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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Fancy Furniture Feast

For a couple of days in 2008, I had fancy MLA furniture in my office at the Legislature Annex. Then they came and took it away. Which is fair, after all, because the furniture is meant for MLAs and there's only so much of it to go around. Dig the fancy TV I had to monitor Question Period. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Crossed Sabres

Photo by Naomi Littlewood. An outtake from back  when she graciously shot my campaign photos for the 2008 Alberta provincial election. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Sean vs. Soda

"I fought the Sean, and the, Sean won; I fought the Sean, and the, Sean won." 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

An 11-Year Endgame

The first Marvel comic I remember reading is What If? #1, which asked the question "What if Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?" Now, I must have read Marvel comics before that one, because I understood who all the characters were and I knew What If? was an unusual comic because, of course, Spider-Man never joined the Fantastic Four. 

I read that comic in Shane Berthauden's room in Leaf Rapids, and it really captured my imagination. The initial counter-factual (in the context of the mainline Marvel universe) setup had an incredible cool factor, but things turn dark when the Invisible Girl, feeling overshadowed by Spider-Man, leaves the group. Things get worse after that, but by comic's end, we are reassured that these events happen in a parallel universe to the familiar Marvel world we know. Even so, the impact of that comic remains powerful, because those events did happen (somewhere), and the triumphs of and tragedies of those characters remains somehow real. They grow and change in a way denied the prime Marvel universe, because in those comics, the status quo generally reigns supreme, with major changes in characters' lives happening only once every few decades (though the pace is slowly accelerating). 

Avengers: Endgame reminds me of the What If? stories because in this movie, all the chickens come home to roost; consequences are real, lasting, and permanent. Even though this movie uses a do-over as its major plot, Endgame somehow shows that there really are no do-overs. It's impossible to explain this seeming contradiction without spoilers, unfortunately. But the filmmakers manage it beautifully.

At one point in the film, a mother tells her son, who feels as though he has utterly failed as a person, that he should stop trying to be who he's supposed to be, and instead be who he is. Only today, after thinking about the film a little more, did I realize that conversation turns out to be the arc for the major characters in not only this film, but for all the Marvel films in which they've previously appeared. Whether or not you appreciate superhero movies, that is an accomplishment in film that I believe is unprecedented in cinema: character and story arcs spread out over 22 films and 11 years. That the Marvel movies, particularly the overstuffed Avengers films, are coherent at all is something of a miracle. That they're actually entertaining and have something to say about the world is astounding. 

This movie speaks best, of course, to the audiences who have invested in the entire journey. I would argue, in fact, that those not so invested may be bewildered by Endgame, and its companion piece, Infinity War. And that's okay. Not all art is digestible in a moment, or an hour, or two, or a week. Some takes time to percolate, to evolve, to age at the same rate as we mortals. 

Every moment in this movie is earned thanks to the rich backstory told over the last 11 years. Some of these moments moved me to silent tears; others caused elation and that "gee whiz!" sense of wonder that gave me such thrills as a kid. 

What a long, strange, amazing journey it's been. Endgame is a fitting end indeed. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Quck Take: What We Left Behind

I can't say much thanks to a nondisclosure agreement, but I will say that What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a deeply moving, heartfelt, sincere, in depth, and fascinating examination of my favourite Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine. I watched it last night, and tears were shed. DS9 came along at a point in my life when I really needed it, and it was amazing to see the actors, writers, and other creators come together to share their memories of the show's production. Best of all was the reunion of the writer's room and the blocking out of an imaginary first episode of an equally imaginary (alas!) eighth season. And the newly remastered high definition footage is another highlight. If you're any kind of Star Trek fan and get a chance to screen this, don't miss it. The blu-ray is being released in a couple of months.

Special thrill: seeing my name in the list of credits on a Star Trek-related production. So totally worth the 50 bucks, above and beyond helping the film get made.

There you go, Ira, no spoilers. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Weird Wicked, Wicked

Wicked, Wicked (Richard L. Bare, 1973) almost works. It's the story of a bellhop with mother issues who murders blondes that stay in his hotel - murders that are pretty gory and explicit for the era. After a rather dull and meandering first half, the film picks up steam with some truly audacious choices, including a quick-cut montage of perhaps the worst assembly of visual metaphors for sexual congress ever put on film (ending with an atomic explosion!), an utterly slide-splitting flashback in which a minor character jumps out a window like a human cannonball to escape unjust arrest only to crash his toy car, and the brilliant moment where a tough-as-nails cop dares a suspect to jump to his death, figuring reverse psychology will lead to an arrest. The cop guesses wrong, to hilarious effect.

The bizarre duo-vision gimmick, in which the action of all but a few seconds of the film is presented in side-by-side split screen, wavers between sublime and banal. Most the time the effect is used merely to offer two mundane angles of the same moment, but sometimes the split screen delivers flashbacks or imagery that reflects or comments on what's happening in the other panel, or, confusingly, shows two conversations at once, sometimes with parallel themes.

I really don't know what to make of this movie, except that the filmmakers nearly won me over by the end. Nearly.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

All the Right Moves for All the Wrong Reasons

A film with tremendous integrity, All the Right Moves (Michael Chapman, 1983) puts skewed cultural priorities into grim perspective. It's the story of Stef (Tom Cruise), a high school senior with just enough talent to play college football, but not enough to make the major leagues. Showing uncommon wisdom for a teenager in this sort of movie, Stef plans to leverage his football talent into a scholarship so that he can pursue an engineering degree in college; it's his way out of the dead-end, decaying factory town that has already claimed the sweat and happiness of his father, brother, and ancestors down the line.

Stef's coach, Burt Nickerson, (Craig T. Nelson) wants to escape, too; if he can win one big game against a team ranked third in the state, he's almost certain to land a prestigious and financially rewarding college coaching gig. Similarly, his players have a shot at showing college scouts their value.

But the game is narrowly lost, with some of the fault going to Stef, some going to the coach, and there's blame all around. The coach manages to land a job at a California college anyway, but he slander's Stef's reputation, scaring away college recruiters. It looks like Stef is doomed to stay in town and work a factory job, just like his family before him.

Meanwhile, Stef's girlfriend Lisa (Lea Thompson) supports Stef's efforts to secure a place in college, even though she knows success means she'll lose him. As she notes, there are no scholarships for her; she's a talented saxophonist who dreams of being a musician, an impossible dream given the price. Only the football players have a chance of actually achieving the American Dream.

In the end, the coach relents and offers Stef a full scholarship at the college he's coaching at in California, and his mom, dad, brother, and girlfriend are all on hand to urge him to take the opportunity. Stef signs the contract, and we have our happy ending, one that comes in the last seconds of the film and is shot and acted so wryly that the filmmakers dare us to take it at face value.

So we shouldn't. This may be a happy ending for Stef, but the larger injustices prevail. The film explicitly states that there is no escape for Lisa and so many others, but Stef takes his shot anyway. You can hardly blame him. But maybe you can blame a culture's values for trapping so many for the sake of so few.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Lightning in a Beer Bottle: Shazam!

The real Captain Marvel makes his debut in Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019). Inspired by the whimsical adventures of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family from way back in the 1940s, Shazam! tells the story of orphan Billy Batson, an orphan boy who can transform into the World's Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel, by yelling "SHAZAM!"

SHAZAM, of course, is one of the most famous acronyms in comics, and it describes the powers bestowed on Billy:

S - Solomon's wisdom
H - Hercules' strength
A - Atlas' stamina
Z - Zeus' power
A - Achilles' courage
M - Mercury's speed

It's just a shame that DC surrendered use of the "Captain Marvel" name to Marvel Studios when the character and his family have so much history behind them. Kudos to the filmmakers, though, for avoiding what I feared most: calling Captain Marvel "Shazam." Sure, it leaves the hero without a proper sobriquet, but the search for a superhero name for Billy Batson's adult form becomes a fun little comedic thread woven through the film.

Minutiae aside, is this a good movie? Well, it's funny and family-friendly (in the sense that it honours the best family values, like caring, understanding, respect, and tenderness). It's well-acted across the board, and while the screenplay isn't brilliant, it does the job - though I found the pacing a bit rushed. It would have been nice to dedicate a little more time to Billy's arc. It works, but it would have been more plausible had the creators spent more time on character development and shortened the initial fight a bit. The creators also take some liberties with Sivana, turning him into a kind of low-rent Black Adam instead of the mad scientist he's supposed to be, but I can see why they made the choice for the sake of story economy.

That being said, these are minor complaints. As with Aquaman, I'm grateful that DC's characters are being treated with a little more playfulness and less grand import. Save the dark stuff for the Batman family (but maybe lighten them up just a little too, huh, Warner Brothers? Just don't go camp. No one will ever do a better camp Batman than the 60s TV series, so don't go there.)

Kudos, too, to the filmmakers for adding at least three references to Big, two obvious and hilarious, one a little more subtle but appreciated. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Weapons Raised

From the D&D Nerdieth Anniversary back in 2004. 14 years ago, longer than I spent in grade school. Oy. Really shows how terrain makes games like this more immersive, though. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Friday, April 19, 2019

Quick Take: The Oath

The Oath (Ike Barinholtz, 2018) might have worked better as a straight drama, but even so, boy, was this incredibly effective and chilling. Maybe it won't look so funny in a couple of years. Imagine if your government asked all citizens to sign a "voluntary" loyalty oath--how long could you hold out in a climate of rising fear and mandated conformity? In The Oath, the idea is played for laughs, but there's a real undercurrent of genuine terror here. I find it very interesting that the protagonist, the lone holdout in his family actually snaps under the pressure at one point, but only briefly, and the film quickly moves on. I think this was pretty smart filmmaking; Barinholtz is telling us that having all the moral high ground in the world isn't much help when a brownshirt goon is threatening to break your arm into a half-dozen pieces.

Also, considering this movie and his role in the Supergirl TV series, Bruce Boxleitner is in danger of being typecast as the Vice President that gets suddenly elevated to the presidency in the wake of scandal.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

In the Year 2099

While looking over some of next year's dates in Google Calendar, I spotted my own birthday, which I have set up as a recurring event. Out of morbid curiosity, I started clicking forward through time, month by month, mentally calculating my age as the years flew by. 2020...2021...2022...2032...2042...2058...2067 (Canada's bicentennial; I'll be 98)...2075...2080...2090...until, finally, 2099, the last time my birthday recurs. Should I actually live that long, I'll be 130 years old.

Even though it's likely I'll die decades before 2099, I was still mildly irked that Google Calendar arbitrarily chose to stop marking my birthdays before 2100. It felt a little like the opposite of a bullet with my name on it. "No point in noting his birthday anymore; surely he'll be toast by then." Thanks, Google! I mean, you're probably right, but it still feels a little harsh. I was really hoping to see the 22nd century. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Quick Take: Drive a Crooked Road

In Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954), poor Mickey Rooney plays against type as a loser looking for love and finding only betrayal and the collapse of his personal world. At least the femme fatale feels bad about leading him to his doom.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

An Optimist's Vote

Adapted from a Facebook post from yesterday...

Sylvia and I just returned home after voting in today's Alberta provincial election. We supported the re-election bid of Jon Carson, a member of Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party. Effectively, this means we're voting for another four years of Notley/NDP government in Alberta.

I worked for the Alberta Liberal caucus for six and a half years because I thought at the time they were the best progressive alternative to the late-era PCs. But I was happy to vote for the NDP in 2015 because Rachel Notley and her team proved they had the drive and the vision to bring long-overdue change to Alberta. Since being elected, they've governed sensibly during incredibly challenging times, bringing dignity to the Legislature and making the tough decisions needed for our long-term prosperity: doing the incredibly hard work of starting real economic diversification, instituting a carbon tax to curb our emissions, winding down coal, improving farm safety, cutting child poverty in half, setting a minimum wage, and protecting the vulnerable. The UCP would deliberately undo all that progress and waste millions of taxpayer dollars on referenda on issues that are outside the realm of provincial power anyway. On top of all that, Rachel Notley and her people have run a virtually scandal-free government, whereas the UCP has corruption built in thanks to their tainted leadership race, vandalism of election signs (sometimes using fascist iconography) and utterly vile pronouncements from a number of UCP candidates, most left unrebuked by leader Jason Kenney.

Despite having worked for the Liberals for years and my support for the NDP now, I don't consider myself a partisan. I'll vote for any team that fights for my values: compassion, reason, science-based decision making, long-term thinking, support for public institutions, care for the vulnerable, ethical behaviour. Right now, Rachel's NDP is the best fit for me, and, I believe, this province. In a few hours, I'll find out if my fellow Albertans agree. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tower and TIE

A little something for Gaming & Guinness XIV. Scott is doing the lion's share of the work, but I will be, at the very least, contributing some painted terrain for a very special X-Wing scenario...

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Quick Take: The Train Robbers

The Train Robbers (Burt Kennedy, 1973) is pretty fine late-period John Wayne with good performances from a stable of veterans; the film also features really gorgeous cinematography. The opening sequence is moody and a bit out of step with the tone of the lighthearted actioner that follows, but it's welcome nonetheless, and the ending is one of those cheesy surprises that you can't help but roll your eyes but love anyway. Better than I expected.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Quick Take: My Name is Julia Ross

Not the first movie about gaslighting and not the last, but screened in 2019 My Name is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis, 1945) takes on a chilling subtext as we all become Julia, trapped in a world where the forces of darkness gaslight us all by insisting that truth isn't truth and all the news is fake. Like Julia, we'll need a miracle to escape before the trap closes.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Quick Take: Godzilla vs. Megalon

Godzilla vs. Megalon (Jun Fukuda, 1973), along with several others of the Godzilla Showa era, scared the heck out of me as a kid. The monsters were huge and scary looking, the sound effects loud and weird, and I freaked out whenever Megalon melted and burned Japanese tanks. Sure, you couldn't see the crews burning, but I knew they were there, and I was horrified.

But even though I was scared, I had a great time. What kid doesn't love a giant robot fighting alongside Godzilla? That was the very definition of a good day for a child in the 1970s.

Rewatching the film last week - my chosen debut for the launch of The Criterion Channel - I finally saw Godzilla vs. Megalon for what it is: a fairly lazy and slipshod entry in a series that was well past its prime by this point. But that doesn't mean I don't still love it, even though I don't rate it very highly. If nothing else, it's sincere kid's entertainment.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Ozzy Man Diablo

This is a piece of scatter terrain for Warhammer 40,000. I think Scott made this. It's pretty neat, even if I don't know what it's supposed to be. Shield generator? Dimensional gateway? 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I'm the Flash

Jeff once said, "I'm the Flash! I can run to Calgary and back in an hour!" It seems to me the Flash is faster than that, but maybe Jeff is the Flash, because here he is generating one. 

Monday, April 08, 2019

Quick Take: The Bronze Buckaroo (Richard C. Kahn, 1939)

Richard Kahn's The Bronze Buckaroo is perhaps the only Western in which ventriloquism saves the day. Amiable enough, and nice to see a standard low-budget oater with an all-black cast. There are funny moments sprinkled throughout, my favourite of which was the moment one of the protagonists exhorts his six-shooter not to miss: "I want to send a message, and I don't want them to talk back!" The gun delivers.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Quick Take: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman, 1962)

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is a fantastical voyage that not only made me feel like a kid again, but a kid who might have seen this in a theatre in 1962, before I was born. Wonderfully inventive, rich in sumptuous detail--it's the kind of waking dream that's slightly creepy and frightening in some spots, yet too whimsical to be (quite) nightmarish. One of a rare breed of perfect films that masterfully accomplishes exactly what it set out to do.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Battle on a Field Unknown

For the first time in many moons, I took up the role of Gamemaster. I led a one-off session of Villains & Vigilantes, pitting the characters of Jeff, Connor, and Sean against a maniac with a bow, a sorceress, a shapeshifter, a martial artist, a masked gunslinger, and a gorilla gunslinger. The lads eked out a victory, but the mystery of the battlefield to which they were so unceremoniously teleported remains unsolved...

Friday, April 05, 2019

The Two Worlds Most Persistent

I wake again in the wrong. Perpetual summer at the University of Alberta, always late in third year or early in fourth year, trying to convince those old friends that I was stuck there, with my life in the present out of reach, my knowledge of the next thirty years or so useless because unbelievable, ridiculous. When these jumps happen, none of those old friends believe that I'm a middle-aged man trapped in my younger body, with a life on the far side of time.

My Atari 520ST, with its connection to local electronic bulletin boards, is useless as a research tool; it has no Internet connection, since the Internet is still a few years away. There will be no Googling "how to undo time travel to my past body."

Frustrated, I walk out the front door and across the golden grass that covers a tall, steep hill. I can see Orson Welles in the distance, and I climb up to see him - so much easier in this young, fit body. He greets me like an old friend, rambling on about dramatic structure, even though he died five or six years ago. That's what jerks me free of this reality--that discontinuity. I wake up back in 2016, only to realize that I should be in 2019...

Thursday, April 04, 2019

A Lite-Brite Birthday

Sean turned six on this day way back in 1982. Happy Birthday, Sean! 

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Quick Takes: Ali (Michael Mann, 2001)

Usually I'm unmoved by Will Smith's performances, but he was magnificent in this - so much so that I forgot I was watching Will Smith and believed I was seeing Ali. Nor am I a sports fan, but this was as much about Ali's determination to be a champion of the people (and ahead of his time he certainly was with regard to the Vietnam war) as it was his incredible feats as an athlete. Kudos to Smith and the rest of the stellar cast, along with director Michael Mann and his crew, for capturing a remarkable life with such style and power.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Quick Take: Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950)

"Legislation's not meant for buying and selling!" In Born Yesterday, a journalist fights corruption with the help of a plucky formerly ignorant citizen who educates herself about the issues. In the end the bad guys learn a lesson and the future of democracy seems assured. It must have seemed an almost believable plot in 1950...

Monday, April 01, 2019

Horsey Repair Job

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the photo above because I thought the damage to the print created a neat effect.
I took a shot at repairing the damage with Photoshop, and I think it looks a bit better. As you can see, I had trouble in the hind leg area.