Thursday, April 02, 2020

This Week Month in Tickets: 2 March 2020 - 29 March 2020

It's been an unusual month, to say the least.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

It starts normal enough, heading into the Somerville Theatre for Portrait of a Lady on Fire because I'd dilly-dallied a bit in seeing in and figured it might not be around when I got back (foreshadowing!). If you need another reminder of just how long March has been, this was also a day or two after star Adèle Haenel walked out of the Césars after seeing Polanski get an award.

The next day was the Massachusetts primary, and I voted early but didn't get the result I'd like, and then I spent the next couple days packing, getting laundry done, stocking up on comics and reading material before getting on the first of a couple planes and flying to New Zealand for vacation. Thing I didn't know when I got to the airport - you need a visa to travel to New Zealand from the United States, which the travel guide I bought a couple months earlier said was not the case! Fortunately, you can do this online more or less instantly, and then it's fly to LAX and then lose Friday while flying over the Pacific Ocean and across the international date line, to get to Auckland and learn how seriously they take biosecurity there. No outside food allowed in, and you'd better declare anything made of wood, because it might have insect eggs and island nations with fragile native life do not cotton to invasive species.

The only stop I really had the energy for that first day was the Maritime Museum, which includes (among many other nifty things) the "Black Magic", the boat with which the Kiwis won the America's Cup. I remember the Cup used to be kind of a big thing back in the 1980s - it would be reported on the national news, highlights would play after the late local news, people could name the captains, and so on. For yachting! Three or four channels on the TV, and they had room for yachting! I'd see America's Cup souvenir stores around the country a couple times on this trip, and I'm not sure whether it's weird that we ever cared about it or that we stopped or that other people didn't.

The big stop on Sunday was the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which I was delighted to see was not even primarily a military museum; apparently the veterans being honored for their service in World War I wanted something that did more than just elevate soldiering, so it became the site of the Auckland Museum, full of natural history and the like. It's also downright beautiful, located at the very center of one of Auckland's many extinct volcanoes with space around it that similar institutions don't have in other cities I've visited. It's near the really delightful Wintergarden and some really lovely parks as well.

Monday was the first of a couple day trips in a row, this one toward the south where the Hobbiton Movie Set can be found, and for as much as I joked with people about how I'm not a huge fan but knew that if I went to New Zealand without visiting this set I'd never hear the end of it, it's really a charming tourist attraction. It's a tour, so that people don't try to mess with things too much, but one that highlights just how much craft went into these movies and how fortunate Jackson was to find everything he needed in one place.

Next up was Te Puia, a site with a bunch of geysers and mudholes and other nifty geothermal things as well as a Maori cultural center that I unfortunately didn't get to see enough of because I spent so much time on the geology, and my heart genuinely sunk a bit when I realized, oh, there's just enough time to get back to the bus now. It's funny how quickly you can get used to the smell of sulphur.

Last stop of the day was the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, which don't allow photography inside because flashes and lights mess with the creatures in question, but it's a great set of caves (always look up) with an amazing finale as you pass through the crazy, semi-cannibalistic ecosystem in question.

Fun: One of the people on the tour was from Waltham, and came over on the same set of flights as I did. Small world, eh?

The next day was another tour, and not quite as much fun - it was longer on the bus, the driver wouldn't stop talking even when there was just more trees and I just wanted to read my book, and then when we got to the Bay of Islands, we were scheduled too tightly to look around much on our own, let alone get food not supplied by the tour company (which I never picked up, because I not going to go out of my way to grab a bag lunch with a chicken salad sandwich even if there's also a soda and a cookie in there). Also, the first stop for me, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, felt like the tour was pitched toward kids even though my 46-year-old self was the youngest person in the group, although that may just be how Maori speak, with heavy emphasis and storytelling flair. Taika Waititi is the only real exposure a lot of us have to the Maori outside of New Zealand, and you see a little bit of that in his work, but it's kind of filtered.

One thing I came out of this trip fascinated with is how the country's formative document - their Declaration of Independence or Magna Carta - is a treaty between the British and the native people. On the one hand, colonialism is kind of baked right into the country, but on the other, it certainly seems to put those native people in a much better position, even a couple hundred years later, than those in other countries.

Next up, a cruise around the Bay of Islands where I learned that you apparently get sunburned much worse in the Southern Hemisphere than you do north of the equator, particularly here, as there's some very thin ozone above Australia & New Zealand. Fun!

I didn't get many great pictures of the orcas we saw, but, still, we saw them breaching, and that's apparently rare enough that the crew of the boat who take this trip every day all came up on deck to take pictures and gawk, so that was cool.

(I was hungry enough when I got back to the hotel to hit both a steakhouse which is so no-nonsense that you basically point to a slice of meat and say "that, medium rare" and an ice cream place that is fantastically elaborate.)

I planned to take the ferry to one of the islands near Auckland with cool caves the next day, but they are very limited, so I wound up going to Devonport, which has a fair amount of cool things to see, like North Head, an extinct volcano on which defensive encampments were built, and while a lot of the tunnels were still closed off, it was still basically walking around a secret base inside a volcano, which can't help make you feel a little like James Bond

I flew to Wellington on Wednesday, and was kind of regretting that I only gave myself 24 hours there when I saw people surfing right next to the airport. It took a bit of doing to get to my AirBNB - sometimes you just can't data for your phone at first in a new city, so my plans to use public transportation were clobbered - and then heading to the downtown area was another adventure, as Google Maps said "walk this short distance and then take this bus for 45 minutes", not really indicating well that said short distance on the map was all uphill and all switchbacks, and then the bus route went through a lot of one-lane/two-way streets and hugged cliff faces and was, let us say, exciting.

At the end, though was Te Papa, the national museum, which included an exhibit on Gallipoli that featured some amazing work from the nearby WETA workshop and genuine World War I 3-D photography which is just, like, pandering to me directly.

After that, I decided to try out the cable car, because as in San Francisco and Hong Kong, when a city incorporates roller coasters into their public transit, you've got to try that out. Not nearly as hair-raising as the earlier bus ride by a long shot, and it was late enough in the day that the only things open at the top were a nice botanical garden, but it genuinely seems to be used as regular transit (unlike SF) and the light shows in the tunnels were cool.

Not many photos allowed inside the WETA cave, which is a fun visit though you're not going to see a lot of actual work going on, though there are some neat demonstrations. If you've got an AirBNB next to that spot, though, it's a good thing to visit in the before-eleven-AM hours before you have to leave your accomodations and head to the harbor so that you can take a ferry across the Cook Strait, mainly so that you can say you took the ferry across the Cook Strait.

It's not necessarily the best idea; I apparently took the less reliable one, so it got delayed by about an hour, and then instead of just giving you your luggage at the dock, you've got to get on shuttle buses to the line's office in Picton, but the transportation to Blenheim, the other large city in Marlborough, is back by where you disembarked, so you get back on the shuttle buses, by which time the last train has left and the app which seems to show a bus has actually sold you a ticket from Blenheim to Picton, and there really aren't any taxis around, so you wind up getting the customer service people at the other other ferry line to call you an accessibility shuttle… Basically, these two cities really have only two big attractions between them other than the wineries, and since the season for that is close to over, the infrastructure that supports tourists pretty much shuts down.

On the other hand, that one tourist attraction in Blenheim, the Omaka Aviation Heritage Center, is kind of awesome if you like old planes. See that ca. 1940 Boeing Stearman? I got to fly in that for ten minutes, and it was amazing. The braver folks (with a bit more money) could fly in a MiG that does aerobatics, which I heard as much as saw later in the day, and which might be quite a thing.

Fair warning, if you're doing this as close to the off-season as I was without cars - it was a pleasant 4.4km walk from my rental, which is not something I do every day, and there was precious little to do in town afterward. I wound up looking for the nearest movie theater and seeing Bloodshot there, both because it was getting "things are closed but it's not early enough to sleep" late and because I've been reading dispatches from home about people being told to stay home and theaters closing, so I figured, might as well!

Sunday is when things started to get kind of surreal - there weren't any direct flights from Marlborough to Christchurch, so I had to go to the Blenheim airport (where I just printed my boarding pass, dropped off my luggage, and was waved onto the tarmac like in pre-9/11 times), fly back to Wellington, wait to transfer, and then fly across the strait again and further south.

One of the neat things about Christchurch is that one of the most interesting attractions there is actually connected to the airport, the International Antarctic Center. That's where many scientists and service employees leave for McMurdo and other bases, and the place is fun - you can ride in the tractors they use there, look at rescued penguins, and experience a room that drops to freezing temperatures with eighteen-degree wind chill, which is apparently a novelty to Kiwi kids. I opted not to enter what is basically a "walk to the subway station" simulator.

The art installation above is not actually part of the "Quake City" museum, but it's a striking first glimpse for me of how the 2011 earthquake has left its mark on the city even almost ten years later. It's been rebuilt but you still see scars and public art reflecting it all over. It's a thing that makes visiting this city at this time a little more specific than the typical visit. Ten years ago, it was very different; ten years from now, there's a good chance that the quake will be less visible and the cathedral will be repaired. Hopefully not too much, though, because it's a very charming city.

I capped Monday off in the Canterbury Museum, which has moa skeletons and is generally a terrific picture of the area's history, from the modern to an area replicating a turn-of-the-20th-century street to Maori displays all the way back to mock-ups of what the giant penguins and parrots ("Squawkzilla!") who used to live there would have looked like. Seriously, I think a 1.5m parrot would have wrecked me.

It was a strange last couple days of vacation, though - I started to see signs that things were being called off locally as I arrived in Christchurch, the social-media postings and news from home got much more aligned in focusing on Covid-19 and self-isolation, and maybe crowds were becoming a bit more sparse even as the newspapers I saw in restaurants were just starting to mention cases showing up on the South Island. You start to wonder whether you're being irresponsible going out rather than just staying in your rental and wondering just what you'll do if you can't get home, because even though you feel fine and NZ is in much better shape than the USA is, there are not-bright people in important positions back home. By the time I got to the Christchurch airport on Tuesday morning, there are announcements of mandatory 14-day isolation for everyone entering the country.

Tuesday is a long day - I left the rental at 7:30am New Zealand time, flew to Auckland, then to LAX, where the immigration and transfer process is 75 minutes in sometimes very crowded conditions, then to Reagan/Washington, and then finally to Logan, with the airports becoming progressively more deserted and with many of the vendors and spots to eat shut down despite it being what are normally peak hours. There are a dozen or so people on a plane meant to carry 125, and the flight attendant mentions that they'll probably keep flying because of cargo contracts and mentions something that I'm going to have to write a heist script around. Eventually, after 30 hours, I get home at 10:30pm and it's still Tuesday. I haven't slept, deliberately, so I drop.

I'm mostly able to get up at the regular time on Wednesday, and though we're meant to work from home, I left all of my work stuff at the office. Quiet and not quiet enough. The theaters are closed, which is good, because I am weak and would have justified going to see Onward in 3D because, hey, nobody likes to sit up front with me anyway.

After that, there was a week of getting un-jet-lagged, getting caught up on Picard and the contents of my DVR, and so on, before the Coolidge started its virtual screening room, where over the next few days I'd catch Fantastic Fungi, The Whistlers, and Bacurau, the latter preceded by "The Haunted Swordsman", which would have been part of the Boston Underground Film Festival, except, well, cancelled.

More stuff coming on my Letterboxd page, although who knows when there will be more things taped to the scrapbook? The next few months are going to be weird.

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

I don't know that I really responded that much to the romance in this film, but I do remember the jolt toward the end when we see a man for the first time in a couple of hours and it feels like a trespass, a violation of the world that the women involved have built for themselves. There's a level on which the return of the Countess from her trip would trigger the same thing - Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie had seemingly lived without class barriers and hierarchy during their absence, and this would force them into rigid roles again - and it makes one wonder just how entwined the two are. The sadness to this picture is maybe not so much that the relationship must end, but that the world that allowed it to flourish must disappear as well.

Before that, though, it's beautiful, people circling each other warily but never uncertainly, with director Céline Sciamma and her crew staging each scene with beauty but not ostentatiously so. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are both genuinely terrific and they've got Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino to provide counters, grounded in their world in different ways.

It's not quite the sort of melodrama I'm completely able to get wrapped up in, but I suspect that anybody a single quantum more romantic than I will be all in.

Portrait Of a Lady on Fire
New Zealand Maritime Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum

Hobbiton Movie Set
Te Puia
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Bay of Islands
Devonport Village
Wellington Cable Car
Te Papa
The WETA Cave
Omaka Aviation Heritage Center
International Antarctic Centre

Quake City
Canterbury Museum

Fantastic Fungi
The Whistlers
The Haunted Sworsdman & Bacurau

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