Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review of Dark Knight Rises

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The Dark Knight Rises

One of the truly remarkable aspects of Christopher Nolan’s batman trilogy is how sensible he makes it all seem given the absurd premise of the film, that of being a grown man dressed up as a giant bat flying around Gotham City at night with a huge pair of wings attached to his back. It is a bit like when you are having one of those weird dreams where everyone is behaving completely bonkers and you find nothing odd about it while you are asleep. It is only upon awakening that you realize just how crazy it all was. Similarly with Christopher Nolan’s films, it is only when reflecting on the movie afterwards that it fully dawns on you that in concept at least, his movies are just plain potty. In a sense however Batman has always been the more grounded of superheroes, who rather than possessing genuine superpowers is basically a trained Ninja who happens to be loaded, and is consequently able to acquire loads of cool gadgets and weaponry via his vast wealth and resources. But Christopher Nolan takes the realism aspect to a whole different level.

Prior to seeing this movie I fervently went through all the critic reviews I could find with the intent of discovering just how well this latest movie matches up to Mr. Nolan’s previous forays into the batman universe, given that he has raised the bar so very high with both Batman Begins and particularly Dark Knight, the prequel to this latest film. The opinions on this issue seemed somewhat mixed, which in retrospect after having watched the movie myself I find a bit baffling. I would have to go along with the general consensus however that the villain in the Dark Knight Rises could not be equated with the astonishing and mesmerizing performance of the late Heath Ledger, who portrayed the Joker character with such incredible panache and disturbing skin crawling menace. However Bane is still a very effective villain, and is so different in nature to the Joker villain it is hard to meaningfully make direct comparisons. But certainly Tom Hardy’s performance could not be criticized in any way, nor could the rendition of the underlying villainous character he was playing. It was superbly devised and superbly executed. This one observation notwithstanding, I would categorically rate Dark Knight Rises as being the most absorbing, visually stunning, suspenseful and epic of the Batman franchise to date. In fact I cannot think of another movie that I have seen recently that had such a profound effect on me.

There are a number of different elements working together which make the film what it is, but it is clear that Christopher Nolan’s zealously grounded approach to film-making has really paid off in this latest movie. It is no secret that Mr. Nolan is not a particularly huge fan of CGI, and will only use computer generated imagery when forced to do so in order to visually portray an element of the film that would be impossible to do otherwise. This movie is without doubt visually groundbreaking in its realism, which given the remarkably photo-realistic computer effects of contemporary big budget CGI driven movies is a very strong statement to make, but one that is completely justified however. Your eyes will be popping out of your head through much of the movie and at some points in the film your jaw will drop so low it might actually come off.

One aspect of the visuals is the stunning cinematography, including sweeping panoramic aerial shots of Gotham City at night. The other is Christopher Nolan’s incredible utilization of physically custom built apparatus and machines, combined no doubt at times with some computer wizardry, but in a fully seamless way. Nothing, and I mean nothing in this film looks like anything slightly resembling computer generated graphics, and it is only your common sense that tells you that CGI must have been incorporated in certain parts of the film in order for you to be seeing what you are seeing.

Compared to its predecessor the narrative is more tightly focused on the central storyline without multiple themes and subplots to distract the viewer’s attention away from the main plot of the film, which is unfortunately something which made the previous Dark Knight movie feel slightly fragmented and disjointed at times. And this film is better for it, promoting a more gripping, suspenseful and absorbing narrative. Gone too (almost) are the pretentious overly melodramatic lines of dialogue which were present in the previous film, which unfortunately didn’t always work too well. There are as usual certain political and economic undertones incorporated within the movie, providing the striking dichotomy between serious contemporary issues and a universe where a man flies around the city at night calling himself Batman. Nonetheless it still works. And works extremely well.

Although the movie’s running time comes in at a whopping 165 minutes, the nearly three hours spent sitting in a cinema seat just whipped by, the profound and mysterious time dilation effect no doubt resulting from the total immersion in the film’s gripping narrative and stunning action sequences. The movie certainly has an emotional wallop to it and it is hard for the film not to impact on this level due to the convincing realism of the movie and the fact you are gradually getting drawn further and further into the Batman universe and correspondingly developing an increasing emotional investment in the fates and misfortunes of the main characters of the film. And there is the mother of all twists at the end to boot. All this combines to produce what is undoubtedly one of the most stunning films to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Rest assured I will be seeing this movie on the big screen as many times as my wallet will allow me to.

I never dreamt in a million years that at 41 years of age I would be proclaiming a Batman movie to be one of the greatest films ever made. But today I make such a proclamation.

Humanistic Spirituality

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The concept of evil, a seductive explanation for the many horrors perpetrated by mankind over the millennia of human existence, persists and thrives to this day. To contemplate man’s inhumanity to man, even from just the last century alone, and not to feel a deep sense of revulsion and loathing of human inflicted suffering seems tantamount to exhibiting an indifference typically associated with sociopaths. The need for a explanation cries out to anyone who reflects on the myriad of historical cases of brutality, conflict and social injustice.

How are we to make sense of this? Can there ever be a satisfying explanation without invoking some kind of concept of evil?

It is not obvious we can. The idea of human morality existing as a purely relative and artificial man made construct, essentially an expression of our emotional response to situations and events, doesn’t seem immediately likely. Nonetheless various powerful philosophical arguments have been leveled against the notion of absolute morality, ones that when considered with an open mind are hard to ignore and brush under the carpet, as inconvenient and unattractive as the conclusions they lead to might seem to be. And it becomes even harder to refrain from a position of cultural relativism when confronted with the bewildering array of different cultural perspectives that I have personally been privy to, coming from a working life exposing me to many different ethnic groups and culturally diverse people. What seems so obviously wrong from one cultural perspective can quickly dissolve away when fully understood from the viewpoint of a person from another culture. And conversely what appears correct and proper from one’s own cultural perspective can quickly become more dubious and tentative when exposed to the moral standpoint of someone from a fundamentally different background.

I feel that American society in particular is full of glaring moral contradictions, to the point it can seem almost laughable if it wasn’t for the sad and tragic consequences that certain beliefs and misconceptions can ultimately lead to, and that are commonly held to be absolutely true in America at the present time. Indeed the idea of one’s own country always fighting for the liberty of other more primitive countries with their ‘incorrect’ political systems is both dangerous and misguided. I am not suggesting that America is necessarily the ‘bad guy’ and its enemies the ‘good guys’, merely suggesting the converse is not necessarily the case either. And I am not suggesting that the politics of wars are primarily driven by this perception of moral superiority. However the public support and sanctioning of wars is often partly fueled by this notion that we are always without question the liberators and freedom fighters who have the moral high-ground to displace existing regimes that fall short of our own perceived standards of government.

If we adopt the position that morality is subjective then where do we stand on the issue of how we should treat each other? Isn’t adopting the relative morality position simply carte blanche to treat other people however the hell we want to, regardless of the suffering we might inflict? If there is no absolute right or wrong then who’s to say I can’t go out and rob my neighbour if I am a bit short of cash this month and need to pay an outstanding gas bill? Or sell class-A drugs on the side to make ends meet? Without appeal to some kind of moral framework there doesn’t appear to be any particular reason why I can’t do these things (providing I don’t get caught of course).

I don’t agree with atheists on many things (with respect to their atheistic views) but there is one area where they may have some kind of a valid viewpoint – humanism. My understanding of humanism is that of being a movement that challenges the notion that we even need to appeal to a higher power or higher spiritual purpose in the first place in order to inform our conduct. We all know what suffering feels like, and we all know what it feels like to suffer at the hands of others, to varying degrees and in different ways of course. Can we not use these experiences as a basis for informing our behaviour toward others? Is it not enough that we know what it is like to suffer at the hands of others and as a result do not wish to inflict that same suffering on other human beings?

As I have gone through life and progressively become more acutely aware of what it feels like to suffer as a result of the actions and behavior of other people, be it through acts of pure maliciousness or acts of indifference, it has made me ever keener not to subject others to the same kind of suffering that I have gone through in my lifetime. I don’t feel the need to acquire the approval of a higher power or deity in order to do this. And I don’t feel the need to appeal to a higher spiritual purpose either. I merely need the empathy to understand and appreciate that others suffer the same way I do if I treat them like I have been treated myself by others. This provides me with all the qualification and legitimacy I need to essentially follow Jesus’ primary command – ‘do unto others how you would have them do unto you’.

Spirituality and religion should not be needed as an impetus for us to behave in a humane way to our fellow human beings. And the thorny issue of the objective existence of moral principles or lack thereof should not impede our desire to refrain from behavior that inflicts suffering on other people.

“A humanist is someone who does the right thing even though she knows that no one is watching.”
– Dick McMahan, New York humanist, 2004

“Of moral purpose I see no trace in Nature.  That is an article of exclusively human manufacture – and very much to our credit.”
– T H Huxley

Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.

William Blake

Climate Change Scepticism

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One of the most significant and startling indicators of the reality of climate change came about last week. And I am not talking about extreme weather events. Rather I am talking about an admission by the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, Rex Tillerson, that climate change is actually happening, and more specifically is resulting from human activity and the huge reliance on burning fossil fuels to meet our massive energy demands. This speech sent shivers down my spine, more so in fact than the culmination of all the numerous extreme weather events that have been occurring recently. When the CEO of a major oil company publicly acknowledges the reality of climate change you know full well we have a problem. What could be a more pertinent indicator of the perilous situation we are in than an admission from a person who has such a vested interest in playing down climate change as much as he possibly can? Up until now there has generally been corporate denial of this fact,  from all the heads of the major oil companies as far as I know. And this latest shift in position stands out in stark contrast to the public stance of former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, Rex Tillerson’s predecessor Lee Raymond, who continued to deny climate change for the duration of his tenure at Exxon-Mobil.

There is one small caveat however – Rex Tillerson maintains that climate change does not present an insurmountable problem for mankind. “It’s an engineering problem” he states simply “and there will be an engineering solution.” Well Mr Tillerson, when you figure out the engineering solution to which you refer please let us know, ASAP. I sense we don’t have time on our side on this one.

So lets return from cloud cuckoo land for a moment and back into the realm of reality again. If I was bit more cynical I might surmise that this shift of public position is more of a tactical move. People who continue to deny the reality of climate change are frankly starting to look a bit silly in the face of all the crazy-ass weather we are having. So why not just admit climate change is happening but deny that it presents any real problem? This is much less silly don’t you think? Er no, but I suppose it was worth a try anyway. I don’t in all seriousness believe Mr. Tillerson will be able to make that one fly. Not with most people anyway. Either he thinks we are all idiots, or he is an idiot, or both. So perhaps he should go back to what he is good at doing, making huge profits for Exxon-Mobil, and leave the PR stuff to someone a bit more sensible. (And you can tell just how evil this man is by looking at his picture!)

I am frequently exasperated and entertained in equal measure by deniers of climate change and the ludicrous denial-based statements they frequently make. Here is one I heard this week by someone responding to the widespread flooding we have experienced this ‘summer’ in the UK.

“All this flooding is not being caused by more rainfall like we are being told but rather is due to the water companies failing to maintain the drainage system properly.”

Nope. IT IS because we are experiencing more extreme weather events. What drainage system in the world could cope with a month’s worth of rain falling in the space of about 10 minutes? This is just silly and one wonders whether the people who make such potty statements can possibly believe what they are saying themselves. But never underestimate the power of denial! It is a powerful beast that raises its unwelcome head whenever people are confronted with problems they don’t like to face up to.

Another claim not holding up well under scrutiny is the suggestion that the public’s perception of climate change and its severity is largely influenced by all the excessive media coverage of weather related natural disasters. I’m not so sure about this one either, and I think I can qualify my doubts of this with a pertinent example from just this last week. Half of America was on fire and Florida was underwater – and guess what made news headlines in the UK? Tom Cruise splitting up from his wife! The Natural disasters in America barely got a mention. In fact I can honestly say I spoke to people this week who had no knowledge of these major disasters at all, including the devastating storms over the weekend that have left millions without power and resulted in around five US states being declared in a state of emergency. But we do however know all about the details of Tom Cruise’s separation from Katie Holmes, which I suppose is the important thing. Like Paul Weller once said – “the public gets what the public wants” and at this moment in time the public don’t want to be reminded of inconvenient truths. They prefer trivial distractions that provide escapism from real problems, at least within the context of climate change anyway. In any case it is certainly not true that climate issues get undue attention from the media, which is my main point here. I can only meaningfully comment on the UK media of course, but as far as this goes there is very little if any media coverage of many of the extreme weather events currently happening around the globe, as is evidenced by speaking to people, who on the large part are oblivious to much of what goes on in this regards.

So just how serious and imminent are the problems relating to climate change? Are they really that serious? Well they are if you happen to live on planet Earth, which I guess covers most people likely to be reading this blog post at the moment. Nowhere on this Earth is completely immune from the effects, and even if the heat doesn’t get you there is always a chance of being frozen to death by an ice age. The UK and Northern Europe have relatively northern latitudes compared to many countries with comparable climates. The reason we are not freezing our arses off most of the time like they are in Siberia is because of a handy little feature known as the Gulf Stream. This acts like a giant conveyor belt that transports colossal amounts of energy into the region from warmer latitudes. However this conveyor belt process is potentially threatened by the decreasing salinity of seawater due to significant amounts of freshwater being released by all the polar ice cap melting that is going on. And if this flow of energy is interrupted or compromised for any reason we have a serious situation on our hands  here in the UK. We can kiss goodbye to anything resembling a decent summer that’s for sure.

Hang on a minute! Are we not experiencing just that at the moment? We have literally had one shite summer after another for at least five or six consecutive years in the UK now, the current one being the shite-est of them all. I think I got drenched more times in the period between April and July this year than the previous 10 years of my life combined. If I come back from being outside for any length of time and am still dry I wonder what’s going on! On the positive side I am saving a great deal of money on sunblock these days as there is no sun to block out. And they are virtually giving sunscreen away in shops because they can’t sell the stuff anymore. From what I understand of what the weather experts are saying about all this it seems we are experiencing all this ‘adverse weather’ because of something called the jet stream being in the wrong place. It should be further north this time of year or something. Basically, anything lying to the south of the Jet stream gets an easy time while anything to the north of it gets hammered. And I would say we are getting a genuine arse kicking from the weather at the moment.

And what influences the behavour of the Northern jet stream? The melting polar caps in the Arctic region. Ah! There we have the culprit! The temperature differential between the warmer tropics and Polar Regions is what drives the jet streams, normally fast flowing ribbons of moving air high up in the atmosphere. The temperature differential in the Northern hemisphere is gradually being degraded due to the warming Arctic region, an area of Earth warming faster than any other due to the sun-reflecting snow melting, which in turn results in more energy from the sun being absorbed. This in turn slows down the jet stream and creates what is known as blocking patterns, whereby the fast flowing ribbon of air moving from West to East in the Northern Hemisphere downgrades to slower meandering air movements. It is the absence of this normally fast flowing ribbon of air that is creating the conditions for much of the extreme weather events we have been experiencing lately in Northern Europe, Northern America and parts of Asia.

The modest sounding increases in Earth’s average temperature over the past century or so causes problems seemingly disproportionate to the relatively small scale of the temperature increases. The capacity for warmer air to hold moisture goes up exponentially with temperature increase. So for every degree increase in temperature there is a striking jump in the quantity of moisture that can form rainclouds. The problems ensuing from this are twofold. Firstly there is the more obvious problem of increasingly intense downpours. But there is a more insidious side effect that emerges from this also. Latent heat is released whenever water vapour condenses to form rainclouds, and it is this latent heat that powers huge storms. So we have the double whammy of more intense rainfall along with more violent and persistent storms!

It is not just increase in Earth temperature that causes problems either but increases in the variability itself of the weather. Put in statistical terms the bell shaped curve representing the probability distribution of weather extremes not only shifts along the axis but widens. So contrary to most people’s intuitions the probability increase of very hot summers exceeds the probability increase of slightly warmer summers!

What other problems are presented by climate change? It is fairly common knowledge that the Maldives could go underwater in the not too distant future but in fact there are actually up to eight different countries facing a similar threat, including Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines and Barbados. Also at threat is Egypt whose sensitivity to sea level rise is particularly high. Much of Egypt’s infrastructure is at a low sea level. And the low lying agricultural Nile Delta region will most likely not go unscathed either, having an inevitably severe economic impact on the region.

And there are plenty more examples that could be added here that I won’t bother going into.

Strictly speaking climate change skeptics have traditionally fallen into one or two camps – those who deny climate change per se and those who admit the reality of climate change but attribute it primarily to natural variability in climate, with mankind’s activities at best only slightly exacerbating the problem. Investing serious time and effort quibbling over the exact degree of climate change that is attributable to human activity rather than natural variability is however a misguided and pointless debate, in the same way that having a debate about whether or not it is a good idea to throw paraffin on a blazing house on the basis that the initial cause of the blaze was not paraffin related is a misguided and pointless debate. We have very good science that tells us, irrespective of the degree to which natural variation is responsible for the changes we are seeing in the weather, that pumping tonnes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is going to trap more heat and result ultimately, unless it is slowed down or stopped, in catastrophic consequences on a global scale.

So let’s stop all this silly denial and all the pointless speculating about largely irrelevant issues and get down to the serious business of actually doing something about it. Because if we don’t stop screwing with the planets ecosystem the planet’s ecosystem is going to screw with us.

And I think it has already started to.