Friday, September 13, 2013

Christmas in Summer – December 2012


For Christmas, my mom came to stay with me for three weeks, providing the perfect excuse to see more of the country and do some proper sight-seeing.  Since her flight landed in Sydney, I flew down to meet her and we began our adventure there.  Sydney is not only the most famous and recognisable Australian city; for a long time it was the only Australian city I even knew anything about.  And among famous cities of the world, it’s one of the ones I most want to move to.  Not because of the weather, or the people, or the food, or even the sights.  But because I’ve always wanted to live in a state called New South Wales!

We began our first day with a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are considerably more impressive than Brisbane’s.  In fact, they’re probably the most beautiful gardens I’ve been to outside of Europe.  From the gardens it was only a short waterfront walk to the most famous building in the southern hemisphere: the Sydney Opera House.  We didn’t go inside, but we did have fun taking pictures of ourselves on the steps, and went for a nice but expensive lunch at one of the restaurants.  From there we also had a great view of the Harbour Bridge, which became a highlight of the Sydney Olympics.  It’s a big bridge, but if one squinted and looked very closely one could just make out tiny specs crawling along the top: tourists doing a guided walk across the structure.  It looked terrifying, though I’ve no doubt the adventurers were well secured.  From what I understand, the tour is good exercise, and would probably be very educational, especially to anyone with an interest in architecture or engineering.  It’s a couple hundred dollars, though, more than I felt like spending.

After lunch, we took a ferry around to Darling Harbour to see the Sydney Aquarium.  While I wouldn’t say it beats Osaka’s Kaiyukan for value, it’s a good-sized facility where we saw lots of Australian sea-life.  I was disappointed, however, that the most interesting members of the exhibition, the platypuses, were hiding, and though I watched and waited they did not make an appearance.


The next day (Thursday) we took the ferry in the opposite direction to Manly.  We’d had it recommended to us for beaches, penguins, and fish and chips, but the beaches were crowded and had lots of warning signs up, the penguins only come out in the evening, and the fish and chips we had were mediocre.

On Friday we took a tour bus out to the Blue Mountains.  On the way, we stopped at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, a zoo for Australian wildlife.  Aside from possums, I’d had little opportunity to see Australian animals in the wild, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to finally see kookaburras, kangaroos, and, of course, koalas!  I didn’t opt for a photograph with a koala, because I thought that was cheesy, but I did feed the kangaroos.  They also had wallabies (a smaller variety of kangaroo), wombats (which look like furry pigs), and Tasmanian devils (considerably cuter and less frightening than their animated namesake).  The cutest thing I saw there was the echidna, a funny, porcupine-like monotreme with a long snout that was waddling backward and forward in a corner of its enclosure.  The most interesting was the albino peacock.

From there we proceeded on to the Three Sisters, a large rock formation that is the subject of an Aboriginal legend.  In the nearby tourist centre we were shown performances of Aboriginal music and dance, and then we got a short cable-car ride and walk around the forested area.

We spent our last day souvenir shopping in The Rocks, and exploring the other interesting parts of downtown Sydney.  In the evening I walked down to a pie cart near our hotel that our bus driver had pointed out to us.  Apparently this innocuous establishment is renowned, and I was curious to know what a world-class meat pie tasted like.  It was everything one could wish for and more, with optional gravy, mashed potatoes, and mushy peas as topping.  You really don’t see enough good meat pies in Canada.  It’s kind of sad, really.


We flew back to Brisbane, and then up to Cairns.  Here we went on our most exciting Australian adventure: a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.  We took a ferry to a pontoon far out on the ocean, from where we were able to go snorkelling, SCUBA diving, or boating around the area.  Since I wanted to see as much of the reef as possible as cheaply as possible, I spent most of my time snorkelling – a first-time experience for me!  It didn’t allow me to see the coral up close, but I had a great “aerial” view (as it were) looking down on it.  I rented a pair of prescription goggles, and, in another first, was able to see clearly underwater!  I didn’t get to see as much aquatic wildlife as I would have liked (no clownfish, rays, or sea turtles for me), but I did get close up to some beautiful blue and yellow fish called “fusiliers”.  Sadly, I didn’t think to rent an underwater camera, so the only pictures I have are the ones I keep in my head.

Having spent one day on the reef, we devoted our other day in Cairns to the rainforest.  We took a long, scenic train ride up to the village of Kuranda.  The view from the train was lovely, and the village seemed nice, although we barely had time to get our bearings and have lunch before we had to leave.  The highlight was the trip back, where we took a long cable-car ride over the rainforest.  The cable car stopped twice on the way, at stations where we could walk around and see the trees up close.  At one of them I practised my declining Japanese skills on a pair of tourists by offering to take their picture.  (If there’s one phrase it will be useful to hang onto in the future, it must be “Shashin o totte mo ii desu ka?”*)  The most interesting part was the view from the cable car, though, especially on the last leg when we came in sight of the ocean.


We returned to Brisbane for Christmas, which we spent with some of my new acquaintances.  We went with them to a friend’s house on Christmas day, where we had a celebratory Christmas lunch.  Much of the food was fairly traditional (turkey, vegetables, etc.), but it was served in a casual buffet, and the weather was a lot hotter.  Although the company was good and there were presents for everyone, it didn’t feel as cosy as the Christmas I’m used to, and I think I like the boreal version of the holiday much better.

We spent the rest of our holiday hiding from the hot Australian sun.  We went to the movies, to the shopping mall, and to the Queensland Museum, but it was too hot for much else.


My mum flew home New Year’s Day, leaving me to plan the next phase of my antipodean adventure: a trip to New Zealand!  I now have my plane ticket to get there and my bus pass to get around, and I’ve confirmed that (unlike Australia) I don’t need a visa to get in.  I’m liking this country already!

In sad personal news, one of my cousins died suddenly just after Christmas.  I didn’t know her – in fact, she was the only cousin of mine whom I’d never met – but her mom is one of my favourite aunts, and I know her siblings, nieces, and especially children will be sorely affected.  She has two girls, still in their teens.  To make matters worse, her death comes exactly five years after that of one of my other cousins.  Can I just dissent from the accepted wisdom for a moment and say that sometimes, God’s timing is lousy???


In the news this month, a gunman in the United States entered a kindergarten and killed twenty students and six staff members before killing himself.  I won’t even try to put into words how shocking this is.  I find shootings of this kind incomprehensible as it is; the idea of carrying out such a crime against five-year-old children just adds one more degree of horror.  I will only add that I’ve been annoyed by how quick the pundits have been to politicise this event and use it to justify stronger gun-control laws.  I’m all for gun-control, but the degree to which the American system is being blamed for this event seems to be a) disrespecting the victims by using them as tools of propaganda, and b) over-simplifying the issue and ignoring the many other factors that would need to be in place for someone to murder two dozen innocent people.  At the risk of siding with the N.R.A. for a moment, guns don’t kill people…

In happier news, Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, is pregnant with the couple’s first child.  Assuming the monarchy lasts that long, the child will one day be king or queen of England.  Though with Elizabeth, Charles, and William all ahead of em in the succession line, I don’t see it happening any time soon.


Movies I’ve seen this month:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – I actually enjoyed this movie much more than I expected to – granted that I went in with very low expectations of it.  It has all the problems one would expect from a Peter Jackson adaptation (mostly related to length and pacing).  The story is all over the place.  And Thorin is not nearly as dwarvish or as kingly as I would have hoped.  Still, if you take this not as an adaptation of The Hobbit but rather as an epic action-adventure that just happens to have scenes from The Hobbit in it, it’s actually fairly successful.

One of the nicest surprises was the “Unexpected Party” sequence, which isn’t quite like the book version but still captures the right note of comic confusion.  At one point the dwarves even start singing the “Chip the Glasses” song, complete with choreographed acrobatics, and for a brief moment I allowed myself to hope they might sing every song in the book and turn it into a musical!  Sadly, it was not to be – no “tra-la-la-lally” or “ho, ho! my lad!” for this movie.  Another sequence that impressed me was the “Riddles in the Dark” scene.  This is probably my favourite chapter of any book ever, and it was a great relief to see an adaptation that was true to the spirit of the original while allowing for the change in medium and the alternate interpretation of Gollum.

One pleasant element that didn’t come as a surprise was Martin Freeman, who gives an outstanding performance as Bilbo.  Based on what little I knew of him before, I suspected he would be perfect for the part, and I wasn’t disappointed.  The additional material involving Gandalf and the White Council was interesting to watch, especially since it was mostly new to me.  There are even some moments where, in an attempt to make the story more grown-up, the characters explain things that are left deliberately vague in the book, such as why Thorin chooses a rag-tag band of civilians to help him take down a dragon, or why Bilbo goes along with this improbable scheme.  Both are explained in plausible ways that add depth to the story and characters.

Of course, for every sequence that works, there’s one that doesn’t, which is only to be expected when taking six chapters of a children’s book and adapting it to a two-and-a-half hour movie.  Scenes that should be funny turn serious, and moments that should be serious turn into puerile comedy.  The action sequences are reasonably exciting, but half of them are badly-timed and the other half require radical suspension of disbelief.  (Apparently terminal velocity is a lot lower in Middle-earth; either that, or rocks are a lot softer.)  And instead of ending where it should have, it goes on for an extra twenty minutes, with a ridiculous and unnecessary fight scene and an even more ridiculous last-minute rescue.  So while parts of it charmed me, the over-all product is still only mediocre.  (Three stars)

Les Misérables (2012) – I’ve been a fan of Les Mis, the musical, ever since I first saw it at the age of eight in London, England.  Since then I’ve listened to the cast recording innumerable times, watched the televised 10th anniversary concert, heard the abridged book on tape, seen at least two film adaptations, and even read the first six hundred of the novel’s twelve hundred pages.  And in all that time, one question has been bugging me: when are we going to see the musical brought to the screen???

So when I heard this movie was in the works, I was excited, but also nervous.  Movie musicals tend to overshadow their stage counterparts, and I was concerned that if this became the definitive version, it be something I could feel proud to be a fan of.  Is it?  Judging by the number of times I broke down in tears, I’d say yes!  Movie adaptations always entail changes, but this one shows real sensitivity and understanding of the source material.  I was especially impressed that, as often as not, the changes bring the film more in line with the original novel!  A few scenes have been moved around, too.  In some cases this is a clumsy choice: there’s a three-song pileup halfway through Act II whose casualties include some of the play's best numbers.  But in others, the result is inspired: I have never seen “I Dreamed a Dream” pack half the punch it does here!

One of the trickiest things about Les Mis is that so many of its songs are powerful soliloquies, conveying the characters’ inner griefs and torments.  To bring this out, the filmmakers use a daring and innovative technique: instead of recording the songs first and having the actors lip-synch to them during filming, they film the actors singing live, recording their voices along with the rest of the scene.  The result is phenomenal!  I’ve never seen a musical where the actors act their songs so much!  They’re not pretty to listen to; with a few exceptions the singing voices are merely competent.  But the emotion the actors bring to them more than makes up for the sound quality.  Special credit goes to Anne Hathaway in a stunning performance as Fantine.  Hugh Jackman throws himself into his part and is a fabulous Valjean.  Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen’s take on the Thénardiers is unconventional, but still entertaining.  Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly moving as Marius.  I also really liked Gavroche, Enjolras, Eponine… basically, everyone in the cast – with one exception.  Darn you, Russell Crowe!!!  Why do you have to be so much less awesome than everyone else??!!!!

Perhaps one could say that the film falls short on the grand level.  The live recording technique doesn’t work as well on the big ensemble numbers, and the battle scenes aren’t as exciting as they could be.  But where it excels is on the level of the individual.  Javert’s part is admittedly weak, a point I’m particularly bitter about as it’s traditionally my favourite.  But in every other respect the acting is universally good and the solos do not disappoint.  (Three and a half stars)

T.V. shows I’ve seen this month:

Redfern Now – Australian mini-series consisting of six stories about aboriginal families living in a suburb of Sydney.  I recognised many of the actors from The Sapphires.  In  contrast to my experience with Canadian T.V., I found it surprisingly intelligent, with complex stories and characters.  Race relations is one of the issues, but the series is concerned with all facets of aboriginal life.  Not all the episodes are equally good, but they range among a diverse set of topics, and I enjoyed most of them.

Radio programmes I’ve listened to this month:

The Lord of the Rings – BBC Radio’s audio play adaptation of one of my favourite fantasy novels.  Having grown up listening to the BBC’s adaptation of The Hobbit, I was expecting an excellent production, much more accurate to the book than the recent movies.  Certainly, it succeeds on the last count.  The plot follows the original quite closely, although even at thirteen hours a few things had to be left out: the Scouring of the Shire is included, but Tom Bombadil is still missing.  The characters also feel more like the way Tolkien wrote them, most notably the hobbits.  As usual, I was especially fond of Sam, but all of the actors are good.

The series has its weaknesses, though.  One thing that annoys me is that, in the transfer to C.D., they have eliminated the divisions between episodes, stringing the scenes together without meaningful breaks except the ones between volumes.  Another is that many segments are slower and less exciting than they should be.  ”The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond” in particular would have benefitted from some flashbacks to break up all that talking.  Music in general isn’t used nearly as much as it should be, and other big scenes, such as battles, need better sound-effects.  Many key scenes are surprisingly weak: the audio from the movie version of “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm” is much more compelling than the radio one.  And while I liked both Frodo and Sam, their most important scenes tend to fall flat.  On the whole, I’d say it’s a decent production with first-rate voice acting that suffers from a low budget and some unimaginative writing.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis – A fun adventure story that just happens to be set in the Narnia universe.  This is the Narnia book that fits the least well with the others, but it still works in its own right.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett – My first Discworld book in a while, featuring a witch and a little girl who wonders why she can’t be a wizard.  I’m starting to really like Pratchett’s female characters, and I think maybe I should focus on them from now on.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin – The second Song of Ice and Fire book sees civil war brought to Westeros, with three people laying claim to the Iron Throne, and the kingship of the north also in dispute.  You would think that would mean a lot of battle scenes, but Martin prefers to focus on the politics of the situation, which makes for much more interesting reading.  Surprisingly, my favourite character so far is Ned Stark, who manages to give “honour” a good name for a change.  Other favourites are Tyrion, Arya, and Sansa.  I’m especially impressed with Martin’s writing of women.  Although set in a traditional, patriarchal society, the series features a large number of female characters.  More importantly, it contains a large variety of female characters who are developed as people in their own rights, and not simply as objects of male reverence or desire.

* “Shashin o totte mo ii desu ka?”: Japanese for “Is it okay to take a picture?”