Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Just a note if anyone looks at this long-dormant blog o' mine - I'm posting cartoons and art once a week or so over at my new Tumblr blog right here . Please take a look if you like!

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

Kimbra

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.”