Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sedimentation and Dramatization

The cough I had woken up with on Friday morning had by Sunday bloomed into a full-blown and miserable snotty head cold. The original itinerary had been to take it easy after the world cup, perhaps do a little sightseeing, but the day before, a chance brochure encounter had reminded us that the Canadian Badlands Passion Play was being staged, something we had talked about attending for years. So a restful day in the shade was simply not in the cards.

In the afternoon, we took a brief road trip north of town to Horsethief Canyon. This gave us all a chance to sightsee and Glory a chance to indulge herself with her proper camera.

Legend has it that purloiners of ill-gotten equines would elude pursuit down in this maze-like arroyo, only to emerge with different brands much further up the Red Deer river.

It is astonishing to reminded that such fabulous scenery is only a three-hour drive away, even though some of the topography looks like it wouldn't be out of place on either the surface of Mars or the cinematic Old West. Even more amazing is the fact that you could be driving through farmland less than a kilometer away and have absolutely no clue this amazing vista is as close as it is.

We didn't stay too long in th 35 degree heat, so after fortifying ourselves with some small pizzas and milkshakes at Bernie and the Boys Bistro, we made our way to the parking lot of the Badlands Passion Play.

Said play has been taking place every summer at the Badlands Amphitheatre, an old-style naturally formed amphitheatre with outstanding acoustics, for 25 years now. The venue itself is amazing to behold, with seating for over 2,000 and an impressive array of biblically themed structures.

There were at least 60 people in the cast, often all on stage at one time, and only the principles were miked but you could still clearly hear the words the extras were murmuring in the crowd scenes (which I am sure required tremendous discipline!). 

The scale of the amphitheatre also made it possible to add live animals, and having a horse-drawn Roman chariot go all the way from stage left to stage right was pretty thrilling. The Roman armour and vestments of the Pharisees were splendid examples of costumery.

Their crucifixion scene was fairly harrowing, and involved hoisting the crossbar into position with the lead actor attached, still miked.

As a musical that was trying very hard not to be Jesus Christ Superstar, the play was very well done, taking a Simon-centric approach to the story. Truth be told, with my eyes watering and nose running throughout, I spent a lot of the time listening with my eyes closed, with the hood of my sweater up over my hat to protect my neck from the sun, as it was still very hot when the show got underway at 4:00. Still, I found it to be a moving and compelling rendition of the Gospel story.

Truth be told though, anyone who appreciates an unusual venue or has any interest in theatrical production owes it to themselves to check out the Badlands Passion Play at some point. The scope, scale, and technical accomplishments of such a major production, away from a major population center, is as miraculous as the story it portrays.

On the other hand, they are staging Carmen at the same venue in August, and Corb Lund and Ian Tyson after that, so the idea of returning to see a more secular event has some appeal as well!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Not Exactly Roughing It

We have deployed Frankentrailer to the Alberta badlands in a long-overdue return to the Drumheller area. We estimate that we were last here in 2006, and at that time we camped in a tent, but that is not the most interesting change.

I've really enjoyed this year's World Cup matches for their unpredictability, mad upsets, and only one scoreless draw in the entire tournament. Even though the final didn't contain any of the teams I normally cheer for (England, Holland, most African teams) I still wanted to see it.  Alas, nowhere in Drumheller appeared to be screening it, let alone an all-ages venue that would let Glory watch! After a couple of futile email exchanges it appeared I would have to sort myself out. A thankful combination of hospitality and technology made this possible.

It turns out that  River Grove Campground where we are staying this week has complimentary wifi. The phone I upgraded to this spring came with a free projector, of all things. I downloaded the TSN app, fired up the tiny projector, and that is how we managed to watch Croatia's valiant but doomed effort against France this morning on the ceiling of Frankentrailer, while curled up in our sleeping bags.

There were more than a few breaks in streaming due to buffering issues or the wifi connection being momentarily lost. Thankfully, my self awareness regarding my position of privilege returned when I caught myself saying aloud, "I just want to watch a live sporting match from the other side of the world on the equivalent of a 40" television, while camping, on the ceiling of my 40-year-old trailer - is that too much to ask for?"

Probably, yes, in reality; but we watched nonetheless, and enjoyed ourselves tremendously. What a time to be alive, as they say.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

It's a Little Bit Funny - Ant-Man and the Wasp, Reviewed

Wow, has it already been three years since I reviewed the first Ant-Man movie? At the time, I thought of it as well done but disposable entertainment, saddled by Marvel's tendency to use mirror-image villains.

The sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is much the same, with one critical difference, but it feels even lighter coming on the heels of more moving and socially relevant pieces like Infinity War and Black Panther. Maybe that's okay though.

The house arrest mentioned by Rhodey in that later film is where the sequel picks up, with an officious federal agent (gosh I miss SHIELD being a thing) explaining to the daughter of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) that his hijinks in Captain America: Civil War mean he is confined to his residence for three more days, and on probation for another three years after that.

Faster than you can say "two weeks until retirement" though, Scott finds himself running about with scientist Hank Pym (an increasingly acerbic Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Due to quantum entanglement from his trip to the not-Microverse Quantum Realm, they need his help to rescue Mrs. Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer) who has been trapped there for thirty years.

Antagonism, however, comes from not one, but two individuals. The first is an unsavory black marketeer named Burch played by the always awesome Walton Goggins, who is smart enough to have figured out what Pym and Co. are up to, and eager to monetize it via the dangerous people he deals with.

The vital component he holds is also sought after by Ghost, a young woman out of phase with reality who we learn might die if she doesn't extract some energy from the Quantum Realm. Hannah John-Kamen spends most of her time in an ominous looking suit which a) is pretty badass-looking in a Splinter Cell kind of way and b) looks almost nothing like the shrinking suits worn by the title characters, but also doesn't give her a lot of room to emote. In her time out of the suit, she comes across as far more desperate and tragic than she does actually villainous, although you do get to witness her desperation putting her on the razor's edge being self-interested and evil.

She's no Killmonger, but please, Marvel, more like this! Not every adversary has to be a maniacal moustache twirler, and the last few outings (Michael Keaton's Vulture, Josh Brolin's Thanos, Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster) makes me wonder if they have perhaps turned a corner on this.

Paul Rudd is well cast as the well-intentioned but hapless ex-con and wanna-be hero, and he does a great job conveying his dedication to his daughter. They spend almost five minutes at the beginning showing the lengths he has gone to make house arrest playdates as engaging as possible, and it is absolutely charming. With Hope a far better fighter and more at home with the tech than he can ever hope to be, his imaginative approach to problem solving keeps him from being a mere passenger in a movie with his name on the title.

If you enjoyed the jocularity of the first film, have no fear: Michael Pena and his crew are back, now as the staff of X-Con Security consultants, the business they are using to go straight. All of the Marvel movies have laughs in them, but none of them mine their supporting cast for material like Ant-Man does, and there is a gag involving what exactly a truth serum is and does that had me in stitches.

On the action side, the intangibility of Ghost and the tactical shrinking of the Wasp makes for some great sequences, including one where Wasp gets judoed through a table WWE-style while her opponent phases it right through it.

As much as I love a good caper flick, I was glad to see they didn't go that route this time around. Instead, you have an interdimensional race-against-time rescue mission focused around a laboratory building shrunk to the size of a suitcase, and compromised by an ethereal combatant with her own agenda, a wanna-be gangster now on the hook to his would-be buyers, and Federal agents looking for not just Scott but Dr. Pym and Hope as well.

It all holds together pretty well, honestly, and as our last MCU entry until next year's Captain Marvel, it makes a swell sorbet, a light and tasty way to cleanse the palate between courses of stronger and potentially darker stuff. Be prepared for some fast and loose physics (say, how does a two-inch car keep up with traffic when it has such tiny wheels?) and as much technobabble as you got from Geordie LaForge on Next Generation. Honestly though, would you rather have them waste time No-Prizing it for you, or packing in more jokes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp is not going to change the minds of anyone who dislikes comic book movies on principle, but after Logan and Black Panther, what would? As a piece of summertime escapism, it does exactly what it sets out to do, while still connecting to the wider MCU (stay for the mid-credits scene!) (I found the end credit scene pretty funny as well, but is more shawarma-like, if you know what I mean.

If I have a bone to pick, it is with Marvel's marketers. Although they don't give away much of the plot (partly because, well, there isn't a ton there to give away), there are a ton of gads from the third act they used in the first full trailer. I mean. come on, man! When I find that djinni lamp and become boss of the world, the first change I'm gonna make is a global statue that no more than three seconds can be shown in the trailer from the last 30 minutes of any movie.

Even though you may have already seen some of the best parts, you can stil scratch your action-comedy itch very satisfactorily with Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Second Verse, With a Twist - Luke Cage, Season 2, Reviewed

Having the house to oneself Friday night and most of Saturday was a bit of a mixed bag; on the one hand, I missed my family (Fenya in Harbin, and Glory and Audrey visiting Rocky Mountain House), but on the other, it gave me an opportunity to watch the last five or six episodes of Luke Cage, Season 2 on Netflix, which worked out pretty well in the end.

The Netflix corner of the MCU is gone from strength to strength in its most recent efforts. Yeah, The Punisher left me feeling a bit disappointed, but only because of its aloofness to the other MarvelNet offerings, while The Defenders and the second season of Jessica Jones have been solid. Jeph Loeb and company seem to be content to run a gauntlet between serious cable drama and comic book fan service, and Luke Cage S2 delivers on both accounts.

Mike Colter continues to be the bedrock of the series as bulletproof brother Luke Cage, defender of Harlem, but even that foundation can be allowed to show cracks. Luke's doubts about how to make a difference while protecting those he loves, and his complicated relationship with his father give him a much needed vulnerability.

His father is played by the late, great Reg E. Cathey, who you might remember as councilman Carcetti's advisor on The Wire. His smooth baritone coupled with his preacher's conviction make him a delight to listen to, and compelling even when he is wrong. 

On the villainous side of things, Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard) and her right hand man and paramour Shades Alvarez (Theo Rossi) are looking to finance a quick transition to legitimacy by selling the arms business which has underpinned her family's criminal empire for decades. This leaves the door open for Jamaican yardie John 'Bushmaster' McIver, played to chilling effect by Mustafa Shakir, to settle his own familial score. And what role will Mariah's estranged daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), play in the settling of his inherited score?

You could be forgiven for thinking season 2 was taking a turn into soap opera, or at least telenovela territory, but none of the connections feel contrived (well, not too contrived anyhow), characters behave in a manner consistent with their goals and previous behaviours, even when this plays out in unpredictable ways, and the theme of family is always there to tie things together.

Best of all, the pacing feels much tighter this time around, thanks to Luke not spending three episodes gutshot this time around. I still think all the Marvel/Netflix shows would benefit from ten episode seasons, however.

Showrunner Cheo Hodari Choker and his staff have found ways to portray the modern black experience without ever having to get up on a soapbox to do it. The soundtrack, another assortment of black talent, is still one of the best thing in the show, although nothing stood out to me this time the way that Charles Bradley or Bulletproof Love did last time around. The use of reggae as a Jamaican counterpoint to the jazz/blues sound of Harlem's Paradise works tremendously well, especially The Upsetters "Chase the Devil" ("I'm gonna put on a iron shirt/ and chase Satan from the Eart'").

Despite the seriousness going around though, they still find a few ways to keep it light and remind people that Luke Cage comes from the comics. D.W. Griffith for instance, has transformed from the white kid running his uncle's theater in Harlem and renting a room to Luke Cage to the streetwise video huckster now trying to turn a profit by merchandising Harlem's hero (I may have to go to the Edmonton Expo in September just to track down an "official" 'Sweet Xmas' hoodie...)

Misty Knight (Simone Missick) starts the season short an arm (c'mon Man, The Defenders was almost a year ago now!), but with just as much indomitability as last season. Her too brief team-up with Iron Fist's Colleen Wing made a lot of us comic nerds salivate for a Daughters of the Dragon series, or maybe a one-shot Netflix movie. More importantly though, Misty finally gets one of her signature features from the comic: a bionic arm.

Effects-wise, they have kept it on the cheap, which is understandable, but distinct, which is appreciated. It would be all to easy to put her in long sleeves and throw a flesh-coloured glove on it and play things as status quo, but having it attract stares and comments or cause collateral damage on the rare occasions where she loses control is a better play, especially in the long term.

Best of all though, the rehabilitation of Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones) continues apace, building on the goodwill earned during The Defenders. New Danny is far more relaxed, way less uptight, peace with himself, and wishing the same for his friend Luke. Sadly, Jones is not any more convincing a fighter yet, but if they go the dancer's route like they did with David Carradine in Kung Fu, I will be content. 

Critically, however,, the whininess and petulance that was so unbecoming of Iron Fist seems to have been put aside, and he's gotten his zen on a little bit, which feels closer to the truth of the character, at least for me. With a new showrunner on the second season for that show, I find myself drifting towards guarded optimism.

Like Jessica Jones S2, Luke Cage is not afraid to play rough with its toys, changing relationships and ending lives in a way that feels unexpected in the source material, but plays very well in deluxe television. The streets get grittier and grimier, and all the while, you wonder when Luke might just have to buckle. By the end of the 13th episode, the pieces have all be rearranged, the status quo has been almost completely upturned, and we are left hungering for the next installment of tv's best superpowered soul food.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Speed Over Distance

When I was in my teens, a PSA would sometimes run on tv around 10:00, asking parents, "Do you know where your children are?"

Thanks to technological advances and a global communications network, I can answer that question about my eldest daughter better than ever: she is 9,750 metres over eastern Russia, moving at close to 90% the speed of sound.

It is also tomorrow where she is already.

I drove Fenya to the airport early this morning, where she met some classmates who will be joining her in Harbin, China, for a month of fairly intensive language studies.

I should stress that she is not a language major; she took Introductory Chinese in her freshman year at UAlberta simply because she needed a language credit and Mandarin looked and sounded interesting. It ended up being her favourite class, thanks largely to the excellence of her professor.

Early in the second semester, the class was told of a program that could see them earning two semesters of language credits in a single month, with plenty of opportunities to practice in everyday life. The flight notwithstanding, the associated bursaries and grants made the course comparable in cost to taking Chinese 201 and 202 here in Edmonton, so after a little deliberation, she leapt at the opportunity.

There are 7 friends from her class going as well, and she had them over for a games night earlier this year, which somehow then turned into an impromptu pot luck. They all seem like delightful people, and wonderful travelling companions.

For myself, I'm now dining on the familiar parental smorgasborg of mixed emotions: a hefty serving of pride, tinged with not insignificant concern for her physical and emotional wellbeing, garnished with a dash of jealousy. Not at the fortuity of the trip itself, but at her having the courage to take it. I strongly doubt I would have had the guts when I was in my first year of university.

China is Google-free as a rule, necessitating the arrangement of a Yahoo email account and a Sino-friendly messaging app called WeChat that we have all dutifully downloaded. Audrey and I texted with her via SSM in the Vancouver airport, wishing her luck and telling her how anxious we are to hear from her on the other side of the world.

Her flight left late, but the crew of China Air 992 are pushing their 777 above their filed speed in an effort to make up the time. After 10 hours in the air to Beijing, there is yet another two-hour leg to Harbin, a city in the north of China that happens to be Edmonton's sister city.

It is fairly distant from Beijing, being north of even North Korea and due east of Mongolia. Audrey observed tonight that Fenya is actually closer to Vladivostok than the Chinese capital.

WIth a 14 hour time difference, it really does feel like she is a world away. Communication will no doubt be a challenge, but at least we won't have to wait for a postcard to know she's arrived safely.

No doubt the month will pass more quickly for her than it will for us at home, which I would be far more comfortable with if there was another tracker that would simply reassure me that she is safe and enjoying herself at any given time. In the meantime, knowing she is doing something like Mach 0.87  with a group of friends on her way to a learning experience in a distant land is more than enough to bring a smile to my face.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

More of the Same, and Thank You! - Incredibles 2, Reviewed

(One Night, Three Reviews! Part 3)

Fenya really wanted to see the long-awaited Incredibles sequel before she leaves for China on Wednesday, and we've seen most of the Pixar movies as a family so I was happy oblige when an opportunity arose this afternoon.

In terms of context, it is good to remember that there was a longer gap between that first film and Incredibles 2 than there was between the last season of the Star Trek television show and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And the Incredibles is a hard act to follow that, for over a decade, we were told never even needed a sequel. The big question going in then, has to be whether this is a shameless and opportunistic money grab or a worthy extension of the story.

My money was on the latter, and I feel justified.

Picking up mere minutes after the ending of The Incredibles, the opening battle with The Underminer results in the sort of property damage that a decade of super-battles have led us to expect. Our family of heroes once again find themselves on the outs with both their now-folded government concealment program as well as the public at large.

Thankfully a wealthy industrialist and his sister are fans and have constructed a plan to win back both the adoration of the crowd and eventual re-legalization of their lifestyle, if they can only overcome the villainous and hypnotic Screenslaver.

After the betrayal of Buddy/Syndrome in the first movie, I was delighted that the fanboy in this instance was not the villain, as I had first surmised. Listening to Winston Deavour croon the theme songs  of both Frozone and Mr. Incredible was not only a whimsical delight, but also helped re-establish the groovy sci-fi alt-60s art deco style of the first film.

Other supers are enlisted as well, with names like The Void, Krushauer (Phil Lamarr!), Reflux, and Screech, but the focus is all on ElastiGirl at the start, while Bob, Dash, Violet and Jack-Jack are left to sort out bigger problems at home. Challenges like new math, a memory-compromised potential boyfriend, and the manifestation of multiple powers in a capricious infant.

Thematically, the movie is less about adaptation than it is about the manner in which we adapt, whether it is to a new job, new family challenges or a changing world. But the characters we know and love manage to muddle their way through in a manner consistent with what we remember from over a decade ago.

Most importantly though, the addition of a handful of new powered characters (and the return of Mr. Incredible's amazing ride, the Incredibile) means that there are even more opportunities for superhero set pieces than even the first Incredibles, which not only set the gold standard for power depiction and related gags, but did so in such a way that forced the Fantastic Four movie to do a bunch of reshoots in an attempt to step up their game.

Brad Bird already has some legendary animated features under his belt, including the long-neglected Iron Giant. He brings all his power (so to speak) as a writer and director to bear on this film, and the result is a deftly paced, heartfelt and electrifyingly imaginative depiction of powers in a world just enough like ours to be familiar.

You could argue that, like Solo, this is a movie that did not really need to be made. On the other hand though, Incredibles 2 carries its characters through new challenges and shows the world changing around them, from the reluctance to accept supers, to a breadwinner moving into a caregiver role and vice versa.

Despite my love of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredibles is probably my favourite superhero movie, and certainly my favourite team flick. Incredibles 2 doesn't displace it, but can take its place within that rare pantheon of sequels that are at least as good as the films which spawned them. The action is, well, incredible, but the relationships which tie the various characters together give this film a foundation even firmer than that of The Avengers, which had 4 feature films to establish its characters.

In fact, my sole quibble with the film is that despite stressing the importance of secret identities to their children (another nod to classic comic lore and differentiation from the MCU), Mr. Incredible never bother to give super-names to their offspring, Dash and Violet. Well, maybe it's because their names work so well as -is, that there is just no point. Still feels like a missed opportunity in my books, but if it is, there aren't a lot of other ones to keep it company.

Dino-Sore - Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, Reviewed

(One Night, Three Reviews! Part 2)

My review of the previous Jurassic World movie was very similar to that of other people I spoke to about it: not original, but hey, how about those dinosaurs, right?!?

So when first trailer for Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom came out, I expressed some skepticism about the premise, but my family assured me (in no uncertain terms) that we would indeed be seeing this movie on the big screen because: dinosaurs.

When Glory finished up her first year of high school exams on Thursday and asked for a sleepover that night, I was only too happy to agree, but then realized that would take the cool, dark basement out of play for the evening. With no World Cup games until the morning, heading to an air-conditioned theatre seemed like a great idea, and there were still seats available for the 7:00 showing.

In the original JP2, Pete Postlethwaite leads a safari of dino hunters back to Isla Nublar to bag some prehistoric beasts and put them on a boat to the mainland so they can be displayed in a new park in San Diego. In this sequel, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard join up with a bunch of dino hunters on Isla Nublar trying to extract as many species as they can before a volcano tears the island apart, and put them on a boat to another island where they can live in a type of preserve, so, yeah, completely different.

Until it isn't. The dino hunters are in fact greedy mercenaries (gasp!) who are not interested in species preservation, but only want to get rich peddling dinos off at auction! This forces our heroes (plus a vet and IT guy from central casting) to make their own way off the island and try to set things right.

Thankfully there are lots of dinosaurs to distract us from how derivative this plot is and director J.A. Bayona puts his indie-horror pedigree to good use here, amping up the tension in a number of suspenseful set-pieces. Sadly, he is not as deft as Spielberg in how he stages it, making the lack of blood from the inevitable dinosaur casualties a distraction. (On a side note: given how much I enjoyed Logan, am I the only one who could really get behind an R-rated Jurassic Park movie? Yeah, I didn't think so! Too bad it'll never happen...)

The B-story involves the silent partner of park founder John Hammond, Benjamin Lockwood (the ever-awesome James Cromwell) and his granddaughter Maisie, who inevitably join Pratt's 'raptor-wrangler' and Howard's dino-lobbyist in peril. Dr. Henry Wu also returns, and with the new 2018 model Indo-raptor, which blends all the worst characteristics of the Indominus Rex with the series' terrifying velociraptors (and whose clawed hands appear to have thumbs, but more on that in a bit). Almost everyone else you meet over the course of the story is a reprehensible excuse for a human being, and everyone else comes and goes without ever feeling like they mattered much.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you say: plenty of humans, but what about the other dinosaurs? Well, they are there, for what it's worth, but they are becoming all to familiar. The timing of the beloved T. Rex in grabbing other dinosaurs just in time to get bipedal mammals off the menu before taking a bow roar and then marching off rather than eating their prey, is so well-pronounced as to become suspect. Likewise the stampeding dinosaurs which largely avoid knocking over or trampling our heroes, but who gleefully stomp bad guys, regardless of the level of involvement in torturing them. A pachycephalosaurus gets co-opted into a jailbreak that feels so contrived I was waiting for Chris Pratt to give it a pack of cigarettes or put money on its commissary account.

25 years ago in this franchise, you got to  learn a lot of cutting edge dinosaur theory while experiencing the same sense of wonder as someone visiting the park. When the lap bars dropped onto our heroes then, you felt you were coming along on an amusement park ride. The Fallen Kingdom is the cheap, travelling-carnival ghost-train version of that same experience. Yeah, it's still fun, but not as much.

Kudos to the filmmakers for leaning into this notion about the genetically-engineered genie getting out of the bottle though. The studio clearly has an idea about where they want to take this beloved, quarter-century-old franchise, and that in order to get there, it is not only time to reset the pieces, but maybe flip the board and start over.

Back before they rebooted the property, one of the pitches for Jurassic Park 4 was to feature dinosaur-human hybrids. No, honestly! Looking at the thumbish-claw-hand of the Indoraptor and the still hidden agenda of Dr. Wu hinted at in the previous film, I wonder if they might be building to something similar at some point later on down the line. Maybe this whole trilogy is going to serve as a sort of Lazenby sorbet, cleansing our palates for a trilogy where truly anything goes? It might lack the scientific and naturalist credence of the original films, but the marketing and toy potential is almost unlimited.

In the meantime, though, if you want to scratch that dino itch on a hot summer evening, there aren't a whole lot of other options at the moment, and they look as good as they did last time around. Just be prepared to do a bit more eye-rolling and reinforcement of your suspension of disbelief than you did with Spielberg at the wheel.