Monday, February 17, 2020

Putting the 'F' in Fun - Birds of Prey, Reviewed

Do you know the difference between a gritty crime movie and a comic-book movie with gritty crime?

Wait, maybe we should start with commonalities first: they both tend towards the melodramatic and make violence the principle solution to most issues that arise in the story. In fact, they both tend to romanticize or fetishize that violence to some degree or another.

The biggest difference is that the crime movie typically wants that violence to be believable, while a comic book (if done correctly) leans into the unbelievability of it. As a result, a person doing karate kicks off a trampoline while wearing rollerskates is less likely to evoke an eye-rolling "oh, come on now," and far more likely to provoke a"woo!"

Being only mostly okay with Harley Quinn's debut feature, Suicide Squad, I didn't have much interest in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn until some of the later trailers came out, spotlighting a clear sense of irreverence and self-awareness.

I also made sure to see the movie with someone closer to the movie's core target demographic - my 17-year-old daughter. The short of it is, we had a great time at this film, and if you enjoyed, say, Deadpool 2, you should probably go and check this one out.

(But first, can we take a moment to appreciate the brilliant typography in the BOP logo, with a variety of weapons and such making up the negative space and counters of the letters?)

Director Cathy Yan has only one previous feature under her belt, the as-yet-unreleased Sundance prizewinner Dead Pigs, but she manages a multi-character action-comedy-crime piece with astonishing deftness. The character moments feel right to me, the laughs are plentiful, but there are horrific moments that prompt gut-clenching tension too.

Watching Harley shoot her way into a police station using a grenade launcher loaded with beanbags, paint and glitterbombs is tremendously fun to watch, and as far as I'm concerned, leaves the previous high-water mark in the Terminator far behind. (To be fair, Schwarzenegger's turn has been the standard for almost a half-century ago now (ugh).) It also is also one of the rare occasions where I wanted even more slo-mo in an action scene.

Margot Robbie continues to be a wonder, bringing a surprising degree of vulnerability to a character never designed to have a ton of depth (Harley Quinn actually originated in the Batman Animated Series television show and migrated to the comics (and video games, etc. etc.) much later on.)

It was also epically pleasing to see Scott Pilgrim's paramour Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) appearing as comics vigilante The Huntress, with only a hint of the comic (and cartoon) costume reflected in her wardrobe, but with origin story and signature crossbow intact. Watching her kick Mafia ass female-Punisher-style is gratifying, but watching her practice delivering her gravitas-laden nom de guerre is absolutely delightful.

To be sure, the female form is in fine display here, but less of a male-gaze-y sort of way, and more of a kinetically-charged, fiercely independent, and self-sufficient kind of manner, while spouting A-level profanity instead of nurturing compassionately, and draped in edgy street-couture instead of spandex. (Glory said she wants all Harley's jackets from the film.) I'm not going to call BOP a milestone for female empowerment, but an ensemble cast of women, led by a female director in a story by a woman screenwriter and produced by Robbie herself is certainly a step in the right direction.

I don't know why there seems to be such antipathy towards this film. Well, that's not true - it's the same rotten, bald-faced misogyny that tried to sabotage Captain Marvel before it was even released, the same perpetually aggrieved toxic fanboys who feel indignant every time a movie comes along that dares to do things even marginally progressive and non-retrograde. It's discouraging that these trolls came out to celebrate this movie failing because -why? It's not Batman?  It's unapologetically female-centric and led? There's no "nice guys" in it? (Spoiler alert - there are no nice girls either.) (And hey, what is a film saying when the only likable male in a film is a hyena?)

If you are trying to find a sweet spot between a gritty crime movie and a comic-book film, you need to know that you are making your target significantly smaller than if you stuck to one or the other, even before you try to frame it in a woman's perspective. But that doesn't mean it isn't worthy to attempt it; you can have a great time and be successful even if you don't knock it out of the park.

For what it's worth, Birds of Prey gets a pretty good piece of it, for my money at least, and gave Glory and I a very decent time at the movies. It scratches a lot of the same itches that movies like Deadpool 2 do, and that sequel is a long ways off. As I write this, it is cheap movie night tomorrow, and if you want a good-looking action flick with a great soundtrack and cool new perspective, check out Harley Quinn and her crew.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Oscars 2020 - Surprises Galore

After a one-year hiatus, it felt good to host our Oscars party once again, and it turned out to be a great night to be watching with friends.

I only got 9 predictions right out of 24 (compared to Totty who led with 14, or Earl, who outscored us all from his home with an astonishing 20), but watching Bong Joon Ho's Parasite become the first foreign-language film ever to win Best Picture was truly exhilarating. Especially since we only watched it the night before. (It's a great but intense film - watch it before someone spoils it for you!)

The party itself was a lot of fun, as usual. Glory outdid herself getting all the decorations set up, and the dessert-heavy pot luck table was well-received by everyone.

Pete generously loaned us his kegerator again, and the Buena Vista Brown from Alley Kat was also a welcome addition to the festivities.

Most importantly, it was wonderful to have friends old and new take a night of tv-viewing and turn it into a wonderful occasion celebrating our appreciation of cinema.

Sadly, I "won" our March of the Dead drinking game, having recognized 8 names from the "In Memoriam" roll and not realized they were dead:

Diahann Caroll
Danny Aiello
Barry Malki
Robert Evans
Andre Previn
Franco Zeffirelli
Branko Lustig (one of the best Oscar speeches I've seen!)
John Singleton

Pete was close behind with 7, but dang! I either need to stop reading credits or start paying more attention to the obituary notices in the L.A. Times and Variety.

With the growing influence of online Oscar prognosticators like et al, we have moved away from a "most correct guesses" model for our prize, so now each correct prediction gets you a raffle ticket. You only need one to win, but Totty's 14 gave him the edge and he picked up the movie tickets!

I'd also printed up some Oscar Bingo cards but we failed to get a winner this way, so a second draw saw Pete walk away with the 2020 Preview issue of Total Film Magazine.

Once again, the lack of a host for the telecast saw things finish up at a reasonable hour, but needing some time to absorm the damage from March of the Dead, the night ran a little late anyhow.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Dragonscales and Door Details

It's taken long enough, but I finally got bitten by the painting bug a little while back.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of figures around here to paint were I so inclined, but the inclination has been sorely lacking for the past while. But one Sunday I got it into my head that painting the dragon from the Arena: The Contest game that three of us Kickstartered and received in November would be an attainable goal, and significantly improve the look of the game.

I found a half-can of black primer, dusted off my brushes and prepared to get to work, but first I had to decide what colour to paint it. As a collective, we had recently agreed to back an expansion for the game which includes a collection of 5 uniquely sculpted dragons: red, blue, black, white and undead. The dragon we have can stand in for any of them in a pinch (and until the Dragon Collection is released in 2021), but there are also rules for green and gold dragons. Since Tamarand, the Gold Dragon, is the focus of a special player-vs.-player scenario pitting 4 characters against a player-controlled dragon, it seemed like a good choice.

I drybrushed all the scales on his torso and limbs a dark metallic gold but did his wing-arms and bones and face in a golden brown. I had just started painting the wing membranes and realized the scheme wouldn't work - there was far too much contrast, so the wings looked like they had been dropped on from another creature, or worse yet, another model.

So I re-painted the wings structures black and then drybrushed them gold, like the body, taking care to leave the lighter coloured membranes alone. Eventually I washed the wings with an ink before brushing over them with a khaki, getting something at least close to the effect I wanted.

I also blended a bit more metallic gold into his face before picking out the details of his teeth and tongue. In the end, I think he turned out pretty well.

Sadly, the hero models in the game are not nearly as detailed as the monsters, due to being colour coded and made with a softer plastic (something else Dragori Games is addressing when they do their expansion), so I probably won't be painting them. But after finishing the dragon, I saw another opportunity to improve the look of the game fairly easily - painting the plastic walls and doors.

Even unpainted, these 3D accessories elevate the appearance of the game significantly, but the idea of putting the painted dragon next to something bereft of shading and pigment was discouraging, and besides, painting them would be mostly drybrushing anyhow. 

Off to the neighbourhood game store I went (after going to Kingsway and discovering that Comex, my go-to for hobby supplies, had moved to a new location in Old Strathcona) for another can of black primer. Laying them out for spraying filled two pizza boxes, and I primed the doors in white on a third box so I could ink them and bring out the pattern of the wood grain a little.

A week ago last Thursday I had the house to myself with Fenya at her night class, Glory at dance, and Audrey at choir, so I buckled down after dinner and got all the walls drybrushed before bed.  The doors and levers, despite being the size of perhaps two wall sections, look almost twice as long to complete the next day. In the end though, they turned out looking pretty nice, and match the colours of the cardboard counters supplied with the game, which is critical for determining how much damage they have taken.

I've had the chance to play with the painted set three times now, two of them being dragon fights (with Tamarand standing in for red and blue varieties) that don't need as much in the way of walls, but are no less fun. I love how much the walls and doors add to the feeling of immersion, and how much more of a dungeon-crawl vibe they give the game than most of the actual games of Dungeons & Dragons I played years ago.
Photo credit: Earl J. Woods
The next goal is to start painting the rest of the monsters included in the game - orcs, vampires, golems, zombies, skeletons and ghostly dwarves - to give the opposition a little more character before we start playing the campaign version of the game.

Hopefully this painting bug sticks around for a while!

(Note: Arena is not being sold in stores yet, but they are releasing a "1.5 version" of the game with the improved hero models for US$69 + shipping as part of the expansion Kickstarter beginning on Feb. 4.)

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Curious Comic Character Curation

For Christmas, I got this wonderful comic poster that features a raft of classic character headshots wrapped around the words, "Make Mine Marvel." It's a nice commemoration of both our trip to the Marvel Heroes exhibit back in November and Marvel's 80th anniversary, which it calls out via a logo in the corner. I finally picked up a frame for it today and hung it in the basement, as it is not really a "main floor" sort of deal.

Glory, the one who had given me the poster looked at it with me and tried her hand at identifying the characters. She did pretty well for someone whose primary exposure has been through movies and television rather than comics, with a number of partial hits - her first two guesses were "Spider-Lady" and "Power Fist" for Spider-Woman and Iron Fist.

With the exception of Medusa on row two, she nailed the next two rows, fanned on Doctor Strange, and then struggled with a bunch of the Inhumans. As I went through it with her, I realized there were some other fairly deep Doctor Strange cuts in this poster: Clea, his paramour and one-time wife; Baron Mordo, his arch-nemesis; the Ancient One, his teacher and the Dread Dormammu, one of his most powerful villains (as seen in the 2016 movie).

Valkyrie on row seven felt like an odd inclusion, as did Maximus the Mad, another Inhuman, on the bottom row next to Nova, the Human Rocket. And who was the redhead three heads to the right of Maximus? If it is supposed to be Crystal (yet another Inhuman), where's the signature black stripe running across her hair?

By this point, however, I was far less concerned about the inclusions than I was about two notable exclusions.

The first was the conspicuous absence of even a single member of the Fantastic Four. In addition to being Marvel's First Family, the debut issue of their comic in 1962 effectively created the Marvel universe!

The Inhumans were introduced in the pages of FF in 1965, and yet eight of them make it onto the poster and not The Thing? No Human Torch? How bizarre!

Secondly, the poster is celebrating 80 years of Marvel Comics, which really only works if you count books published by Timely and Atlas, Martin Goodman's companies in the 40s and 50s that eventually evolved into Marvel. And yet, the sole character from this period on the poster is Captain America. (You could technically say that another Golden Age character is present in a technical sense, but I don't think it's an intentional choice - more to follow)

The two that would have made the most sense would have been Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch. Rivals in the 1940s who eventually teamed up against the Nazi menace, both characters reappeared in (you guessed it) the Fantastic Four.

60 pages for ten cents? (Swoon)

The original Human Torch was an android who could wreath himself in flames, whereas his namesake in the FF was a teenaged rocket crewman exposed to cosmic radiation that gave him the same power set. He is also the one who reintroduced Namor to Silver age audiences in the fourth issue of Fantastic Four, burning away the beard of a homeless amnesiac in New York's Bowery to reveal the half-human/half-merman ruler of Atlantis.

The technical inclusion I mentioned has more to do with the waste not/want not nature of comics continuity: Android character The Vision (row 6, far left) was initially created by the villain Ultron out of the android body of the WWI Human Torch.

And, to be fair, this Vision was based on another Golden Age character of the same name with a virtually identical look, so perhaps I do need to give credit for both.

But as cool as it is, this poster does need some more Fantastic Four, regardless. And don't even get me started on the fact there's no X-Men in there.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Tale of Two Coats

It looks like Glory may be heading up to Churchill for least part of her gap year before entering university - this made finding a winter coat for her a bit of a priority.

After a day of shopping at WEM, she and Audrey found a nice little number by London Fog at The Bay. The saleslady they had was excellent and encouraged her to take it home, leave the tags on and try it on in the cold, which was considerable that weekend (-30 C).

Unfortunately, it only took about 7 minutes in the cold to determine that this jacket was simply no match for our Canadian climate. Back to the Bay they went, and tried another parka in the same colour (red).

This one, by Noize (ugh) is actually pretty neat; it's rated to -30, and held up very well on a similarly cold day, in spite of or possibly because of a lining made of recycled pop bottles. Because the filling has no feathers, the trim has no fur and the jacket was assembled without cruelty, the coat is also technically vegan.

My fear of this, however, is that it may create an irresistible irony cascade that results in my youngest being eaten by a polar bear while wearing a vegan garment, but we will just have to hope for the best. And it is a good looking coat, I have to admit.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is a coat that entered our household by way of my mother. It doesn't belong to any one person, but as it is a mink coat, everyone agreed that having it stay in Alberta instead of travelling with Tara to Texas made an inordinate amount of sense. (My understanding is that she has first dibs on it on any occasion when she is in town.)

Audrey has worn it the most, taking it to school on a couple of occasions during the aforementioned cold snap, and also to church and choir. Glory also wore it to service on Christmas Eve, but it's a bit big on Fenya. It even has a hood, making it more practical than one might think.

As the story goes, Mum always wanted a fur coat (something much more common in my childhood than it is now) but even then worried about running afoul of people who find fur disagreeable. It is for this reason that she decided her mink coat should be purple. And besides, it was the '80s.

I think it is a sensational looking garment, and many of Audrey's coworkers commented on how glamourous she looked in it, and I have to agree.

With temperatures poised to rise above -20 for the first time in over a week tomorrow, there won't be as much need for -30 jackets or purple minks, but it is nice to have them on hand nonetheless.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

An Intimate Tale of an Imposing War- 1917, Reviewed

By the time you read this, the 2020 Oscars will probably have been announced, but as I write this on an intensely cold Sunday afternoon, they are still unknown. Having seen Sam Mendes' First World War epic 1917 yesterday, I expect it to feature prominently and deservedly so.

Strangely, the first trailer for this movie hadn't really compelled a strong desire to see this movie, but a combination of building buzz (culminating in some success at last week's Golden Globe awards) and a chance invitation to see it on opening weekend motivated me to leave the house, despite my better judgement.

Comparisons to Saving Private Ryan are inevitable, and 1917 measures up pretty favourably to that modern-day classic. This is despite its being much smaller in scope and even more ambitious in its storytelling.

Like 2014's Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a combination of long takes and clever editing makes the movie appear as though it is one single take, transpiring in real time. I spent too much time of the first 20 minutes looking for the seams, as it were, but was quickly drawn into the simple but compelling story.

In April of 1917, two British soldiers are tasked with travelling behind enemy lines with a message calling off an attack which actually a German trap, in order to save 1600 lives, including one of the messenger's brother. It is a tale inspired by the memoirs and stories of director Sam Mendes grandfather, Alfred Mendes, but not based on a specific incident.

We dutifully follow Blake and Schofield through seemingly endless trenches, some teeming with fellow Tommies and others seemingly abandoned. We are at their side as they cross the cratered abattoir of no-man's land in order to find a gap in the wire. We share their apprehension as they enter a ruined farmhouse in search of the enemy, or watch a dogfight transpire over their very heads. At no time are we really permitted to avert our gaze from the soldiers or whatever is capturing their attention, and it is used to good effect in creating sensations of both claustrophobia and loneliness.

Despite the limitations of this style of shooting, cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) does his normally brilliant work of transforming mundane or horrific scenes into beautiful or captivating tableaux. His work with light and shadow in the third act would be just as staggering in black and white.

The real-time aspect of the movie also ensures that even as Blake and Schofield are running for their lives or seeking concealment, the looming knowledge that the attack will be launched at first light unless stopped maintains both a building pressure and sense of inevitable dread.

Like in Dunkirk, the German forces are a secondary consideration for much of the film, with time being the true enemy (as stated on the poster). The myriad ways in which even a trained and familiarized individual can be harmed are either outlined or demonstrated to good effect long before any type of adversary ever comes into play: barbed wire injuries, corpse-intensified disease, falling into a deep crater, freezing, starving, tripping a booby trap, trench collapses and drowning are all threats to be faced prior to bullets and bayonets.

Even with a relentless deadline and personal stakes with Blake's brother in harm's way, there are still quiet and reflective moments interspersed with the tension and action, even after crossing into enemy territory.

There are lots of familiar faces in the movie, but none of them stay very long, as we are attached to Blake and Schofield and the nature of their mission means all of their interactions are transitory. This doesn't make them any less profound or affecting, as when an officer offering a ride (Mark Strong)  also suggests there be witnesses present when the message to call off the attack is given. The sad poignancy of this insight, possibly gained from Alfred Mendes' autobiography, lends a cynical credibility to the tale.

The actors portraying Blake and Schofield themselves, Dean Charles Chapman and George MacKay, were less familiar to me (even though the former played Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones), but they do sterling work. In a handful of interactions, they amply demonstrate their individual competencies, strong friendship and hints of resentment of one having been asked along on a spectacularly dangerous mission by the other. Their discussion about the merits of medals and decorations is likely to be seen at the Oscars, with Blake's earnest curiosity counterpointed with what Schofield is unable to put into words.

A technical marvel that is still profoundly emotional, I quipped afterwards that while other movies might trigger existing post-traumatic stress disorder, 1917 has the potential to cause it outright, such is its level of immersiveness. I also can't imagine the difficulties of matching costumes, props, lighting and makeup from footage taken over days that is meant to look like it is transpiring in mere minutes.

With any luck, tomorrow morning's nominations will bring nods for Best Movie, Director,  Acting, Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Production Design,  Costumes and Makeup. But even if it ends up getting none of those, 1917 is worth seeing, and likely to be referenced as much for WWI films as Saving Private Ryan is for WWII.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Tactical Tabletop Terrors Times Two - Arena: The Contest and Cthulhu: Death May Die

After a long dry spell in gaming, it was delightful to get the gang up for a tabletop session on two successive Saturdays, a feat that is, tragically unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon. Remember how in high school we thought we'd have more time for playing games, not less? Sigh.

Last week, Earl, Jeff and I, the ones who had backed its Kickstarter, unveiled our purchase: Arena: The Contest. First-time producers Dragori Games have done tremendous work with this game, even if their lack of experience meant it got to us six months later than anticipated. The volume of material and quality of the game made the wait worthwhile.

Set in a fantasy world where armies have been outlawed by the gods, and where potentially violent conflicts are settled by small teams in the titular arena, the big appeal, the game features brilliant production values and stunning art. The big draw for us though was Arena's versatility.

The game can be played either as a player-vs-player deathmatch for 2-8 combatants or as a cooperative dungeon crawler by 1-4 players. Best of all, the co-op version can be played as a series of one-offs or sequentially as a narrative campaign building to an epic conclusion - like a D&D campaign where no one has to be the Dungeon Master.

In co-op or PVE games (Players verus Enemies), deck of cards impact the players and varies the enemies tactics; they can usually be counted on to attack the nearest foe with the lowest hit points, but will periodically gang up on a weakened opponent or break away from melee to target shooters and spell casters, making their actions difficult to predict.

Each of the twelve characters in the core game is categorized into 6 tactical roles (Tank, Healer, Shooter, etc) with the same stat line, but each one has a unique set of abilities and powers. Best of all many of these powers complement each other, with an almost infinite potential for combinations.

The expansions we had purchased not only gave us additional monsters and three-dimensional walls and doors to replace the counters that came with the game, but they also added another 16 characters (including a new class) for a grand total of 28.

Having only played a handful of times and not cracked the campaign yet, we are all quite impressed with the clarity of rules and the dynamism of gameplay in both PVP versions.  And since it supports up to eight players, it seems like it would be a good fit for G&G.

Next up will be trying some games with the larger monsters and hopefully the campaign!

A similar game in a much more sinister setting is CMON Games Cthulhu: Death May Die. Another Kickstarter game, this time backed by Pete. Normally, games in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos feature hapless human investigators (often in a 1920s setting) stumbling across Secrets They Were Not Meant to Know and trying to stop Nameless Horrors from ending the world before they are killed or go mad. In Death May Die, the player's characters have already gone mad, and are attempting to use that liberating and invigorating power to lure in the Elder Gods and their thralls, in hopes of destroying them.

With a streamlined set of rules by revered game designer Rob Daviau, fantastic artwork by Karl Kopinski and a brilliant assortment of miniatures (some of which are gobsmackingly horrifying), this game is another winner. Players spend their time fighting the foes on the board as well as a ticking clock, but never the rules.

Running through a burning mansion and smashing arcane laboratories while frenzied cultists set the place ablaze and then combatting the monstrosities they've managed to summon is challenging enough. As the players encounter more horror and stress, their character's level of insanity increases, giving them access to a variety of increased abilities and "power-ups" to select from. Eventually, however, too much insanity will do them in, the same as being burned, bitten or shot.

Having a retired nobleman facing off against one of the most infamous entities in existence armed only with a shotgun probably sounds like a great time, but Great Cthulhu must be slain multiple times in order to end his threat.

In the end, it was only due to the selfless sacrifice of one of my comrades, shrieking through the room I was in and drawing away nearly a half dozen cultists and a fire vampire, that allowed Sir Ian to maintain his sanity for one final turn and dispatch the Elder God, ending the game.

With the sole survivor badly wounded and within one point of snapping his remaining twigs for good, this still counted as a victory. What a world!

The game uses a modular gameboard for flexibility and replayability, and the counters, rules and objectives for each scenario are contained in a tidy "Episode" box within the main game (actually, the game's packaging is among the best I've seen, and I was already quite impressed with Arena's). I look forward to combatting the minions of R'lyeh many times to come... schedules permitting, of course.

I highly recommend both games, and should mention that the first expansion to Arena is coming to  Kickstarter on Feb 4, and Dragori is re-releasing the core game (with improved character miniatures!) at a discounted price.