September Reviews

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David Hasslehoff: not pictured.

It’s amazing how many dodgy movies you can watch on a trans-Pacific flight. Especially when you really should be sleeping. that’s why there’s a bit more substance to this month’s reviews than I had expected. A pleasant surprise, though few of the movies in question were.

Movies

Green Lantern: A superhero film with a split personality, Green Lantern is half space-based, exposition-heavy mythology and half Earth-based “coming to terms with your past” hero creation. The film deliberately goes for an epic feel, but a script that insists on explaining every point bogs it down, and the grand spectacle of the ultimate enemy loses any emotional weight in the welter of unconvincing CGI. In the other half of the story, Ryan Reynolds struggles to avoid equating “overconfident” with “asshole” while the remainder of the cast fail to stand out much.

Super 8: JJ Abrams’ homage to the Spielberg movies of the ‘80s, Super 8 throws a bunch of kids into an encounter with an alien that’s a little bit ET and a little bit Cloverfield. The kids themselves are well cast, as are the adults that surround them, and the ‘80s setting is meticulously replicated, but there’s a certain hollow feeling, as though the surface but not the heart of the original films has been recreated. This is particularly notable in the level of gore in the film, which is somewhat surprising in a film ostensibly aimed at a family audience.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Johnny Depp returns as Jack Sparrow in the latest in the money-spinning series of films from Disney, breaking free from the convoluted story of the original trilogy into a more straightforward search for the Fountain of Youth. Several familiar faces return, and new ones are provided in the form of Ian McShane’s Blackbeard and Penelope Cruz as his daughter, but despite an Orlando Bloom replacement, the focus is entirely on Depp this time, and his prancing, mascara-laden character may well be one we’ve seen quite enough of already. It’s a decent enough action film and an improvement on the overblown messes that the previous two films in the series were, but the profit-driven motive behind spending money on this and not on something a little more original is wearying.

Books

The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse: Gentle, superbly crafted and almost guaranteed to raise a smile, Wodehouse’s tales of the genial wastrel Bertie Wooster and his efficient, all-knowing butler Jeeves are not so much literature as a pick-me-up in literary form. The episodic stories are a little repetitive, with Bertie struggling with problems caused by his troublesome relatives and friends until Jeeves devises a solution, but the reason it all works so well is Wodehouse’s masterly command of the English language and his creation of an idealised world of fools and cads. Delightful to step into at any time, this is an ephemeral confection that even those with no time for the idle rich will find it hard to resist.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman: As an author, Neil Gaiman excels in creating worlds that the reader would love to visit, no matter how many villains inhabit them, because they run on beautifully logical fairytale versions of the everyday world’s cause and effect. Neverwhere, a novelisation of the BBC series of the same name, presents a version of London in which a shadowy underworld exists, based on the names and geography of the upper world, extended literally and metaphorically as deep as they will go. A classic hero’s tale, populated by some of the most appealing and quirky characters Gaiman has ever invented, it’s a story that’s over far too quick for all it promises to contain.

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The Warmest of Welcomes

My very first night in LA and I get this welcome.

LA arranged this sunset just for me. Plus a rainbow on the other side of the sky. Nice.

Americans get a bad rap sometimes, with the stereotype of them being loud, obnoxious and culturally insensitive. Sure, I’ve met some Americans who fit that bill, but I’ve also met plenty of Irish who do too, and a fair scattering among other nationalities. In terms of ratios, I suspect that not too much changes wherever you go: there are always assholes. The vast majority of Americans that I’ve known have been some of the warmest, friendliest people it’s been my pleasure to encounter.

Los Angeles provides a case in point. This is the first time on my tour since I left London that I’ve been in the company of a friend, and she and her family couldn’t have been more welcoming to a weary, time zone-addled traveller. Getting to see Los Angeles laid out in front of me at sunset from the rear of their house was a pretty special experience too.

Los Angeles itself is a city I’ve never been to before, though I’ve bracketed it with visits to San Diego and San Francisco. There’s an odd feeling of familiarity about it that comes from place names that show up regularly on television and film: Mulholland Drive, Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive and, of course, Sunset Boulevard. I haven’t visited them all and I probably won’t before I leave, but I have ventured across the city by car and lived to tell the tale. So at least some of my navigational abilities remain intact.

Next up, a trip along the coast, northwards towards San Francisco by way of the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s all rather unplanned from here on in, save a few stops along the way to see friends, but after the scheduled mania of the trip so far, it’s nice to just take it as it comes.

End of the Road (sort of)

Tastier than expectedI’m not the world’s biggest sushi fan, but I couldn’t leave Tokyo without trying some. It was probably the best sushi I’ve ever had though, again, that’s not saying a huge amount. Great ambience though.

There’s around eleven hours left to me before the land and sea odyssey that has brought me from London to Tokyo comes to an end and I take to the air, crossing the Pacific from Narita Airport to LAX. From one continent to another, an eleven-hour flight that crosses purposes with the sixteen-hour time difference between where I take off and where I land. For Phileas Fogg, unaware of what he was doing, it was all about earning an extra day to win his wager. For me, I suspect it will feel an awful lot like theft: an entire night foreshortened and left orphaned, forcing me to deal with Friday afternoon all over again.

Then again, one Friday afternoon in Tokyo, the next (or the same one again) in California. Not so bad, really.

Japan has been quite incredible, and I did no more than cut a path across its heart, from the temple-strewn Kyoto and Nara to the hypermodern Tokyo, where touches of old Japan are preserved but mostly kept away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There’s a lot more to the country than that, from chilly Hokkaido in the north, with the last remnants of the indigenous Ainu people and some fine skiing country, to the subtropical islands of the south, where you really can get away from it all. In one week, I saw some cities and glimpsed the countryside, and what it has done is give me a taste for more. I will be back some day.

For now though, a last few hours to swing around some museums and shops, to see a few things I didn’t want to miss before I went. Neon glamour and fascinating side streets; time to put them in the past for now.

 

 

 

I’ve Got Walking Feet

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No, I don’t know what that is either.

I had thought that the sprawling megalopolis of Tokyo would defeat my tendency to walk everywhere rather than be sensible and use public transport. I reckoned without the power of a sunny day and a liberal sprinkling of useful streetside maps. Though it did take me a while to get used to the fact that the maps aren’t oriented north=up but rather according to the direction the reader is facing. Makes a surprising amount of sense, really.

I did take the JR Yamanote line in the morning, down to Shinbashi Station, but having strolled around the Hama-Rikyū gardens, it only made sense to check out the Tsukiji Fish Market (sadly closed) on foot, then to wander through Ginza, up to the Imperial Palace Gardens. Okay, so the walk from there through Roppongi to the famous Shibuya crossing was maybe a little excessive, but heading north from there, through Yoyogi Park and past the beautiful Meiji Shrine was actually quite relaxing. And once there, it was only a brief stroll to Shinjuku and the free observatory on the 45th floor of the Metropolitan Government offices. Sadly, despite the blue skies, the distant Mt Fuji was lost in the haze.

You’d think, after all that, I’d be crazy to try and walk back to the hotel. And you’d be right – I hopped on a JR train to Ueno, getting back just before sunset. Seriously – this is why it might be better for me to travel solo every so often. As much as I enjoy perambulating around a new city, I’d feel guilty dragging someone else all that way.

Tokyo marks the eastward terminus of this journey by land and sea – in a couple of days, I take to the skies for a flight to LA, landing several hours before I arrive. I don’t know how many times one has to cross the International Date Line before it ceases to be fun, but I suspect it’s quite a few in my case.

One more full day here and most of the next. Having done my strolling, perhaps some museums and the like are in order? First though, another stroll, this time out to see the neon of Akihabara by night.

Catching Up

There's reality, and then there's "reality".Explanation to follow.

Time for me to do a bit of housecleaning. I’m in Nara, Japan, at the moment, having spent most of the last three days on my feet from dawn to dusk (it being slightly after dusk here at the moment), making the most of simply being in Japan and exploring the temples, forests and back streets of Kyoto, Uji and Nara. However, with Tokyo looming and the possibility that I might not have much time for, well, anything in the near future, I’m taking an hour or two out to put certain things in order. The first thing being my photos, which are rapidly becoming a massive, unedited collection, relatively useless until I sort through them.

The second thing being my monthly reviews, which are, oh, just a little bit delayed at present. So, without further ado, and compressed into a single post, here’s August’s reviews.

Cinema Reviews

Fright Night: A glossy 3D remake of a 1980s teen horror film, this skimps on the subtlety and heads straight for the gore, with gushes of blood and large pointy things regularly heading out of the screen and towards the audience. The cast throw themselves into the spirit of the thing, especially David Tennant as a sleazy Vegas magician and Colin Farrell as the even sleazier predatory vampire neighbour. It’s paper-thin, lacking any reason to exist other than to entertain, and on that level it serves pretty well – but only see it in 3D if you like having things pointed at you, as the rest of the film is too murky otherwise.

Drive: Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a detached and dream-like film, saturated in ’80s style, portraying a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman, seeking to live a normal life even as he deals with monsters. Ryan Gosling is almost mute in the role of the unnamed driver, who only reveals who he is when trapped by an attempt to do the right thing that goes terribly wrong. At times the long pauses and silences can seem pretentious, but there is substance under all the style and some fine performances from a notable cast.

Conan: Okay, I’ll admit that I saw this in Russian, without subtitles, and may have missed out on some subtleties of plot and character, but then Conan has never been a character who’s traded in subtlety. For all the extra gore, dirt, nudity and CGI, this isn’t too far away from the Arnie original, and its design work does a good job of portraying a world of terrible antiquity, even though the whole thing does tip over into cheesiness every so often. Jason Momoa offers an imposing physical presence in the lead role, even though he’s more pantherish compared to Arnie’s beefcake, but it’s questionable whether he or the film have made the character unique enough to earn a second run at a cinematic outing.

Book Reviews

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins: The “Hunger Games” trilogy comes to an end with a war waged as much through public relations as violence, but one that is no less shattering for its participants for all that. Collins does not stint in depicting the brutal impact, both physical and mental, of being at the centre of this conflict on her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she learns the difference between those who wage war because they have to and those who wage war because it is expedient. Genuinely heartwrenching at times, it refuses to offer easy answers, and even its potentially cliched love triangle is played out in a believable and affecting manner.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux: Replicating a journey he took three decades earlier, the author travels around Asia, revisiting old haunts as a curmudgeonly ghost, alternately enthralled and appalled at the changes and the things that have remained the same. Leavening his sometimes dyspeptic gaze is the fact that he’s willing to fall in love with a scene or a face at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, this is a book about travel, not tourism, and it’s far from being a guidebook of any kind, but it will be hard for anyone to read it and not wish to follow at least part of the way in the author’s footsteps.

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood: Not so much a sequel to Oryx and Crake as a companion piece to it, telling of the end of humanity from a new perspective, this is the story of those whom that apocalypse was inflicted upon, even as they dealt with their own crumbling lives. Atwood takes a light touch in dealing with the eco-cult who dominate the structure of the book, leaving the reader uncertain as to exactly who is being laughed at, with the inevitable answer being everyone, at one time or another. Dark where it needs to be, humorous where it can be and human everywhere, this doesn’t have the impact of its predecessor, but apart from its overuse of coincidence, it’s a fine addition to the story.

Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold: The jazz-age era of stage magicians is evoked with well-researched detail in this twisty thriller, focusing on the career of “Carter the Great” and its links to the foremost developments of the age. Carter is a suitably complex character for this well-crafted story, and although his personal issues are intertwined with the greater developments in the plot and the world at large, he always remains on the right side of self-indulgence. There’s plenty of detail for the reader to get their teeth into, but ultimately this is a satisfyingly straightforward tale of revenge, lost love and secrets.

In all likelihood, there will be very few September reviews. I’ve seen no movies and read only two books, but at least I have an excuse. I’ll make up for it when I get the chance.

Oh, and the third thing, related to that picture above? Martin McGuinness’s plans to run for president of Ireland, which is a news story that broke while I was somewhere in Russia, I think. Now, my viewpoint on Sinn Fein is somewhat biased by the fact that they aided and abetted a bunch of murderous bastards who kept the population of Northern Ireland (all of them, not just half of them) terrorised for three decades. If he’s willing to work to undo some of what Sinn Fein caused over the years, fair enough. But until and unless the party as a whole and he in particular can accept responsibility for what they did, I have no interest in seeing him become the personal representative of the nation that I’ve made my home in for half my life, and which is more than willing to claim me as a citizen.

All right, rant over. Japan is great in many, many ways, some of which I’ll be sharing soon, I hope. Heading to Tokyo tomorrow for yet more adventures, and then the grand tour of the U.S. to wrap it up. It’s been a long, strange trip already, and I’m only about halfway through.

From the Setting to the Rising Sun

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The land of the Rising Sun indeed.

How do you arrange a perfect morning? There are plenty of recipes, but this one worked well for me.

First, head to bed early, due to a rolling sea that tires you out and kills your appetite. This allows you to wake up at 3.30am, unable to sleep. As a result, you go out on deck and lie on a bench, looking up at the stars, enjoying the balmy and breezy night more or less on your own.

After that, you can return to bed and snooze for a while, only to reemerge at about 5.30am, just as the eastern sky is starting to lighten. Then spend about an hour just sitting there, watching as the sun comes up over the land of the Rising Sun, listening to the soundtrack to Halo, redolent of an encounter with things ancient, technologically advanced and wondrous.

After breakfast, you can watch Japan’s rugged and lush coastline pass by as the ferry pulls into Sakaiminato harbour, one side of which is industrial, the other the aforementioned lushness. You can listen to Ludovico Einaudi’s soaring Divenire too. Tears? Nah, just the wind in my eyes.

At this stage, customs will hold no fear for you, even if they are a bit put out at your lack of accommodation planning.

A very fine way to start a birthday, I tell you.

P.S. I wrote the above while going through customs in Sakaiminato. Right now, several hours and three train journeys (the last on the “Nozomi” Super Express Shinkansen, which officially travels at Ludicrous Speed), I’m in Kyoto’s shopping district, having gone wandering from my ryokan and finally found a usable wifi network. Still, all the above still holds. And Japan is delightful thus far.

Dinner on the Pacific Rim

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Another food post? Why not…

Right at this moment, I’m having dinner at the lovely Moloko & Med (Milk & Honey) in Vladivostok. Nothing as fancy as my St. Petersburg repast – just meatballs and fried potatoes, but beautifully prepared and very tasty. It seems somehow appropriate to mark my last full day in Russia in a way that mirrors one of my first, thousands of miles away from here.

It’s been a long, strange trip. A couple of 3-4 day train trips, interspersed with smaller journeys and memorable moments. Wandering around Gorky Park at sunset, being footsore on Nevsky Prospekt, diving into the chilly waters of Lake Baikal and catching two sunrises in one morning in Terelj National Park in Mongolia. Here in Vladivostok, I’ve mostly been enjoying the experience of just being here, but the half-built form of the Golden Horn bridge that dominates the city has provided some memorable views and moments of its own.

Tomorrow, all being well, I’ll hop on a ferry to Korea, then Japan. (If all isn’t well, I’ll have 24 hours to come up with an alternative exit before my visa runs out.) A very different experience to what has come before, I suspect, but one I’m really looking forward to. One thing that this trip has brought home to me is that a bit of open-mindedness and adventure can take you a long way. (That and the advantages that fate brought to make this trip possible, but it all works together in the end.)

That’s enough for now. Dessert is on the way, then I have a hill to climb and a sunset to watch. Should be a fine way to wrap up this leg of the adventure.

Travels, Reviews, and Assorted Musings