2009 I guess I flew it in winter 2007 which would have been before this Hong Kong/Japan summer 2007 trip. This wasn’t my first trip with Cathay but like all others it was a gratifying experience.

I had non-stop to Hong Kong from JFK. During this flight I watched two movies, read an entire novel, and slept about an hour. And it didn’t seem long or boring or stressful at all.
Cathay Pacific has decent food, attentive and pretty stewardesses, and loads of movie options for your viewing pleasure. One of the movies I watched, Fracture, I have noted in my journal as “excellent.” Which is interesting for a few reasons. One is that other than knowing Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling star, I don’t remember anything about it. Second, as could be seen during the Colbinski Chronicles 2008 Movie Roundtable Spectacular I usually really hate movies I watch on a plane. Something about the whole experience – small screen, never-ending distractions, and constant background noise – turns me negative. Not only do I always watch movies on a plane, I actually look forward to watching movies on a plane then never enjoy it as much as I probably should.* Movie watching on a plane may be a microcosm of my life in that respect.

The other movie I watched was a Japanese comedy called Bubble or Bust. It was about a plucky heroine who, after being sent back in time through a washing machine, fixes something or another in the past, learns reasons behind past hurt, and saves the future. Pretty much like any mediocre time travel movie except she was covered in suds from the washing machine. Well, actually she rinsed off fairly quickly and was sans suds most of the movie. I just wanted to highlight the fact that time travel was accomplished through a washing machine. It was a broad comedy, which is good watching on an airplane. If I was a young Japanese professional ensconced in Japanese pop culture and living a frivolous lifestyle with gobs of disposable Yen in 1980’s Tokyo I am sure I would have gotten jokes that I otherwise missed. The broadness of the comedy and the allure of the lead actress made it all OK. Give an extra half a star for the cleverness of the title.

The novel I read was Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. A slender novel, to be sure, but it prevented me from sleeping as the more I read the more I had to keep reading. I am an unabashed Murakami fan and this book had me hooked. Looking back I wish I had not read it all in one sitting. I would have rather been able to reflect upon it and let what was happening simmer a bit. I do remember thinking as I read it and after finishing, while the plane landed, that in Murakami’s stories females are the real voice of the story and those characters become so easy to fall in love with and it becomes simple to see why his protagonists usually do as well. (These thoughts still resonate with me but somewhat differently after an encounter with a Japanese woman at a sake bar in Tokyo, later during this trip, who had a differing opinion concerning how Murakami presents females in his stories.) Norwegian Wood is on my list of books to revisit and after writing about it I may place it on top of the list.

The book and the movies certainly helped time go by on the trip. I was unsure how I would be sitting on a plane for over 12 hours but it wasn’t terrible and it was uneventful. The plane wasn’t full and I was sharing the four-seat middle section with a woman who lived in Virginia. She was going to visit her son who lived in HK with his father and then she was going to Thailand for a vacation for just the two of them. We had a pleasant conversation over dinner and a glass of wine. She looked really happy to be seeing her son and looking forward to their time together. It was nice. Then she slept while I watched movies and/or read Murakami.

Then the plane landed. My Aunt Helen, who has lived in HK for my entire life, was at the airport to pick me up and guide me to the hotel.

*I once watched Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein while flying on a domestic cross-country flight on my laptop. They were great and sitting on a plane did nothing to take away from that viewing experience.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

RETRO TRAVELOGUE


UPDATED BELOW

It’s been quite a while since I have blogged. Time just got away from me. After all the Ethiopian blogging I knew I would not be able to continue that pace as I returned to school. But then I finished up with my coursework in December and I thought, for sure, that I would resume blogging with a forcefulness heretofore unknown. For various reasons, mostly doing with personal laziness, it never happened. Other than the 2008 Movie Roundtable Spectacular and a few posts emphasizing the virtues of the original Planet of the Apes movies I have been AWOL. Irreconcilably AWOL.

I would like to use a recent move, from the west village to the east village, as an excuse for my slothfulness but that won’t hold water or pass muster. The move may yet have a positive effect on my blogging. (Not to mention that my current living situation should provide me with many entertaining anecdotes.) In the course of rummaging through items, to determine whether to discard or pack, I unearthed journals I kept during previous travels. These are handwritten entries either in an actual journal, a notepad, or just scraps of paper that highlight what I did, adventures I had, and thoughts and ruminations on past vacations. These are nothing like the three months I spent in Ethiopia except that the locales, the customs, and the peoples were all new to me. (So I guess it was like Ethiopia but shorter and I felt more like a visitor rather than I was living there.)

I look forward rereading my journal entries and transforming them into blog posts. I’ll be able to relive my experiences with the added benefit of hindsight and, of course, incorporating a dash of my usual pizzazz into these now electronic posts. I will begin with my 2007 trip to Hong Kong and Japan.* If this goes well and I keep it up I’ll continue with my previous trips to Europe in 2003 and 2001. Hmmm, I guess I didn’t go anywhere for four years.

*UPDATE*I did two blog posts about Japan here and here. This will just be catching up on everything that happened around these two incidents.

Friday, March 27, 2009

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@tom_ohagan (changed my twitter handle - updated this post accordingly)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Apes Rule!!!


I recently watching the original five Planet of the Apes movies. It is easy for me to see why I loved these as a kid. Although not all of the movies are that good I still consider this series to be a classics of American film. This entry is going to concentrate on the final two movies in the POTA cannon: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Additional musings about Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

After the let down of Beneath and the excitement of Escape I was ready to see what I remembered about Conquest. It was largely how I recalled it although not as much of a 1970’s film as I thought. Which is not to say that it didn’t have any 1970 SF film touches. The humans were still dressed all the same in mono-colored turtle necked fabrics*, authoritarian voices boomed into public spaces to let civilians know what to do, and multi-colored buttons adorned glossy paneled equipment to make it look futuristic. But for some reason I like to remember this movie as resembling a blaxploitation movie with lots of freeze-frames of an angry Caesar gazing through flames. Flames and an angry Caesar are present but not the freeze-frames.

I greatly enjoyed these final two installations and all that they added to the overall Apes mythos. It all came together very well. And we are still left off about a thousand years before Taylor crash lands. Lots can happen and that is one of the quibbles. As Colbinski and I have discussed (during a real conversation and not blogging), these great themes are dealt with in generalities rather than really focusing on them. There are the parallels to the civil rights movement, allusions to animal rights, and taken in today’s poor economic climate a warning about humans who want too much and selfishly mess it up for everyone. And mess it up they did and here came the apes.

Conquest picks up around two decades after Escape left off. A new twist added is that an unheard of disease wipes out dogs and cats and humans turn to replace these pets with monkeys and apes. Soon humans are breeding these animals to be bigger, smarter, and more skilled. Humans then turned these apes into slaves doing al sorts of work and being auctioned off like chattel. Our good pal Caesar**, he borne of Cornelius and Zira and who grew up able to speak in a circus is furious at his fellow apes treatment. And rightly so. So Caesar begins the revolution. All well and good. But Caesar doesn’t want only a Planet of Apes. He envisions a world co-ruled by simian and human.

So after the Conquest the Battle begins. In between these two movies humans send out nuclear bombs to quell the ape revolution, which apparently occurred worldwide. Why nuclear war would help is never really explored. Not too far from a destroyed city that will eventually become the Forbidden Zone (I think) Caesar’s shared utopia is taking bloom but not without problems as Aldo, a gorilla general is causing problems. Mutant humans from below the nuked city appear again and a battle occurs, the apes win, and then Caesar ultimately gets his way over Aldo and we may have everlasting primate peace contrary to the first POTA film.

One aspect that stands out to me is how much I relate to the Apes. I forgot all about the mutant humans appearing in Beneath and Battle. With good reason, I forgot them. They are terrible additions and I wish they weren’t around. Even as a precocious young’un I could even see that. Even when Aldo is chased by Caesar with the other apes chanting “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape!” I felt a twinge of sympathy for Aldo. Interestingly, Also is named as the Ape that wrote the Sacred Scrolls from which Ape Law is given. Battle shows that that is no longer the case. Caesar’s Rules abound and peace and harmony exist some 900 years after his death. As Colbinski has pointed out (again, during a spoken conversation) this brings about the Terminator Paradox***. Caesar needs the events of the first two movies to happen to even be born. His new rules suggest that that may not happen. So how will he be born? This is what I find interesting about the years between the end of Battle and the first Planet. What happens? Does another Aldo come along and upset the harmonic apple cart? Or will Taylor crash land in a world where he will be accepted? Oh, for a few more Apes movies.

*It amazes me that so many SF films made in the 70’s have people wearing the same exact clothing. This was a time when counter-culture and individualism were taking root, when differences were being praised and celebrated. Yet conformity regarding sartorial choices was constantly portrayed. Is this because filmmakers viewed this conformity as part of their vision of some future utopia or just plain laziness and/or lack of imagination?

** Caesar is named Milo when born in Escape. During the beginning of Conquest he is called Caesar and not Milo by the circus owner. Perhaps this is because Milo was known as one of the Apes from the future and naming a circus ape born around the same time Milo would raise eyebrows. But then in a great scene, Caesar is sold as a slave ape and when given a book to point to name himself he defiantly chooses Caesar. I loved the look in his eyes when he points to the name in the book with a sly certainty.

***The Terminator Paradox is based upon the time traveling within the Terminator movies where John Connor needs SkyNet to exist in order to be born as his father came back from the future and mated with his mother. I’m not exactly sure how the Terminator movies deal with this paradox and I probably haven’t explained it correctly but that’s how I understand it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular


Part VII: Final Round-up

Part I Part II Part III Part IVPart V Part VI


After a short delay from recent movies to write a bit about those old classic Planet of the Apes movies (well, mostly classics) I want to wrap up some other 2008 films that I have watched either in the theatre, on cable or by way of DVD. An update of my 2008 movie list found here.

Grand Torino
Retired crank and racist (retired from working in an automobile plant not retired from crankiness or racism) Walter Kowalski meets up with his teenage immigrant Hmong neighbors. Hilarity ensues. Well, not exactly. Although the racism seems a bit much at times this is still a very good movie that while not surprising does offer some tense moments and keeps you involved throughout. I liked the performances and the interactions between grizzled Clint Eastwood and the young Hmong cast. Recommended.

Milk
A moving biopic of the gay rights leader Harvey Milk. Excellent performances all around especially by James Brolin and and James Franco. I thought the intermixing of old footage into scenes was jarring and misplaced until the very end. It shows how far gay rights have come in the past 30 years but also serves as a reminder of how far they still have to go in light of the Prop 8 vote in California this past November. Good/Recommended

Tell No One
A French thriller/suspense film that actually comes together and makes sense as long as you allow the story to wash over you rather than following it fastidiously. I liked the tempo and pacing and certain scenes like a chase across a highway are very well done. Even the predictable ending confession that ties all loose ends together is better than you should expect. Good/Recommended

Wall-E
Not sure I see what the big deal is about this one. Critics were moon-eyed over this story about the last robot on Earth. I was nonplussed. Boring and not terribly moving despite a few amusing scenes. It proves that Hollywood’s fascination with male-female December-May romances can be related to robots. I was actually glad this one was over when it ended as I found myself constantly looking at my watch to see try to predict when it would be over. Disapointing

Wendy and Lucy
A small story concerned about a couple nights in a young woman’s life as she tries to get to Alaska. Like most good small stories it moves you more by what is left out then if everything is explained ad nauseum. I thought one scene in the train yard was unnecessary but I can see why it was left in. It is a well done film about a side of America not always seen or remembered. Recommended

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Great Escape


Dr. Milo went to the shore off the Forbidden Zone. Dr. Milo salvaged Taylor's space craft. Dr. Milo learned "half of it" regarding space flight. Dr. Milo recruits Cornelius and Zira and they enter the space craft as the gorilla led war begins. They watch the destruction of the world as happened at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. All this occurs before their starstruck eyes. The space craft then crash lands in the ocean off of Los Angeles in 1973.

That's all I needed to know. I completely buy that explanation.

Especially as it leads into a smart and plausible story. There's the juxtaposition of Zira and Cornelius first captured by humans with what is remembered of Taylor's time with the apes. An animal rights platform delivered without heavy-handedness. A delightful romp as we watch the apes enjoy themselves in 1973 America. Fantastic character development of Cornelius and Zira as we watch their wonderful relationship. Ricardo Montalban makes an appearance that makes you forget how big a ham Charlton Heston is. Another twist ending that proves these screenwriters had foresight and were looking at the next story.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is as different from the first two as can be. But it manages to build upon the ape world while not taking place within it. Not the classic that the original is but still a classic. This Apes movie was exactly as I remembered it.

Although upon my rewatching I didn't think much of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I am glad that Beneath begat Escape.

Now on to the Conquest!!!

Childhood Memories Smashed


Or How Rewatching Beneath the Planet of the Apes Ruined My Night

I just began to rewatch all the Planet of the Apes movies, excluding the terrible 2001 remake. Other than the classic original I haven’t seen these since I was a young lad when they were shown on the Channel 7 4:30 Movie. (Planet of the Apes Week and Godzilla Week were my favorite weeks.) To start, I watched Planet and Beneath the Planet of the Apes back-to-back. Planet is still great. One of my all-time favorites movies. It sets up a great world and ends with a fantastic payoff.

I finished watching Planet of the Apes, thought of retiring for the night, but excitement took hold of my faculties and I popped in Beneath. If asked which of the Apes movies was my favorite I would have answered Beneath. In fact, I did answer Beneath to that very same question just the other day, which was one of the things that whetted my appetite to watch all these again. This favoritism was based upon my childhood memories. I remember a Taylor look-alike who I thought was cool while fighting apes. He gets shot in the arm and doesn’t make a sound while hiding behind a scrub brush, and then in the finale he ends up getting stood up to a wall in a rain of ape gunfire just before the ape world is destroyed. What a way to go! Until I rewatched this movie I would have placed dying in a hail of ape gunfire while the world blew up to be in my top 3 ways of passing on.

Other than the shooting scene behind the bush nothing about Beneath was as I remembered. In fact, I am saddened to say, the movie really isn’t any good. How can something I imagined for around thirty years to be great become so disappointing? I knew something was wrong when I didn’t se Roddy McDowell’s name in the credits. What is going on here? (I have since read up on wikipedia that Roddy was busy directing another film during Beneath’s making and therefore could not be in it.)

The main problem may be that I watched this and the original together. On rewatching the original I found more subtely added and the ape world more complex. . In a short span the movie sets up the different ape groups: orangutans are smart leaders, gorillas are the police force, brutish and powerful, and chimpanzees the diligent workers. It shows how that world works. We see museums, markets, courts of law, churches, research facilities. The orangutans know about the past human history. This is alluded to in one of the first conversations between Zira and Cornelius as they talk about how chimpanzees have been given new rights but that they both realize they can never really know all that the orangutans do and will never sit on the council. The council ruled by the orangutans want control. Even though they claim their civilization is thousands of years old we wonder why they haven’t advanced as much they probably should have. From some tidbits coming out of the mouth of Dr. Zaius we realize that the orangutans have been purposefully holding back the apes from advancing too soon too fast based upon the folly of humans who had done their best to destroy the world. In themselves they see the capacity for destructive war that humans have mastered and they are trying to prevent that. (The subsequent movies play on other human follies that lead to the ape world. Or at least I think it does, I haven’t gotten around to rewatching them yet.)

What was greatly disappointing about Beneath was that it doesn’t really add further insight into this world. They do add a gorilla army, that is belligerent and bellicose, rather than just a police or hunting force. There is one scene where chimpanzees are at a peace protest against the gorillas but this is never explored further. Dr. Zauis sort of goes with General Ursis and his army but he is really the only orangutan around and in the first one he wasn’t even the most important orangutan. (Dr. Zaius is the Minister of Science and the Leader of the Faith.) It seems that orangutans have given control away to a populist militaristic gorilla movement. It can also be seen in any scene involving more than three apes that they really cheaped out on the production design. In group shots I really do think they juts put some gorilla masks on extras and told them to jump up and down.

Other than these ape insights, Beneath focuses way too much on the humans. Especially the stupid telepathic underground mutants. I understand that circa 1969 telepaths and nuclear war destruction were common SF and fantasy tropes but c’mon! You have a great concept in a world ruled by apes. Why add mutant telepaths who worship a nuclear bomb? Not only were the mutants terrible but, worse, they were unnecessary.

I do understand why Brent, the new astronaut, was included. (Because a recalcitrant Charlton Heston did not want much to do with a sequel.) The guy who played Brent was fine if not a bit too much of a “serious” actor. During the scenes when he was attempting to ward off the mutants brain control and refrain from choking Nova I was like “Lighten up man, you’re in an Apes movie.” Intentionally or not, the film does fulfill the promise of modern man as world destroyers as Taylor, the misplaced human, is the one to detonate the “Doomsday bomb” which while small as far as bombs go, apparently packs a humungous punch and was stored in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

The first film packs a wallop at the end with Taylor finding a dilapidated Statue of Liberty. Beneath now imagines an entire ruined NYC that seems misplaced. It does away with time and distance when dealing with the Forbidden Zone. Every cave became an entrance to New York City. And New York after a nuclear war is amazingly easy to get around. Brent went from Queenboro Plaza to the New York Public Library to Grand central Station to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in no time at all.

The movie also starts off with a scene involving Taylor giving Nova his dogtags. Dogtags were never in the first movie. But here is Taylor digging it out of his loincloth and handing over to Nova. How ridiculous. Didn’t anyone watch the first movie? Taylor is completely naked like three times and his only possession is his dirty stinking loin cloth summarily torn off after offending an orangutan’s delicate olfactory senses. It’s not even the broken continuity that bothers me. It’s the sheer laziness. There are a million other ways and reasons for Nova to have Taylor’s name written down somewhere on her person. And dogtags was the best they could come up with. And for more nitpicking, Cornelius and Zira who at the end of Planet were being held in arrest for heresy by Dr. Zaius now appear to be his confidante and living in married bliss. More laziness from the filmmakers.

In addition to the above quibbles I think I was either disappointed in myself or I just found myself questioning the younger me. Did I ever think those mutants were cool or added to the story in any meaningful way? The mutant telepaths were quite lame. I was deflated when I found out that the gorilla General was named Ursis and not Urko. Apparently, Urko was not introduced until the TV series. They were the same rocking helmet, though. The biggest disappointment was the death of Brent which for some reason lasts a lot longer in my memory. I recall a man dying as a hero while being stuffed full of burning lead. The death is quick and untidy and not at all like the image that I have been holding in my mind. Then the voice-over ending concerning a “dead planet” was cheesy and not ominous. And you would think that they would end the series with a destroyed world.

But there is Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The next DVD to be popped in a watched. I remember liking this one quite a bit also. I’m just not going to think about how Cornelius and Zira could have commandeered a spaceship and gotten it off the planet and into a time vortex. It’s not gonna bother me at all.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular


Part VI: A few more movies viewed and more Jason Statham

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V

I've also caught up on a few 2008 movies since my first post. I would throw My Blueberry Nights in the Disappointing column and Gran Torino in the Highly Recommended column. My Blueberry Nights is the first English language movie from Hong Kong director Kar Wai Wong (In the Mood for Love and 2046 being two examples of his best work). My Blueberry Nights just simply disappoints. There really wasn't anything there. It's fluidly shot and well acted (Norah Jones is surprisingly undistracting but no great shakes) but the story is just so much of nothing. There was no sense of place. Perhaps that's to be expected in a movie that has interlocking stories from Manhattan, Memphis and Las Vegas as Norah Jones' Elizabeth embarks on a journey of sorts. But there was no sense that there was no sense of place either. If this was Kar Wai Wong's American journey movie it got a flat tire a few miles on the interstate.

Gran Torino, on the other hand, was a well-oiled machine, much like the eponymous car. Clint Eastwood plays Walter Kowalski, a Korean War vet now retired after 40 years at the local Ford plant. After his wife passes way, he's alone in a changing neighborhood now full of Hmong immigrants. The movies strength comes from Eastwood, both as director and actor. Most write-ups of Gran Torino I've read cite Kowalski as a mash-up of Dirty Harry and Bill Muny from Unforgiven. I see Thomas Highway from Heartbreak Ridge as the true source for Kowalski. It's as if Gunny Highway retired and moved to Detroit he behave and react just as Walt does here. At any rate, Walt begins an unlikely relationship with his Hmong neighbors. Eastwood's ease of pacing as a director carefully choreographs this relationship. What, in others hands, could easily fall prey to sentimental melodrama, exists as true organic moments under Eastwood's steady hand.

This brings to mind another unlikely friendship by another Walt - Richard Jenkin's Walter in The Visitor. Similarly, director Tom McCarthy here also avoids the pitfalls of middle-aged white guy forging new experiences with a different culture in many of the same ways that Eastwood does - rich character development and heartfelt but not corny moments of universal truths. While entirely different movies, how each Walt handles the conflicts involved with their new friends resonates as each deal with a growing sense of powerlessness against outside forces. Each is singularly heartbreaking in their own right.

Now on to some other topics...

1. Nimero has an interesting past list of Best Movies of the Year. Before the blog, these lists were dispersed via e-mail to friends, which I no longer have record of. Nimero's memory is much better than mine as I needed to scan lists of released movies for 2003 and 2004 to determine what my Best was, but to no avail. Here's what I came up with:

2007: No Country for Old Man
2006: The Fountain
2005: King Kong
2004: I have no idea. Nothing jumped out at me.
2003: Maybe Master and Commander, but I think there was something else. But nothing else jumped out at me.

2. My Jason Statham comment was more directed at The Bank Job rather than The Transporter series. But I can't deny that I have been entertained by both Transporter movies even though I yet to see the end of either. Though I know exactly how each ends, thank you very much. The Bank Job is a fun heist movie that has solid characters, is not forcibly self-serious or handcuffed to the being a peroid piece (late 60's England) though it seems to evoke that period very well. It casts Statham as a regular bloke brought in for a can't miss bank robbery when in reality he's a pawn for some rather seedy political play. Of course Statham's regular bloke gets his contractually obligated kick-ass scene. Had no idea his character could do that, but, oddly enough it didn't take away from movie one bit. Such is the screen charisma of Jason Statham. Now to move that Statham movie where he has to keep moving or die to the top of my Netflix queue.

Friday, January 02, 2009

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular


Part V: I pick a favorite movie of the year

Part I Part II Part III Part IV

As promised in the Roundtable Spectacular initial post (which thus far, while remaining spectacular, has not been much of a roundtable) I have updated my category list with movies since viewed. At that time, I wasn't quite sure which movie to declare the best (re my favorite) of the year. But I have now decided. Let The Right One In is my favorite and best movie of 2008. Before I get talking about this great film let me recap my favorite movies of previous years. I can go back to 2003 from memory.

2008: Let The Right One In
2007: No Country for Old Men
2006: Pan's Labyrinth
2005: 2046
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2003: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Perhaps listing these favorites will enhance the reader's appreciation of my cinematic likes and dislikes. More likely, no one cares. On to my favorite of 2008.

After seeing Let The Right One In I knew I liked it. I just wasn’t sure how much I liked it. After sussing it over for a few days I am now of the opinion that it is a modern day masterpiece. It doesn’t add anything new to vampire legend but it reveals quite a bit about human nature in general. Vampires still drink blood and have an aversion to sunlight. There is no vampire origin story and there is an interesting twist on how a vampire/human bond comes to exist so strongly than doesn’t involve hypnotism or bloodsharing. The title of the film also subverts the notion of inviting a vampire into one’s abode nicely. Rather this film is about how one vampire lives and how that life is itself extraordinary. It’s not even about vampires, really. It’s about childhood vulnerabilities and how they are exploited by that child’s peers, both friend and foe. The most amazing aspect of this film is how it portrays its two main characters. The relationship between neglected, picked-on Oskar and the vampire Eli seems touching, even hopeful but upon reflection it is anything but. Inside this film is a story about the difficulties of growing up without getting older and the journey of getting older without having to grow up. It’s still a vampire story, though, and that makes it even more remarkable.

Colbinski, yet to see this tremendous film, is currently reading the book by John Ajvhide Lindqvist. I anticipate Colbinski finishing the book and then watching this film as much as I anticipate reading it once he is done. I do not anticipate the inevitiable Hollywood remake slated for 2010 by the director of Cloverfield which I hated.