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Sunday, October 29, 2006

At Beechball's request ...

…I give you these five movie reviews. So pop the popcorn, crack open a can of soda, sit back, and try to stay awake.

The Out-of-Towners - Starring Goldie Hawn, Steve Martin and John Cleese. This is a film written by Neil Simon, one of my favorite playwrights. It had already been done once before in 1970, starring Jack Lemmon, a version which I also own. This new version was well done, I thought, and the casting was great. Steve Martin did a great job as one of Neil Simon’s characters and before the movie I was doubtful he could pull it off. Not that Steve Martin’s usual performances aren’t entertaining and hilarious, but they’re often a little too off-the-wall for portraying a Neil Simon straight man. Not straight in the sexual orientation sense, but straight in the theatrical sense wherein he’s the butt of many jokes; the calm in the center of the comedy storm; the comic foil that brings out the funny stuff in the other actors. He did it really well and I’d love to see him do more Neil Simon work. Goldie Hawn was great for this comedy, as she has great comedic timing and instinct. Cleese was, as ever, brilliant. Even got to see a little of his trademark high-kicking, albeit not in the form of his silly walk. I think Simon’s plays are better, as the silver screen takes something away from the emoting that happens on stage, robbing you a bit of the experience, but still it’s a good film.

American Psycho - Starring Christian Bale as the psycho. Insofar as it’s the disturbing tale of a serial killer (or is it all in his head?), this was a very good movie. Based on a best-selling book by Brett Easton Ellis that I haven’t read, I have to imagine it at least comes fairly close to the book. Bale is excellent in this role as he puts on a really chilling performance. You feel hatred and contempt emanating from him in waves and it all seems genuine. I am reminded of a rather pitiful performance by Brad Pitt in Kalifornia, which just screamed to me like he was saying with his acting: “Look at me! I’m a creepy serial killer! Boo!” Pitt is good in everything else I’ve seen him in, but I just found his portrayal in that movie to be really fakey and more annoying and comical than scary and real. In fact Juliette Lewis scared me more than Pitt’s character did. Anyways, one theme of American Pyscho concerns the yuppie culture of the 80s with all of its greed and ambition. This is the best part and it allows for some humor. Everyone is confused with everyone else at times because they’re all the same Perrier-drinking, money-grabbing, narcissistic perverts that seemed to pervade corporate culture in that decade. The 80s soundtrack – and Bale’s love of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins for instance – serves to dull the gritty edge of this movie with a little humor.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers - This is a sad movie because Sellers was such an enigma to everyone in his life, including himself. He was lost to the point of hurting his wives and children emotionally and this makes his life story, in spite of all his excellent work, a poignant one. Still, two of my favorite actors were in it, namely Geoffrey Rush and John Lithgow. I’d see anything they were in, no matter how disinterested in the film I might be, because I know they’ll always give their best and turn in great performances. They did not disappoint here so I’d recommend this movie if you like them or want to know more about Sellers’ life, but be prepared to feel a bit depressed after. Interestingly, one of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was one where they sent up “The Castle of Dr. Fu Manchu”, one of a franchise of “Fu Manchu” films. Sellers wasn’t in the MST-3K film but he was in another “Fu Manchu” movie that was also a real stinker and his last film. Remember Sellers instead for the penultimate “Being There”.

The Andromeda Strain - Came out in 1971 I think, based upon Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same name. Apparently there were fears at the time, before the manned expedition to the moon, that we might inadvertently bring back some sort of cosmic bacterial organism that could infect and kill us all. Crichton, ever the clever entrepreneur, decided to capitalize upon this with this fear-mongering novel. I may be coming down a bit hard on his motives here, which is pure speculation by the way, and I do think he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever read. But I remember Airframe all too well and dammit I’m sorry, but he’s putting the fear of God into everyone who ever flew on a plane with that one! Rightfully so, perhaps, but I just don’t need to know some of this stuff. Anyways, “Andromeda Strain” was a good adaptation of the novel and today it serves as a curious interest in how it captures what, in the early '70s, passes for special effects and cutting edge sci-fi. Some films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” succeed in still wowing me to this day with their special effects, although mainly the outer space shots and not so much the interior shots of the spaceship. HAL 9000 does look a bit like my dishwasher. But I digress, and “Andromeda Strain” is a good flick for those fans of Crichton’s novels.

Insomnia - Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. Spoilers follow! This turned out to be the best movie of the lot I rented. Turns the usual cop suspense thriller on its head with an interesting twist. At first you're drawn to Pacino's character, the presumed protagonist as he's the lead detective in a difficult case wherein a young girl is brutally slain. Yet early on you learn he's got a twisted sense of ethics, one that leads him to commit murder himself. So, in addition to pulling for the killer of the girl to be caught, you're now caught up in this awkward web of feelings for the main character. You are disturbed by his actions yet he's the only one who can get close to the other killer in the film. It's set against a backdrop of a small town in Alaska at a time of year when the sun never truly sets, so the constant daylight acts like another character in the film. Specifically it is like a pervading sense of guilt and truth that can never be escaped, and it was highly effective. I'm always intrigued by movies that can not only make the usual cop dramas interesting with great performances, but find new permutations (at least, new to me) that heighten the suspense.

Well I enjoyed all of those movies, so the 5-for-3 deal turned out to be a good one. And thanks to Lyndsay for asking what I thought of all of these movies! So tell me Lyndsay, what did you think of Insomnia?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Of all the fantasy games on all the web sites in all the world ..."

Would that I had posted about this game earlier, some of you may have been able to join in, but alas I've been slow to post here lately. I blame...Blockbuster! Yes, that evil movie rental chain that we all know and loathe so well. You see, earlier this week I went in to rent some movies and found three to my liking.

When I got to the check-out, the guy was like, "You know, you can get five movies and it's the same price."

I blinked. Five movies?! Here I thought I was over-extending myself with three, but they do have 7-day rentals down here...

"Well all right then, thanks. I'll just leave these here and pick another two then."

It took some searching as I really was pretty happy with the three I had chosen. They were The Out-of-Towners, starring Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and John Cleese (written by Neil Simon, a personal favorite); The Andromeda Strain, starring nobody-you'd-know, based on an excellent Michael Crichton novel that hyped fears we'd all die from strange bacteria from the Moon (released in 1969, just prior to our manned mission to said satellite); and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, starring two of my favorite actors, Geoffrey Rush and John Lithgow.

I scoured the sections again but just couldn't find anything in Comedy or New Releases that I hadn't seen or would never see, so I headed back to Sci-Fi. This section was relegated to a sad little corner of the shop, with only three shelves offering a paltry selection. One entire shelf had Star Trek and Star Wars movies, and I do like those, but I've seen them all already. Not too many Kiwis go for the sci-fi, it would seem. The War section always has the good ones checked out, so I went back to Horror, giving Drama a wide berth. Here I found two movies I'd meant to rent at some point but wasn't particularly in the mood for at this point: American Psycho and Insomnia.

I'd heard good things about them, and both films boast solid casts so I knew I was at least going to have a chance of liking these. Plus, Chloe Sevigny (rrrowrr) was in American Psycho. Trouble was, I wasn't really in the mood this week for any movies about psychotic serial killers or small-town murder mysteries. But, I had to honor the "5 for the price of 3" deal the guy was giving me, and anyways I was starting to take too long drifting amongst the stacks of movies in the shop.

So that's why I haven't posted in a week, you see. I've spent ALL of my free time watching these movies. And if you believe that one, I've got this bridge down here for sale you should see ...

But the original intent of this post was to mention the movie game, Fantasy Moguls. It's one of those fantasy league type games wherein you sign up to compete against your friends or the public at large. You draft movies onto your roster based on how well you think they'll do at the box office. This also includes how you think they'll rate with the critics and audiences in general, so it really tests your ability to predict Hollywood's success at the box office, or lack thereof.

I love movies, they're a big hobby of mine, so it's only natural that I'd want to engage myself in a game where I pretend to be a big studio boss and clobber my friends into submission by having the best roster of them all. Mwahahaha!

It's actually a lot of fun and my passion for this thing all started back when E! Channel used to run a great online game called Studio Boss. I played that a total of five times, winning it three times (my league of ten players, that is). While playing that great game (which has long since been discontinued - bastards!), I frequented the message boards there and have made some friends that I keep in touch with to this day. There are about a dozen or so of us ex-Studio Bosses that still congregate on our own message board over on ezboard. Many of us have even met 'in real life' at one time or another, and I myself was fortunate enough to meet several other players once upon a time a few years ago. It was a great time and we'll hopefully all be able to get together again. I remember much drinking and funny stories and after that... more drinking.

In the meantime, we fortunately now have found Fantasy Moguls to keep our movie-picking chops in order and I can't wait to get playing. Sadly, thanks to the huge time zone difference between me here in NZ and my friends back home playing, I won't be able to make the opening draft round tomorrow. I've put my good friend Todd up to the task, even though he's a fellow competitor, but I know he won't let me down. If he can't do it, the game should automatically pick my movies for me, and then I can always trade them around later on.

It doesn't matter anyways, I don't care if I win or lose, it's just fun playing. Oh, stuff that. I want to WIN, dammit!

Sorry again there's not been a post for a week, but I did postpone watching that fifth movie just so I could get on here and write something. You know how much free time those movies can take up.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Go the Lions!

Back in the States you may think you have it made right now in the sports world. What with your World Series, your NFL games, the BCS rankings and college football and – oh, what the hell am I saying?! It really is the best time of year for sports right now back home and I miss it and ESPN like I miss a cold beer. I am pretty sure I can get ESPN and all the other sports on Sky satellite TV but I don’t have the dough for it right now. Nowhere in NZ will you find ‘gridiron’ football on television, and same goes for baseball.

But what I was going to write was that this weekend our very own Wellington Lions are in the Air New Zealand Cup final against Waikato. The game is on Saturday night so hopefully I will have recovered from my 25-hour long shift (you read that right: 25 hours) in time to see it.

Fortunately we have rugby aplenty over here, pretty much year-round, and it’s fun to watch so at least I have that if I can’t watch the NFL easily. It certainly doesn’t hurt that my home team is in the championship, either! Would be cool to see them win it all my first year here, and the Lions do have some of my favorite players from the All Blacks, such as Jerry Collins, Rodney So’oialo, and Tana Umaga. The Waikato Mooloos do have this game at home, however, and they certainly had the best season out of all the teams in the league. In spite of their silly mascot name, Waikato are a formidable side. The Lions will certainly be underdogs in this one but it should be an excellent match nonetheless.

Incidentally, a mooloo is a cow, and the Waikato region is big into dairy farming, and they have their very own rugby team. So there you have it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mowin' the lawn, mowin' the lawn

Behold the glory that is my new lawnmower! Yes, that’s right - it’s a lawnmower. Not a Fischer-Price toy from the neighbor’s yard (although it certainly looks like one). All that’s missing is the little plastic guy with the cylindrical head perched on top of the mower somewhere, clutching a fake steering wheel. It doesn’t even run on gas – it’s electric!

Oh lord, now I’ve got that stupid song in my head…

Anyways, the beauty of it is that the mower will be “VLM” – very low maintenance. My yard's size roughly corresponds with that of a book of 20 postage stamps, so there was no need to go out and over-compensate and buy a John Deere tractor/mower/post-hole digger.

As much as I’m looking forward to being done mowing the lawn in about 10 minutes, half of which time will be spent coiling up the long extension cord, there is one other aspect of my yard that is a little daunting: flowerbeds. Not that they’re a labor of Hercules or anything, and the nice thing is they are already present, fully-mulched. But I certainly do not have a green thumb for flowers or gardens so I’m hoping that my yard doesn't become the neighborhood eyesore. I’m representing the U. S. of A. here, I can’t let us down! For a few photos I've taken of the place, click here.

I see some flowers already coming up and I also see those little white sign thingies sticking out of the mulch where other things are supposed to bloom. There is also a nice-looking honeysuckle plant growing along the first part of my fence, but it’s already an uneasily large size. As in, it’s on the borderline going from looking pleasingly quaint to looking like a white-flowered monster devouring the fence between me and my neighbor’s driveway.

I know there is probably some simple technique to pruning it back, but all I can remember is how badly I mangled a pretty rosebush my Mom had growing alongside this low stone wall we had in our yard when I was a kid. In all fairness, I never did try to prune this rosebush properly. I more or less destroyed its aesthetics by just pushing the lawnmower over its outermost parts. You can probably imagine the outcome. This is why I stick to working on animals and not plants!

Did I mention I took two botany classes in undergrad? You can see that I was in it just for the field trips.

But, that’s enough stressing over the lawn for now. I’m sure I’ll do fine. I’m not too proud to ask a lot of questions and I do really want to learn how to keep a proper flowerbed and all that. If it all goes to hell, I’ll just buy some obnoxiously large American flags, not to mention a few sports team flags, and plant them in all the bare patches of my flowerbeds. If I’m going to be an eyesore, I’m going all the way!

Spent the day shopping around for furnishings for the flat, and although it’ll be a while before I can afford living room furniture, beds, dressers, etc., I did get a fridge today. Got a good deal on it from a co-worker, so now I have a place to keep ice cold Coke, which will come in handy after all that exhausting yard work.

Speaking of which, what’s the over/under on how long it will take me to actually mow over the power cord and electrocute myself?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

"The new phonebooks are here! The new phonebooks are here!"

I have now finished moving into my new flat. It's a nice little place in a good suburb, right across the Hutt River from where I work (q.v. my previous posting). The weather this weekend was a real shocker, with blowing winds and rain, but fortunately the gusts subsided enough for me to shift things across town without getting too drenched. It also helps that I don't have any furtniture to speak of!

In fact, I also don't have a refrigerator. Yipes! Apparently, in NZ, when you change flats you also take the fridge. Luckily I only had a bit of ham and some milk and cheese left so I am not out of pocket too much there. This also serves as a good excuse to get take-aways all week, but I really do need to get a fridge in here five minutes ago.

Pictures to come soon, but I didn't want to take any of the place today, given how terribly 'minimalist' the furnishings are (it's a new trend I'm starting). Also, the dingy grey sky and blowing rain would really cheapen the effect of the scenic view outside my windows. And just in case I forgot I was in New Zealand, several of the neighboring yards have sheep grazing in them. I guess that's better than barking dogs that are chained outside!

Waiting for me on the doorstep were my new phonebooks, and of course after the fashion of Steve Martin's "Jerk", I tore open the bag and flipped right to the B's. And there I am! "Brooks B of 31B Chatsworth Road 528 6587"! Do you know how many people read these books a day? I'm famous now - in New Zealand! Of course, I'm no longer at that address. Or that phone number. But STILL - I'm in 'the book'!

OK that's enough of that, but now that not only am I finally set up in my own place and my cats touched down in Christchurch this morning, it feels like things are just beginning for me here. Nevermind that in 6 months my visa is up! I'll work on renewing that first of the year.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The horror ... the horror ...

In trying frantically to not throw every last thing I owned away before moving to NZ, I salvaged all of my CDs and DVDs by removing them from their cases and putting them in these cool Case Logic binders. I saved tons of space (not to mention mucho dineiro in shipping costs) by doing this, but now – months later – I have come to a horrifying realization: I could have saved all of my CD liner inserts! Yes, like the complete berk that I am, I threw out all of the meaningful lyrics, photos and other assorted wonders contained within those little books that come with your music CD.

How have I gotten this far in life while being so absentminded? Am I getting Alzheimer’s already?

Who are you people? Why am I typing at this keyboard?

Oh, look, something shiny …

Friday, October 13, 2006

And now, our crappy Feature Presentation

The other night I went out with friends to go see “Thank You For Smoking.” It was a good movie – entertaining, funny, intelligent. It wasn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year or one I’ll be buying on DVD, and when we went to the movies we chose that one by default because it was the only one we were interested in seeing, and even then it was close to being a ‘well, that’s one of those movies that you can wait to see on video’ type decisions. But one of those things happened to me during the previews that does from time to time.

Why is it that when you go to see a movie, usually one you’re only moderately interested in – or especially if you’re being dragged to it – that the previews for other movies often leave you a little bummed out after watching them? Time and again, I’ll be like, “Man, now I really want to see that movie instead!” Of course, the previews are of films that aren’t even out yet and probably won’t be for several months. Before this particular movie, I saw trailers for “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine” and they both definitely looked like films I wanted to go see instead. Right now.

The cruelest kind of preview is the one for a big-budget production of your favorite novel with the Best Cast Ever and it’s not even going to be released until 15 months from now. How dare they show you that now! There ought to be a law against that. Something like:

Movie Theater Rule 17: There shall be no showing previews of other, cooler movies before this movie unless you’re so amped to see the current film that you really just can’t be bothered. If you leave this film upset and think the previews beforehand were better than the movie you just saw, you will be entitled to two free passes to one of the cool movies in the previews.”

Something like that. Anyways, it makes me happy to have those TV-type commercials foisted upon me instead. I’ll happily sit through another inane Coke or Fanta ad, if it means I don’t have to see a full-on preview for Peter Jackson’s 8-hour, two-movie version of The Hobbit, due out soon in theaters near you, Christmas 2008.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Pardon the Name Dropping

No, it’s not the name of a new sort of game show. Nor is it a habit of mine, but I wanted to tell the story of my visit to the set of Pardon the Interruption (herein and forever after referred to as PTI) in Washington, DC.

A bit about the show… It’s a sports talk show, hosted by two men, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. I know I’ve probably just lost all of the female readers in my audience, but I’ll press on anyways! This is my longest posting so far, so be warned…

N.B. - I've lost a good deal of weight since that picture was taken!

The show evolved out of their daily lively arguments and discussions while working as sports reporters for the Washington Post, where they’ve worked for over 20 years now I believe. The TV show’s been around for seven years or so, and while Wilbon still regularly writes for the Post, Tony has the rare column anymore, especially since he’s now wearing another hat: color commentator for Monday Night Football.

The show is taped at Atlantic Video Studios in Washington, DC, right up the street from the MCI Center. I forget exactly how, but I got the idea that it was possible to visit the set of PTI and meet Tony, Mike and the crew. I had sent a few emails to the show from time to time to comment on something I’d seen on the show, and soon became acquainted with their producer, Bonnie. She graciously offered to let me come up and see the show get taped one weekday, and afterwards I’d be able to meet Tony and Mike. How cool is that! There was no way I could refuse, so I made plans to see the show during a week I had already taken off. I love going to DC anyways, as there is so much to see and do there, like visiting the museums on the Mall.

The day of the show was pretty hot (DC is a swampy, humid area and it was late May) and I had brought with me some gifts for Tony and Mike as well as Bonnie, as thanks for arranging the whole experience for me. I was still living in Smithfield, and I thought they might appreciate something demonstrative of my part of the country. By the way, Bonnie was clear about not needing to bring any gifts at all as it wasn’t necessary, but I just couldn’t go up there empty-handed. These people work hard and have tons of fans and were making arrangements to have a total stranger hang around their workplace for a few hours, so I felt compelled. The original invitation to see the show was for me and all of the friends that I could bring, but unfortunately I could never coordinate with my dad or with Todd, the only two people I knew who would be interested in PTI. So it became a solo journey but I didn’t mind.

I decided that Smithfield peanuts would be a good gift, as Bonnie (when pressed) mentioned that ‘the boys’ liked things like that as well as chocolate kisses. Since I’m not from Hershey, Pennsylvania, I went with the nuts. On the way out of Smithfield, I stopped at a little house on the side of Route 10 that doubled as a store selling peanuts, right from the owner’s own farm. I didn’t think you could get any more local than this, and she put together a couple of nice assortments of peanuts, cashews and the like. For Bonnie, I bought a Starbucks gift card, figuring correctly that she was a coffee drinker like me.

So there I was, strolling along the streets of DC, in high heat and humidity, with two large boxes of assorted nuts under one arm and my camera around the other. I had on a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, and I made the unfortunate mistake of getting off the Metro one stop further away from the studio than I should have. Luckily for me the building where the show tapes was air-conditioned, although they had just gotten it fixed for apparently over the weekend it had broken down. I remember hearing Tony talking about it with the staff before the taping began, about how the heat inside the building on the weekend had him ‘schvitzing like an Airedale’, one of his favorite phrases.

There were two security guards at the outside entrance to the building, and I told them the producer’s name and that I was there to see PTI get taped. They radioed inside and after a moment they nodded and let me through. The girl at the elevators had a guest list, which I was on, and I couldn’t help but feel a little swell of pride as I was now on the “VIP” list for PTI! Well, for one day at least.

She pressed for the elevator and it took me to the studios. Bonnie came out and met me, was thrilled with my gift of a Starbucks card, and showed me around the studio. I got to see the offices, where all of the heads on sticks from the past reside (aside from the lucky few that adorn the set behind Tony and Mike). There were all of the show’s holiday props in here as well, including the pumpkins carved like the two of them.

Sadly, Wilbon was on the road for this particular show, as he was down in Miami for an NBA playoff game. This had a good side, though, as that meant that that day’s guest for “Five Good Minutes” (the interview segment) was none other than Charles Barkley. He’s a previous NBA All-Star who now announces basketball games for TNT. I read his latest book, “Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man?”, which was edited by Mike Wilbon. Sir Charles is a regular on PTI, and with the three of them being bald, Tony always introduces interviews involving Charles (or any bald person) as such: “Let the meeting of the Bald Brotherhood commence!”

So while Mike was in Miami, Tony was up in the studio (he very rarely if ever goes on the road as he does not like to fly – to wit, he takes a bus to most MNF games a la John Madden). Before the interview began, Charles, Mike and Tony were chatting and it was mostly about golf and where was good to play in the country. They’re all scratch golfers, or at least that’s what they’d have you believe if you listened to them talk about their golf games.

A couple of times Tony Reali ("Stat Boy", PTI's fact-checker and occasional game-runner) came through the producer’s booth where I was sitting to watch the show, but he was too busy for me to talk to him. I was sitting on this really comfy couch they had set aside for guests. The broadcast time of the show is 30 minutes and it took just over an hour to tape.

Once the show was over, Bonnie called up to the studio to tell Tony that they had a guest that day and I wanted to visit the set and have my picture taken with him. Tony was graceful and seemed glad to hear that there was a guest listener in the studio. I felt relieved because I understand how defensive some celebrities can become about meeting the public, and above all else I never wanted to feel like an intrusion.

Bonnie lead me upstairs to the set – which is where I would have been for the whole taping, incidentally, except for the fact that Wilbon was gone. I could’ve stayed in the set with Tony, Bonnie said, but unless I was in the producer’s booth I wouldn’t be able to hear anything Wilbon said.

Tony stood up and shook my hand and I presented him with the peanuts. He asked a little about Smithfield and where it was, and offered me Wilbon’s chair. My head was in the clouds at this point – I was on the set of PTI! In Wilbon’s seat! Tony had a couple of different newspapers before him on the table. We sat and talked about the show for a bit, and then I gave my camera to Bonnie and she took a few photos of us.

The meet-and-greet and photograph session done, I bid my farewells to Tony and thanked him again for letting me come on the set and meet him. He and Bonnie both told me to come back again when Mike was in town, so I could not only meet him but actually be on the set for the taping. There was nothing but sincerity and politeness in the way they talked to me, and this only deepened my admiration for Mr. Tony as well as the whole PTI experience.

After that, Bonnie lead me back outside. She told me I was their number one fan now because of the great gifts, and I laughed and thanked her. I told her I was only too glad to bring the gifts and said I’d certainly be back at some point, with a friend or two hopefully. She told me to bring a whole crew; they’d make it a party for us! I didn’t doubt her, but much to my chagrin I was never able to organize another trek to the PTI set. I did email Bonnie a couple of different times when I honestly thought I was going to be in the DC area again, but one time I got sick and the other time something else came up, so I had to cancel. I really hope that invitation to come back is still extended to me, as one day when I’m back in the States (and hopefully PTI is still going) I sure would like to get up there and see them all again.

Until that day comes, if ever, I’ll leave you with this one closing line, cribbed from Mr. Tony himself (who cribbed it from the Rolling Stones):

“If you’re out on your bike tonight, do wear white.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I knew I came here for a reason ...

TOOL are playing here, in Auckland, Friday January 19th. They'll be headlining New Zealand's biggest annual concert event, called Big Day Out. The Killers will also be there, and I'm almost as amped for them as I am for Tool. There are a few unfortunate selections, such as My Chemical Romance (blecch) but they can easily be avoided, unlike that time they opened for Green Day. Another big plus is there will be many Kiwi bands there so I can finally get a little more familiar with the 'local' bands. The radio stations around here rarely announce song names or artists, and now that I'm out of the States I'm having a hard time keeping up with the new music and whether or not it's from the US or from here.

Anyways, Big Day Out is one of those huge outdoor concerts, with upwards of a dozen bands playing, on three or four different stages. It’ll be chaotic, loud, and crowded. I can’t wait to be there. This is one of those big events that draws lots of Kiwis every year, and it’ll also be a good chance to finally visit Auckland in an official capacity, as opposed to literally running through it at the break of dawn with six heavy bags not quite balanced on a luggage gurnee in tow behind me (and at one point, nearly on top of me).

Tool is my favorite band, mainly because of the lead singer, Maynard James Keenan. The band has evolved quite a bit over the past 10+ years, and admittedly I’m not an ‘original gangsta’ fan from their “Opiate” days (first EP release). But I have really liked them since about ’96 when their third album “AEnima” was released. Maynard’s lyrics have demonstrated the band's evolution the most as even though their music has changed a bit, their general soundscape is still the same. He’s gone from some harsh, bitter lyrics indicting this or that (Los Angeles, fanboys, religion) to a rather more spiritual bent, first evidenced on “Lateralus” and now especially on “10,000 Days”. I really liked the positivity of “Lateralus” wherein Maynard sings a lot about the potential of the human mind and body. It was a nice if not somewhat unexpected progression from "AEnima" and "Undertow" in terms of subject, although I love the music on every album.

Maynard definitely has a sense of humor and he seems to enjoy misleading the casual listener as well as the fanboy. To wit, his “Die Eier von Satan”, a song with an obviously menacing title, ‘sung’ in a particularly sinister German voice, would lead one to conclude that the band are all devil-worshipping white supremacists. That’s as maybe (they ain't of course), but as far as this song goes, it is a recipe for making round balls of bread without eggs (the title translates to “The Balls of Satan”). The menacing refrain at the end of the track, “Und kine eier!” is not some Nazi-esque raving, but rather an important part of the recipe reminding the cook: ‘And no eggs!’ in this recipe. For another interesting interpretation of this song's lyrics, click here.

Maynard’s “side project” band, A Perfect Circle, also created some great music. In many other ways, the subject matter of his lyrics with this band also resonated with me personally, from unrequited love to views on religion. Unfortunately, after 3 ½ albums APC is done, according to Maynard, but at least he has gone back to Tool and produced "10,000 Days". The title of this latest album is said to refer to roughly the length of time his mother spent being paralyzed before she recently died. It's a solid album, with Tool's usual mix of hard rocking tunes, strange sound effects, a rambling ballad, and some melancholy songs.

That's enough of my amateurish bloviating on Tool, but everyone's got their favorite band. One you'd take days off of work and travel a long ways to go see. This is that band for me! I’d encourage you to check out some of MJK’s music, if you’re interested. However, I know it’s definitely not something that everyone enjoys. This, too, I like about Tool.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Tao of Haka

Finally made it out to take in some live entertainment in Wellington the other night. Last Friday, "Tao: The Martial Art of the Drum" was playing at the Michael Fowler Centre downtown. This is a group of 10 elite drummers from Japan, 7 men and 3 women. They had 12 different songs they played, using all manner of drums from a humongous kettle drum down to smaller ones they wore around their waists. The show is based upon the ancient custom of taiko drumming that originated in China and Korea and has undergone a renaissance in Japan the past 40 years or so. In ancient times, there would be taiko accompaniment on battlefields as well as festivals throughout Japan. (I am cribbing from the program here, I don't hold myself out as an expert on this!)

The show was a combination of synergistic drumming and dancing, with all of the performers demonstrating impeccable timing and skill (my own words, I'm no longer cribbing!). I mean, if there was anyone out of rhythm or missing a beat it was indetectable. It just has to be seen to be believed. They made it all look so easy, and they were really enjoying themselves while they played - hard to do while concentrating so intensely. Apparently they have an insane practice regimen. To them, taiko truly is a way of life.

The opening number featured the 3 women and one of the men, one standing in front of the other, each holding drumsticks and each with their own drums to their right and left. Viewed head-on, they seemed like one person with 8 arms and they carried out their drumming flawlessly. It also wasn't just a matter of hitting the right drum at the right time, but there was fluid quality to their movements and when they would stop mid-motion they'd hold their positions in perfect symmetry.

Unfortunately they were only in town for one performance but they will likely return. It goes without saying that I would highly recommend checking these guys out, should they ever come to your neck of the woods. They first became popular outside of Japan at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland a couple of years ago, and hopefully will remain so for a long time as I hope to see this performance again as well as any new material they create.

It, uh, didn't hurt that the three women in this show were real cuties, too. And holding drumsticks. Even occasionally playing flutes. The operative word here is lithe. Yes, yes, I know. I need a date. Or a bucket of ice water!

One cool thing that happened at the end of the show, after their encore, was a Maori guy went down the aisle to the foot of the stage and performed a haka. It was clearly in praise of the performance, and the Japanese drummers were at first a little stunned but after the haka was finished they were all beaming. I thought it was a nice touch, and made this great experience a little more memorable in that it had a New Zealand flair to it. Apparently it's not unusual for Maori to express themselves in this way, should they be so moved. I love it and think it's great to have a cultural exchange like that. I'm still so new here but I was proud to be part of that New Zealand crowd!

A Maori haka, by the way, is a traditional war dance practiced by the original inhabitants of these islands. It is described rather well by some of Captain James Cook's crew, who first encountered the Maori on one of Cook's three historic voyages. I guess technically some Dutch explorers encountered the Maori first, some one hundred years prior, but four of them were beaten to death and the Dutch never made it to shore and so never had a chance to see the haka. But this dance was performed usually by a retreating tribe after they had lost a battle, although there were also 'victory' hakas as well.

The haka is a pretty extraordinary thing, really, and it's more than intimidating. There are many different versions, and currently the New Zealand national rugby side, the All Blacks, have made this dance famous as they perform it prior to every match. It is a way of psyching themselves up for the battle that is rugby, as well as a way to try to intimidate their opponents. The opposing team just stands there on the sideline, watching the All Blacks coolly as they do the haka. A particularly controversial version of the haka has been making the rounds this year, wherein the AB's pretend to slash their throats at the end of the dance. For more on the AB's version of the haka, click here.

The acoustics of the Fowler Centre were great and there really isn't a bad seat in the house. I look forward to catching more shows there in the future - hopefully ones good enough to earn another sampling of the mighty haka.