Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Cinematic Sloppy Joe - The Predator, Reviewed

Seeing the original Predator in theatres three decades ago (ugh), I don't think any of us were expecting too much. Schwarzenegger's last big hit was The Terminator from three years prior, and Commando, his 1985 military adventure, was the kind of cheesy, catchphrase-laden, muscleman machinegun movie that we all like to make fun of now. Maybe having low expectations was part of the original Predator's success; in addition to the great action we were hoping for, we got treated to memorable characters, quirky dialogue, and some neat cinematic tricks that held off on revealing the title creature until the very end of the film. Plus a brilliant score by Alan Silvestri.


I am a big fan of Shane Black, the director and co-writer of The Predator, but his cinematic style is so pronounced now that his movies are almost becoming their own genre, complete with checklist:

  • Quirky, dangerous characters? Check
  • Maritally estranged main character? Check
  • Ruthless but intelligent and funny villain? Check
  • Smarter-than-average kid who becomes essential to the plot? Check
  • Whip-smart dialogue peppered with creative profanity? Check
  • Takes place during a festive holiday? Check (except it's Hallowe'en instead of Christmas - who even are you , Shane?!)

So the short of it is this:you aren't going to see anything really new in The Predator, despite Black & (Fred) Dekker's attempts to broaden the scope of the franchise a bit with the idea that the namesake species has been improving itself with DNA from its prey. In the end, though, it is still a hapless group of humans with access to serious ordnance trying to fight something way out of their league.

An you know what? That's okay.

The film is a bit jumbled in places, which is surprising considering that Black's Iron Man 3 handled its story and action so deftly, but in the end, this is probably the strongest of the Predator sequels to date, although that might be damning with faint praise. And unlike the original, there is no big action star to hang this movie on, making its impressive genre ensemble cast a critical element.


For your leading man you have the heavy from Logan (Boyd Holbrook) as Quinn McKenna, Army Ranger sniper and covert soldier, who has the misfortune of encountering the title character while on a mission in Mexico. Stateside, he is quickly sequestered and questioned, then thrown in with Group 2 (as in group therapy), which includes 2004 Punisher (Thomas Jane), the guy from Moonlight (Trevante Rhodes), half of Key and Peele (Keegan Michael Key), and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Group 2 is a group of emotionally disturbed veterans Holbrook is thrown in with to discredit his alien story, but before you can say "ragtag band of misfits", they find themselves knee deep in battle with an extraterrestrial hunter as well as their own government as it tries to keep things quiet.

Then you have Psylocke from the X-Men (Olivia Munn) and Killmonger's dad from Black Panther (Sterling K. Brown) as an evolutionary biologist who wants to study the alien and the government acquisitions agent who wants whatever he can get out of it to round things out.

Is Brown's callous agent going to end up face-to-face with Holbrook's autistic son, whose savant-like abilities help him to understand the alien tech better than others? Of course he will! In a weird kind of sentimentality, Black loves to put smart kids in bad situations alongside evil people. He may do this in order to justify terrible things happening to them later on, but as a parent I still find the scenes disturbing and engaging.

I don't want to spoil the story, but there is an even bigger Predator in the mix eventually, as well as perhaps the ugliest alien hunting dogs seen to date. There are a number of great callbacks to the previous films in the dialogue and some of the gags (McKenna says "Get to the choppers!" before sprinting towards a cluster of motorcycles, which was very well received in my theater), and even an appearance by Jake Busey, whose father Gary was in Predator 2.

Black also went hard R on this film, letting him drop f-bombs with calculated rapidity, and a level of gore that makes the rampages feel far more consequential, especially in a sterile, white, lab environment.


Most importantly though, Black & Dekker keep the story moving along with almost no prompting or prodding from stupid people. No one leaves a critical door unlocked, no one skips off on guard duty to get high, and people who have an opportunity to leave the fight make a darn strong case that, hey, maybe that is something they oughta do. And at 1:47, they don't waste any time heading down any subplot rabbit holes they don't need.

I hope that the controversy over Black's knowingly hiring a a registered sex offender isn't the reason for The Predator's relatively soft $24M opening weekend, but it probably played a role. For my part, I appreciated his sincerity and apology once Olivia Munn and others showed him the details of the case (although I also hope he personally apologizes to her for putting her in that position) revealing how he had been misled, and I am grateful that the studio decided to excise that scene from the movie.

If you liked the original movie, and would like more of the same, but different, and with more laughs, go check out The Predator. It's cinematic comfort food that is messy as all get out, but tasty and filling as well. It fits into a funny, gory, sci-fi niche that feels a little out of step with the times these days, bu the five of us who saw it yesterday had a great time at it. Go see it as a favour to me, as I am eagerly anticipating Black's venture into pulp territory with Dwayne Johnson in Doc Savage!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Chasing "The Wild Geese"

Timeline:

1691
Following the end of the Willamite War (also known as the Jacobite War),  Irish soldiers who had supported Catholic King James against Protestant William of Orange were banished from Ireland, becoming mercenaries on the European continent and elsewhere. This exile was sometimes called the Flight of the Wild Geese, and there are reports that at leats one mercenary company referred to themselves as such.

1960s
British mercenary "Mad" Mike Hoare commands the mercenary unit 5 Commando ANC (Armée Nationale Congolaise) during the Congo crisis of that decade and adopts the wild goose as their insignia.

1970s
Rhodesian novelist Daniel Carney, inspired by tales of Hoare's African adventures and intrigued by rumours of a mysterious plane carrying a "dying African president" landing in his homeland, writes "The Thin White Line", but is unable to get it published.

1977 (i)
During a chance meeting with film producer Euan Lloyd, Carney sells the film rights to his novel,  on the condition it be published. Lloyd agrees, changing the name of both the film and novel to "The Wild Geese". He eventually casts Richard Burton, Sir Richard Harris, Sir Roger Moore and Hardy Kruger as his four principals and arranges filming to take place in South Africa. ("eventually", because Michael Caine and others would not work on the film as it was to be filmed in South Africa during apartheid.)


1977 (ii)
During production, expatriate British actor Ian Yule is hired in South Africa. In addition to having legitimate military experience with the Paras and SAS (!), Yule turns out to actually have been a mercenary in Africa. He arranges to introduce the filmmakers to his former employer, "Mad" Mike Hoare, who is brought onto the production crew as a technical consultant.

1978 (i)
Shortly prior to release, the American distributor of the film, Allied Artists, went bankrupt, leading to limited screenings across the U.S. Despite this, it does well enough overseas to become the 14th highest grossing movie of the year.

1978 (ii)
My father takes the family to the movies at the Odeon Twin Theatre on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton. My mother and sister go on to see Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in "The Wiz", while Dad takes me, at 11 years old, to see a war movie about mercenaries in Africa called "The Wild Geese". I enjoy myself tremendously, despite not really knowing what a mercenary was.


1980
Rhodesia, the final destination of The Wild Geese in the movie, ceases to exist, becoming Zimbabwe.

1981
"Mad" Mike Hoare is captured and imprisoned after attempting to lead a coup d'état in the Seychelles.

2018
It strikes me that Glory might really enjoy this film, so I made arrangements to screen it for her, myself and Audrey last night.


There really is no reason for me to be as fond of this movie as I am. In fact, there are a lot of reasons not to. There are only three women with speaking parts in the movie (with less than ten lines between them), the homosexual medical orderly is so stereotypical he wouldn't be out of place in a Carry On film, and the idea of a largely white group of mercenaries interfering in the politics of a black-ruled African nation is more than a bit distasteful. And it was made in South Africa during apartheid!

But:

Despite 2/3 of those women being wives or girlfriends to mercenary characters, they are in no way typical or simply cutouts; their parts are small without being trivial or incidental.

Arthur Witty, the orderly played by Kenneth Griffith, is treated with equality and respect by his comrades (and no small amount of teasing). He is the first gay character I can recall seeing in film (even though at 11, this entire notion may have eluded me in a similar fashion to mercenaries), and he's certainly the first with any positive portrayal.

The white foreigners interfering in an independent African nation is a bit trickier, and almost prevented actor Paul Chani from joining the cast. But the sub-plot of acceptance told between the South African mercenary Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger) and President Limbani (Winston Ntshona) was inspirational to him, so he agreed to play Sgt. Jesse Blake.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: We whites have carried you people on our backs ever since we came to this country.
Julius Limbani: It's the other way around now, is it?
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Is it? You need me to save your miserable black life now, don't you?
Julius Limbani: I do. And then you may need me to save yours. We need each other, white man. And that's the way it should be. We've got the whole world using us now. Setting group against group, destroying Africa. Our new freedom is just a new label for their brand of slavery. And a final blood bath is coming. First between black and white, and then between black and black when you whites have left Africa for good.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Man, we've built your countries, and now you're kicking us out or almost all of them! You're living on foreign aid, robbing your own people blind, crying about outside oppression while you kill each other in great big bleeding batches. Once you have something better to offer, then you can come talk to us in the white south.
Julius Limbani: We both have something better to offer. Listen to me, because the white south is next unless you learn.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Oh, bullshit! We whites were born here. We're just as African as you are. And don't make a mistake, we're going to stay.
Julius Limbani: I'm glad to hear that. Then you better join us, and help us sort out our future.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Join you?
Julius Limbani: We have to learn to care for each other, or there will be nothing left of our Africa but a burnt-out battlefield.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: You have a point there. But do you have an answer?
Julius Limbani: I have the will to look for one. We have to forgive you for the past, and you have to forgive us for the present. If we have no future together, white man, then we have no future. That's what I believe in, and that's what I'm willing to die for.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: You're beginning to sound good to me. Maybe we need you. Maybe you're just the man.
(Fun fact: four decades later, Paul Chani's most prominent role is T'Chaka, father of T'Challa, Marvel's Black Panther!)

It's actually astonishing that the South African Film Commission, still under and a part of apartheid, was so intent on casting so many black actors from South Africa. In fact, the film was in violation of the law by having the same quarters for black and white cast members, but they completed their filming undisturbed.

For a fairly bloody action movie that perhaps glorifies soldiers for hire, there are a surprising number of great messages about inclusion and equality to be found in The Wild Geese. Honestly though, the sly and wry humor that runs throughout the film is its greatest appeal to me. Burton's sarcastic Col. Faulkner, Harris' sophisticated Rafer Janders and Moore's charming but deadly Shawn Fynn make for some wonderful scenes with cracking dialogue. Moore, in fact, asked to have fewer lines in his scenes with the other two, for fear of being shown up.

Knowing that Burton and Harris were legendary hellraisers, it is astonishing to discover that they were both dry for the duration of filming. Moore, on the other hand was spotted on the front lawn of his apartment one morning, clad only in his underwear, and running a garden hose over his head after on particularly ambitious night.

More shocking still, however, is the knowledge that Moore and Burton were only a couple of years  apart in age during filming; Burton 51 and Moore celebrating his 50th birthday on-set. Burton's hard living had caught up to him by this point, and he was plagued by back pain during filming. 1n 1981, he was hospitalized for liver and kidney troubles, and it was discovered that his spinal column was encrusted in crystallized alcohol.


The Wild Geese really is one for the books: no contrived love story (although some scenes were filmed), no American actors (although Burt Lancaster had been approached and O.J. Simpson suggested by the American backers), and a complex, politically savvy story might have been enough to keep it from succeeding stateside even if the distributor hadn't folded.

Fans of action movies or good dialogue that deftly weave idealism and cynicism together, or those who enjoy atypical settings and characters would do well to check it out. Should you find yourself with a couple of hours to spare where there is decent wifi, I believe you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.

Four decades later, I still remember my first experience with it, and I am happy to report that Glory enjoyed it too.

Monday, September 3, 2018

See Change

Of all the holidays, none seems as focused on transition as Labour Day does. The most significant change is the return to school, and for three quarters of my household there will be a direct impact.

But in addition to changes in our daily routine, the air is cooling, the leaves have begun changing on our street, and the apples from our tree have already been harvested. (Audrey has turned them into an astonishing forty pounds of apple butter, in fact.)

Life changes loom as well: my sister and her husband have sold their Canadian home, maintaining the single residence in Houston required for his work. We've drawn together to move my mother into a tidy ground floor apartment which she seems quite taken with, or will be, once she gets everything where it belongs.

This weekend we finally re-shingled our roof, a long overdue chore that, although expensive, does provide a bit more peace of mind. Similar to the furnace though, such a large purchase makes you want to show it off to people, but I can barely rouse interest in my new roof covering, so it is quite unreasonable to expect others to do so.

Glory starts the eleventh grade this year, shortening the countdown to Audrey and I becoming empty nesters, at least potentially. Or perhaps not - Glory is among the first to remind us that the average age of  a person moving out on their own in Edmonton is around 28 now.

Fenya's current plan is to remain with us until she is finished school, which is grand, but this summer it hardly felt like she was here at all. The month in China took a big bit out of the summer schedule for her, and once she returned, she began her volunteer training for UAlberta's Peer Support Centre (40 hours over two weeks!), plus working her job, plus trying to touch base with her friends before the end of summer. And of her course, her boyfriend.

Yes, she's been seeing Austin for a year now, so they had a number of observances this past weekend. Earlier this summer though, she had agreed to sing in church this weekend, with Austin accompanying her on guitar. This not only gave us a chance to see her (and more importantly, hear her, since it has been a while), but gave the extended family and friends a reason to come out as well. The long weekend services are not tremendously well -attended, generally speaking, but we accounted for 14 seats of the congregation this past Sunday.

The song they had selected was a song called "I Can Only Imagine", by a Christian rock group called MercyMe. The lyricist had written it after the loss of his father, imagining what it would be like to encounter him again in a heavenly state, under the eyes of his Creator.



United Church theology doesn't talk a lot about the hereafter, which is how I prefer it, actually, but it certainly felt heavenly to heard the words and music.



[Here's a link in case the embedded video doesn't work.]

I won't lie - it can be kind of tough learning to share your firstborn daughter with the world in general, and with a boy in particular. But in truth, I'm glad Fenya's first boyfriend is someone who appreciates her tremendously, doesn't take himself too seriously, and shares her love of music.

Change is relentless. Not that long ago we were sweltering in 30 degree heat, and here we are already talking about when to put winter tires on the vehicles. Tara and Jerry won't be back from Texas now until Christmas. Glory's schedule sees her dancing four to five nights a week until the Oireachtas in November and the Western Canadian Championships. How sappy is it to miss your kids sometimes, even though they are still under your roof? (Sigh.)

With all this looming, I was grateful that Tara and Jerry and Jason and Mum could come over after church for lunch so we could all tell Fenya and Austin how much we appreciated their singing, and just enjoy being a family together.

Because no matter what shape it takes or wherever everyone ends up, that is one thing that won't change.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

"Jack Burton, You!" - Big Trouble In Little China The Game, Reviewed

Last June, I jumped on a boardgame Kickstarter that was originally going to be shipped before Christmas; two weeks ago, my copy of Big Trouble in Little China finally arrived, and three of us played it last night. Was it worth the wait or was it instead a crushing disappointment?


Well, no one could complain about the components: a lavishly illustrated, double-sided gameboard, cards and player boards with similarly stunning artwork, custom made dice, and best of all, 40 well-sculpted plastic miniatures depicting the heroes and adversaries from one of 1986's best cult films.


It takes a pretty big box to hold that much stuff, but also some forethought to keep the contents organized, so I was extremely pleased that the top plastic tray include slotting for the various decks of cards and such...

...and the bottom tray not only had vacu-formed spaces for each and every miniature, but came with a photo of the layout, like those maps in the box of assorted chocolates, to prevent you from inadvertently pushing a model into the wrong spot and risking damage! Bravo, Everything Epic!


Physically, BTILC leaves almost nothing to be desired (although some ziplocs for the extraordinary amount of counters wouldn't have gone astray!), but what about gameplay? For me, any cooperative game comes with two major criteria: ease of play and co-op effectiveness. 

This game takes a little while to wrap your head around, with a couple of unique mechanics, but thankfully the publishers have created a set of video tutorials you can watch on YouTube. I got most of the game setup before the other players arrived, and then we were able to watch the videos and compare them to the layout before us.

The heart of the game is an intriguing dice system, where the symbols you throw dictate not what you can do, but how well you can do it. Each dice has two each of symbols representing Body, Mind and Soul. As you move, fight, heal and attempt other tasks within the game, you slot these dice into the player board for your character. Each slot will normally provide you with a dice for fighting, or the ability to move two spaces, for instance. But the highlighted, or "Epic" slots give you a little more oomph, so you would get a dice with a better spread of results, or move three spaces instead of two.


Every character's board layout is a little different, with Jack Burton's favouring Body, and Egg Chen's having more Epic slots for the Mind, for instance. The order you do things in becomes critically important, but since you roll the dice at the start of your turn, you are freed from trying to come up with a detailed plan before your turn comes around.


You start the game with a number of quests in play: tow major or character quests, and three side quests. Completing the quests gives you the opportunity to combat the minions of Lo-Pan, from the lowly Lords of Death to the hardened killers of the Wing Kong. Along the way you will read entries from a Quest Book in a 'choose your own adventure' fashion, leveling up and gaining rewards that will enable you to eventually face the Godfather of Chinatown in his subterranean lair on the other side of the board.

Combat is simple but challenging, especially in the early stages when you only have three action dice. Looking back on our first game, we didn't take nearly enough advantage of ranged combat and running away from certain fights. Levelling up not only garners you additional dice, but upgrades for your character which can themselves be upgraded to Epic status later on. For instance, Wang Chi's Dragon of the Black Pool jacket (a highly covetable item of wardrobe in its own right) gives him an additional defense dice initially, which can later on be upgraded to an Epic dice, plus one automatic success.


Finishing quests on the streets of Chinatown in Act I  will give the players additional Audacity, measured on a track at the top of the board. It is a race to the center against the opposing Threat Meter, which advances 1-3 spaces every turn and an additional space every time a player dies. Death is not the end, however; deceased players simply draw a Hell card and return to the fight languishing under its effects, which can range from annoying (only speaking in questions) to the dangerous (causing damage to other players with demonic halitosis). As said in the movie, "Chines have a lot of hells."

Once either the Threat Meter or Audacity track reach the centre of the board, play stops immediately, the board is cleared, flipped, and Act II begins in Lo-Pan's underground sanctum. A new track counts down every turn and with every death, giving players a limited amount of time to reach and vanquish Lo-Pan, as well as whichever of the Three Storms have been able to join him. To make matters worse, you have to fight him twice: once as a ghost and again once he has become flesh!


The ticking clock feels a bit relentless, to be honest, which is either a knock against the game's balance or our inexperience. Having played a solo game this morning, I am inclined to say it's the latter, but even entering Act II with Jack Burton at level 6 and full health, I was barely able to beat Lo-Pan before time ran out. And this was even after using intrepid reporter Margo Litzenberger's special ability to move the tracker back one space!


We had not gotten very far in our first game when the Threat Meter reached its end and flipped us into Act II relatively unprepared, and not having completed a single Major Quest, so we thought we were doomed right away. With a bit of planning though, we actually made it to the final showdown with Lo-Pan, who unfortunately killed the lot of us when we bunched up upon arrival. (Bad dice, that's all!)

In terms of co-op play, however, Big Trouble gets big props. Its unique dice system, character upgrades and personalized quests make it almost impossible for an aggressive player to 'quarterback' the game, although there are plenty of opportunities for collaboration. The player's get to choose which of them goes first, allowing them to apply at least a little strategy before their turn even begins.

There are also a set of six shared Fate Dice which can be used by any players to improve their odds, but only once apiece, and with a fifty-fifty chance of some ill effects befalling them or their fellow players when they do, requiring a bit of faith from all involved.

Big Trouble in Little China succeeds in all three areas then: physical components, game design and mechanics, and co-op effectiveness. There is a fourth box they can tick as well: faithfulness to the source material.

From the artwork to the sculpts, to the names and types of rules, it is clear that this has been a labour of love by fans who are as enamoured of the movie as I am. There is a reverence and understanding of the source material unmatched in similar efforts for other properties, but the designers have also broadened the mythology and widened the story. This gives fans a chance to experience something new and different but with a very similar flavour instead of following familiar story beats through a repetitive narrative. 

If we are being honest though, Wang Chi deserves a better profile than Jack Burton, don't you think?


I'm not sure how accurate the professed 120 minute playing time is; even my solo game this morning took more time than that. But coming away from the game once I had packed everything away felt like coming away from John Carpenter's film the first time: I wasn't entirely sure what had happened, but I'd had a great time, and I wanted more of it. Pretty good benchmark for any game - no horseshit.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Edmonton Airshow 2018 - No Smoke, Just Mirrors

Thanks to the miracle of cognitive dissonance, I can say that the 2018 Edmonton Airshow was largely disappointing, but I still had a good time.


The hinge of my disappointment was the unannounced scratching of this year's headliner: Mig Fury - an aerial reenactment of a Korean War-era dogfight featuring a FJ-4 Fury (the carrier version of the venerable F-86 Sabre jet), a Mig 15 and a Mig 17.

These jets occupied a strange niche in air combat history, between the obsolescence of propellor-driven fighters and the ascension of missiles as the principal air-to-air weapon. These pilots fought in essentially the same way that Billy Bishop and Baron von Richtoffen did, but at close to Mach 1. I even had a title for the blog post: Gunfight at the Speed of Sound.

Sigh.

What really galls me isn't so much that the act was cancelled, as this happens fairly frequently at the intersection of aviation and show business, but that the show's organizers never bothered to let us know. The email they sent out that very morning listed Mig Fury as part of that day's lineup, and the announcer never mentioned it. My first clue that they wouldn't be showing up came at 3:45, when announced the T-33 demo would be the final act, ending the show almost a half-hour ahead of schedule.

Smoke in Idaho meant that three other WWII warbirds ended up scratched as well: the Hellcat, Wildcat and P-51 Mustang, which I know left a lot of vintage plane fans severely miffed.


The aerobatics displays that were substituted in their place were very well executed, but also kind of repetitive. For instance, we were treated to an amazing display by Buck Roetman in his Pitt's Special biplane, including his inverted tail cut of a ribbon held 14 metres off the ground (but not until after he had flown under it on the initial pass to size things up!). This was followed by Gary Rower in a vintage Stearman biplane in the style that had trained so many pilots in the early days of WWII. Later on, they placed both these planes in the air at one time, ostensibly to demonstrate their differences, but it still felt like a desperate attempt to fill an empty slot.


I will say this though: if you ever have the opportunity to see a fellow named Jim Bourke do his aerobatic display, do so without hesitation. He flies a modern Extra, specifically designed from the ground up to be an acrobatic all-star, and his display was absolutely breathtaking. The speed and precision with which he snaps and rolls his aircraft are dizzying to behold, and elicited several audible gasps from the crowd.


Another double up saw a Harvard trainer from Yello Thunder paired up with "Nancy" a 60 -year-old Nancheng from the PRC flying her very last show right here at Villeneuve.



On welcome addition to the lineup was this firefighting exercise.


And in addition to sporting some brilliant jetfighter livery, Precision Exotics actually gave air show patrons  the opportunity to ride in or even drive either a Lamborghini or Ferrari on the runway. If it hadn't been $150, I might have done it (from the passenger seat, honestly - it's been a while since I've driven stick and I highly doubted these were automatics!). One of them even raced the T-33 in the finale.


The show closed with some elegant passes by "Acemaker." This T-33 , the training version of Lockheed's P-80 Shooting Star, was a treat to see, if only because it was the only jet we saw in the air besides the 737 that airshow sponsor Flair Air flew past us twice.


In the end, a bad day at the airshow is still better than an average day in the backyard, and I was grateful for the opportunity to see some aircraft up close and in their natural environment, even if I didn't see all the ones I wanted to. Besides, with the show close to cancellation due to the pervasive smoke in our region from the B.C. wildfires, it feels almost churlish to complain.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

This Folking Weather (Plus Ry Cooder and Desert Blues)

For the second time in three years, I have returned to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival as a volunteer - just in time for one of the most extreme weather swings I have ever experienced in this province.

On Friday, helping to administer the tarp lottery, my crew and I endured a sweltering 35 degrees, Edmonton's hottest day of the year. Thursday felt even hotter, but that experience prompted me to bring an umbrella for shade the following day as there was virtually none to be found in our corral by Stage 1.

Saturday, with rain positively pouring down during Regina Spektor's set, it got down to 12 degrees, and felt even colder due to the damp. Despite having two layers on under my rain jacket, sitting off the ground in a festival chair with a reversible car blanket covering my legs and am umbrella trying to keep the back of my chair dry, I was still shivering.

I got up in search of warmth just as she wrapped up, but the merch tent had neither sweatshirts nor long underwear. I have both long johns and multiple sweatshirts at home, so I ended up getting fish and chips instead, which definitely kept me from succumbing so I could watch Ry Cooder's set.

Ry Cooder provided the soundtrack to a lot of movies I adored in back in the day: The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, Streets of Fire, Crossroads. His album Get Rhythm, with the eponymous cover of the Johnny Cash classic, remains eminently listenable.

At 71, he has lost none of his mastery of guitar (with or without bottleneck slide) or mandolin. In fact, I was once told that Ry Cooder is considered a virtuoso on pretty much any stringed instrument, and I have no cause to disbelieve that.

He was backed by a three piece r&b/soul outfit called The Hamiltones, who were as brilliant as you might expect backing up a legend like Cooder, and played two of their own tracks as well. (They normally sing backup to Anthony Hamilton, who sang "Freedom" on the soundtrack to Django Unchained.

The set itself was soulful, and you can get a taste of the instrumentality in this video for Prodigal Son.



Lyrically, it's not quite gospel music, but definitely spiritually situated, treading a line between disappointment and the need to get better:
Now you fashion-loving Christians sure give me the blues
You must unload, you must unload
You'll never get to heaven in your jewel-encrusted high-heel shoes
You must, you must unload
...and the hopefulness and forgiveness of faith, represented in a setting perhaps just this side of blasphemous:
Now, I wandered into a tavern
Where a music band was playin'
Now, the steel guitar rang out so sweet
I feel that I was prayin'
And I asked a comely waitress
"Is this a new teaching?"
Yeah, she said, "There is no God but God
And Ralph Mooney is his name"
I said, "Let me empty your ashtray, Mr. Mooney
And if the drunks interfere I'll be sad
But just as long as you sit there on the bandstand
And play your guitar like Buddha, I'll be glad!"
Now the father asked the prodigal
"Did you smell the sweet perfume and hear the angel band?"
He said, "Daddy! Dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music
Is the only kind of truth I'll ever understand!"
The cold and the wet was easier to bear, with Ry Cooder and the Hamiltones warming us up from the inside out.

Other intriguing bands I intend to follow up on:

A lot of rockers like to call themselves rebels, but these guys are the real deal: a band of nomadic Tuaregs recording since the late 70s, and whose members have been both propagandists for and fighters in Mali's five-decades of civil war. Their style of music has been described as desert blues, and is a fascinating amalgam of styles.

A Ukrainian trio of multi-instrumentalists and vocalists who describe their sound as 'ethnic chaos', and which I won't even try to describe. They ran the gamut from frenzied to reflective without missing a gear. You can see a full radio performance of theirs here.

This young Australian has 40 different instruments under her belt, has a lovely voice, and accompanies herself using a technique called live-looping. Her big break came from a video of her doing a track called Jungle, by herself, in her bedroom, went viral. Not for every taste, but if you like sincere electronica with a broad sound, I suggest checking her out as well.


Last night I was unsure if I would go back for Sunday night's main stage performance, but writing this up (ahead of time, as I know it will not happen afterwards, and I don't want to break my update streak) has me jazzed up again, so after a massive afternoon nap to supplement last night's 3.5 hours sleep, I will gear up with my layers and long johns and head back out to Gallagher Hill to see Shakey Graves and Nick Mulvey and The Milk Carton Kids, only one of whom I have heard of.

Even past the half-century mark, the joy of discovering new music lives!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Tube Be Or Not To Be

Riding an inner tube down the Pembina River is something many people would list as the hallmark of a typical Alberta summer. And yet, it is something no one in our house had ever done until this past weekend, despite the fact it is just over an hour's drive from our doorstep.

Back when the summer started, I booked three nights at the Pembina River campground by Evansburg for the long weekend, something else we had never done. Friday night we set up camp, and when the rain began falling the next morning, we cancelled our plans to be on the river by 11:00, and went out for breakfast instead. (Sammy's Restaurant in Entwistle serves up something called a Ukrainian breakfast; it's kind of a pyrogy omelette which is quite hearty and delicious.)


Around noon, the sun started to peek out, so we changed into our swimsuits and made our way to Pembina River Tubing. Thanks to perusing their website, we had a pretty good idea what to expect. There was no lineup to speak of, so the four of us quickly filled out our waivers, got briefed on the ins and outs of the river tour, and rented a couple of tubes. We had already purchased one for Glory as well as a small raft for Audrey and Nitti (that we eventually named the Pawtemkin) at Canadian Tire.


Once we had all our gear, we made the 8 minute trek down to the waterline. The rain made the trail a little slick, especially while carrying a 53 inch inner tube while walking a dog and wearing Crocs (the preferred wear for such activities), but we made it down without any mishaps.  At the end of the trail, wooden steps led down to a tiny beach by the riverside.


We took a few moments to get ourselves situated and to place socks on Nitti's paws to protect the bottom of the raft. It was probably only 20-21 degrees Celsius by this point, and that water was brisk, baby, but before too long, we were all in the water and tethered together. We pushed away from shore and began our journey.

The majority of the tube route is a gentle float, where you can lay back and appreciate the scenery.


Some of the riverside bluffs and cliffs appear quite massive. They are striped with sedimentary rock, and festooned with tiny cylindrical swallow's nests.


The whole trip usually takes 2-3 hours, which gives you plenty of time to get your Zen on and just "be here now."


But from time to time, the languid roll of the Pembina is punctuated by rapids. Not truly whitewater, but made to feel much more prominent by your proximity to them, as well as the relative fragility of your craft. 


Or perhaps just the disposition of your passengers.

Nitti, on the other hand, handled things with his typical canine stoicism, even enduring the indignity of wearing baby booties.



We had brought along a cooler with some sodas and juiceboxes, some sausage sticks and cheese, so we had a light lunch while afloat. Not long, after our riverine repast however, we encountered one of the few landmarks of our journey.


This is the second of two parallel bridges, the first of which holds up the Yellowhead (Highway 16). This one bears the CN rail tracks, and as luck would have it, a Via Rail passenger train passed over us just after we crossed its shadow.


At some point between rapids and snacking we took a moment to grab a group photo.


And immediately after passing under the little bridge, we quickly used the paddles that came with the raft  and the frisbees tethered to the rental tubes to make our way to the sandy shore of the day use area of Pembina Provincial Park. Once out, we caught the shuttle bus back to PRT, returned our rentals, and headed back to the campsite.


Tubing was a great experience, and one we will undoubtedly do again. In fact, the very next day, I purchased my own tube and Glory and I hit the river again while Audrey returned to the campsite with Nitti to read her book.

This was a far sunnier day, and there were way more people on the river, but it still didn't feel crowded. The river was also running much higher than the day before, which we knew thanks to Alberta Environment's constantly updating web page which tracks such things. Where Saturday's flow had been only 17 cubic meters per second, Sunday's was actually 22.


The river is safe for all ages up to 35 m3s though, it just runs a little more quickly. We ended up at the second bridge at about the 100 minute mark, compared to the previous days 2:20. This time though we drifted right past the day-use area and rode around two more bends before arriving at the gravel beach of our campground. 

The strength of the current and the slipperiness of the rocks made it more difficult to stop than we had anticipated, meaning we ended up about 60 metres further downriver than planned. Ah well, less distance to walk back to our campsite. I joked with Audrey that next time we will equip her with a sturdy rope she can cast out to us as an arresting device.

With two floats under our belts and another probably happening at month end, I am confident we will return to the Pembina before too lone. After all, you can start your float by noon and still be back in Edmonton in time for supper
.