Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Walking off into the sunset

...Yeah, I did do this once before a few years back for several months, but I think it's time to pull the plug on this blog for now.

A lot of blogs I once followed religiously have gently faded away, with shiny newer toys taking their place, and my post count has steadily dropped the past year or so. I've gone from a couple hundred posts a year to barely managing to post once a month. The engagement level has gone away, too, moved on to other social spheres. Not to sound self-obsessed, but you don't want to write a nice long post about this or that and have it sit there ignored without comment. And now that I work in online media, I have to admit in my "off time" I'm more inclined to spend it away from a screen if I can.

But more or less 8 1/2 years of blogging is a pretty good track record for a rather new medium of writing. There's many other avenues I can explore these days from my day job to the off-the-cuff banter of Facebook and Twitter. It's too tempting sometimes to just keep doing something because you have been doing it for a long time and I've never particularly liked getting stuck in that mold. An awful lot has changed for us in the past 12 months and is continuing to change this year, so it's a good stopping point.

It's been a good run - 1228 posts, made lots of great new friends and spewed forth about everything from music to comics to movies to politics to moving to another country. I'll still be out there in the Net somewhere, and I'll keep the archives alive here, but it's time for a change. Thanks for following along, folks!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Movie Review: "The Dark Knight Rises"

So. "The Dark Knight Rises," then.

Director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy has taken comic book movies to bold new places, quite dark and grim ones, mind you, but there's a keen, probing intelligence behind them. They're not as "popcorn movie fun" as "The Avengers" was but neither are they muddled attempts at "grown-up comix" like "Superman Returns" or "Daredevil" were.

I'm aware that most Batman fans haven't seen the movie yet, so I will avoid major spoilers. It's not cheating to say "Rises" picks up some time after "The Dark Knight," with Batman long missing in action and a mysterious masked mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) making evil plots against Gotham City. Oh, and there's Catwoman, although she's never called that here, played wonderfully by a sly and funny Anne Hathaway (who provides just about the only moments of humour in this dark tale).

I'm still chewing over "Rises," I think. I quite liked it, but Nolan's icy cool control make it a movie that's hard to hug. In case we hadn't gotten it with "The Dark Knight," in the third movie of this series Nolan hammers home relentlessly that his Batman is a 9/11 analogy. Gotham City and its protector are mercilessly tested throughout "Rises."

What happened on 9/11 is probably the defining moment of the last dozen years, so it's no surprise it's seeped into Batman. But Nolan also scoops up a lot of the Occupy movement's rhetoric and the fallout from the global financial crisis. He's been masterful at echoing the zeitgeist through the spandex.

However, Bane as a character is no Joker, and while Tom Hardy tries hard he's up against a fundamental problem with the mask obscuring most of his face. It's hard to get sucked into his performance like we all did with Heath Ledger. And his motivations too often sound like they're cribbed from a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook. But Hardy does provide a great looming sense of menace.

Among the supporting cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as an idealistic Gotham cop who becomes quite important as the show goes on, and Bale delivers his usual sturdy work. (Michael Caine's Alfred, though, crosses over from mentor to whiner a bit too much.)

There's some great twists and turns in the sprawling plot, and Nolan delivers epic, assured action sequences like few other directors. "The Dark Knight Rises" has a scale and confidence to it that places it above most other blockbusters. And while at nearly 3 hours it occasionally lags, it wraps up with a deeply satisfying and heartfelt climax that touches on many elements of the Batman legend from the last 70 years. "Rises" won't satisfy everyone expecting a repeat of "The Dark Knight," with its repeated themes of class and revolutionary reform, but like that movie I suspect it'll hold up very well to repeat viewing. (Flash back to 2008 with my "Dark Knight" review if you like.)

I like that Nolan is willing to make his Batman about more than just a caped crusader. There's a reason Batman has endured as comics' single most popular, malleable character. Nolan's subtexts can sometimes get overwhelming, but as a whole this trilogy is a pretty masterful class in how much wealth there is in the Batman archetype. It'll be hard for whoever "reboots" (gosh, I'm learning to hate that word) Batman movies next to top what he's done.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Nik's Unheralded Albums #9: Neil Young, 'Arc'

Even for the notoriously restless Neil Young, "Arc" is a weird sideline in his lengthy career. An offshoot from the fantastic "Weld" live album recorded during Young's 1991 tour with Crazy Horse, it's basically a sound collage by Young, piecing together feedback freakouts and jams from shows throughout the tour, an extended outro or intro that doesn't ever quite burst into full-on song.

Neil Young has done everything from soothing country folk to electronica to rampaging hard rock, but "Arc" is rather unique in his catalogue. It's a free-form piece of sound experimentation, way more Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" than "Rockin' In The Free World." Young was reportedly inspired by then-tourmates Sonic Youth and Thurston Moore in his approach to a lot of the sound of the Arc/Weld era, and it shows.

"Arc" is a kind of abandoned stepchild in the Young archives and is definitely an acquired taste, but yet I quite like to put it on and be blasted by white noise for 30 minutes or so, to kind of enjoy the scouring power of raw sensation. In some ways, it's as pure as electric Neil Young gets. I kind of imagine it's like being inside Neil's brain for a spin, all echoing feedback and crashing chords.

You can hear a lot of "Arc"'s influence in a band like slow-metal act Sunn O))), whose doomy weight is like "Arc" with added foreboding. "Arc" sweeps and washes over you, and while it's rather abrasive, I don't find it as overbearingly harsh as something like the infamous "Metal Machine Music" or Throbbing Gristle.

"Arc" does have a structure, like a flexing, tense ocean of noise -- the "song" fades and builds, over and over, snatches of a few recognisable numbers including "Like A Hurricane" and "Love And Only Love" pushing out of the chaos. There's a lot of the fierce electric crackle of raw feedback jostling with the swell of guitars, sounding like bombs going off, and it's hard not to be reminded that the first Gulf War was under way at this point in history. If anything, this is Neil's "war" record, and it aims to put you at the front lines.

Does the "concept" get old? I wouldn't put on "Arc" at a dinner party, but at just over half an hour it's no longer than some of the equally apocalyptic jams of Can or Sunn O))). I wouldn't recommend this to someone whose favorite Neil Young song is "Heart of Gold," really, but "Arc" isn't just a novelty disc. It's the logical extension of some of his most extreme Crazy Horse-led guitar freakouts, and an interesting curio in Neil Young's discography.

Here's a taste of "Arc" - the "single" excerpt released from the whole work. Put on headphones, maaaaan...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Captain James Cook, considered

I am fascinated by Captain James Cook, and the footprints he's left on New Zealand history.

Cook was the first European to widely explore New Zealand, to reach eastern Australia, to enter the Antarctic and visit many of the South Pacific nations. His travels took him from the bottom of the world to nearly the top in Alaska. By any measurement, he was one of the greatest explorers of all time, adding detail to a globe that was largely blank.

Cook's traces are everywhere in New Zealand - he spent a lot of time here on his three global voyages, mapping more of the country than anyone before and engaging with the Maori people. Last weekend, we were up in the Bay of Islands on holiday, and I stood in Oneroa Bay looking at the spot where Cook weighed anchor in 1769. I don't imagine the view has changed much since. I've visited several other spots Cook once landed in New Zealand and it's always fascinating to put your mind into this vanished world. A few years ago I got to see a life-size working replica of his famous ship the Endeavour in Sydney, and it blew my mind to realise just how small and cramped the vessel really was.

Captain Cook's legacy is seen as mixed these days - while he was unquestionably one of the greatest explorers of all time, the European invasion also changed life for the worse in many of the Pacific Islands and countries he visited. Disease, guns, poverty, even genocide followed in a lot of the countries Cook visited, like a dismal trail of modernization. But can you really lay all the ills of western civilisation at the feet of Captain Cook?

I've read several books about Cook, who kind of like Lincoln or Churchill, has new facets seen in each retelling of his familiar story. One of my favorite "Cook books" is New Zealand historian Anne Salmond's "Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas," which attempts to equally give both the European and Pacific view of his travels. Salmond goes far deeper than the usual cliched "happy native" portrayal of islanders. She gives a deep and knowing look at their cultures and shows how places like Tahiti, with an entire society built upon the notion of free love, honour and lack of possessions clashed with the European culture. Salmond shows Cook's flaws, but also explains why things ended so badly for him in a compelling, original fashion.

Another book I highly recommend is Tony Horwitz's "Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before," which is steeped in fascination with Cook's legacy and deeds. Horwitz has a very fun approach with the subject, hopping about and interviewing modern-day New Zealanders and others about their feelings on Cook, travelling queasily in a replica of the Endeavour, and trying to repair the "Conqueror Cook" reputation that has become fashionable these days.

My own opinion is that Cook was a great figure of history - not a perfect one by any means. But he filled in the map for nearly half the globe in a way few can even fathom now. The sheer courage involved in sailing off the edge of the map again and again is unimaginable. I was pretty fascinated a few years ago to stand on the replica of the Endeavour in Sydney and imagine this small boat heaving through the oceans, not just to the South Pacific but as far as the frozen Antarctic and all the way up to the Bering Strait in Alaska.

He could've been another Pizarro, wiping out natives with impunity. But Cook often genuinely tried to understand the cultures he encountered and forbade his men from raping and pillaging. Sure, by our standards today he would still come off as rather biased and racist, but you cannot judge a man of 1770 by the perspective of 2012. Cook's own moderately enlightened views frayed with time - by his third voyage, a worn-out Cook began acting far more ruthlessly, took umbrage at repeated thefts by Hawaiian natives, and the conflicts ended in his brutal death.

It's perhaps faint praise to say Captain Cook was a bit more liberal when compared to many other explorers of his time. But the rest of the world would have discovered the South Pacific eventually even if Cook had sunk just outside British ports on his first voyage. For his sheer intrepid ambition, his tremendous sailing skills and his attempts, blinkered as they might have been, to learn about the places he visited, Cook is still very much worth remembering.

"Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go." - Captain James Cook

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Superheroes I Love #12: Machine Man

The robot-who-longs-to-be-human isn't a rare character in comic books. Among them you've got Robotman, The Vision, Red Tornado, Astro Boy, the original Human Torch, et cetera. But the one I always liked the most was Jack Kirby's Machine Man, who has had a rather inconsistent third-stringer career in comics but whom I've always been rather fond of.

Who: X-51, or Aaron Stack, was the only survivor of an experimental government program, who first appeared in the 2001: A Space Odyssey* comic book #8 by Jack "King" Kirby. (*Yes, Marvel really did try to pimp out any licensed property they could in the 1970s. There was never a Barry Lyndon comic, however.) In his own series, X-51 went on to learn about being human. Kirby's striking design - I always loved the telescoping arms and legs, such a 1970s idea of "futuristic" - was one of his great later-career works, even if the writing was sometimes a little simplistic.

Why I dig: Machine Man hasn't had the most steady character over the past 30 years or so. He was the wide-eyed naive robot in much of Kirby's original work, and a fantastic miniseries by Tom DeFalco, Herb Trimpe and Barry Windsor-Smith set in the far-future world of 2020 (!) is perhaps the character's single best moment. As Marvel does with most of their properties, Machine Man has been "reinvented" about a dozen times - he appeared in the Earth X miniseries as a cosmic watcher; he's fought Marvel Zombies; there was a short-lived "cyberpunk" version in the naughty 90s, and he was an Avenger for a while. Then Warren Ellis came along and included X-51 in his dark satire superhero series NextWave. This X-51 was a very different version, a sarcastic, snide and drunken "teenager" of a robot who refers to humans as "fleshy ones." While at odds with previous characterisations of Machine Man, Ellis' take was hilarious and kind of fit with the idea of a disillusioned idealist robot. While I'm not usually a fan of totally changing a character's personality, Warren Ellis gave Machine Man some needed edge and moved him on a bit from the "robot trying to understand humans" idea and transitioned him to "robot kind of sick of stupid humans, actually".

Read This: Kirby's Machine Man comics are annoyingly not available in collected editions, although pretty much everything else the man did is. (There's some conflict with MM's first appearance in the "2001" comic which Marvel no longer has the rights to.) But you must seek out the gorgeously drawn Machine Man series from the 1980s, and for the sarcastic twist on the character, Ellis' sneeringly satirical "NextWave" series. Machine Man has also been a guest-star everywhere from Hulk to The Avengers over the years and for some reason whenever old telescope-arms pops up, it cheers me up. Long live X-51.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Yank's Humble Guide To Kiwi Music (Part II)

It’s May, and down here that means New Zealand Music Month, a celebration I grow increasingly fond of every year. For such a wee little country at the bottom of the world, NZ has a rich and diverse pop music history.

Anyway, so like FOUR YEARS ago I spotlighted a handful of my favourite kiwi musicians here for NZ Music Month and optimistically called that “Part 1.” Here’s part two, with another group of fantastic Antipodean sounds for anyone who wants to learn more about the way-out tunes from down under. This time I spotlight seven young newer bands that are doing outstanding work, and together they do help show that New Zealand pop is very healthy.

Dictaphone Blues

I’m always a sucker for power-pop, and Dictaphone Blues ably follow in the footsteps of acts like Big Star and Badfinger with a bombastic, melodic range of songs on their latest, “Beneath The Crystal Palace.” Shredding guitar solos, heaven-sent harmonies cloaked in a pristine production style, they’re retro in the best possible fashion and well worth a spin.

Recommended if you like: Cheap Trick, Badfinger

Listen to: “Cliché,” live

Drab Doo Riffs

Snarky and charmingly ramshackle, this combo filters rockabilly through a bit of punk attitude. I’ve read them described as sounding like music from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack, and can’t quite think of a more apt description. Their songs like “Juggernaut” and “I’m Depressed” roar past you in a snide burst and are a rollicking good time.

Recommended if you like: The Cramps, Dick Dale

Listen to “Juggernaut,” live

Great North

To be fair, I do work with the lead singer in this band, but hey, they’re still pretty darned good – a sweeping Kiwi take on Americana that evokes the lonesome open road and heartbreak on the way. “Alt-country” isn’t something that seems very common in Kiwi music but Great North bring class and a distinctive voice to the genre. I’d listen to these guys even if my mate Hayden wasn’t in them.

Recommended if you like: Ryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen

Listen to “Second Skin,” live


NZ-raised Kimbra has hit stardom on the back of her duet in Goyte’s inescapable Sting sound-a-like tune “Somebody I Used To Know,” but she’s a very formidable talent on her own merit. Even The New York Times thinks so. Her debut album “Vows” is pretty charming, bouncy dance-pop that has just enough strangeness and style to it that it sounds quite fresh – and her voice is remarkably versatile, moving from be-bop scatting to a banshee wail.

Recommended if you like: Bjork, Amy Winehouse

Listen to “Settle Down”

Lawrence Arabia

The Finn family hold a mighty sway over NZ pop music – Neil Finn’s Crowded House and Split Enz with his brother Tim, and the up-and-coming dazzling songcraft of Neil’s son Liam Finn. But the true heir of “Beatlesque” pop in NZ right now has to be Lawrence Arabia, whose warm, inviting sound is utterly, effortlessly catchy. His tunes combine nostalgic psychedelia with a dreamy wisdom. The songs are light and airy, with lyrics that are subtly amusing and world-weary at the same time.

Recommended if you like: The Beatles, Squeeze

Listen to “Apple Pie Bed”

Tono and the Finance Company

Arch and witty, this young new band have lyrics so sharp that you find yourself rewinding songs to catch the bits you missed. Frontman Anthonie Tonnon writes songs about being young, confused and broke, but with a poet’s eye. Not every band can pull off a song about how a landlord has ripped you off (“Marion Bates Realty”) and have it come off as a sweeping existential ode.

Recommended if you like: The Smiths, Elvis Costello

Listen to “Marion Bates Realty”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Born from the ashes of the late punk-pop combo The Mint Chicks, UMO offer a bent and elastic take on psychedelic pop. I already named their debut one of my favourite albums of 2011, and still adore it – splicing together elements of psych and funk to make music that skitters about into unexpected corners. There’s a shaggy-dog beauty to this highly rhythmic, yet weirdly melancholy music that sticks in your head.

Recommended if you like: Prince, MGMT

Listen to “How Can U Love Me?”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Learning to love the Hulk again

One of the best side effects of "The Avengers" movie being a mega-hit worldwide is that people are starting to think the Hulk is kind of cool again. Mark Ruffalo's witty, tense performance as Bruce Banner just about steals the movie out from under many other flashier characters, and for the first time, the Hulk himself seems "right" on screen. Like many, I hated Ang Lee's ponderous and misguided 2003 film, and while I enjoyed 2008's "Incredible Hulk" with Edward Norton, there was still something missing from it.

"Avengers" and geek-god writer Joss Whedon figured it out - the Hulk had no real character on screen previously. For 50 years in comics, the Hulk has often been a funny, touching character. The "Avengers" Hulk gives us some of that movie's funniest, and scariest, moments, and looks about as realistic as an 8-foot-tall green muscle man really could. Unlike the last two Hulk movies where the Hulk was basically a CGI Godzilla, in this one we spend enough time with Bruce Banner to truly see him within the Hulk when the moment comes.

I used to think the Hulk was a lame character when I was a young comic-collecting Marvel fanboy. The whole "Hulk smash" and Banner as whiny cursed nerd thing just seemed cliched and boring. Yet I've long since changed my mind and these days I'd rank Bruce Banner as quite possibly Lee and Kirby's second-greatest Marvel creation, just after the Fantastic Four.

I just recently picked up Marvel's new "Hulk: Pardoned" collection, which reprints a huge swag of comics by the great Bill Mantlo from the early 1980s, which contained a story that shook up the whole "Hulk smash/Banner whine" paradigm forever. Mantlo (who was tragically brain-damaged in 1992 in an accident) might just be the most influential writer the Hulk ever had. "Hulk: Pardoned" is the start of an epic 30-issue storyline that ran from "Incredible Hulk" #270-300 or so, where for the first time Bruce Banner gains extended control of the Hulk's body and becomes "the smart Hulk."

Mantlo's writing is really underrated - it's not flashy like Alan Moore or Frank Miller were in the 1980s, so he never quite got the respect he deserved, but for mainstream superhero comics, Mantlo was one of the best at quietly filling in character and depth amongst the smashing. In "Hulk: Pardoned," we find the genius Banner dealing with the power and freedom of being in control of the Hulk for the first time, along with its pitfalls.

One of the key things Mantlo established about Bruce Banner is that the Hulk's fierce rage and animal nature isn't some "other personality" but very much Banner's dark side, the legacy of a childhood filled with abuse (a key bit of Banner's back story Mantlo also added to the character). While Ang Lee fumbled horribly trying to illustrate this sad past in his labored "Hulk" film, in "Avengers" Mark Ruffalo manages to brilliantly distill this down to just one single, crowd-pleasing line in the final confrontation scene, as he answers an earlier question about how he "lives" with the Hulk inside him:

Steve Rogers: Doc... I think now is the perfect time for you to get angry.

Bruce Banner: That's my secret, Cap. I'm always angry.

Mantlo's writing on the "Hulk" gave a character that was beginning to seem a bit tired a new life. The extraordinary 150-issue run by writer Peter David that followed shortly after Mantlo's is probably the best the character's ever been, and largely indebted to Mantlo. David opened the door further for alternate manifestations of the Hulk/Banner duality -- you got the cunning, feral "Grey Hulk," another kind of smart Hulk with "Professor Hulk," and much more. Bruce Banner's head is filling with alternate personalities and manifestations, and while invariably his life turns to crap, Mantlo showed us how many permutations his story could have. More recently, there's been a surfeit of great Hulk comics with the "World War Hulk" miniseries (what happens if a smart but violent Hulk declares war on mankind?) and Jeff Parker's excellent "Red Hulk", which features another key supporting character becoming a 'Hulk' himself and doesn't feel like scraping the bottom of the Hulk barrel at all.

The genius with a tortured dark side isn't a new idea at all - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are a big influence in Lee and Kirby's original "Hulk" tales. But as "Avengers" shows, the man with a raging, constraint-free id inside is still a very potent character. And the reason Ruffalo's Hulk is such a crowd-pleasing character is partly because Hulk smashing stuff up is always cool, but also because "Avengers" smartly makes Hulk a relatable hero as well, which the previous two Hulk movies never really managed to successfully do.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My name is MCA and I still do what I please

Well on and on and on and on

I can't stop y'all 'til the early morn'

So rock y'all tick tock y'all to the beat y'all

C'mon and rock y'all

I give thanks for inspiration

It guides my mind along the way

A lot of people get jealous, they're talking about me

But that's just 'cause they haven't got a thing to say

The Beastie Boys were my gateway to hip-hop, which as an uptight white boy I wasn't supposed to get into. I found rap wasn't all guns 'n' girls and got into everyone from Run-DMC to Kanye thanks to the Beasties reeling me in. "Check Your Head" and "Ill Communication" could easily be the soundtrack to my 1990s. And my favorite B-Boy was always MCA, with his battered-tires voice. There's been too much cancer in our lives lately, and at 47, MCA had a lot of good rhymes left in him. One of the greats.

Rest in Peace, MCA. Adam Yauch 1964-2012

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A not-exactly-review of "The Avengers"

Short review of “Avengers”: I loved it.

Longer story: I remember the crazy, epic excitement I felt when Tim Burton’s “Batman” was being filmed, way back in 1989. I clipped the first fuzzy black-and-white picture of Jack Nicholson’s makeup as the Joker out of the newspaper and carried it around for weeks. I remember waiting in line at the Sierra Cinemas on June 23, 1989 for the first showing and being dazzled by actually seeing Batman, from the comic books, on a movie screen. While in hindsight Burton’s “Batman” is more than a little flawed, it woke me up to the idea that a comic character I loved could come to life. (Yeah, I’d seen and liked the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies, but didn’t feel the intense connection to the character I did to Batman.)

Time and again I’ve had that same weird sensation evoked by a good comic movie – in “X-Men,” seeing Wolverine pop his claws on screen, or in “Spider-Man 2,” when Spidey and Doctor Octopus have that dizzying battle on a moving train. Not every comic movie has worked – I still rage at Ang Lee’s baffling “Hulk” or the missed opportunities of “Green Lantern” or “Fantastic Four.” But when they do, they hit that sweet spot of making the imaginary seem real, for just a second.

The scene in “Avengers” where it kicked in for me was when Thor, Iron Man and Captain America meet for the first time in a mountainous woods, and they fight, of course, because fighting is how superheroes meet each other. And then there’s this shot of the three of them in a moment of calm, and I was just like, yeah, that’s the Avengers, all right.

I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan and he’s done Marvel Comics freaks proud with his deeply affectionate, epic and yet witty take on the Avengers. Mashing Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk and more into a coherent movie would be tough – this could’ve easily been a debacle of “Batman And Robin” proportions. But instead, it’s pretty darn near perfect. And while I'm sure I could nitpick - it's a bit slow to get going, the Hawkeye in this movie is not "my" Hawkeye, the army at the climax are utterly faceless cannon fodder - I'd rather just sit back and bask in that glow of a comic come to life. It’s good to know I can still feel at 40 like I did at 17 watching “Batman.”

Monday, April 23, 2012

Concert review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters, April 15, San Francisco

When I saw that Elvis Costello was going to be performing in Northern California the same time I was making my quasi-annual pilgrimage to the homeland, I knew I wasn’t going to pass that opportunity up. Especially as he was on his “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour, a unique vaudevillian experience where Costello played the carnival barker and let the audience choose the set list.

I’ve seen Costello play twice now, in Oregon in 2002 and San Francisco in 2012, and each time it’s been one of the best concert experiences of my life. The man puts 110 percent into each and every performance, and is a true showman. For my money he’s got one of the richest songbooks in popular music, from the angry young man “My Aim Is True” era to the stately chamber pop of “Imperial Bedroom” to the twisted rage-rock of “Brutal Youth” to the bittersweet country rock of "National Ransom."

And at San Francisco’s historic Warfield theatre the other night, Costello traveled through it all. The “spinning songbook” is a gimmick he briefly used back in the 1980s and has revived for his new tour, a “Wheel of Fortune” style device that audience members are invited to spin, and wherever it stops, Costello plays a tune. Costello adopts the huckster persona of “Napoleon Dynamite” (which predates the kitschy movie by years, thanks) and the stage includes such oddities as a “society lounge” bar and a go-go dancer cage eager fans are invited to enter. It all rides the line between cheesy and cool but Costello delivers it firmly tongue-in-cheek. Even the go-go dancing cage worked, and we got to see some truly terrible white folks' dancing from some of the audience members, but everyone was having a blast. The Imposters were in great form too, especially the invaluable Steve Nieve on keyboards (and occasionally, a great theremin).

Costello and the Imposters were on fire from the start, blasting out with a mini-set that included a roaring “Lipstick Vogue” and a sprawling “Watching The Detectives” before the wheel-spinning began. Selections on the wheel included individual songs and “theme” picks like “Time” or “Roses” that would launch a few grouped songs. Having ordinary folk come up and interact with Costello made the concert have a nifty community feeling, and the wheel made the concert a nice mix of classics and rarities and some great covers. A dynamic version of “Episode of Blonde” saw Elvis wandering the entire audience as he sang, even coming up onto the balcony not 10 feet away from me.

The concert really had me once again appreciating Costello’s vast resume of songs – “Everyday I Write The Book,” a haunting “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” fierce takes on “Mystery Dance” and “Radio Radio.” It also opened my eyes to how good Costello can be at covers, and his deep appreciation of other artists. Few musicians have such eclectic tastes from country to opera to pop, and this night Costello took on the Rolling Stones (a wonderful, singalong “Out of Time”), Chuck Berry (“No Particular Place To Go”), an utterly joyful Beatles “Please Please Me” and a song that particularly appealed to this Bay Area crowd, the Grateful Dead’s “Ramble On Rose.” By the time it wrapped up after 2 ½ hours with a boisterous “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” we were all converted to the Church of the Spectacular Singing Songbook.

It was a great show – the only flaws being that my balcony seat kind of obscured the colourful wheel and that people around me couldn’t stop fiddling with their damn iPhones during the show (hey, I love my iPhone too, but I’m able to stop playing with it sometimes). Oh, and after the show I had to walk across town through San Francisco's seediest neighborhood The Tenderloin at nearly midnight, but hey, I survived!

Monday, April 2, 2012

The weed of crime bears bitter fruit

So, our car was stolen last week. Evaporated into thin air in the middle of a nice afternoon, parked on the street one moment, gone the next. It was our “second car,” the one my wife has been using, and nowhere near new, but still quite a shock to find it gone so quickly from our life. Fortunately it was insured, fortunately it was old, and fortunately nobody got hurt (“carjacking” is pretty darned rare here downunder).

But it still highly irritating, to find yourself victimised by some complete stranger, likely some “boy racer” type who’s taken our Subaru and zipped it around Auckland until they run into a tree, or taken it to a chop-shop for spare parts. I don’t imagine we’ll ever see it again, and frankly I’d rather it just disappeared instead of turning up ripped to bits.

For someone who reads an awful lot of comic books about brightly clad heroes beating up the bad guys, I actually haven’t been the victim of much crime so far in life. In fact, I’d pretty much never been robbed/burgled etc. before we moved to Auckland. That’s not meant to be a slam on New Zealand, actually – in America, I always lived in smaller towns, but here, I’m in a city of 1.5 million, and I imagine any equivalent size city in the states has its own problems. Any image you might have of New Zealand as some crime-free paradise is a bit too utopian to really believe.

In the nearly 6 years we’ve lived here, we’ve had one car’s window smashed in (for about $2 in pocket change sitting in the car) and now the other one stolen. I was actually far more irritated over the broken window than I was over the entirely stolen car – mainly because the former incident happened in our own driveway, while we were sleeping, and some worthless dirtbag was rifling through my car. The other happened across town, on an ostensibly “safe” street, so it didn’t feel quite so intimate.

But while I’m annoyed I’d say I recognize that on the general scale of crime this ranks pretty low – I’ve never been physically attacked, and (knock on wood) our house has never been burgled. It does make you feel more sympathy for those who are the victims of crime – and more disgust at the kind of lowlifes who think it’s a lark to steal a man’s car. Sigh. Where's Batman when you really need him?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mix Tapes I Have Known #3: "M------," 1994

Ah, cassettes. They still seem fashionably retro to me, a spot I realize CDs in general probably occupy for everyone under the age of 30. The box of mix tapes dating from my pre-millennial youth still sits in the garage, a bit dusty and cobwebby, but full of strange memories. Here's another dive into the navel-gazing world of nostalgia:

The tape: "M------"

Year created: Spring 1994

Who it was for: Let's pretend the wife doesn't read my blog. This one was for an old girlfriend, who we shall call "M" here as frankly we're all old and married and have kids and stuff now. But once upon a time, I was a worldly college senior and she was a dimple-cheeked freshman, I was full of ego and she was extraordinarily kind, and we hooked up for a few short weeks. Time was the enemy, though - we got together about 6 weeks before the end of the school year, and I was off to New York City for a big fancy internship with "Billboard" magazine and she was off to New Orleans. Can you keep a relationship that's just started going when you spend an entire summer apart?

The answer, of course, was "no." Although I wrote her often (real letters, no email then!) and we tried, we drifted apart over those three months. When we all came back to school in the fall, she had another boyfriend and that was that. The summer of 1994 is an exceedingly strange time in my mind, even now -- all by myself in the biggest city in the world, the universe full of potential and every detail of sprawling Manhattan etched in my mind.

I sent her this tape as summer began, trying to hold on to things.

Track listing:


1. To Sir With Love (Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant) 2. Swimming In Your Ocean (Crash Test Dummies) 3. May This Be Love (Jimi Hendrix) 4. Into My Life (Colin Hay Band) 5. All I Want (Toad The Wet Sprocket) 6. Gentleman Who Fell (Milla) 7. Bottle Of Fur (Urge Overkill) 8. The One I Love (R.E.M.) 9. Somebody (Depeche Mode) 10. Different Light (The Bangles) 11. When I'm 64 (The Beatles) 12. That's All (Genesis) 13. Stay (Amy Grant)


1. The Best Is Yet To Come (Frank Sinatra) 2. That Feel (Tom Waits) 3. I Would For You (Jane's Addiction) 4. Bent Out Of Shape (Replacements) 5. Tear In Your Hand (Tori Amos) 6. Do You Love Me Now? (Breeders) 7. Within You (David Bowie) 8. That Voice Again (Peter Gabriel) 9. Wink (Blue Mountain) 10. Luna (Smashing Pumpkins) 11. All Apologies (Nirvana)

What this says about my music tastes at the time: Actually, I'm not as embarrassed by this one as I am by some other mix tapes I made. Kurt Cobain was recently dead and so was grunge, and there's a nice mix of pop, alternative rock and out-of-nowhere clangers. I was getting to be a bit more eclectic in my tastes, I think.

What was I thinking? But then again, there's an Amy Grant song here. Amy freakin' Grant. I honestly don't even know how that got on there.

This song could totally be taken the wrong way: "This one goes out to the one I love / this one goes out to the one I've left behind / another prop has occupied my time." - R.E.M., The One I Love

Seriously, I think I overdid it: "Love" is in at least four song titles and most of the songs here are on that topic. Considering we were only dating a few weeks, I probably came on too strong.

Clever left-field choices: You can't go wrong with a dash of Tom Waits, and I love the jaunty feel of the Sinatra song kicking off side 2. I've always thought Crash Test Dummies were rather unfairly maligned as one-hit wonders, and "Swimming In Your Ocean" is a nice little gem off their "God Shuffled His Feet" album.

Totally obvious choice: I think I used "That's All" by Genesis on at least 75% of the mix tapes I ever made. I love that song, but yeah, kind of a cliche. And ending with "All Apologies" seemed quite poignant just weeks after Cobain's death, but might be a bit forced now. Still, overall, I rather like this tape and what it was about the wide-eyed boy from Mississippi I was then, off to New York City for a summer that - cliches be damned - kind of changed everything for me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I'll look it up in the encyclopedia

I realise that there is an awful lot of things that Peter, age 8, may never really grow up with that his dad, 40, took for granted. The notice today that the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer produce a print edition was another one of those little milestones on the road to the future.

I remember spending an awful lot of time idly paging through my parents' old encyclopedias growing up -- a rather ancient World Book set that was so old I think Harry Truman was still listed as US President, another "newer" set that probably was out of date around 1970.

Flipping through the dusty volumes was a good occasional pastime for a bookworm kid, if I wanted to know about mining bauxite or Greek history or what classification of animal a tapir was, it was the place to go. I was never quite as obsessive as A.J. Jacobs who read every word of the Britannica in his very funny book "The Know-It-All" but it was a place to gather the bits and bobs of the world, which seemed a lot more mysterious then than now. I loved any slightly offbeat reference books, like the wonderfully esoteric "Book Of Lists" series that I read to pieces, or the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 1982 edition, that I absorbed like a sponge.

When so much information is available so instantly today it's kind of hard to imagine those pre-Wiki days, when you had to hunt to find out things you didn't know. I don't really miss those days too much, practically speaking -- it's fabulous to be able to learn the details of the T. Rex discography from no less than a dozen or so authoritative sources online instantly, just to use one recent example. And as a journalist, the Internet is a reporter's best friend. But there is something sepia-toned and nostalgic about the way so many things we once thought were essential - a set of encyclopedias, a fancy stereo system, a rotary phone - are going away. Bookstores close and I will miss them. I'll miss the encyclopedia, in its clunky analogue way, even if I haven't actually looked at one in probably 20 years.

My childhood in the 1970s will seem as far away to Peter as he comes of age in the 2010s as the Wild West or Civil War. He was only about 4 or so when the phrase "Google it" came into his vocabulary, a true son of the Internet. Dad still has his mountains of books and actual CDs and comic books to reassure himself -- as much as I love my iPad and iPhone and iPods, I am warmed somewhere deep inside by the notion of the physical too, comforted somehow by a full plump bookshelf bristling with titles. It's not the best thing for a guy who works on the internet to admit these days, but I don't quite trust people who haven't any books in their homes.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Concert Review: Urge Overkill, Auckland, March 6

Some bands will always take you to a certain time in your life. For me, Urge Overkill is the sound of 1993.

Urge were a bit of the odd man out in the mid 1990s, the era of grunge. I loved the whole grunge thing, but Urge's vibe were more old-school 70s arena rock - taking a tip from bands like Cheap Trick and Kiss, but with songs also steeped in the Husker Du/Replacements style of gritty punkpop. The band dressed like hipster dandies and never wore flannel. They even had a logo, for crying out loud - how un-grunge!

But I loved Urge Overkill, particularly the one-two punch of their great power pop albums "Saturation" and "Exit The Dragon," their last gasp before the band broke up in the mid 1990s. Their biggest popular hit was their cover on Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" from the movie Pulp Fiction, a great song but not really representative of the Urge's full talents. At their best, Urge were hard-rocking, witty, and slick in a groovy kind of way.

Because no bands ever break up forever any more, a reunited Urge Overkill came to the Kings Arms in New Zealand this week for their first show in decades - whippet-thin frontman Nash Kato looking barely aged a day since the 1990s, with his sunglasses and floppy hair. Eddie "King" Roeser and Kato traded off vocals and guitar licks in a fun hour or so set. Pal Bob and I went to check it out.

I remember listening to "Saturation" incessantly in 1993, living in this wee tiny trailer with cinderblock bookcases. At 22 or so, at a point when you have no idea where you're going to end up in life, Urge's "Positive Bleeding" was a kind of anthem for me -- "I live my life with no control of my destiny / I can bleed when I want to bleed."

There was a heap of 1990s nostalgia going on for the Urge's reunion show down here. Sometimes muddy sound and a smallish crowd didn't dim the band's terrific energy. Highlights includes a great show-opening turn on "Positive Bleeding," plus welcome takes on "Saturation" album cuts "Bottle of Fur" and "Heaven 90210," two of my favorites. Urge also dipped into their fun new "comeback" album "Rock 'N' Roll Submarine" a few times, which maintains the feel of their 1990s work very well. "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" was hauled out for the encore with a raggedy loose version, while the pounding "Sister Havana" wrapped things up. Urge put on a tight, good-natured show, looking happy to hit New Zealand on their second life. Glad to see you guys too, and thanks for making me feel like it was 1993 all over again for an hour or so.

Another review, with cool video here: The 13th Floor

And the great video for "Positive Bleeding":

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The best eight years of my life

On February 18, 2004, we welcomed a new addition to our house. Today, Peter's a whopping EIGHT years old, which seems impossible to believe. But what an amazing little man we've created!
Happy birthday, Peter!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Superheroes I Love #11: The Red Hulk

Honestly, there's a million reasons why I should hate Red Hulk. Another silly "copycat" next-generation superhero like Thor/Thunderstrike or Batman/Azazel, and don't comics really feed upon their tangled history way too often, anyway? But gosh darn it, there's something about an "evil," out-of-control Red Hulk that appeals to my inner 12-year-old, and this Hulk doppelganger (Hulkelganger?) has appeared in several surprisingly entertaining stories by Jeph Loeb and Jeff Parker in the past few years.

Who: The Red Hulk appeared in 2008 and over a lonnnnng, rather drawn-out plotline was finally revealed to be General "Thunderbolt" Ross, the military man who'd been obsessively hunting the "green" Hulk for years, and finally resorted to gaining Hulk powers himself to defeat the Hulk. Ross is a classic "Ahab" to the Hulk's Moby Dick, and part of what makes Red Hulk so interesting for me in his current stories is that his "secret identity" is a battered, world-weary career military man in his 60s - not your usual alter ego. Red Hulk is hot-tempered, devious and swaggering, yet as his character has settled he's developed a strange code of honour.

Why I Dig: The Hulk is such an iconic character - Jekyll and Hyde, with all the possibilities that eternal duality brings. Red Hulk provides an intriguing spin on the Hulk, who's been through any manner of permutations over the years - and it's the fanboy in me, but there's something smashing about the Red Hulk's design, all scarlet skin and burning red eyes. Red Hulk is a "gimmick" character but unlike many other "spin-off" superheroes he's got the raw materials to last - his secret identity, General Ross, appeared in the first "Hulk" comics back in 1962 so there's a lot of character work to draw on.

Read this: The best Red Hulk stories so far have been quite different. Jeph Loeb is not a writer I normally care for, as he favors bombastic shock and awe over plots that actually make sense. But in his early Hulk/Red Hulk stories his over-the-top approach is exactly what the story needs, with Red Hulk punching his way around the Marvel universe, beating up everyone from Iron Man to the Watcher (!). The "who is Red Hulk" mystery dragged on way too long, but as far as rather brainless punch 'em up comics go, I dig Loeb's work, particularly "Hulk Volume 1: Red Hulk."

But even better is writer Jeff Parker's take on Red Hulk once he's been "redeemed" and made a gruff anti-hero - his work in the Hulk comics adds much-needed depth to Thunderbolt Ross, playing up the frustrated military man turned superhero angle. "Red Hulk: Scorched Earth" is a great sampler of his work on the character.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Westward, Ho! Watching 'The West Wing,' Season 1

In a US election year, it’s appropriate to feel a bit nostalgic for my homeland, messed up as it kinda seems to be these days. As the plastic Romney and the arrogant gargoyle Gingrich tear each other to shreds in the Republican primaries, I kind of pine for a simpler time. A “West Wing” time.

As a big presidential history buff, I watched “The West Wing” a lot when it first started on TV in 1999, and quite liked it. Yet for some reason I drifted away from paying attention to the show in the Bush years, perhaps too depressed by the real man in the White House to watch stories about the fake one. But since I finished my “Buffy/Angel” TV travels, I was looking around for something else to dig into on my TV-on-DVD time. “The West Wing” was a good candidate to gradually revisit, season by season. It was an Emmy-winning machine back in the day, but how does it stack up now?

And watching Season 1 in 2012 instead of 1999 is quite interesting. It’s a dynamic, beautifully-produced series, given punch by creator Aaron Sorkin’s now-trademark constant babble of ideas and pithy dialogue. It’s hopelessly idealistic yet not quite starry-eyed enough to just be seen as a liberal wish list. The show hasn't dated badly, other than not really referencing the Internet age, and many of the issues - gays in the military, abortion, the Middle East - remain key today. Its fictional President Josiah Bartlet (a never-better Martin Sheen), an intellectual, well-meaning liberal who has problems connecting with Middle America, is a startling doppelganger for our own President Obama. Bartlet is a heck of a lot more like Obama than he is Bush or Clinton. The parallels came often for me, right down to Bartlet being a bit of an egghead who likes to show off his knowledge, or a “transformative” sort of President who languishes in the polls.

“The West Wing” is quintessential comfort television, breezy somehow even at its most emotional, and Season 1 is all about meeting the cast of characters in the Bartlet administration and their 25-hour-a-day lives. When it gets super-political, the show doesn’t always work, and definitely leans to the left. The show is most successful in how it portrays the always-on West Wing, with its constant bustle and characters who devote their entire life to their job.

Sheen’s Bartlet is a wonderful creation, by turns cranky and messianic, forgetful and omnipotent, yet always strangely reassuring. Sorkin and crew don’t make President Bartlet flawless, and in fact he often comes off downright arrogant as in “A Proportional Response,” when grief makes the president genocidal. Sheen gives a fantastic performance, which rightly dominates the room, and it’s hard to imagine that the character of the President wasn’t originally intended to be quite so central in the series.

There are quite a few clunky bits in season 1, and it takes a while to find its tone – Sam Seaborn’s awkward relationship with a prostitute, or consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly), who is such a screechingly annoying character that it’s a pleasure to see her gradually written out into oblivion. While the interracial relationship between Barlet’s daughter Zoey and his black aide Charlie provides lots of plot fodder, it never seems convincing (when does anyone in this White House have time to date anyway?).

But although the show can get dark, it’s also often very, very funny. Allison Janney’s lovely CJ Cregg and Bradley Whitford’s wise-ass Josh Lyman deliver most of the humour. In its first season, “The West Wing” reflects America, but it’s a far more charming and engaging entertainment than the constant partisan battles in real-life Washington are these days.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Concert Review: Beirut, Auckland, January 16

A band with rousing accordion riffs, a thundering horn section and the occasional lusty tuba solo isn't the sort of act you'd think might sell out one of Auckland's top hip concert venues. But Beirut's sound defies the expected for modern pop music. Zachary Condon, the 27-year-old face behind Beirut, looks about 16 and yet channels that old-world gypsy vibe with a timeless, epic sound that sounds unearthed from sometime in the last century.

Beirut came to New Zealand for a series of great shows this week. The six-piece act are kind of world music magpies, drawing on gypsy dance, Mexican parades, French ennui and more to create a swirling sound anchored by Condon's soulful, world-weary voice and a cascading series of horns. At the Powerstation Monday night, they managed to be both epic and intimate. (Here's a few reviews by my work cohorts at the Herald and Volume magazine far superior to my own scratchings.)

I wonder if for much of the crowd Beirut affected them like they do me -- in the iPhone/Twitter age it somehow evokes an older time, a sense of legacy which often seems lacking in our live-updates-all-the-time world. Condon's lyrics often touch on the foggy border between now and then, a constant pining for an imagined ideal past. Beirut walks a fine line - their appropriation of the past and old-fashioned instruments, and Condon's youth, might make them appear too overtly hipster precious in their approach. But there's an underlying sincerity in their mournful odes and ballads.

When "Postcards From Italy" surged up -- a song I listened to a lot during the depressing days of last fall -- I felt a kind of cathartic joy, at sad sounding music that also is full of nostalgic love. Live, Beirut transformed many of their slower songs into jaunty waltzes -- the wistful "Santa Fe," the tender "Goshen." But they also unleashed the joy that music can bring - a grand voice, an accordion gurgling, a ukulele twang, or the kick of a line of horns blaring (Beirut makes the best consistent use of horns in pop music by any band since Earth, Wind and Fire). When all three horn players blasted their trumpets, horns and tubas at the same time, it's ecstatic. The rollicking folk-pop show closer, "Gulag Orkestar," was a dizzy blast, complete with tuba solo - how many rock concerts have had a tuba solo be a crowd-pleasing wrap-up?

The "Postcards from Italy" video:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nik’s Unheralded Albums #8: Milla, ‘The Divine Comedy’

There’s no reason this album should be any good, really. It’s by a former supermodel-turned-zombie-movie-actress. While Milla Jovovich has carved out a lucrative career in movies like the “Resident Evil” series and “The Fifth Element,” her 1994 debut album – and only one to date – would seem the kind of vanity project that has little to recommend it. Actors who think they’re singers clutter the used CD sections of the world – Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy, I’m looking at you.

But here’s a surprise. Milla’s “The Divine Comedy” is actually quite good, a heavily atmospheric sampling of folksy world music pop that carries a distinct, pleasant voice. Milla pays homage to her Ukrainian homeland with an album full of mandolin, dulcimer, and cascading synthesizers. There’s an aura of blissful lovesick reverie and girlish confusion throughout many of the songs (not surprisingly, as she was only 18 when the album came out). Numbers like “Gentleman Who Fell” or “You Did It All Before” don’t sound like a lot of the other mainstream music that was coming out in 1994, and that’s what’s kept “The Divine Comedy” sounding pretty fresh years later.

There’s a gentle pastoral, broken-hearted feeling to the album, but Milla’s emotive voice and constantly surprising and rich instrumental choices keep the album ducking cliché. You can hear a heavy Kate Bush influence in her work, and the sounds of artists like Beth Orton and Tori Amos peeking around the edges.

I’ll admit I was drawn to “The Divine Comedy” by the fanciful nude portrait of Milla on the cover, but this album offers more than celeb-spotting. While I don’t imagine it sold very well, it had a decent critical response and it’s a bit surprising that in the 18 years since Milla never put out another proper album. But while this is an obscure record, it’s got a devoted fanbase -- and the mere fact I’m still listing to it fondly in 2012 is a sign “The Divine Comedy” had a happy ending.

The ‘Gentleman Who Fell’ video:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy 65th birthday, David Bowie!

...One thing that happens as you get older is your idols get older, too. It's hard to believe David Bowie is of retirement age today - even though he's been semi-retired since 2004 or so. I've written about Bowie many a time before on this blog. It's fair to say I'm a mega-fan, of pretty much everything from "Space Oddity" on up to "Bring Me The Disco King." Heck, I even have a soft spot for the Tin Machine era.

His "retirement" after his last studio album, 2003's "Reality," was a surprise - no melodramatic goodbye announcement or anything, but a slow fade away. While Bowie's given us enough entertainment for several lifetimes, the selfish fan in me still hopes he might come out for one last hurrah sometime - 65 isn't quite ready for the nursing home just yet.

One of my bigger musical regrets is not seeing Bowie when he performed in Portland, Oregon in 2004 on what would turn out to be his last major tour. I foolishly thought I'd get another chance to see him, and little Peter was less than 2 months old and cash was thin on the ground. But man, now I'm thinking I might've missed my one chance to see Bowie live. I've seen most of the other musicians on my "concert bucket list" but Bowie has eluded me.

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to choose between my top three musicians of all time - Bowie, Dylan and Elvis Costello - I figure I'd have to go with Bowie, whose sheer theatrical inventiveness pushes him slightly over Misters Dylan and Costello for me. Happy 65th birthday, Mr. David Jones, wherever you are - and thanks for all the memories.

Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Close me in the dark, let me disappear
Soon there'll be nothing left of me
Nothing left to release

- "Bring Me The Disco King," the last lyrics on the last album David Bowie has released to date.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin

I know we Americans apparently aren't supposed to be huge fans of Tintin, but I grew up on the intrepid quiff-haired reporter and his globetrotting adventures.

I used to devour the Tintin books from the local library until they started to fall apart. "The Broken Ear," "Tintin in America," "Destination Moon" and many more - the great Herge's art is pristine, detailed and expressive, while the cast of characters surrounding Tintin are some of the great eccentrics of comics.

But I went to "The Adventures of Tintin," the big-budget Hollywood epic, with a bit of concern. I appreciate Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson devoting so much care to bringing Tintin to the screen, and their fancy new CGI motion capture technology achieves a pretty remarkable look -- something that pays homage to Herge's crisp cartooning that isn't quite a cartoon. Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis voice Tintin and the rummy loudmouth Captain Haddock in an adventure that ties together several of Herge's stories into one narrative. Serkis, the king of motion capture, steals the show as the blustering Haddock, while Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are the amusing twin detectives Thomson and Thompson.

There's an awful lot I liked about "The Adventures of Tintin", and my nearly 8-year-old movie companion loved it. They are highly reverent to the basic characters -- Tintin still has his plus-fours and oddly ageless look and isn't carting around an iPhone or anything. The delightful "boy's own adventure" tone of Herge's work is intact, with Tintin merrily circling the globe on a detective quest that involves hidden treasures and ancient rivalries. Frequently, the animation is stunning -- particularly a show-stopping battle between pirate ships that's one of the best I've ever seen in the movies, and could probably have only been done in animation.

But there's things about "Tintin" that leave me vaguely unsatisfied.

The look, while technically an utter marvel, sometimes threw me out of the picture. Not so much Tintin and Haddock, who are just perfect quasi-realistic creations, but more the background characters or the too-rubbery Thompson and Thomson. The "dead-eye" look many CGI characters have is mostly gone here, but the background characters have this weird deformed off-putting look, which kept distracting me. Yeah, they're in Herge's style, but still.

I'm not one of those pedants who gets too worked up over movies differing from the source materials that much, but in "Tintin," the parts I liked the least tend to be the bits Spielberg, Jackson and the rest have bolted on to Herge's elegant stories. There's a little too much Spielberg in Tintin, too much over-the-top, utterly implausible action that just kind of glazes your eyes over. Almost every bit Spielberg has added on - I'm thinking the ludicrous "crane fight" for example - adds nothing to the story.

I always liked Herge's fine detail and the way his action scenes seemed real - punches really hurt, characters really bruise. Sure, there's big goofy action sequences in the comics, but here Tintin too often becomes yet another movie Superman. There's some business with a larcenous falcon or some huge motorized cranes that just goes on forever and doesn't really seem "Tintin" to me. What I liked the best are the bits of Tintin that really do stick close to the book - the meticulous treasure hunt, the wonderful Haddock/Tintin bond, the intrepid, brave Snowy. "Tintin" is a good movie, but it falls a bit short of great - perhaps the likely sequel (the movie hasn't done huge in America but is a big money-maker in Europe) will be a bit more Herge and a bit less Hollywood.