Sunday, August 20, 2017

Frankentrailer and the Site for Sore Eyes

A few years back, Audrey's uncle Harry told us he'd found a salvageable tent trailer in Lethbridge for under $1000, and her folks were wiling to pick it up for us, sight unseen, and take it back to their place in High River. When we finally got around to seeing it, we discovered that the concept of salvageability is entirely subjective, and worried we might have bitten off more than we could chew.

It was a 1977 Sportcraft, manufactured in Lethbridge Alberta. Inside it was fairly dirty, having sat unused for 15-20 years, but nothing insurmountable, and we were willing to put in the sweat equity to clean and fix the interior if it meant we could spend our future camping trips sleeping up off the ground. The roof had taken a lot of hail damage as well, but we knew there was a sealant that could sort that out.

The fact that it took a twelve-pound sledgehammer to close it though, that was daunting, but still not a deal breaker. The fact that the wiring had a short, which meant intermittent running lights and the possibility that turn signals and brake lights might not be visible to other drivers, that put me on edge a little bit.

We managed to get it over to Audrey's brother Garrett though, who graciously reinforced a bit of the structure and rewired it for us so now everything works. At last we have a trailer that will win no beauty contests but can (theoretically) keep the rain off our heads.

I still find driving with a trailer to be an intimidating experience though. I am terrified I'm going to have a brain fart one day and try to take it through Peter's Drive-In in Red Deer, incurring the wrath of hundreds of drivers as I try to extricate myself. I have to remind myself of the added length at every intersection and with every lane-change, and I still cannot navigate while backing up worth a damn.

This week was our first camping trip since 2014, and our first ever with Frankentrailer, so we set out with a combination of anticipation and apprehension. The drive to Radium takes a little under 7 hours, but I worried about backing into our site the entire way. Imagine my joy then, when we arrived and discovered that our site was actually a pull through, with no backing up required!

Frankentrailer is light enough that the girls and I can muscle it from the street to our patio at the end of summer (although it is not easy by any stretch), so that was how I had planned to get it into position if there were any difficulties. As it was, we took advantage of the lightness to spin the trailer 180 degrees so that our door would face the campsite instead of the road.

In fairly short order, we had a comfy looking little outpost all set up, including the Chillax hammock we'd gotten from Costco months earlier, and which I cannot say enough good things about.

The site itself (E-10 in Redstreak, if you are curious) had a lot going for it: we were right next to the washrooms and showers (too close for Audrey but just fine for the girls and I), and also adjacent to the water we would use for cooking a cleaning. We had a decent amount of trees (critical for hammock deployment) and a lot of level ground to spread out on if we needed too.

It is very close to the village of Radium Hot Springs, but is about 300 metres higher, so you get very little in the way of noise or traffic.Sadly, we couldn't use the firepit due to the campfire ban, and the ground was incredibly dusty, even after an evening of decent rain. Still, a very good campsite, all in all.

Sadly, our proximity to the water also meant that mealtimes would usually see 2-3 wasps buzzing about, but we even those interactions were non-dramatic and inconsequential. We purchased a wasp trap with an intense-sounding warning on the packaging ("No drink wasp!"), but only set it out twice, and captured none, sadly.

Like most federal campgrounds, Redstreak has a few amenities such as an amphitheater and some hiking trails, including one that goes straight down to the famous hot springs themselves. One we took has an elevation gain of about 250m, but does give you a tremendous view of the Columbia Valley, as well as other photo opportunities along the way.

Redstreak is an especially good place to camp if you enjoy wildlife, as we often saw the ubiquitous Big Horn Sheep grazing at various places in and around our loop, as well as a group (flock?) of wild turkeys that meandered through our site early on the morning we left.

The next time you get shut out at Jasper, give some thought to the Redstreak campground at Radium; I'm pretty confident Frankentrailer will return there some day.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Up the Creek, But With a Paddle

We are camping in Radium Hot Springs this week, and my mobile blogability has been severely hampered by the demise of my preferred app, Blogsy. Still, it seems a shame to break my update streak for such a weak reason, so I will try emailing this post in. If you are reading this, I guess it worked…

It started raining a little after breakfast this morning. Normally this is cause for concern or thwarted plans, or perhaps the sudden and horrifying realization that Frankentrailer is not as watertight as we had supposed. Currently though, the extreme fire hazard in the mountains and the nearby Verdant Creek wildfire means it would be churlish to complain. Besides, the extra humidity will go a long way to reducing the smoke from the hundreds of other wildfires in the interior; Radium is still under an air quality advisory that began on Thursday.

We took the opportunity to visit Golden, about an hour north of us where highway 95 meets the Trans Canada. Like most alpine towns, there are a number of art galleries, quirky gift shops and neat bistros, as well as a craft brewery called Whitetooth that just opened 8 months ago, and who have a Nordic Imprial Porter I cannot wait to try.

In terms of interesting structures, there is an intriguing pedestrian bridge built in 2001 which crosses the Kicking Horse River. Made wholly from locally sourced timber, it is an impressive piece of work, even to a non-engineer like myself.

Even more interesting is the world's largest paddle, located south of town. I'm a sucker for these sorts of roadside attractions, and so we made a point of getting a group shot on it. I'm hoping our appreciation for the paddle puts a bit of positive karma into our collective account for when we go rafting on the Kootenay River on Tuesday.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Crash and Learn

Once again, our Toyota has become involved in a vehicular altercation. I'm annoyed as hell, but it could have been so much worse.

Driving home Thursday night on 127 street, my mind was racing over the number of things I had to sort out that evening: first I would be cooking supper for Glory and the two young girls she was babysitting, then I had to prep for the introductory video shoot I was doing for our brand spanking new CEO the next day. I needed to go over the scripts and -

Suddenly a sedan headed the opposite direction moved into the intersection to turn, and only just that moment having seen me, stopped perhaps 4 car lengths away DIRECTLY ahead of me.

I slammed the brakes and jerked the wheel to the right, somehow avoiding sideswiping someone else, but it was far too late. Our front left corners smacked together with the strange thudding crash and tinkle of modern day auto bodies flexing and shattering, and the Corolla caromed off before coming to a halt only a few feet away.

Through no fault of my own, my life had been thrown into disarray, with consequences both immediate (dinner) and far reaching (definitely dealing with police and insurance companies, possibly finding and purchasing another vehicle, one of my most hated activities). I was furious, and now filled with adrenalin.

I shoved open my door only to have it rebound back at me, it's normal range of motion impeded by the now-mangled quarter panel bordering the hinge side. I squirmed out and looked at the damage.

Shaking my head, I walked over to the other driver, still sitting behind the wheel. "Are you okay?" he asked.

I was taken aback; it was a reasonable, even expected question, but I was so anxious about getting things resolved that I hadn't thought of the bodily well-being of either of us.

"Yeah; you all right?" I snapped.

He nodded sheepishly, adding, "I'm sorry."

I should have been mollified, but I was still too angry to function like myself. "Well, that was kind of a f***head move, guy," I growled before pulling out my phone to let Glory know she would be on her own for getting supper ready, but had no worries she could pull something off. It took quite a while to get in contact with her though, due to my fuzzy-head, jittery fingers, and the fact that the car was still running so my call was going through its Bluetooth speaker instead of my handset.

Eventually I reached her, called the police, exchanged all the required info with the other driver, determined my vehicle was driveable and pulled it off to the side of the road. I called the police again and told them not to bother dispatching anyone, but it turned out we would have to go all the way to NE division some 60 blocks away in order to fill out the accident report.

I was desperate to get this sorted out as soon as possible, and the last thing I wanted was for my erstwhile car-jouster to go home and have his neighbour or somebody tell him, "oh, you never want to admit fault in those situations, brah," but I didn't know if my car was up to that big a journey. Leaning into his passenger window, I suggested he follow me to my house and he could drive us both to the police station so we could get the reports filed. He agreed, and I hopped into his marginally less damaged Acura.

On the way to my house, his eagerness to do the right thing finally began to smooth my jangled nerves. I learned his name (I'll call him Leo here), that he had only been in Edmonton a couple of years, and had worked over a decade in Dubai.

We arrived at the house at the same time as Audrey, returning from the spa day I had given her back at Christmas. Like everyone seemed inclined to (and why not?), she asked if we were all right, and when I introduced her to Leo, he shook her hand and again said, "I'm sorry, it was totally my mistake." She nodded and opined philosophically that 'these things do happen.'

Audrey had already arranged with Glory to sort out dinner, so Leo and I headed off to the NE Div. of the Edmonton Police Service, but not before I apologized for cursing at him back at the crash site. On the way, we talked about our families, as I had seen the children's seat in the back of his car. Leo had two young children, but his 5 year-old was currently battling leukemia.

He didn't bring this up as an excuse, or a way to explain what had happened in the intersection, but his frank admission once more gave me pause and the ability to view my situation with a bit more nuanced perspective. If anything might leave a person too preoccupied to pay due care and attention to their vehicular situation, I have to think that a pre-schooler with leukemia would be that situation. In fact, he had been on his way to get some ointment for his son's central line at the time of the crash. Currently though, Leo's son was cancer-free, with a decent chance of staying that way.

This is not what brought me fully into Leo's corner though. No, that came as we finally came into sight of the NE Division building, with POLICE spelled out on its side in big, blue block lettering. He tried to sound casual, but there was genuine apprehension behind his voice when he asked, "So, uh, hey, I'm...(heh) not going to get charged or arrested or anything, am I?"

Think about that for a second. Leo had only been in Canada for 2-3 years at best unless he lived there before his time in Dubai, and had never been in a vehicular accident before. He was not 100% sure if the fact that he was at fault was going to end up with facing criminal charges or perhaps even arrested and put in jail.

But he was still driving us to the police station to face the music.

Completely stunned by this new insight, I did my level best to reassure him. "What?" I sputtered. "No, no no no noooo, you aren't going to get in trouble, man. Why would you? You've done everything right! You and I have shared our information, you are driving me to the police to fill out a report, and we are both behaving like gentlemen. You know, eventually, in my case."

He smiled a bit, so I continued.  "These things just happen sometimes, regardless of our intentions or efforts; hell, that's why they're called accidents! When we are done, we will leave it to our insurance companies to sort out, and in the meantime we will just be grateful no one was hurt."

"Yes, lucky," he agreed.

Thankfully it was not busy in NE Div. that evening, and once our number was called, Leo wasted no time in explaining that the accident was his fault to the constable that took our statements. We went to a table to fill out our reports and he once again made sure to state that it was his mistake that caused the crash. We showed each other what we had written before submitting it to the officer at the desk , then Leo gave me a lift home, apologizing again for all the inconvenience.

"Yeah, this kind of stuff is a monumental pain in the ass, which is why I got so upset," I admitted, "but look, no one was hurt, we didn't need a tow truck, we are both being civil about this, and our insurers are going to do the rest of the heavy lifting."

After we parted ways I considered exactly how lucky I was to have hit Leo and not

  • someone who then drove off (which happened to me over ten years ago)
  • someone without insurance (which happened to a friend of ours)
  • someone determined to avoid fault or blame (I didn't get a witness to our accident).

It was a strange way to meet a beacon of responsibility, and truth be told, I would forego the privilege if it meant not having to jump through all the hoops of an insurance claim and the attendant vehicle repairs (oh please Lord, not a replacement!).

But Leo's willingness to do the right thing, despite not knowing or understanding the possible consequences, with everything he has going on in his life at this point in time will stick with me for a good long while.

So, yeah; it really could have been a lot worse.

Monday, July 31, 2017

My Life As A Squirtgun Assassin Pt. 2 - Agent of K.A.O.S.

(Click here for Pt.1 - Hitman High)

It is with a strange balance of both shame and pride I relate to you the pinnacle of my experiences as an imaginary button man during my years at Camrose Lutheran College (later the Augustana Faculty of the University of Alberta):

On a cool, dark evening, I sat crouched in the shadows beneath a wooden footbridge, like the troll of myth. My face concealed by a black balaclava, a toy crossbow in my hands, eagerly awaiting the chance to shoot a good friend in the back as he made his way to choir practice. Alas, it was not to be, but, thankfully another target of opportunity chanced across my path later on...

Looking back, it seems strange that it took me until my third year at CLC to unleash The Assassination Game/Killer upon my classmates. My love of games had prompted me to DM a Friday night D&D game with friends attending U of A in Edmonton, and some of them traveled to Camrose the following year for a Traveller 2300 campaign I'd run. We'd played Battletech and Twilight 2000 and Talisman and all manner of tabletop diversions, but it wasn't until third year that somehow the idea of a campus-wide game if Killer was introduced. And once introduced, it took hold like a virus, and became an inevitability.

My co-conspirators were heavily involved with the Residence Life program, and I was the Student Association president that year, so it behooved us to have the clearest of operating instructions for all players, so as not to either become tiresome or perceived as a threat. Calling ourselves the Kamrose Kampus K.A.O.S Klub (Killing As Organized Sport), a manifesto was published, and all players agreed to abide by a code of conduct outlined therein.

Safety and sportsmanship were stressed throughout, clear rules of engagement were outlined and every scenario had a detailed set of operating parameters and observed demilitarized zones, including the library and campus chapel ("Holy ground, Highlander!"). Respect for non-players was likewise paramount, as it was only that their sufferance we could indulge our predatory proclivities, contrived and fictional as they were.

Given that some of the players were roommates or shared a bathroom, we made the residences themselves off-limits as well as rooms where a class was in session, but

We used a badge press to make K.A.O.S. buttons for players, allowing disinterested third parties to give us a wide berth, but strangely, they only seemed to attract people, curious to see what might happen. Since they unknowingly made it considerably more difficult for unmasked competitors to get the drop on us, their presence was not only tolerated, but generally welcomed. Until, you know, it was time to 'go to work'.

Our first outing was a dozen upperclassmen playing an "every man for himself" scenario, just to get everyone's feet wet and comfortable with the idea. It wasn't completely anarchic, as the witness rule made it important to catch your target away from prying eyes. Start time was 1800 on Friday, and the game was scheduled to wind up by noon Sunday.

Almost everyone got capped that first night, and I think we were down to a sole survivor by suppertime the next day.

More scenarios were concocted, and make-believe killers feigned their deaths outside their dormitory rooms, killed by contact poison on their doorknobs, or in the cafeteria after tasting the Tic Tacs surreptitiously slipped into their coffee in lieu of cyanide.

Running back to my residence across the ravine with a pump-action water-shotgun in my hands, I saw my canmate/opponent Jon leave the building but double back upon seeing me. I trotted around to the rear entrance, but hesitated upon coming up  to the l-shaped windbreak made of cinderblocks that obscured the back door. I wouldn't put it past Jon to have popped out the back door and hide around the corner to dry gulch me; hell it was what I would have done. The wall stood about seven foot high on my side, so I saw no way to turn the tables without exposing myself.until I spotted a yellow milk crate tucked up against the side of Solheim itself.

Without breaking stride, I kicked the crate over to the corner of the windbreak, where it obliging rolled into an inverted position. I stepped onto the crate, got my elbow over the wall, pointed the shotgun straight down into the corner and pulled the trigger. Jon's sputtering squawk told me I had hit the mark.

Strolling around the corner, I found him frustratedly wiping water off his forehead, grinning nonetheless. "How did you know?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Lucky guess, I suppose."

By that fall, we felt we had enough of a handle on things to allow freshmen to join in, with mixed results. Most of them grasped the core concepts right away, but I remember one hapless girl in the cafeteria, her hand shaking with nerves as she menacingly pointed a banana at a player seated at my table and loudly declared, "BANG! I got you!"

Several bemused heads turned to view her. One head shook in sad disbelief. "You missed."

Confusion washed across her features, bewildered as she actually held the banana up in front of her face, as if she was checking the sights. I resisted the urge to tell her I had snuck into her room and filled it with blanks.

"There is nothing wrong with your banana," I assured her. "The problem is that you aren't actually allowed to shoot a person in front of three or more people, as clearly stated in both the rulebook and the manifesto. And there are, I dunno..." I took in the lunchtime crowd with my gaze. "..what, 70, 80 people in here?"

Her eyes widened as realization slowly set in.

"If you had worn a mask, you might have gotten away with it, but anyone wearing a mask is fair game for every other player, same as anyone, you know, publicly brandishing a deadly piece of fruit, for instance."

I can't remember who shot her; it might have been me.

But the high water mark was clearly that time under the bridge. I can't remember if we were playing a team scenario or the classic Circle of Death, wherein each player has a single target, and when they eliminate him or her, they take on their victim's target, and so on, until there are only two assassins chasing each other, and finally a sole survivor emerges.

Either way, I was once again gunning for my can-mate, Jon. I want to say that we had mutually declared the shared hallway outside our doors a safe zone, so as not to be gunned down while unlocking our door or some such.

Jon had mentioned singing as part of an event in town, and needing to wear either his choir tux or his suit, so at some point I knew he would need to cross the ravine in order to get to his car in the far parking lot. I didn't know precisely when it would be, but it was already getting fairly dark when I crawled under the steps of the infamous Ole's Crossing, an aged wooden structure with tiered steps at the residence end. This picture shows the view looking across at the big building that housed the gym and cafeteria and Founders Hall, to the left.

I peered out at it from the basement lounge of Solheim, my dorm and the closest one to the bridge, biding my time. Once the combination of darkness and southbound traffic were like Baby Bear's porridge, I grabbed the nylon bag with my gear from behind the sofa and made a break for it.

Running down the grassy slope beside the giant steps, I scuttled underneath and scrambled back uphill a ways until I was peering between the second and third steps before the rise, looking out at about waste level of anyone walking towards the residences.

I was wearing a pair of black jeans and a dark green and black sweater, as well as a black down vest, albeit covered with USCM patches from the movie Aliens. From the nylon bag I pulled a toy crossbow made of plastic, and which shot 8 or 9 inch-long sucker darts with sufficient force and accuracy that they would stick to the screen of the small television in my room, affording me some excellent target practice. The bow portion was white unfortunately, but I had done my best to cover this with a black Magic Marker.

Lastly, I withdrew a black tuque which could be pulled down into a balaclava. There was every likelihood someone could notice me down here, and on the off chance my discoverer was another K.A.O.S. player and not travelling alone, I wanted to make sure I still had a chance to engage them. Besides, it felt warm, looked cool, and concealed my pasty face far better than the shadows did on their own.

And so I say down to wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

It was cool outside and the ground was a bit moist, so after a while my bottom became a bit numb. I shifted position routinely, wishing I had brought a blanker or something to sit on.

On the plus side though, two dozen people had walked past my position in both directions, and no one had spotted me at all. At least, no one had said anything, or drawn a bead on me or anything. Being an incorrigible prankster, there were times when it took all my self control to keep myself from grabbing the ankle of someone I knew, or yelling "Boo!" at a classmate, but somehow I managed to keep my eyes on my prize. And eventually I was rewarded for my patience, but not in any useful fashion.

As I pondered how late Jon's call time must be, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye, perhaps 50-60 yards down the ravine from me. I turned to look, and sure enough, it was Jon, wearing his grubbies, a suit bag over his shoulder, resolutely making his way through the waist high grass, shrubbery and underbrush, as well as a small stream, then clambering up the steep side of the ravine by the auxiliary building.

There was absolutely no chance of my catching him; he was halfway across the ravine before I even saw him. Intercepting him might be possible, but there was no way to do so in a way that caught him unawares, my preferred method of engagement even then.

I shook my head, disappointed at my lost opportunity but feeling profound respect towards a worthy adversary. I don't think Jon knew I was under the bridge - I'd have been an easy catch if he had - but he recognized the bridge as an ideal spot for some manner of ambush and circumvented it brilliantly.

What to do now though? Was it worth waiting for him to return? Would he once again avoid the bridge? If he didn't, would I still be able to feel my bottom when he returned in an hour or two?

As they say though; God never closes a door without opening a window (although it is highly unlikely that he gives any consideration at all to the plans of even imaginary assassins). And someone was stepping through my window unaware of my presence in the room.

Walking across the bridge was another player: Brian, who we called Vlad because of his nocturnal schedule and pale complexion. It was cool enough by this point that he had the collar of his leather jacket up, but not quite cold enough to justify the checked scarf he had up over his nose, not bright enough to explain the sunglasses he was wearing.

Now, like I say, I can't remember what scenario we were playing, but by appearing in a public while wearing a mask, Vlad had left himself open to attack his target regardless of how many witnesses might be about, but he had also painted a bullseye on himself for every other player in the game.

Vlad walked with purpose; he was not strolling across that bridge. I frantically cocked my crossbow, loaded the sucker dart and took a bead on his belt buckle. I immediately regretted not sitting a bit higher up, knowing that the bolt would drop significantly in the intervening distance, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

When he got about 15 feet away, I held by breath and pulled the trigger.

The 'twang' of the twiney string was incredibly loud to my ears,l but Vlad's first clue that he had been engaged was when he saw the bright yellow bolt sail at him from between the steps he was preparing to climb... as it swooshed about two feet to his right, because I hadn't compensated for the breeze blowing down the ravine.

Vlad froze. Even if he hadn't been masked, I couldn't see his face from my vantage point, but he very quickly put things together and bounded up the steps. He passed over my head as I swore and fumbled with another bolt while trying to cock the bowstring. I fell onto my back and rolled down the hill away from my original position, and astonishingly, it seemed to help.

A high-caliber water pistol in his fist, Vlad scrambled down the hill in a crouch. He crabwalked under the overhang of the bridge, and seeing my nylon bag standing where I had been, opened fire on it, his left leg stretched out down the hill to steady himself.

By this time I had managed to reload. I sat up, took aim at his center mass, and pulled the trigger. I was rewarded with a grunt of discomfort as my quarrel hit him square between the legs. He put up his gun, and after we made sure that none of his fire had tagged me, only my bag, we shook hands and called it a night.

I don't remember how that campaign ended, but the exhilaration of my encounter under the bridge trumped any other result, and soon became the stuff of legend around the campus. By the time I graduated, I'm sure the tale involved me waiting for two days without food in a homemade ghillie suit with a compound crossbow outfitted with blunted tips. Still, it is gratifying to know that, until it got pulled down a few years ago and replaced with an earthen walkway close to where Jon had made his clandestine crossing, that there was a population at Camrose who looked at Ole's Crossing and saw a battlefield where others saw only stairs.

We disbanded K.A.O.S. the next semester, after a team game went haywire in the freshmen residence and turned one of the stairwells into a combination warzone and food fight arena. It was the sad end to a fun time that would be difficult (and probably irresponsible) to replicate now.

I still have my button though, just in case.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Does Captain Marvel's Setting Mean The Title of Avengers 4 is [SPOILER]?

Buckle in everybody, I've overridden the cultural safety parameters and depowered the geekiness inhibitors, and there is just no telling how far down the nerd-hole I'm gonna go with this one. (#nerdiestpostever)

I should begin by saying this will be of lasting consequence to almost no-one, but I have to get this theory off my chest, and that's one of the main reasons I keep a blog in the first place. Having said that though, there is a remote possibility that my fevered guesswork may overlap with the future unfolding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I guess I should say that there may be spoilers ahead. (Certainly the people behind the MCU seem to think so!)

- - - - - - - - - H E R E   B E    S P O I L E R S  ( M A Y B E ) - - - - - - - - - - -

Still here? Good stuff!

At Comic-Con this weekend Marvel broke two very interesting pieces of news about 2019's Captain Marvel movie, featuring Brie Larson as the titular Carol Danvers. The first was that it would set in the 1990s, and the second is that she would be facing off against an established alien race from the comics: the Skrulls.

Calling the Skrull 'established' is almost understating it; these shapeshifters first appeared in the second issue of the Fantastic Four back in 1962. They have pervaded the comics ever since, and helped usher in the spacefaring or 'Cosmic' side of the Marvel Universe. They really came to the fore during an early '70s Avengers arc known as 'The Kree-Skrull War' pitting the deceptive infiltrators and saboteurs against the rival, militaristic species responsible for creating The Inhumans on Earth (and who are getting their won TV show this fall).

Because of their linkages to the Fantastic Four, many assumed that the Skrull would never appear in the MCU, as 20th Century Fox owned the rights to them, but it turns out they have arranged to 'share' the property with Marvel Studios, in a similar manner to how Quicksilver appeared in both the X-Men movies and Avengers: Age of Ultron. They are great villains with a ton of dramatic potential, and since Captain Marvel's origin has strong ties to the Kree in the comics, having the Skrull feature in her movie makes a lot of sense, while also rounding out the increasingly important Cosmic side of the MCU.

Setting it in the '90s though - that is baffling, at least to me.

As someone who lived through it, I have a hard time seeing the distinction of that time, let alone the storytelling appeal. With the exception of grunge music and the Gulf Wars, there is not a lot that defines the decade stylistically. I mean, it is not as though The Big Lebowski looks like a period movie, even though it (mostly) is one, right?

When MTV asked Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige about this choice, his answer was not only ambiguous, but intentionally cryptic as this excerpt from Screen Rant shows:

MTV: So… time period. When was that hit upon? Was that an early part of the development process, that this would seem like a good idea?
Feige: Uh… yes. Yeah. Early, early days.
MTV: Why?
Feige: Uh, well, there is an unexplored period of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we wanted to showcase, and… almost anything else is a spoiler…
MTV: Okay.
Feige: …other than to say, the 90s would be a fun period to make a superhero movie in.

Now, that's interesting. Not the part about the '90s being a fun period, that's a bunch of squid ink. Making a period film makes everything more difficult, from costuming to having appropriate cars in every single street scene, and you wouldn't do it without a solid reason. When they moved Wonder Woman's origin story from the Second World War to the First, the writers, directors, and producers all had a good, sound rationale as to why it made sense.

Feige could have said it was important for Danvers' story to take place before the internet was a big thing, or that her movie origin is tied to being a pilot in Desert Storm, but he does not. All he says is: 1) they knew early on they wanted to, 2) it fills in a gap in the history of the MCU (similar to the Cold War flashbacks in Ant-Man), and 3) anything else is a spoiler.

That is to say, 'There is a compelling reason, but I can't tell you what it is yet.'


Now, put a pin in that for just a moment, and let's take a look at The Avengers side of this equation.

Back in 2014, Marvel Studios announced a two-part sequel to Age of Ultron called Infinity War, Parts 1 & 2, scheduled for release in 2018 and 2019. Given the substantial amount of lead-up and anticipation for this (i.e. a villain teased as far back as the post-credits stinger for the first Avengers back in 2012 and an astonishing twelve films in between), it made sense to follow the lead of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises and split the capping story into two parts and filming them concurrently. After all, this magnum opus would draw upon 18 other films and is rumoured to have a staggering 67 characters in it!

But then things changed.

Joss Whedon, who had guided the MCU through its fledgling stage and first two Avengers said he'd had enough, and announced he was not renewing his contract with Marvel. Anthony and Joe Russo, fresh from the acclaimed reception for their first Marvel project, Captain America: Winter Soldier, stepped into Whedon's shoes and announced in 2015 that the 4th Avengers movie would not be the second part of the Infinity War saga. They would actually be wholly separate and self-contained stories, filmed back-to-back and not concurrently as had been planned. The third Avengers movie would simply be called Avengers: Infinity War. The 4th title was not announced at that time.

Or the following year.

Just three months ago, the Russos said that the reason they were not yet revealing the title was because the name of the film was in itself a spoiler.

If you are still reading this, I will assume you are at least as curious as I am.

The internet immediately went rampant with speculation. Could the title reflect the fate of a major character in Infinity War, like "The Search for Steve Rogers", or "Revenge for Iron Man"? After all, the actors who play those particular characters are either approaching or have passed the end of their initial contracts, and the studio may want them to pass the torch on to a successor as they have in the comics. Besides, no one wants to see them in the role past their best-by date (cough - Diamonds Are Forever - cough), right?

All right, back to Captain Marvel; what do we know? We know her movie comes out in March of 2019, almost a year after Infinity War, and a mere two months before Avengers 4. We know part of it will take place in space, and that they are setting her up to be the most powerful character in the MCU, even more so than Thor. Oh, and we now know that Samuel L. Jackson will appear as a younger, two-eyed Nicholas J. Fury, which is probably the best way to link it to the pre-existing universe.

We know it is set in the 1990s, but it seems pretty unlikely they will age Brie Larson twenty-odd years before she shows up in the continuity of the current films. There are tons of ways around that besides freezing her like Captain America though, they just have to pick one and hey, presto- 'let's do the Time Warp agaaaaaiin..."

And we know the Skrull are the villains, which is great from a dramatic perspective because their shapeshifting ability means that one of their favourite tactics is abducting or killing someone and replacing them with a nearly indistinguishable duplicate.

Okay, sidebar - in fact, there was a major comics cross-over event featuring the Skrull back in 2008 that was reminiscent of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was called Secret Invasion, and it was revealed that the Skrull had replaced many well-established Marvel characters over the years, including Elektra, Black Bolt, and Henry Pym (Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Yellowjacket, et al), and not making it terribly clear exactly when they had been replaced.

It was an intriguingly subversive idea, introducing a degree of paranoia and suspicion to the Marvel Universe reminiscent of John Carpenter's The Thing, or the Red Scare of the 1950s which inspired it and Body Snatchers.

In true comics fashion, most, if not all, of these characters have subsequently been returned to some approximation of their status quo, but at the time, this storyline was a major assault on convention. Secret Invasion was never considered to be in-play for the MCU though, because they were hands-off so that Fox could do something probably terrible with them in a Fantastic Four threeboot. Now that the MCU can use the Skrull, they still couldn't really do Secret Invasion without basically doing a hand-wavey retcon and saying "Oh, yeah, shapeshifting aliens have been on Earth since before the formative days of the MCU", especially after establishing that the Chitauri invasion from The Avengers was a planetary game-changer.

Unless they introduced them in a movie set, say, twenty-odd years ago.

In case you aren't seeing it yet, here is my bold prediction, which will probably be debunked or otherwise discredited inside of 72 hours: the title of the 4th Avengers movie will be Avengers: Secret Invasion.

During Infinity War, which the Russos have stressed 'will have stakes', implying death or other far-reaching consequences for some characters, I further predict that someone fairly major will die or switch sides. Maybe even both! And maybe even more than one. They will eventually be revealed to be a Skrull, either in Avengers 4 or even in Infinity War itself, perhaps in the post-credit sequence. Heck, maybe Nick Fury himself is a Skrull, replaced way back when! Either way, the Skrull would go a long way to explaining his trust issues, come to think of it.

Captain Marvel, who owes her powers to the Kree, will begin her movie on Earth in the 1990s before being drawn into deep, deep space to battle the Skrull. Her debut movie will end with her on the far side of our neck of the galaxy, maybe twenty light-years away, beginning a voyage which will take over twenty years to complete, but with very little elapsed time and no visible aging on her part. This will be accomplished either by relativistic time-dilation incurred by Col. Danvers flying home under her own power at close to the speed of light (which, sidebar: wow), or by space-time complications encountered while navigating an Einstein-Rosen bridge or wormhole.

How? It doesn't matter, and I don't actually understand this kind of stuff; I'm a liberal arts grad. Look, it's comics, no one wants to actually do the math, all right? Just trust me on this. Maybe it's neither of those things, but if you think for even one minute that they are going to make-up Brie Larson so she looks like she is pushing 50 when she comes in to bail out the Avengers in their 4th movie, you need to lay off the pipe, son.

Most importantly, setting the movie in the 1990s gives those fiendish Skrull two decades to get their ducks in a row. Who knows what machinations they can put into effect in that time?

Now, to be fair, there are lots of other spoilery titles and storylines that could prompt the Russos to keep a lid on the title for Avengers 4, but Secret Invasion makes a compelling amount of sense, at least to me, in light of the information we have so far. And to be clear, I am completely okay with being proven wrong on this one, whenever they get around to revealing the actual title, whenever that ends up being.

Last August, Joe Russo said that the reveal would not be 'for quite some time', which makes me wonder: if I do happen to be right, when would they announce the title?  Before Infinity War comes out? Shortly after it hits theaters and a sufficient number of fans have a chance to learn that, my gosh, the Skrull have been among us for years? How does Marvel maintain the secret with so many people and so much money involved? (The combined budget for the two Avengers movies is estimated to be over one billion (with a b) dollars.)

Furthermore - whoa, this nerd-hole is pretty deep, and it is time to head back for the surface. Tell you what though, as long as I am down here anyways, let me make one more prediction: Steve Rogers will be the one to die in Infinity War. He's the nicest guy in the MCU, it already happened in the comics, and Sebastian Stan, the actor who plays his likely successor, Bucky Barnes, took a 7-picture deal when he signed on to Winter Soldier, but is currently (and literally) cooling his heels in a Wakandan deep-freeze.

There. At least I know when that prognostication will be proven or disproven: May 4, 2018. See you there, True Believers!

Friday, July 21, 2017

War Movie or Not? - Dunkirk, Reviewed

If you ask anyone with even a passing interest in history, they are likely to have an opinion as to the turning point of WWII; the single event which, had it turned out another way, might have affected the outcome of the entire affair. Key among these are likely to be the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the Americans into the war; Operation Barbarossa, wherein Hitler opened a second front and engaged the implacable Russians; and Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings on D-Day.

But before any of these, in June of 1940, was the evacuation of Dunkirk. 400,000 British troops fleeing France, surrounded by Nazis on three sides, and trapped by the sea on a fourth. Capture of the British Expeditionary Force seemed inevitable, and it was hoped that perhaps 30,000 men could be rescued, men needed to protect England from the inevitable German invasion across the English Channel. The invasion was to be called Operation Sea Lion, and the only thing that prevented it was the Miracle at Dunkirk.

Had things gone another way, it is easy to speculate how the dominoes fall; Operation Sea Lion replaces the Battle of Britain, England falls, and the Reich takes the world's biggest navy and a huge production centre out of the war, making Fortress Europe unassailable. Would the U.S. even enter the war if not provoked? It is truly chilling to consider.

Christopher Nolan feels this miracle is the seminal hinge-point of the 20th century, but you almost wouldn't know it from his movie, Dunkirk. It is another brilliant piece of work from a master filmmaker, but in many ways, it is barely a war movie, so unconventionally does he handle every aspect.

First of all, the focus is extremely personal, The only map you see in the entire film is the leaflet dropped by the Germans advising the BEF to surrender. There are no shots of Churchill, no generals moving model ships on a giant table, no drama in Parliament or any ministries. The entirety of the story plays out through the eyes of the handful of sailors, soldiers and pilots we follow over a brisk 106 minutes (Nolan's shortest feature), and the consequences are told on their faces.

Conversely though, you never once see the face of the enemy. Oh, they make their presence known, for certain, with crackling sniper fire and shrieking Stuka dive bombers, but the opposition is abstracted, making Dunkirk less of a war movie, and far more of a film about escape, both literal and figurative. In many ways, time is a far bigger enemy than the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, which is probably why a ticking watch plays such a prominent role in Hans Zimmer's haunting score for the movie. (In fact, one of Chris Nolan's pocket watches provided the sound after Zimmer requested it from him.)

Lastly, it is a uniquely structured, non-linear movie due to the contradictory timescales of the stories, depending on whether you examine Dunkirk from the sea, land, or air, as the director explains:
"For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film."
Because of this, and the fact that you see the same events multiple times and from different perspectives over the course of the film, there are those who will say that Dunkirk is like a second World War Pulp Fiction, but I don't feel that's quite right; I think Nolan has done something astonishing with this movie, and I believe he has made the cinematic equivalent of Picasso's Guernica; a fractured but comprehensive look at an intrinsically chaotic event, shown from multiple perspectives.

Most war movies, especially WWII movies, center on the notion of 'what price victory?' Sure we can win, but what was the cost? Because Dunkirk is centered around a defeat that, militarily at least, can only be described as a failure, that angle doesn't really work, and so the theme of escape comes into play repeatedly: escape from a beach filled with now-helpless soldiers periodically bombed by planes, escape from snipers in an unfamiliar city, escape from the sea itself as water floods into a sinking vessel. Nolan handles this kind of suspense better than anyone since Hitchcock, and I cannot tell you how many times I caught myself holding my breath.

Given the stellar quality of the cast (Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy), it may come as a surprise to some that Dunkirk, despite the intimacy of its story, is far more a director's film than an actor's. There is very little dialogue, and poor Tom Hardy in particular spends a good amount of his screentime trying to emote effectively while wearing the mask and goggles of a Spitfire pilot, and doing remarkably well, considering!

The performances are solid, though, despite the lack of speeches or grandstanding, or excerpts you look at and think "that's the clip they will show at the Oscars when listing the nominees". Mark Rylance in particular stands out, with his quiet but conflicted surety as a pleasure craft captain brought in to help with the evacuation along with hundreds of other civilian ships, most of which we don't see until the final minutes of the movie. His conviction to do what's right, even in the face of opposition from Cillian Murphy's shell-shocked rescuee, wrestles with his responsibilities to his son and the young hand who has come along to help. Rylance needs no extra dialogue or exposition to bring this nuance into play; he should probably get an Oscar nomination for each eye.

Best of all though, Nolan is a man who really knows his way around a viewfinder, and in this second collaboration with his Interstellar D.P. Hoyte Van Hoytema, he really gets a chance to show off. Using a limited palette of blues, greys and browns, often synced to the sea, air and land of his three concurrent and intermittent stories, he runs the gamut from long, lingering reaction close-ups to sprawling vistas filled with hundreds of extras.

And even better, he is an old school filmmaker in many ways, eschewing digital moviemaking for shooting on 70mm and IMAX stock, and using real ships and real aircraft to make all those elements fell far more real and visceral than even the most photo-realistic simulation ever could. After the film, Fenya confessed how nervous the creaking, fragile-sounding Spitfire scenes made her feel. No Top Gunnery in these dogfights, just the frustrating and unnerving feeling of slow, hard-gee turns followed by quick course changes, and the almost languid way a Bf. 109 drifts into the sights of the premier British fighter plane.

Dunkirk is a real-feeling film about a real war, and a real event in that war that gets terribly short shrift in both educational curricula and popular culture. Whether or not it is a great 'war film' I will leave up to you, although I will certainly not contest anyone who makes the assertion. There is no question in my mind that Christopher Nolan has made a great motion picture that reflects true craftsmanship in the way it mixes spectacle with emotion. He has somehow put together a summer blockbuster that not only deserves every dollar and accolade it receives, but also advances the art of filmmaking; in many ways, a second miracle of Dunkirk.

And as to history, well, let's not forget that we are not so far removed from this amazing event. When Audrey and I took a tour of the Thames River in London in 2005, our guide pointed out a ship moored up with a small distinctive flag fluttering off its stern. He explained that flag was a Dunkirk Jack, meaning that very vessel, an unassuming cabin cruiser, had participated in the evacuation, something he clearly took a lot of pride in.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fallout 4 - Survivalist Simulator or Character Revealer?

Despite my initial qualms, I have been enjoying Fallout 4 on my PS4 a great deal - probably too much, truth be told, if my ongoing state of sleep deprivation is any indication. What I am not liking is the growing evidence that I may not be as good or 'nice' a person as I think myself to be.

I'd heard lots of good things about the series and have a couple of close friends who are die-hard fans. The post-nuclear war setting has had a fantastically detailed retro-future glaze applied to it, making the world of the late 2200s, (200 years A.B.) look as though civilization peaked in the 1950s. The art design is brilliantly comprehensive, complete with tubed, b&w television sets, ads for fallout shelters, Studebaker-inspired cars and tanks. and a perky mascot called Vault Boy who is probably first cousin to a similarly named burger mascot.

Despite this though, a massive, open-world game where you alternate moving stories forward by undertaking various quests and missions with foraging to gain supplies and experience just didn't have a lot of appeal to me. I generally prefer my games to be more cinematically paced, such as in my current overall favourite, The Last of Us.

But when Jim gave me the game for my birthday, he said to give it a shot, and  not to really assess it until I had a few hours of it under my belt.

Sure enough, early into the game I discover that my character has a base with a number of crafting stations, for building structures, weapons, armour, food and various chemical compounds. Each item you build has a recipe of sorts, requiring various items you hope to come across on your travels.

So much work! Instead of the Resident Evil-style upgrade system that makes your pistol a little bit better with each piece you add or replace on it through the game, suddenly you a half dozen modification slots with a half dozen options apiece, each of which require different components (adhesives, aluminum, gears, screws, steel, etc.) and potentially some sort of skill or perk you choose as you level up, such as Gun Nut, Science! or Armourer. Not much fun, but then again, I've never seen the appeal of Sudoku either.

Well, that was then. Now I'm the one playing this silly game until all hours, and the excitement I feel at besting a sturdy foe or level boss is nowhere close to what I experience afterwards when I stumble across an old typewriter or package of duct tape (gasp!).

Two things happened early on in the game that have significantly shaped my Fallout 4 experience. After starting out with an assortment of shoddy looking improvised 'pipe' guns, I stumbled across a more powerful .308 caliber handgun, with a suppressor, or silencer, attached.

My former favourite game is Metal Gear Solid, a game where stealth is as much a component as combat, and I don't know how much imprinting that mid-90s experience had on me, but if there is a stealth option in any of the games I play, odds are that is the route I am going to take.

The cover and screenshots of Fallout 4 make heavy use of the powered armour in the game, something else I am a huge fan of in many, many iterations (Starship Troopers, Battletech, Iron Man, 40K Space Marines, et al), but I quickly found that stealthily moving into position and silently popping my would-be combatants unaware, from the shadows, was immensely satisfying, and usually far less risky.

Soon I had enough skills and supplies to convert this rifle-chambered handgun into a proper longarm, outfitting it with a simple scope. Now I could skulk around the perimeter, taking a silenced headshot from under cover, then either moving away or to another equidistant position. Sometimes it might take several such shots, especially on larger opponents, like the 7-foot tall Supermutants. It was not a very time-efficient way to get things done, but prevented me from being overwhelmed, and besides, I hardly ever had to use any of my resources for healing.

Then, as I leveled up, I discovered I had access to way more of the perks on the chart than I had thought, and began looking at the various skills offered from the perspective of someone who thinks of a face-to-face, mano-a-mano throwdown as the pinnacle of foolishness.

I had put a lot of points into my character's Agility stat initially, which had left me a little short in other areas, but did allow me to take the Ninja perk, applying a multiplier to any sneak attacks I pulled off while hidden.

And at this point, my days of fighting fair were well and truly done.

Radstags, mutated, two-headed ruminant, are good eatin' in the game, but would often take 2-3 hits to bring down before my ninjafication, but now, a single headshot from half a football field away would drop the beast, accompanied by the satisfying cash register 'ka-ching!' sound that signified the racking up of experience points.

Even Supermutants could be felled with a single shot in many circumstances, and I spent the better part of two hours circling a camp full of them in a satellite dish array. Methodically picking off their sentries, tower guards and especially the savage Mutant Hounds that had thwarted my previous attempts at a direct assault. They would beeline for my position, homing in on either the suppressed sound or perhaps my scent, but by prioritizing them as targets, I could do my rest of my grisly work in a far more orderly and less risky fashion, only having to sprin away from a potential counterattack on one occasion.

At my next leveling up, however, I stumbled across a perk I had previously viewed and discounted: Mr. Sandman.

Now, despite reserving a lot of my perimeter breaches for the deadiest dead of night, I have not come across a lot of sleeping opponents to this point, and when I have, well, it just makes it easier to line the crosshairs up on them at close range, unless they are restless sleepers. But since by this point my go-to weapons were all suppressed anyhow (my TelCo long distance rifle ('The next best thing to being there,' or perhaps 'Reach out and touch someone'), a .38 submachine gun , and a 10mm machine pistol), well, it just seemed foolish and borderline ungrateful not to go Sandman.

Thus you find me perhaps mid-game: a full time, bona fide, dyed in the wool dry-gulcher. Having almost completely eschewed the powered armour brawler angle, my character Gideon now spends 80% of his time in the crouched position, approaching conflict zones from oblique angles, with maximum cover and multiple exfiltration routes, sometimes salting potential approaches with mines and then making myself fully visible after dispatching the tower guards in order to prompt pursuit. (Finding and retrieving deployed mines is a dodgy and dangerous business; far easier to just set them off at that point.) I endure numerous taunts from Raiders and other assorted dirtbags about what a 'coward' I am for hiding, and how ambushing isn't very 'brave'.

I'm not about to take character cues from a bunch of gits wearing gimp masks and who decorate their premises with human remains, but the option to 'Sandman Kill' appears even when I approach dozing allies. I arrive in the dead of night to let them know I have driven off the pack of Feral Ghouls that were harassing them, or the Raiders who had been making off with their livestock, and as I look at the option to snuff out their virtual life with a single button push, I can't help but think: my Fallout self is not a very good person. At least I haven't started thinking about all the potential experience points I am leaving on the table... yet.

When special forces recruiters look for snipers, there are two potential syndromes they try to detect and screen out of the program. The first is 'Texas Tower' syndrome, a giddy-feeling of nearly god-like power that comes with sniping targets undetected from an elevated position. The second is Munich Massacre syndrome, named after the German police who had Black September terrorists in their sights for days, watching them go about their daily business long enough to humanize them and develop empathy for them, and ultimately, leaving them unable to pull the trigger when the time came.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies a somewhat grey and apparently rather rare mindset, especially when coupled with the specific skills and attributes required to be a world-class sniper.

Thankfully, the world of Fallout 4 is a bit more black and white than that, and my targets rarely laugh, socialize, or go to the bathroom. Some of them do sleep,l however, and it is only a matter of time before this wasteland survival game becomes a de facto murder simulator, and I can't help but be a bit curious about how that goes.

In the end, the game is probably not telling me that I am a ticking bomb of sociopathy waiting to go off, or a potential thrill-killer temporarily sated by the interaction of video games. I am notoriously risk-averse in real life as well as in games, so my aversion to direct conflict is consistently reflected.

Besides, I probably come off comparatively well inside the game, especially given my eagerness to  take on pretty much every hard luck job that comes across my path. Apparently my Fallout-self and I share an inability to say no to such requests.