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.