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  • The Dark Knight Returns

    July 22, 2012 by Nick

    The Dark Knight Returns is the comic that the Dark Knight Rises will almost certainly be most linked to. It’s one of the most important superhero comics ever made, and was published by DC Comics in 1986, written and drawn by Frank Miller and tells the story of an aged Batman returning to Gotham City when he feels needed.

    Although I think it is a great comic, I do think it is overrated and that there are other, better, Batman comics out there. However, it does a great many things right and is hugely enjoyable. It was apparently written by Frank Miller as a reaction to the realisation that he had grown older than his boyhood hero (Batman) and gave us, at once, an ending to the Batman story and a Batman that has entered middle age in a world of much greater complexity.

    He also created a sequel, called The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s a dreadful comic that did much to destroy his reputation and should be avoided. Let’s ignore that and try to pretend it never happened.

    The main problem I have with the Dark Knight Returns is that the Batman would ever abandon a world that needs him. As much as his return makes the hairs on my neck stand up every single time I read it, I have a hard time reconciling it with my view of the character. This aside, the story is great and crams a lot into a relatively small space. Batman experiences his origin again, the echoes driving him almost insane and convincing him that he needs to return.

    As he returns he is both the man he once was and aware that he never can be. We know that he can’t continue down this path indefinitely and also that the world he is in is not necessarily one that he is suited to. His former allies have grown old and deserted him, the world has moved on and his enemies changed and vanished. However, they soon reassert and return, as if drawn back by an interconnected web of dependent psychosis.

    The comic has a lot of great moments. As much as I have problems with some of the underlying characterisation there are many great points that emotionally connect with me. And it shows that the Batman, with enough time and planning, can defeat anyone. Even Superman. Even the rigours of time.

    The art is strong throughout, tending to an iconic level of abstraction that sells the mythic tone and makes everything readable. Miller was, and is, a master cartoonist who understands comics like few others. And this is one of the best examples of his art.

    The Dark Knight Rises

    July 20, 2012 by Nick

    As a superhero fan it has been an exceptionally good summer: we’ve had the Avengers and now we have the Dark Knight Rises. Spider-Man was ok, but I doubt I will ever seek it out to watch it again. The Dark Knight Rises, however, I had incredibly high expectations of. Expectations that it either met or surpassed.

    When The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for any real Oscar categories I was aghast (and what I think of Slumdog Millionaire has neither mellowed nor improved with time). If the Dark Knight rises is similarly snubbed, despite my cynicism, I will be apoplectic. The Dark Knight is not just the best film of the trilogy, it’s a great piece of film making regardless of pedigree and genre.

    As good as the Avengers is, and it is a truly excellent film, it doesn’t really have much in the way of metaphor, subtext and theme. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t just a film, it is a meditation on the power of myth, on symbolism, desperation, freedom and anarchy. If you thought the Dark Knight was cerebral, Rises builds on it (and, oddly, moreso upon Batman Begins) to actually say something while reflecting the mood of the times and creating something that is primal and likely to become timeless.

    The film opens with Gotham no longer needing Batman, having found security and order on the back of a lie born of the events of the last film. The Mayor is milking it for all it’s worth, Gordon is ill at ease and wrestling with his own conscience, and Bruce Wayne has retreated from the public eye to live a half existence in his mansion. There are strong echoes of the Dark Knight Returns, but this retirement feels logical and emotionally satisfying. The main players have adapted (or not) in different ways because they have had to.

    When he believes that there is a need for Batman to return Bruce relishes in the moment in a way that makes perfect sense in both the movie milieu and with nods to the comics. There is a foreshadowing of the horror to come, but it is a stirring and resonant resurrection. We want him to be the force he once wants, but a large part of the film is actually about how he can’t be and the sacrifices he has to make in order for Batman to be a force for good in a world that has grown more desperate.

    Gotham itself is soon far more unruly than ever before, its villains more pervasive and entrenched in the fabric of the city. The city is nearly pulling itself apart and it seems as much as the Batman and his allies can do to prevent its complete destruction, rather than returning it to status quo. It’s an end to a legend in much the same way as the destruction of the round table or Hood firing his last arrow from his death bed. But it isn’t just about the legend of one man, of the myth of his actions, it’s about something more fundamental and more universal: it’s a film about humanity trying to survive in general.

    There are other themes too, of the importance of legacy, of abandonment and of family. Of duty and sacrifice. It’s stirring and emotionally resonant, with the action incredible not just because of the spectacle but because of the stakes and motivation. The film elicits far more than mere excitement.

    The cast, to the last, is excellent. Bale is as good as ever, Morgan Freeman sly and funny, Anne Hathaway is an absolute revelation as Selina Kyle and Marion Cotillard takes what could have been a simplistic role and infuses it with subtlety and nuance. The stand out, however, is Michael Caine. With an earnest, simple power he is the emotional heart of the film and shows the effect on humanity of the events in the film.

    Nolan seems to bring out the best in everybody he works with. Throughout his career he has teased out incredible performances. More than just his people skills, he crafts and tells stories of complexity and texture. He also films with an epic sweep married to a clarity that makes the events seem more real and more akin to a documentary than the camera tricks of other directors. He presents us a truth of believable visuals and complex people and events. It makes for a persuasive and engaging whole and is yet another reason that the film is so good.

    It’s a truly great film, one I can’t wait to see again. And again. I just dread to think what it will lose to at the Oscars.

    Episodes

    by Nick

    Episodes is a meta sitcom about two writers of a British sitcom adapting it for the American market. The US network that picks it up decides to make some changes to make it a more commercial proposition, arguably gutting what made it successful in the first place. One of the changes is the casting of Matt LeBlanc as the lead, with LeBlanc playing a distorted version of himself.

    The program mainly takes place behind the scenes during the creation of the show, and if there is one thing the media loves it is stories about itself. As a TV show it has moments of savagery, swearing and some black jokes. These are all good things that almost make up for the sentimentality and saccharine moments. I don’t know if I am alone in this (I certainly hope not) but I really hate it when sitcom writers think we care enough about the characters to substitute character moments in lieu of actual jokes. I have no problem with character being revealed, but it is nearly always done badly and with no genuine humour. It’s a bloody sitcom, I demand jokes. That’s the implicit contract between me and the makers.

    But Episodes is sometimes good. LeBlanc very bravely plays an absolute bastard. Who happens to be called Matt LeBlanc and have formerly appeared on the successful sitcom friends and the spin-off series Joey. He’s also a selfish womaniser with dreadful impulse control. As a celebrity who is arguably the sole selling point in America, it’s a brave move to lampoon himself and to do so mercilessly. I would hope that the audience appreciates that it is a fiction wrapped in his own personal circumstance, but I do wonder what it will do to his image.

    Stephen Mangan is also quite funny and likable. Tamsin Greig gets to play a slightly neurotic and annoying character. Most of the Americans seem to be caricatures. There aren’t enough jokes overall and the running jokes don’t become any funnier through repetition. On the plus side there doesn’t seem to be the American humour staple of mistaking a wacky situation for actual comedy.

    The best episode, by far, centres around the death of the showrunner’s father. It’s deliciously bad taste and uses character moments to comedic effect rather than as substitutes for comedy. The etiquette of funerals, the reality of social climbing in the context of grief, inappropriate communication, mocking the disabled and poor taste combine to make an episode that is frequently very funny. Unfortunately every other episode of the two series around it fails to hit the same standards. 14 Episodes across two seasons that are sporadically amusing and one of high quality isn’t quite enough to recommend the show.

    Fiction

    July 18, 2012 by Nick

    I had a dream where an amorphous figure in a cloak told me things, and I listened without critical faculty and believed without question. I woke up and had a think about it, about how our subconscious relays information back to the conscious mind and about how we relate to information and ideas.

    When something engages our subconscious, we’re more susceptible to the message it conveys but also tend to identify with it more and feel a greater connection. When we read something, the descriptions tend to allow room for interpretation. Sometimes they are sparse, sometimes they obscure action, character and plot with their density. But they always leave room for the reader to conjure up setting and atmosphere, to interact with ideas at a conceptual level, to achieve a degree of ownership and kinship with the events, settings and people. The written word, digested with the eye or by ear, has a power and inclusiveness that stimulates and makes us more willing to accept ideas, to cherish them as our own. It’s a path to the subconscious.

    The power of the spoken word for relaying ideas has not gone unnoticed: when politicians want to make a point, particularly when campaigning, they make it as an anecdote rather than quoting statistics. By placing the idea in a context and trying to get us to care about the protagonist and create a scenario that we actually invest in the idea is we will become more susceptible to it. Hopefully the majority of people who hear it will understand there are always exceptions to every rule and you can always found a counter example, even should the vast majority of cases occur one way.

    Personalisation and humanising an issue lies at the heart of making an emotive argument over one borne of logic. It’s why the news looks for a human interest angle, why a politician will try to tell you about a sole person rather than the multitude and why authors tend to focus on a small core of characters. It’s not as simple as humans can’t comprehend large numbers, it’s that they can’t bring themselves to care about the group rather than the individual. It’s a lack of comprehension and empathy with the masses. We can relate to nearly anybody, but we can’t relate to everyone at once.

    By crafting an idea in a way that it is digested at a personal and intimate level it is much more likely to be taken to heart and attains a much greater power. By getting the reader or listener to fill in the blanks themselves and create the tiny details they actually interact with the idea and allow it access to their subconscious. Ideas aren’t just about their quality and brilliance, they’re about their communication and presentation.

    The Newsroom

    July 16, 2012 by Nick

    The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series set in the world of cable news. It echoes the West Wing, although I have to admit that I prefer it so far. As someone who bought the first two series of West Wing on DVD on a recommendation, watched them all and then never watched them or any subsequent episodes ever again, this may not be the strongest recommendation possible.

    The Newsroom starts promisingly: in the first episode Will McAvoy is attending a debate between a Republican and liberal Democrat (in the American sense) at a college and fielding questions from the crowd and the debate moderator. McAvoy is a successful TV news anchor, and charming, but doesn’t commit himself to a political stance or to saying anything controversial.

    He is hounded for an answer to a trite question by the moderator and, seeing a familiar face in the crowd, his mask slips and he actually says what he means. It’s a stirring moment, the monologue is brilliant, and you can feel the hush descend on the crowd. Unfortunately it is the climax of the episode and the rest doesn’t come close to those heights.

    The remainder of the episode deals with the fall out from McAvoy’s outburst: his changing staff on his show, his perceived new direction and how his audience react to it. It also descends into sentimentality and seems a little too cosy and unchallenging. It’s well done for what it is, but it isn’t great and it has that same sort of familiarity and contrivance that spoilt the West Wing for me.

    The second episode is far less good. It mainly hinges on an unsuccessful news broadcast and how poor news gets delivered and why. There isn’t really anything in the way of a great moment, no snappy dialogue and the point it makes it chooses to beat us over the head with.

    The third episode is where I decide I will stick around for the long run. Again, it makes a point and rather labours it. But it actually has some great moments along the way and sets up some great conflicts: Will being kept in the dark by his boss, his boss arguing with the board, Will setting the company he works for against the incoming Congress and the company he works for plotting to find a way to discredit him. It sets up a lot of underlying plots for the upcoming episodes and hopefully will amount to something as the series progresses rather than being ignored.

    Electoral Reform As Electoral Suicide

    July 14, 2012 by Nick

    This week the coalition government (I feel they need a name along the lines of “Axis of Evil”  but I can’t think of anything clever or funny) managed to lose the chance to reform the House of Lords. Oddly enough, this is only the second real bloody nose that the coalition has really suffered, the other being that the Liberal Democrat half of it managed to spectacularly lose the referendum on AV.

    Nicholas Clegg has seemingly only one priority in government: to bring about electoral reform that will benefit his party. Unfortunately, in pursuing this while allowing the Conservatives to do whatever they want in general, he makes his party unelectable. He also isn’t actually managing to achieve any of his aims, with Cameron either opposing him on them or somehow unable to get them through Parliament.

    The problem for the Liberals, and one I would assume they understand (although they do seem to be spectacularly politically inept sometimes), is that they are massively unpopular in the country at the moment. If they were to break away from the coalition and force an early election they would almost certainly lose seats, no matter the system. Worse, they are unlikely to ever be in the position to hold the balance of power again.

    So the Liberals are stuck with allowing the Conservatives to do what they want in order to try to get any of the concessions that would change the way power is allocated in this country. The Conservatives are quite content as they know they’d fare better from an early election than the Liberals and also that the changes the Liberals want are generally unpopular in the country (partially from being associated with the Liberals themselves) and largely irrelevant. Even watered down versions stand little chance of ever becoming law.

    And should any of the changes ever come to pass, it is arguable it would be at least a decade before the Liberals could position themselves in such a way as to benefit from them with the electorate. More likely is that the existing parties would find a way to work the new system and smaller parties would benefit from the change in reality as the dynamics of politics and what people actually vote on changes.

    The Liberals have long since spent their political capital and are probably better served for defending the system that they have made it their sole aim to change. What they should have done they have ignored, the irrelevance they pursue has long since become counter productive dogmatism.

    Tablets

    June 17, 2012 by Nick

    Remember the netbook? Lovely little devices, battery lasted for ages, low powered laptops that you could use to browse the internet and work on simple documents using. They’re pretty much dead now, replaced by the tablet. The tablet has fewer parts to go wrong, a smaller form factor, are more intuitive and more responsive.

    When I saw the first iPad I had no idea what on earth it was for and what it would actually achieve. In terms of prescience it is right up there with not signing The Beatles, and proof of a different Apple getting it completely right when others didn’t have their foresight or imagination (or, possibly, blind luck).

    We’re now on the brink of the post PC age, where sites will be designed to be rendered and viewed on tablets. Intel has just readied their first mobile phone, and are obviously positioning themselves to provide chips for use in tablet devices. Microsoft is preparing a version of Windows whose UI only makes sense in the tablet marketplace.

    Microsoft and Intel are both latecomers to the marketplace. I honestly think that Intel will succeed because they have invested so heavily into low powered chips and have a very aggressive die shrink plan in place. They’ll be creating chips as powerful as anyone else and pricing them very competitively just to ensure they capture some of the market. Add in the fact they have the ability to throw engineers and programmers at ensuring that there are applications and optimisations in place for their chips and it looks relatively good for them.

    Microsoft, by comparison, may be in trouble. The tablet eco system already seems to have settled on Android and IOS, with HP having found there is no room for another operator. Windows will have to have been written from the ground up to be quick and responsive on a tablet and then have apps that make sense in that form factor in order for it to be able to compete. Put simply, I don’t think they can achieve it. Microsoft make their money on their productivity suite and their OS, neither of which will create much revenue at the micro prices of the tablet marketplace. And Windows applications are largely very different from tablet applications.

    Microsoft doesn’t look like being the only loser in the tablet sector. AMD haven’t got a low power enough chip to be able to compete and don’t look like they will be creating one any time soon. Cisco have been beaten out of the market, having tried to create a tablet for business. HP entered and exited the market in a hurry, costing them their management.

    Of the PC players, the one company doing very well from the tablet market is Nvidia. They are now a larger company than AMD and this is partially due to AMD’s failure in the processor market and partially down to Nvidia making chips that are finding their way into tablets and phones. Whether by luck or management they are the company most easily transitioning to the new landscape who rose to prominence in the old.

    Facebook

    June 15, 2012 by Nick

    Facebook is having a few problems with their IPO. Initially everything went well, and it rose slightly above its initial offering before falling away. Much in line with what many technology observers had predicted. Then things got a little shaky: it lost value to fall below its initial price as stories emerged about it being overvalued. These stories are now coalescing into investigations and lawsuits.

    Facebook’s entire value is its user-base: the belief is that it can monetise by supplying advertising to the great many people who use it on a daily basis. The problem is that they actually haven’t managed to yet and are showing no signs of doing. If they could do it surely, by now, they actually would have. 15% of their income comes from people playing games on the platform, which is a figure that will surely drop like a stone in the post PC age.

    Facebook faces a raft of problems that, to many, suggest it has actually peaked. It may grow its userbase, and it is expected to make great inroads in China, the Indian sub continent and South America. But it still has the aforementioned problem of actually monetising any of these users. In addition, it also faces the prospect of more and more of both its existing users and new users accessing facebook through mobile devices rather than computers. As hard as the company finds it to sell advertising it then serves to people who use the site on a computer it has even more with people who use a phone or similar device.

    The other issue is that facebook has peaked in the countries in which it already has a foothold. The number of active users in North America is actually declining and the demographic is shifting: people over 65 are now far more likely to be on the site than those aged between 12 and 18. While they may have more disposable income this shows that facebook as a whole is losing its cachet and will face declining usage. Its greatest selling point is now its biggest weakness: we only join facebook when people we know are on it, and if no one we know is on it then it is pointless in going on the site. Worse, if people we know become less active then we too will become less active.

    This all adds up to facebook being the latest tech company to flare up and then fade away. As went AOL and Myspace now goes facebook, seemingly. The people who stand to make the most money from it are those that sold the shares, rather than those who bought them.

    The Dictator

    June 13, 2012 by Nick

    The Dictator is Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy. It’s about a North African dictator who travels to New York to address the United Nations and the machinations of his older brother (Ben Kingsley) who wants to remove him from his throne. It’s both very broad and quite clever in its humour, with most of the jokes landing satisfyingly and far less of the film as flinch-inducingly uncomfortable as Cohen’s other creations. It’s also the most linear and scripted of his films, with no unfortunate celebrities or members of the public caught on film and humiliated for the ages.

    That isn’t to say it doesn’t comment on celebrity and the public at large: one of the funniest moments in the film is of two foreigners pretending to be typical Americans and going on a helicopter tour with a couple of average Americans before being mistaken for terrorists (if you have seen the clip on the trailers you may think you have seen the entirety of the joke: you haven’t, it is much, much funnier and in much worse taste). There are also celebrity cameos which mainly deal with the fleeting nature of desirability and exactly how far people will go for money.

    The undercurrent of the film, however, is the dichotomy of what the world at large says it expects of countries, both ethically and politically, and what it really wants of them. Cohen’s character is really no more extreme than many genuine dictators, and falls out of grace in a way that requires no more than token gestures in order to placate the rest of the world. The final speech makes some very salient points while disguising itself as a ridiculous joke.

    Along the way there are plenty of jokes, usually at Cohen’s character’s expense, and just about enough plot to hang them on. The dictator finds himself cast aside in New York and has to learn to deal with ordinary people without being able to have them routinely executed. He also works out what his brother is actually up to and shows that he has actual skills born of his oppression of everyone else.

    There is a subtext that the liberalism we aspire to is ineffective and we need people who are prepared to take charge and run things, and also what we say we want from our leaders isn’t what we really require. This is held up against both domestic and foreign policy and mainly as the butt of some very good gags.

    The film doesn’t outstay its welcome and is genuinely very funny in places. It’s also in very bad taste, and probably grossly offensive to lots of people. I enjoyed it immensely.

    Westfield

    June 11, 2012 by Nick

    Westfield kind of exemplifies the huge mess successive Bradford councils have made of Bradford city centre. It is the proposed site for a shopping centre that would rejuvenate the city, bringing in retail jobs and much needed investment. To facilitate this they knocked down quite a lot of the existing city, with WH Smith’s, BHS, Pizza Hut, a car customisation company, a large office building and many more making way for the demolition. Which took place quickly and efficiently.

    And then nothing happened. Businesses that depended on the people who had their jobs yanked out from under them or the footfall other businesses generated slowly vanished. There is now a huge pit where once the beating heart of the city was, and things get more and more depressed, with shops leaving the city never to return.

    Now some protesters have invaded the site, promising not to move on until there are concrete plans in place to actually commence work on it and bring business back to the city. While I share their sentiment I can’t help but think that they’re on a hide into nothing. The company that is responsible for the site seems to be playing a game of brinksmanship where they have the site listed as an asset that they would like someone to meet their vastly inflated appraisal of. If they intended to do anything with it I am sure they would have by now. The length of time it has been left empty means that any attraction it held for business has pretty much dissipated. It wasn’t solely responsible for the decline of Bradford as a shopping centre, but it definitely accelerated it, and the state of Bradford as a centre for shopping and commerce now is such that the companies that are needed to make the shopping centre a viable proposition surely can’t be interested.

    How the protesters managed to get onto the site is, once again, typical of Bradford and the Westfield site: rather than scaling the flimsy barricades or cutting the chains they managed to find a key that matched one of the padlocks and simply let themselves in. It’s typical of the level of planning for the site and the care taken that you can bypass the security so easily. It also shows exactly what the true value of the site is: If it were possible to devalue it or there was any desire to actually do anything with it then it would require far more effort to get onto it. Westfield seem to find it mildly embarrassing and worry about their legal liability, but it is obvious it isn’t affecting their plans for the site.

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