Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Living on the island of lost birds

PhotobucketOne of the things that's fascinating about living in New Zealand to me is that for most of the millions of years of its existence, it was a land of birds, and birds alone. Until the first Polynesians arrived about 800 years ago, isolated NZ was a feathered place with no native mammals. Unfortunately, between the Maori and later European colonisation, many of this land's most unique and dazzling birds were soon extinct.

Most people know about the moa, the largest bird ever to live. If you've ever seen a skeleton of one of these, it's pretty amazing to imagine a bird as tall as a giraffe. They were wiped out not long after the Maori arrived and were gone by the time Europeans came. At their biggest, they stood 12 feet tall.

PhotobucketBut there were tons of other amazing long-gone feathered things -- the Haast's eagle -- the world's largest eagle; the beautiful black and yellow huia (right); the moa-lite adzebill; the whekau or laughing owl... I've a long list of things I'd do if I ever got my mitts on a time machine, but I think one of the things I'd love to do is see what New Zealand looked like, pre-colonization -- before the original bush was mostly wiped out, when the only thing you'd hear was a million different bird calls and imagined herds of moa roaming the land. It's just a tremendous shame to know that thanks to man's greed or man-introduced predators like rats and cats, we'll never know what a wonder a country of birds would've been.

Not all the unique birds of New Zealand are extinct, of course. Everyone knows about kiwi - which are fascinating creatures, but I tell you, there hasn't been a bird less prepared for foreign invaders since the dodo. Flightless, nocturnal, timid and nearly defenseless, the poor kiwi doesn't make it easy on itself. Another gorgeous yet terribly hapless critter is the flightless kakapo, the rarest, fattest parrot in the world -- dozens of people work long hours in the bush trying to force this exceedingly stubborn animal to mate. Living on the ground and not flying makes it hard to be a bird in the modern age.

PhotobucketAnother native bird I discovered just a month or two ago is the beautiful kokako (right), which is a sleek grey with dazzling blue wattles and the cutest dark little cry you ever heard -- it sounds exactly like a person saying "ko-ka-ko," hence the bird's name. There's not a lot of them left, either, but we saw one at a bird sanctuary near Wellington and they're just awesome.

PhotobucketBut hey, not all birds here are evolutionary dead-ends. My favorite New Zealand bird is the pukeko, (right) which is like a punk-rock chicken. They're gorgeous, gawky things, a sleek and sparkling blue with an orange helmet, about the size of a chicken but with huge oversized feet. They're awkward and amusing little fellows and they're as common as pigeons in many New Zealand parks. I like to think they're a reminder of what it was like in a country of birds.

Friday, May 21, 2010

... Why you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!

PhotobucketThirty years ago today, May 21, 1980, was a pivotal day in the life of every young fella born in the '70s -- the day Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back hit theatres. It's fair to say most boys (and lots of girls) of my age would never be the same. Wampas! AT-ATs! Yodas! Bobas! Landos! These were the things that buzzed around our brains for weeks and months afterwards.

Sadly, though, I can't quite remember my 9-year-old self's experience of actually SEEING "Empire" in theatres. I know I did, but for some reason, it's all tangled up in the kazillions of times I've seen "Empire Strikes Back" since then. I don't know for sure, but I suspect I've seen it more than any other movie. It's my favorite "Star Wars" movie, of course. Isn't it everybody's?

Thirty years on, "Empire" works because it's the best pure movie of the entire six-film epic. I'll always love the original "Star Wars" despite its hokier bits, and even the rather daft Ewoks don't sour me on "Return of the Jedi" (which I vividly do remember seeing in a packed cinema in 1983). And as for the "new" trilogy -- it's not as bad as all that, but it's a lot more soulless and plastic, I think.

PhotobucketBut "Empire" -- well, many an armchair critic have already pointed out its merits. There's a scruffier side to "Empire" that the glossier other five movies lack -- it's there in Han Solo's snarky bantering with Leia, with the rogue Lando Calrissian, with sinister bounty hunter cameos, with Darth Vader's seemingly wholesale slaughter of unworthy henchmen. And "Empire" had the guts to end on an unashamed downer of a cliffhanger, with no promise things would be set right. (They would.) "Empire" had all the boy's own adventure fun of the original "Star Wars," but just coloured in with a little more intensity, a little more reality. Why that's lacking in George Lucas' later movies, I don't know.

PhotobucketPerhaps it was his script collaborators like Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, or "Empire's" director Irvin Kershner. "Empire Strikes Back," from its glacial Hoth vistas to its soggy Dagobah gloom to its oh-so-'80s Cloud City disco skyline, is rich and full. It's so full that an entire generation of us kids saw a heck of a lot more to it than Lucas ever intended; we'd create worlds around it, guzzle down comics and action figures and nostalgia items for another 30 years to fill it out more. You'd see a lizard-man Bossk get about 1.4 seconds of screen time, buy the action figure and make up an entire cosmology around him. That's interactive entertainment in the pre-iPad age.

Nothing is ever quite as cool as it is when you're 9 years old, so maybe that's why nothing quite measures up to "Empire" for me. Without "Empire Strikes Back," it's hard to imagine growing up in the 1980s. So for that, George, Irvin, and everyone else, thanks for the awesomeness. (As Han Solo would say, "I know.")

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Superheroes I Love No. 2: The Atom

PhotobucketI'm a tall fellow, but I was a late bloomer -- I was like 5-foot-2 through my freshman year of high school and then, it seemed, over the course of about a week I shot up over 6 foot. But sometimes I guess I still feel small if you get what I mean. Maybe that's why I dig The Atom, comics' smallest superhero. Or maybe it's seeing "The Incredible Shrinking Man" at a very impressionable age. Either way, I've always had a soft spot for this '60s superhero, a DC Universe mainstay.

Who: Ray Palmer, the Atom, who first appeared in 1961's Showcase #34 (technically the second hero to bear that name, but the first one with shrinking powers).

What: A scientist who discovers how to shrink himself using "white dwarf star matter." Don't question it. Has tons of cool adventures fighting full-size bad guys, discovering hidden subatomic worlds, exploring the awesome "Time Pool" and being drawn by that master of the art form, Gil Kane.

Catchphrase: "The World's Smallest Super Hero!"

Why I dig: I love the idea of a hero who isn't formed by great tragedy, but who instead is the outgrowth of a highly curious, scientific mind. Palmer's Atom has always been scientist first, superhero second, which gives him a nifty kind of Jules Verne/Sherlock Holmes allure. And while super-shrinking isn't perhaps the number one superpower one would think of having, there's something about the kitschy old Atom stories that make appealing the idea of visiting subatomic worlds, of seeing chairs become like mountains and spiders become elephant-size.

PhotobucketThe Atom has always been a bit of a "second-tier" superhero, not quite at Batman/Superman levels of popularity, and frankly, the best comics featuring him were mostly the original '60s lot. In the decades since he's bounced all over the place, with the latest inevitable trend to "darken" him with various personal tragedies and traumas. But while he may be small, he's always been a fun character to me. (And of course had perhaps his finest hour in the Grant Morrison-written JLA #14, where he used his powers in a fascinating way and killed the biggest bad guy in the entire universe, Darkseid. Let's see Batman do that!)

Monday, May 10, 2010

The agony and the ecstasy of Nicolas Cage

PhotobucketI'm a big Nicolas Cage fan, which is incredibly uncool to admit.

At one point, circa 1995 or so, Cage was very cool indeed. But in the years since, he has signed his name to an awful lot of movies (Wikipedia lists a staggering 18 Cage-starring flicks since 2000), and an awful lot of those movies were, technically, not that good. But y'know what? Even in a bad movie, I like to watch Nic Cage do his thing. I am fascinated by him as an actor.

Cage at his best few will dispute -- Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, Face/Off, Adaptation -- but even in pulpy trash like Snake Eyes or Next, I find enough Cage to amuse me. His face is not conventionally Hollywood handsome -- he's all bug-eyes, sharp angles and soft edges blurring together in a kind of intense, lean flame. Cage's very passion often gets him accused of overacting.

Somewhere around the silly good fun family action flick National Treasure-- which attempts to marry The Da Vinci Code with Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Cage went from hip to hambone in the eyes of many. Is it because he has a knack for picking rather bad scripts? (But then again, so do a lot of other actors.) Some people seem to take Cage's prolific acting personally, as if his every movie should be a Leaving Las Vegas rather than a Ghost Rider.

Photobucket But frankly, I just think Cage a rare animal among actors -- he's not afraid to embarrass himself. I know that sounds a strange quality but it's a rare one among big Hollywood actors -- the willingness to look a fool. (See "Wicker Man" clip below.) Cage is often teeth-gnashingly, manically over the top -- and hey, I'm entertained by that. I'd rather watch someone interesting like a Cage, a Sam Rockwell or a William H. Macy over a stiff and self-pleased Tom Cruise or WIll Smith sort any day.

The recent movie Knowing is not exactly a great film -- it's a tangled sort of horror story/alien abduction movie, which veers from bizarre to outright outrageous to strangely affecting. Yet, in its kitschy fashion, it's genuinely interesting, and as a professor and father who gradually becomes an apocalyptic conspiracy theorist, Cage is never less than sincere.

Last weekend I watched the hideously titled but quite good recent Werner Herzog film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans. As an unspeakably corrupt, drug-addicted cop, Cage is sweating, hunchbacked and jittery, an ugly portrait of an ugly character -- and he's mesmerizing. Or take his fine turn in Kick Ass, as Big Daddy, where he combines bits of "Taxi Driver" DeNiro with Adam West's "Batman" to create some kind of twisted vigilante genius.

Is over-the-top automatically a flaw when considering an actor? I wouldn't mind if Cage did pick better scripts -- "Adaptation" and "Bad Lieutanant" stand up as far better films than most of his recent work -- but heck, I'll still watch him in in just about anything.

I leave with this gem of a montage from "The Wicker Man" 2006 remake -- not one of Cage's best by any standard, but as neat a concise summary of the bizarro Cage appeal as any clipfest. How can you not find the "Bees! Bees!" line entertaining? Thirty years from now when Cage gets that Lifetime Achievement Academy Award, I hope to God they play this as he walks to the stage.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Movie review: Iron Man 2

PhotobucketBigger, better, more -- the rules of movie blockbuster sequels are pretty straightforward. Do what the first one did, only more so. And "Iron Man 2" definitely piles it all on -- more heroes, more villains, and it's great fun coming back to Robert Downey Jr's definitive portrayal of playboy inventor Tony Stark and his metal alter ego.

Any old-school comics geek will have a spaz attack at this movie, which is brimming over with nods to the shared Marvel universe -- joining the golden avenger here are War Machine, Black Widow, Whiplash, Nick Fury and Justin Hammer. The story lifts from the best of Iron Man's 40 years of tales and patches together a plot that revolves around a superhuman arms race that breaks out around the Iron Man technology. Iron Man's history in comics has been kind of spotty -- the best tales are outweighed by a lot of mediocrity, but this film does a nice job of sifting through for solid ideas.

And it's got a great cast.... who would've thought a few years ago that Robert Downey Jr and Mickey Rourke would headline a big summer blockbuster movie? "Iron Man 2" s elevated by quirky, fun actors who liven up the material. Can you imagine if Tom Cruise had been cast as Iron Man, as was rumoured back in the day?

PhotobucketDon Cheadle makes a very good replacement for Terrence Howard's Colonel James Rhodes, who gets a lot more to do to in this installment. Scarlett Johansson as the va-va-va-voom Black Widow, swaddled in black leather, may be a kind of bastardized version of the comics character (it's probably a good thing she didn't try a Russian accent), but she's great to look at. And the great Sam Rockwell, one of my favorite actors, does a fine turn as Justin Hammer, Tony Stark's mirror-image, an unscrupulous, sleazy arms dealer. As for grizzled Rourke, well, he chews every scene he's in as the tattooed, heavily accented and vengeance-minded Whiplash, and I loved it -- he's pure comic-book villain.

As he did in the first film, director Jon Favreau keeps character at the forefront. He's mixed on the action -- a sequence involving Whiplash set in Monaco is tense and gripping, but I found the climactic battle a bit wanting. Downey's Tony Stark continues to be one of the best comic character castings -- in this slightly darker sequel, we see Stark struggle with his ego, his ailments and his temptations. I don't want to spoil a great sequence about halfway through the movie, but fans of the classic "Demon in a Bottle" comics storyline will dig how it plays out. Downey keeps us aware of the man in Iron Man.

While it's a crowded movie, I don't think it generally succumbs to the overstuffed feeling of, say, "Spider-Man 3." But one flaw is that "Iron Man 2" a little too often feels like a trailer for the "Avengers" movie. While Samuel L. Jackson makes a great gruff Nick Fury, his cameos feel less plot-driven and more marketing-driven. Also, a little end-credits surprise scene hits that comic fan sweet spot but the majority of moviegoers will be baffled by it. Marvel runs the risk of making their movies as convoluted as their comics if they don't focus on story first, franchising second.

Still, I think "Iron Man 2" makes a pretty strong follow-up -- it'll make a ton of money, and I sure wouldn't mind seeing Downey (and Scarlett's Black Widow, meoooow) do it one more time.