Monday, May 20, 2019

Stickin' It to King's Landing - Game of Thrones S8, Reviewed

Please note: This review is primarily a trojan horse for my commentary on fandom, but I will nonetheless attempt to keep it spoiler-free!

Nearly a quarter-century ago, George R.R. Martin published the first book in his "Song of Ice and Fire" series. Originally envisioned as a trilogy, the series is now expected to encompass seven books, of which only five have been published.

Eight years ago, HBO launched a television adaptation of the series, dedicating a ten-episode season to each book, eventually overtaking them (with Martin's blessing), and doing the final book as two shortened seasons. For almost a decade, viewers have followed the ups and (mostly) downs of the Stark family and the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Last night, the televised journey of almost a decade came to an end, and Audrey, Jeff and I got to watch it tonight.

I hope there will be another series as galvanizing and engrossing as Game of Thrones in the future, and I am sure there eventually will be - something less bingeable and worth making an appointment or. Something worth speculating about and, yes - even being enraged by.

Dissatisfaction with last week's episode has spawned a petition with almost over a million signatures demanding the eighth season be remade with "competent writers." but I'm pretty sure television (and more importantly, art) doesn't work that way.

The level of entitlement perceived by fans is approaching dangerously ludicrous levels. Less than 24 hours after Twilight star Robert Pattinson was announced as a potential candidate to replace Ben Affleck as the movie version of Batman, petitions have sprung to life asking that the part be recast. I understand that legacy, multi-generational characters like Batman have a special place in people's hearts, but Jiminy Christmas, the arrogance on display here leaves me gobsmacked.

No one loved it when Michael Keaton was cast as the title role in 1989's Batman, and he did just fine (and made a lot of dough for Warner Bros. to boot). Later movies in that series were flawed for sure, but I am unsure just how much of the blame can be levelled at Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Very few people were impressed when Christian Bale donned the cape and cowl for Batman Begins, but the real outrage came when "pretty boy" Heath Ledger had the unmitigated gall and temerity to play legendary villain the Joker!

Of course, Ledger won tremendous plaudits working off a brilliant script and in addition to making oodles of dollars for WB, he was honoured with a (tragically posthumous) Oscar for his portrayal. I hope Pattinson, an actor who has little draw for me personally but who I know has credibility among many directors I admire, gets an opportunity to prove them all wrong as Bruce Wayne and his menacing alter ego.

Don't misunderstand me -  I am all for people expressing their opinions, and I am glad that the internet allows them to do that, but the sanctimonious manner in which some people try to upbraid creatives who have to work within the constraints of financing, studio notes, availability and scheduling in order to put coherent entertainment in front of our collective noses leaves me absolutely slack-jawed.

You didn't like season eight? By all means, voice your opinion! Write a letter, tell your friends who haven't watched yet not to bother, cancel your subscription to HBO. But I hope you don't think your million signatures is going to change anything - I doubt you will even get an edited version on disc when it comes out - except for where they remove the coffee cups and water bottles, perhaps.

For my part, although I feel the pacing of this season felt terribly rushed, I feel showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss got us where we needed to go, even if they should have taken more time to get there. There were elements that I felt were objectionable, absolutely - a lack of compelling motivation here, a bungled farewell there, and a heel turn that, despite being telegraphed and foreshadowed, still managed to feel unearned. But overall, I think they told the story they set out to tell and presented us with the bittersweet ending that we should have been preparing ourselves for.

What I perceived as flaws could have been handled by a more deft hand in the director's chair, and I will blog about that in a future (spoiler-filled) post. In the meantime though, I'm not saddened by what transpired in the ending so much as I am at reaching the end of an eight-year journey into a richly realized world of knights and dragons, bravery and betrayal, compassionate cynicism and brash idealism.

Martin's story and D&D's adaptation have done a wonderful job of reminding us of the appeal of these timeless stories while simultaneously stripping away much of the romanticism and naivete associated with them. Like all things that end, the finale of Game of Thrones was never going to please everyone, but I found it to be a satisfying conclusion to almost a decade's worth of television.

Should I live so long, hopefully the books will do likewise!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On Birthdays, and Being a Known Quantity

There are very few among us who don't want to be understood, to be recognized, to have our presence acknowledged (if not celebrated) and our absences lamented.

I have been away from work since the start of the month due to some unpleasantness that transpired there and thus was not present for the traditional workplace commemoration of my birthday last week. Cake is good, gifts and cards are wonderful, but the best part is just getting away from the daily grind with the excellent people you share it with and enjoying each other's company for a few moments.

Yesterday afternoon I got a text from a work colleague saying that a parcel had been left on my step for me (they had not wanted to ring the bell due to a bout of sickness that has been lingering with them for over a week). I sent a thank-you text expressing my surprise and collected the package from the front.

I guess they know my tastes pretty well, as it was a magnificent pre-painted model of Thor from the comics (i.e. not Chris Hemsworth). Far more meaningful though was the card signed by not only my teammates but almost a dozen other people from the floor I work on, a number of whom had inquired about me both before and after my departure. It was truly touching.

One of the things I have tried to do in recent weeks is to never lose sight of the fact that I have a lot of people in my corner. When you get down on yourself sometimes, it can be easy to forget both the frequency and degree of affection and respect that others have for us. Being reminded of this from time to time is both a blessing and a balm, and I am grateful.

My family was also tremendously accommodating, and a day that started out tinged with sadness and physical discomfort took several turns for the better.

We went out for dinner at Craft Beer Market, where our early arrival meant there were happy hour specials on top of the 52% discount I received for my birthday. More importantly, Glory I fulfilled our long-standing goal of splitting the legendary 20-Napkin Burger. Dinner was accompanied by three exquisite pints, including the Wizard's Revenge Milkshake IPA from New Level Brewing in Calgary.

When we returned home I was presented with more gifts, including a new Monster Manual and Pickle Rick bookmark for it, as well as a coupon for a snuggie in the fabric of my choice and a copy of 1977's Slapshot on BluRay, but in a VHS-style box. Once again - it is good to be known.

I was only a little apprehensive when I put Slapshot on afterwards - after all, you can never be sure how oldies like this will be taken by the next generation. But I was gratified at how much the girls laughed, and it's a relief to know that references to the Hanson Brothers and Ogie Ogelthorpe have an opportunity to live on a little longer.

Ending the day full of good food and drink, surrounded by loved ones and laughter? It's hard to imagine a better birthday after all.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Top Qualities

Glory and I were at loose ends on a Sunday afternoon when we had the house to ourselves. This doesn't happen too often and we wanted to take advantage of it. She suggested we play a boardgame, and of the three I suggested, she selected Stratego. I dusted off our vintage (1962) edition of the classic game and we had at 'er.

Stratego is a great mix of strategy and luck, and I suggest more of the latter was in play for my victory. I could hear the gears meshing in Glory's cold-addled brain as we played though, and I know many of my stratagems will find no toehold the next time we face off.

As good a game as it is, the tedious setup and attendant overthinking make it a poor candidate for back-to-back play, so instead I dug into the closet and excavated my collection of tops and the stadium for combatting with them.

They are better known as Beyblades now, but when I was a kid, the most intriguing game I ever saw advertised was Battling Tops. Here was a game where something actually happened! There was motion, kineticism, and all the other qualities I had in mind when I purchased them over a decade ago.

I'd love to tell you that I got them with the girls in mind, but the truth is, they were for me and my mates. We unleashed them at G&G V and a handful of times since. I'd even gotten some more as gifts a few Christmases back, but the bigger, flashier models lacked both the performance and appeal of the smaller knockoffs I'd bought at Comex Hobby in West Edmonton Mall back when I worked there.

Glory was happy to see them reappear, and we spent over an hour testing launchers, experimenting with left spin vs. right spin and comparing the various scales of tops as we battled it out in the Heavy Metal Stadium.

It was a lot of fun, and we thought we would shoot some slo-mo video with the iPad for additional giggles. It was actually handy for determining match winners in a couple of photo-finish situations.

Mostly though, we enjoyed the instant replay feature to see how close to the exit some tops came:

...and some of the more dramatic match finishes:

I lack the physics and engineering wherewithal to tell you why some tops fare better than others, or why aggressiveness attacking often trumps endurance but not every time. Regardless of how they work though, I am astonished at how quickly we move to imbue them with human characteristics like stamina, agility, and even courage.

I quickly became attached to a battered blue top that I would have sworn to you had the heart of a champion. Blueboy won more matches than any other single top.

Moreover, he did so despite having a chunk ripped off of him in an early match, demonstrating real heart and astonishing quantities of both chutzpah and temerity for an inanimate object (to hear me tell it, at least).

Can a toy top have character? It's doubtful. But conversely, when Blueboy finally lost a step and succumbed to a (much larger, probably juiced) competitor in a gruelling matchup, his green replacement fared so poorly that he didn't even warrant a name. That didn't stop me from threatening to shitcan every green top in the house if he didn't shape up, though. I recognize such abusive tactics rarely garner the desired results (and did not in this case either) but in truth it was a little bit liberating, knowing that the top's feelings were unlikely to be hurt, and also seeing how amused Glory was by my misbehaviour.

Somewhere in the hazy middle region between an appreciation for our tendency to anthropomorphize everything we possibly can and the simple elation of two carefree people playing with age-inappropriate toys, my youngest and I had a truly enjoyable Sunday afternoon, and put a particularly trying week just a little further behind us.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Sticking the Landing - Avengers: Endgame, Reviewed (Spoiler-free)

Let me begin by saying that I am truly committed to being spoiler-free in this review. And not just for big reveals and plot details; Avengers: Endgame is so full of delightful surprises and tiny servings of fan service that I hope everyone gets a chance to experience it the way I did. That doesn't mean you have to avoid all the trailers after the second one and the tv spots and clips and featurettes, but I did, and it was quite the experience. I mean, obviously, I loved it, so I suppose you could stop reading right now.

And maybe you might as well, because keeping that cone of silence intact makes reviewing the film pretty tough, I gotta say. So why don't I tell you, in the most general terms, what the film is like, and what I liked about it.

Avengers: Endgame is like saving all the capsules from a dozen Kinder Eggs and opening them all up onto the table. You've saved them for a while, but now it is all right there in front of you. It's not always coherent, mixing characters and settings and tones and such the way it does. There is a period of confusion where the puzzle pieces get mixed up with figurines and the parts from the toy cars with the immensely satisfying little flywheel in them, but when everything is sorted out, it is both immensely satisfying and enjoyable, even if you like one item more than the other.

The film is bookended by a tremendous amount of emotional content, and the second act has its fair share as well. Hearing starved, beaten, half-dead Tony Stark confess "I lost the kid," was heartbreaking. Yes, there is mortality in this film as well, some of it more surprising than others.

I had tears on my face several times over the three-hour runtime -some of sadness, some of sheer fannish joy, and many from laughter. There were four or five moments of unprompted applause from the packed house I saw it with, one in response to two words of dialogue.

Despite being the capstone of a 22-film multimedia blockbuster extravaganza, Endgame still feels like a gutsy and honest film throughout, peppered with both the humour and gravitas that the Russo brothers have imbued their MCU films with since The Winter Soldier.

I did not expect Mark Ruffalo's Hulk to be the funniest character of the first act, nor for the impact of The Snapture to affect title characters as profoundly as it does.

In a lot of ways, it is a movie about consequences. My biggest fear going in was that whatever plan arrived at to deal with Thanos' villainy would undo all of the past, Dallas season 9-style, and give Phase 4 a clean slate, and this did not come to pass. Like I said: ballsy.

Someone tomorrow is going to ask me about Endgame, and how it was, but not to spoil it, and here is what I will say. I will ask them their three favourite moments from the Marvel movies thus far, and after they tell me (and even if they don't), I will tell them, "get ready to revise that list, because all three of mine were in Endgame."

From the time of the first Avengers movie, I said it was impossible to tie together a shared cinematic universe this large, with this many stars and characters and plot points, but I've been delighted to have been proved wrong again and again. And now the Russo Brothers and studio head Kevin Feige have done it: wrapped up a ten-year, 22-movie epic in a way that feels honest and epic, and has been pleasing to old fanboys like me, and to others like my girls who didn't know who half these people were going into them.

They stuck the landing.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Audrey's 50th Via the 80s

As unlikely as it might seem by looking at her, Audrey turned 50 this past weekend. When we pressed her for a party theme a couple of months back, she kept coming back to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," which essentially meant an 80s theme. When I pointed out that this was also the theme of her 40th birthday a decade back, her reply was "So?"

So the 80s it was!

Both of her sisters made it out from Guelph and Rocky Mountain House, as well as two nieces and our nephew and nephew-in-law. Jenna has become an extremely proficient makeup artist and graciously offered to apply period eyeshadow and all the trimmings to anyone who wanted it, while Glory and her cousin Kara-Lynn were only too willing to assist with elevating everyone's hair. On Saturday afternoon, our kitchen went full salon in a frenzy of brushing, teasing, hair spraying and makeup applying.

Everyone turned out magnificently, I have to say, and they took advantage of the brief lull before guests arrive to take some pictures with the photo booth props we'd ordered for the occasion.

Kara-Lynn re-purposed Betty's grad dress from the period, while the cyclical nature of fashion meant that Glory found a vintage Kodak top at Forever 21.

Amazon provided shirts for Audrey and her sister Vera (and me too).

People started to show up a little after 4:00, and we got some of the new arrivals in on the goofy photo action as well.

Most people headed downstairs where the majority of libations and snacks were and checked out the 11-hour playlist of 80s music videos I'd curated on YouTube...

...but a few people remained upstairs to enjoy the bright sunlight and warm spring day.

Tara is a master elixir fixer and set up a few rounds of shooters including B-52s, Grand Exits and a new concoction Pete christened as simply "Deeelightful"!

And of course there was cake...

But the biggest emotional moment came when Audrey's son Bryce and his wife Sarah gave Audrey her card...

... to let her know that the baby boy they are expecting in July will have the same name that Audrey gave Bryce at birth, prior to his adoption by a wonderful family.

There is a lot more to Audrey's affection for the 80s than just nostalgia and funky fashions - it's the decade where she really established who she was, and I feel awfully privileged to have been there when she did, and to still be a part of her life, and to enjoy all of her families and friends too.

Happy birthday Audrey; don't stop having fun, and thanks for bringing so many of us along with you!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Image Consciousness

There's a lot of things in my life I am grateful for, most of which are blessings that came my way due to luck, grace or providence as opposed to machinations on my part. I am particularly thankful for the relationship shared between my two daughters. These two amazing young ladies could not be more different in some ways, and yet they remain close confidants with one another.

Two unrelated vignettes that offer glimpses into how my offspring interact with the world:

A few years back, Glory saved enough of her own money to pay for half of the digital SLR camera she wanted. Since then she has taken some photography classes in high school but she is more interested in landscapes than the portraiture they tend to focus on. She is going on a biology field trip to the Bamfield Marines Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island at month-end and isn't even bringing her good camera because of the room it takes (and fear of water damage).

She remains fascinated by vintage cameras though, something Audrey and I have encouraged in gifts we have found in antique shops in our travels and one from a lovely neighbour. Knowing myself at that age, I steeled myself for the possibility of these old devices disappearing into a drawer until she rediscovered them at an older age (and possibly in her own living space). After all, what teenager is interested in antiques?

On the contrary though; she has practically enshrined them on a shelf in her room.

In case you were wondering, they are a Kodak Jiffy II bellows camera from the 1940s, an Imperial Deluxe twin-lens reflex camera (1950s), and a Mercury II with a rotary shutter from the mid-40s. I also love the flashbulb garland she's strung around them!

Despite the frustrations that modern technology in general and the interwebs, in particular, can often hold for my wife, she has proven adept at determining the provenance of items such as these and even managed to track down PDFs of original owner's manuals for some of them. I doubt she will ever recondition them enough to take pictures with them, but the obvious veneration she holds for these nostalgic cameras is a pleasant surprise.

Fenya's story changes the perspective from how one sees images to the image one is seen as. Wait, that's terrible English - let me start over.

Our eldest is wrapping up her second year of university and is looking at taking an internship next year before continuing her studies. She sent out a considerable stack of resumes and received four interview invitations in fairly rapid succession, which was obviously highly encouraging.

Despite the fact that my last "cold" interview was over a decade ago, she asked my help in preparing for some of them, which I found highly flattering. In particular, she had received a fair bit of background material from the Office of the Student Ombuds at the University of Alberta, and we spent a pretty solid evening looking at it and discussing it, as well as the case study they had provided. It was pretty heavy stuff, and I guess the preparation helped, as she not only got the gig but the longer term of the two positions being offered.

It turns out that one of her colleagues from the Peer Support Centre had done the exact same internship and said it was the highlight of her undergrad years. Better still, she told Fenya she would be a fantastic fit for the job but warned her that she would need to take steps to present herself as a working professional and not as a fellow student. "Even more so," she underscored, "because you look so young too."

Fenya had already grabbed some office wear from V.V. Boutique prior to the interview and could supplement that once she got a couple of paycheques under her belt, but her bookbag presented a problem. Nothing says "student" quite like a backpack stuffed with papers and a lunch sack, so she was advised to get either a briefcase or business-lookin' tote of some kind before starting on May 1.

Before she could even determine if V.V. could come through again, one of the people she had gone to China with last year came through for her. Having overheard her lament regarding business-style totewear, he related how he had received one free with a Chapters purchase that was a tad too effeminate for his own use, but which she was welcome to. She picked it up today while studying for finals on campus.

I remember using a briefcase I had inherited from my dad on my first few summer office jobs during university, but they are now not only a bit worse for wear, but also woefully out of style. I'm glad Fenya was able to procure one from a friend, and on a student-friendly budget, too (i.e. free to a good home). One less thing to worry about as she wraps up her exams and prepares for a year on the job in a challenging but intriguing position!

Every time I share something featuring the girls on Instagram, I can count on a couple of my coworkers telling me how beautiful they are. Which, you know, fair enough, and I haven't yet seen the need to purchase a shotgun or menacing piece of vintage cutlery to hang over the door or anything. It's gratifying and I do always try to be gracious, but on the inside I am always thinking, man, that isn't even the third or fourth coolest thing about them! Whtether looking at the past or at their own futures, I continue to be amazed by their perception.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Most Anticipated?

Culturally, I think we spend a lot of time anticipating movies. Gone, at least for the most part, are the days when a fan would be surprised when they saw a trailer (in the theatre!) adapting a book or other property for the silver screen. Word leaks out now the moment a movie enters pre-production, and sometimes even earlier.

For instance, I've been waiting for Shane Black's movie version of pulp hero Doc Savage since before 2013 (stalled now despite signing Dwayne Johnson as the lead). Should the movie ever actually come to pass, I'm not sure it can live up to a decade or more of anticipation.

Even before the frenzy of ticket purchases, virtual line-ups and server crashes that heralded the pre-sales for Avengers: Endgame, I had described it as the most anticipated movie of my lifetime. And that's coming from someone who cut school with his mates to go and see Return of the Jedi at a matinee the day that it opened!

That third Star Wars movie was wrapping up the most successful movie franchise in history at that point, a trilogy that had begun six years earlier. The first in the series had redefined the term "blockbuster," and I remember newspaper ads proclaiming it had been "Held over - 27th Hit Week!"

The movie business has changed a lot since that day - hell, so has the way we consume movies for that matter - but somehow anticipation remains, despite the fact that we can watch the movie at home within six months of it opening in the theatre. In fact, in light of all the furor, it might even be accurate to say that anticipation has even increased. And why not?

Endgame will be wrapping up the Marvel Cinematic Universe's much less cohesive but no less interconnected set of films spanning 11 years and an astonishing 22 movies. The closest analogy is probably the EON company's James Bond series. I mean, until you consider that when Bond 25 is released in April of 2020, there will be more MCU movies out by the end of that summer.

I've been a big fan of the MCU since the first Iron Man back in 2008, and although some of the movies have been better than others, I have never come away disappointed. That and my, uh, passing familiarity with the source material, coupled with my meta-knowledge that these actors aren't getting any younger and many of them are at the end of their contracts and possibly hankering for a juicy death scene to cement themselves in the role, means that yes, I have never anticipated a movie more than Endgame. Ever.

Worse still, I will be at the Calgary Comic Expo on the opening weekend, making it imperative to see it on Thursday night, lest I be walking around Spoilerpalooza with my hands pressed against my ears. It's hard enough to maintain reasonable expectations while avoiding spoilers; the latter has been pretty difficult, given the fanosphere's tendency to scour every bit of leaked footage, set report and toy advertisement like theologians poring over the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Luckily I had set a reminder on my phone to purchase tickets last Tuesday. When I blearily perceived it shortly after waking up, I thought I should take a look in case ticket sales had begun. A few minutes later, I saw that the theatre was already half sold out, but still managed to get four tickets on the left aisle despite the terrifying sluggishness of the process. By the time I got to work, news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic were reporting on the crashes, delays, and massive fan dissatisfaction.

None of which has dissipated the anticipation. Projections for the opening weekend are in excess of $200 million, and tickets are reportedly being scalped for thousands of dollars on eBay.

But I wouldn't sell mine for less than five figures, and my anticipation continues to build, despite my best efforts to restrain it!