Tuesday, March 30, 2010

'More Lasers Than the Death Star': Muse Concert Review

Unfortunately, no one can be told what a Muse concert is. You have to see it for yourself.

I told some friends last week that I would not be surprised if the Muse concert I attended last night turned out to be my last arena rock show. This surprised one of my friends, who asked, "Why would you say that?"

"Between the hearing loss and the fact that there just aren't that many acts coming to arenas that I am interested in seeing, I'm just not sure the opportunity will present itself again. Besides," I shrugged, "being middle-aged at these shows is starting to feel a little odd. I mean, I was on the fence for bringing my 11 year old daughter to the show, that kind of flies in the face of a number of rock traditions, right?"

Wrong, as it turns out.

First of all, I could have brought Fenya to last night's concert, but had originally thought it to be on a school night, when she is on spring break at the moment. I was by no means the oldest one there, nor the only parent, although most of the offspring there were in their teens. Most importantly, as long as I am able to get to them, I will continue to attend Muse concerts for the foreseeable future.

I have already spoken at some length about why I enjoy this British band, and everything about them is magnified and expanded in their live shows. Louder than Thor and more lasers than the freaking Death Star, it was both a musical extravaganza and feast for the eyes.

The stage design was great, three towers that served as office-tower style props (complete with animated automatons marching drudgingly up an internal set of stairs)elevating stage risers, (one for each band member), and as projectors for a number of video graphics and images of the band. My favourite use of this was when all three were filled with scrolling lines of computer code, but within which you could still make out images of guitarist Matt Bellamy as he played, like something from The Matrix, although the Galaga scenes during "Stockholm Syndrome" were a great touch as well. (Photo from edmontonjournal.com.)

Three songs in, they've have already deployed the aforementioned lasers in a display that puts to shame any of the light shows I saw in the 80s that served as awesome concert finales. That's right, three songs in, and on a song from the back-catalog no less, not the current chart riders. This picture is courtesy of Pete's iPhone, and as awesome as it is, it can't convey the epic scale of motion incorporated into the display. I got scanned so many times, I started checking my t-shirt for bar codes. Pete said, "I've taken so many lasers to the eyes, I'm half tempted to take off my glasses and see if they've improved my vision." If you ever wondered, hey, whatever happened to all the lasers from the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 80s, wonder no more: Muse has 'em.

Obviously there has to be more to the show than lasers, or no one would go to concerts and the planetarium would have a waiting list for its shows, and there were a few places for the band to showcase their virtuosity. Most pleasing was the drum and bass instrumental by Dominic Howard and Christopher Wolstenholme. Just long enough for lead vocalist and guitarist Matthew Bellamy to catch his breath, but a neat change up in a musically diverse setlist. Howard also got to come out and play some enormous kettle drums in the opening to the Exogenesis Symphony, part of a musical triptych which, on the album, utilizes more than 40 separate instruments.

It's Matt Bellamy who draws the most attention for musicianship though, from his songwriting skills to his ability to switch from grand piano to shredding guitar to portable keyboard with equal levels of intensity and experimentation. Playing the riff from "Plug In Baby" while leaping and turning pirouettes across the stage and never missing a note only added to his eminence; the man is a bona-fide guitar hero.

There's a lot to like about the band, from their epic prog-rock inspired themes, to their creative staging and arrangements, as well as their excellent harmonizing (which can't help but evoke memories of Queen), but my favourite aspects are their eclecticism and versatility. The fact that they can segue so quickly from a classical piano intro to crunchy rock in the same song (Newborn) to something drawn from rhythm & blues (Supermasssive Black Hole), to the pop harmonies and dance beats of Undisclosed Desires is nothing short of remarkable, and it never feels forced or artificial, just honest musical exploration.

All this and they rocked out hard for almost an hour and a half, with only about a five-minute break before the encore. Our upper-level seats felt primo because of the excellent staging; I doubt there was a bad seat in the house. The only downside was that we were too elevated to bat around one of the 16 immense inflatable eyeballs they dropped on the audience, which showered those nearby with confetti when they burst. Pete and I had such a great time, we went back to his place and watched most of their 2007 concert DVD (H.A.A.R.P.) before finally crashing at midnight.

As long as entertaining and well-executed spectacles like the one I saw last night are available, it would seem foolish to stop checking them out prematurely. The downside, if you want to call it that, is that the bar has been set pretty high by Muse, so the next band I intend to see in concert is Muse, again, whenever they return to Edmonton, or anywhere else in striking distance. I encourage everyone who appreciates rock in a progressive vein to join me, or go when they come to your town; you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Ivory Cower

Our home in Edmonton is fairly close to the garrison north of the city, and Edmonton has always taken pride in its soldiers, from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry to Lord Strathcona's Horse and their tanks, so maybe I hear a little more about Afghanistan or maybe I look for more, I'm not sure. Certainly, going to church with someone who has done two tours over there, and having talked to several serving members of the army while working in retail has made me pretty conscious of the situation, as well as very apprehensive when casualty lists are made public. This weekend a few Afghan-related items came up.

* Barack Obama made his first trip to Afghanistan and spoke to the troops as well as president Harmid Karzai.

* There was a funeral in Edmonton for a member of the PPCLI who died here after being wounded in Afghanistan, and he shared the same last name as me (Cpl. Darren Fitzpatrick). He was not a relation and I did not know him, but it was a little unsettling nonetheless.

* The president of the University of Regina received an open letter signed by 16 professors objecting to "Project Hero", a plan to provide educational opportunities and funding for the dependents of those killed on active duty.

It's this last one that really provokes me to comment.

I understand why people might find the presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan objectionable, and I think they should have every opportunity to express their concerns where it does not endanger those out near the pointy end of the stick. That so many members of a university faculty would be opposed to Canadian involvement in this theatre is not only unsurprising, it is somewhat predictable.

The fact that they make their objections on the grounds of their opposition to "Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan and elsewhere," is not only ridiculous but offensive, as is the choice of target for their indignation.

First of all, if you want to throw around a word like 'imperialism', which is normally defined as 'the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries', how in the hell does this even apply to a country so poor, that without the import of Islamist warriors or the export of opium, would barely be able to feed itself? What sort of colony are we building over there, beyond the Tim Hortons I expect will close when the current mission ends in 2011? If you want to use that bat to take a swing at the situation in Iraq, with profiteers ranging from the private military contractors like Blackwater (and now called Xe Services LLC; "Some bad press? Quick, change our name!" Now, that's risk management!) to oilfield magnates Halliburton, I'll hold your coat while you do it. But when a country not only oppresses its own people to the point where it is a flogging offense to fly a kite, but then opens its doors to criminals who perpetrate one of the greatest hate crimes of the century, it's time for a change of management. Strangely, very few people objected to this in 2001, when everyone in North America wondered if their city was next in line for a commandeered jetliner...

More importantly, there are a whole lot of excellent reasons as to why the military is not allowed to dictate foreign policy. Troops go where they are told in order to do the bidding of the state, wherever and whatever this may be. And in our case, this state is a democratically elected body, chosen by you and me, assuming you are one of the ever-decreasing numbers who bothered to go out and vote last time around. Ideologically speaking, you can blame either the Liberals for allowing us to go to Afghanistan or the Conservatives for allowing us to stay, but you can't blame the soldiers, and you sure as hell cannot blame the children of those who have lost their parents to this conflict.

Am I frustrated that it has taken longer to defeat the Taliban than it did to defeat The Axis in WWII? Sure I am, but there was a lot more political will in play in that situation. Sometimes it seems our modern isolationism here in the West has done everything possible to counter the shrinking globe we've heard so much about, making it easier and easier to turn our backs on increasingly volatile situations overseas, at least until the next attack. Or, you know, the next attack in a place we've actually heard of.

Am I discouraged by how much harder the job of reclaiming Afghanistan from the Taliban is due to the rampant and systemic corruption in the country, even under a reformer like Karzai? Of course I am, but I have a hard time believing that a hate-fueled theocracy or tribal feudalism backed up by modern weapons and narco-profits are a better option for either the Afghani people or the world at large.

Does any of this justify the pompous, arrogant and ill-informed desire of privileged academia to march their agenda of peace at any cost over the backs of those whose family members have paid the ultimate price in hopes of a better future for not only those people of a faraway land but our own country and perhaps the entire world? And who have done so, and continue to do so at our behest?

I think not. In fact, I think calling this letter and the ideas behind it 'complete and utter horseshit' is an insult to the field of equine faecology.

The Edmonton Journal said it best, I think, in this morning's editorial entitled "Twisted Priorities for Regina profs", when they said:
"Well, we don't want students taught by teachers so dense and myopic who trumpet such a confused, wretched piece of dated nonsense aimed against blameless bereaved children, making preposterous assumptions that dishonour both those who serve and those who question our military interventions."

I hope these 16 professors get an opportunity to teach someone who comes to the U of R under the auspices of Project Hero; that feels like justice to me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Better Than Expected

As the only male biped in the house, I get subjected to some things which, to be fair, would not be my first choice of activity. Tea parties, makeovers, crafts involving glitter glue and suchlike. I do not say this by way of complaint, as I am given a tremendous amount of latitude by the ladies of my household, in addition to Costco-sized portions of tolerance. The fact that my children repeatedly clamour to watch "The Trouble with Tribbles" and my wife not only endures our nerdy nonsense but actually plays D&D with us makes the aforementioned tribulations seem the merest of trifles. Just tonight, Fenya stayed up past bedtime to finish watching Harryhausen's work in Clash of the Titans with me while I typed this.

The same applies to our viewing habits, for the most part. There's far more things I watch that they won't (or probably shouldn't) than vice-versa. I have learned to overcome my initial resistance to a couple of films, and even when the movie hasn't necessarily been to my taste, the time spent together more than makes up for it. To be sure, there is a certain degree of shot-calling needed here; I have managed to thus far steer clear of the Hannah Montana/ High School Musical variety, but I was only too happy to watch Hairspray, which not only has some catchy tunes, but is delightfully subversive for a mainstream musical.

There have been a couple of pleasant surprises along the way. About a month ago, we watched the 2007 remake of St. Trinian's. I only had foreknowledge of St. Trinian's after working with a bunch of Brits at Games Workshop while living in Toronto, and it was referenced a number of times after Games Workshop released a line of female warriors called the Sisters of Battle. Most of them remembered a series of movies from the '50s and '60s, but these were actually based on a series of cartoons by Ronald Searle. Racy stuff for the time, in many ways.

The movie is a fairly standard issue New Girl Versus the Cliques, Bad News Bears sort of scenario, but it won me over mostly by being neither as squeaky clean as I'd expected, nor as raunchy as I feared, striking a nice balance that didn't make me cringe too much whilst watching it with my daughters. When the New Girl gets her first look at what awaits her at St. Trinians School for Wayward Girls, she gets on the phone to her father and tells him "It's like Hogwarts for pikeys!" which made me laugh quite a bit. Rupert Everett does a great turn in Alastair Sims's shoes as both the headmistress and her brother, getting lines like, "Ah, Ms Bagstock, your girlish laughter hit me like the lash of a hunting crop." Colin Firth is always enjoyable to watch, especially with Everett in drag as the foil, and Stephen Fry also shows up a a quiz show host during the finale. It's a good time with a surprising bit of edge for a PG show, and I think I can even recommend it to my friends who don't have kids to watch it with. Try having your nostalgia hat on if you watch; it's the kind of film we would have liked when we were boys, if we had been girls, if you know what I mean.

Tonight, despite my protestations, I was subjected to 17 Again, with Matt Perry and Zac Efron. And again, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. There is very little in the movie that you won't see coming, but there are a couple of moments that I didn't expect. And frankly, the whole premise of the main character going to the same high school as his kids provided a couple of 'ick' moments, as does the whole making cow eyes at his separated wife/friend's mom. But at least the bit where he expresses disapproval of his daughter's (Michelle Trachtenberg)bullying boyfriend gave me an opportunity to turn to Fenya and say, "If you ever date a guy like that, they will be pulling him out of the river at some point."

The high points then:
* Matt Perry's best mate, Thomas Lennon, is his dorky classmate who has struck it rich and indulged his every nerdly dream: his walls are festooned with weapons and movie props, and he sleeps in a bed shaped like a landspeeder.
* When Efron (as Perry) announces his intent to return to high school, he asks Lennon "Didn't you ever want to do high school again?", he replies, "No. I'm rich and no one has shoved my head in a toilet today."
* My favourite bit of dialogue:
Ned Freedman: It's a classic transformation story. Are you now or have you ever been a Norse God, Vampire, or Time Traveling Cyborg?
Mike O' Donnell: I have known you since, what, first grade? I think that maybe I would have told you!
Ned Freedman: Vampire wouldn't tell, Cyborg wouldn't know.

* Michelle Trachtenberg is pretty good at playing a high school girl, and why not? She has got about, I dunno, ten years experience at it now?
* They don't bother to make the guy dating the main character's estranged wife into a dirtbag or buffoon; I appreciate it when they pass up the easy shots.
* Sterling Knight, despite having a name befitting either a D&D or Golden Age comics character, does a great job as Matt Perry's son (and Zac Efron's buddy), with a great balance between surliness and earnest awkwardness.
* They don't waste a lot of time on the 'things are a lot different in high school now', focusing instead on the incongruity of 17 year old Efron spouting 39 year old Perry's values during a class on human sexuality: "Yeah, abstinence! That's a great idea! Who's with me?"
* There is some decent dialogue to be had. For instance, after hearing his wife's friend discuss how she is going to help her 'get back into play', Efron jumps up with, "You are still married, you know. If this were Afghanistan, you would be pulled backwards through the streets by mountain goats with your hands cut off... just saying."
* Despite being a tweener poster boy, Zac Efron shows some real comic timing chops, and his physical comedy fu is pretty strong.

All in all, for something not entirely intended for me and that I went into with a fair dose of skepticism, it was a pretty enjoyable show.

My ability to relate to the entertainments of my daughters will surely diminish in the years to come, if only temporarily. Hopefully there will be a few more pleasant surprises like these two along the way, and maybe even afterwards. If nothing else, they are helping me to keep an open mind.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Three Decades Later, The Future Arrived!

Electronic entertainment has been a part of my recreational repertoire since I was a child, when my dad drove me out to the lobby of the Edmonton International Airport to play the first coin-operated Pong machine. Dad worked in air traffic control and so was no stranger to technology in theory, but a computerized game that you fed quarters to was quite the novelty to him at the time, and a real eye-opener to me. I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old.

Later on, friends of ours would get home versions of the same game, and commence burning the borders of the Pong arenas onto the cathode ray tubes of their televisions, many of which dwelt on the floor in wooden (or wooden-looking) cabinets. Sometime after this, cartridge-based video game systems, like the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision would come along, but the closest thing that came to our house in Leduc was the TRS-80 colour computer.

I learned how to program in Basic with the old "Trash 80", and while there were some fun games available for it, the real joy for me was when the system facilitated play between myself and other carbon-units. If you asked anyone I hung out with in Junior High or High School, the best game for the TRS-80 was unquestionably Gangbusters by Prickly Pear Software, a game with terrible sound and virtually no graphics to speak of, but which allowed 13 year olds to infiltrate unions, open stills and 'houses', bet on the ponies and most importantly, take out contracts on the other players. You knew you were out of the game when the message "They got you at the tollbooth!" flashed onscreen.

One of the other uses for this early personal computer was as an assistant to pencil and paper games, such as the clumsy programs I wrote to design Car Wars vehicles or the Battletech damage application that sped up large games significantly by removing the need to look at multiple charts.

Intrigued by what friends had told me of the emerging BBS scene, I also got my first modem for the TRS-80, a 300 baud only one step up from the acoustic couplers we had seen in the movies of the time, and logged on to some local bulletin Boards, most regularly Edmonton's The rrrrRock. It was there I first tried online games, mostly text-based RPGs and the occasional ASCII-driven strategy game like Barons, but they never managed to hold my interest. More fun was to be had, again, just connecting and conversing with other people.

What graphics there were back in those days were primitive and blocky, and stayed that way in my eyes until I picked up a Commodore Amiga while I was going to college at Augustana in Camrose. This was the first system I had seen displaying realistic images, and also the first one that required a dedicated monitor instead of a television with an RF switch hooked up to it.

Although the Amiga was renowned in its day for its graphic abilities, I mostly appreciated it for its word processing software (tremendously advanced compared to what I had used on the TRS-80), and for its games. Once again though, my fondest memories are of multi-player games like the futuristic sport of Speedball or the early flight simulator Falcon. I was nothing short of spellbound watching my roommate Rob re-wire a serial cable which enabled us to hook our two Amigas up and fight head to head with no delay. Let's remember that in 1990, the next LAN party was a helluva long ways off, so this was a big deal to us.

You would think that with all that preamble I would be only too willing to try out modern online gaming, like the initial EverQuest, or World of Warcraft. There is an online role-playing game for nearly every genre now, from superhero to sci-fi. Or if that's not your speed, strategy games like Warcraft, Starcraft or Dawn of War let you pit your mettle against your computer, or against your friends or even total strangers over the internet. But I just can't be bothered.

It's not that I don't like video-games, and unless this is your first time to this blog, you are already painfully aware of this fact, but the online multi-player games feel like they simulate socializing as opposed to actually doing it. I know there are advocates out there who say their online friends are just as close as those they have in the 'real world', and that's fine, but I wonder, what kind of friendship is it? Have they ever helped you move? Have they ever cooked you a meal when you were sick? Have they ever given you a hug when you desperately needed human contact? Did they ever set you straight when you did something stupid? Not everyone needs these things, but these elements and a thousand other smaller ones are the means by which I define and measure friendships, and the games that we play and the way in which we play them together are a big part of that.

So imagine how shocked I was this weekend, when a half-dozen of us sat down to our pencil and paper, tabletop D&D game, and with not much more than a laptop and a webcam, we were able to include our friend Colin, who moved out of province over a year ago.

Like me, there is certainly nothing preventing Colin from diving into a computerized RPG, or even trying to find a gaming group out on Vancouver Island where he currently lives, but it's something I have never done either. I play games as a means of spending time with my friends, my friends are not a means by which I play games, and the idea of being a middle-aged dude and finding out which of my co-workers or social peers would not be embarrassed or horrified at the prospect of playing such a marginalized pastime is intimidating at best. And that is for someone without Colin's street cred as a published and paid RPG designer and writer, for pity's sake!

The session was not without its awkward moments, but not nearly as distracting as you might think. I would say it would have been about the same if you had a friend lose the use of both of his arms who wanted to play: someone else rolls his dice and moves his figure, and that is about it. Occasionally someone would have to pick up the webcam and give Colin a bird's eye view of the tactical situation, but that was about it.

And no, it wasn't quite the same as the real thing, but that wasn't the point; the point was that it is as close as we can get, and that proximity is something that as little as two decades ago I would have told you was science-fiction. By means of what is now everyday technology, we were able to bridge a gap of some 1200 kilometres, including a number of mountain ranges and a major body of water, and bring a distant friend to our table for some fun and fellowship.

Now that is what I call a 'social network'.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Predators Trailer: A Return to Form?

After a number of crappy sequels, it looks like we may actually be getting another decent Predator movie this summer.

Produced by Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Spy Kids, Grindhouse) and directed by newcomer Nimrod Antal (Armored, Kontroll), Predators looks to capitalize on all that was good in the original, and downplay the subsequent suckiness.

2.3 decades later, I'm still a little surprised at how much I enjoy the original, and how well it's held up. A lot of this can be credited to director John McTiernan who went on to direct great films like The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard before getting really intermittent and then pretty much flaming out with his remake of Rollerball. McTiernan's direction is solid in this movie though, with gripping suspense, frantic but clear action and even some deftly handled light hearted moments. And this balancing act is reflected through the entirety of the movie, in that it does a number of somewhat contradictory things really well:

It's a horror movie with action elements.
It's a sci-fi movie with a realistic military flavour.
It's a monster flick without stupid people as victims.
It's a Schwarzenegger movie with an ensemble of great, great characters.

Especially that last point. Unlike many similar movies, Predator is not content to surround the hero with ciphers and redshirts: every supporting character is cool, and knowing how capable they are makes watching them get picked off one by one deliciously tense.

It looks as though they are of a like mind with Predators. Bill Duke, Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Sonny "Billy" Landham,and Carl Weathers are a pretty tough act to follow, testosteronically speaking. And while Adrien Brody is no Arnie, that's for certain I think Danny Trejo more than makes up for that. Laurence "Morpheus" Fishburne is looking tuff with two fs, and hey, even Topher Grace was Venom, right? All right, maybe that's a bad example... Still and all, the cast probably represents a more modern take on masculinity, at least movie-wise: more class, less muscle mass?

Even the actors I don't know (like Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, who may have the longest first name in cinema), look to be playing interesting characters, like Shane Black (a screenwriter!) did as Hawkins, the comms guy in Predator. I keep hoping Tony Jaa will get a role in a film like this, but maybe he likes being a big fish in a smaller pond.

I'm also saddened that they didn't get Alan Silvestri back to do the music, as the Predator score is a great one. But you can't go wrong with the late, great, Stan Winston's creature design.

Obviously it is a lot easier to make a good trailer than to make a good movie, but I am starting to think this sequel could be worth an outing this July.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Erin Go Broth

In Ireland, land of my grandfather's birth
Many a good thing comes out of the earth
Roots like potatoes as sure as you'd think
Or the barley that goes in the Guinness we drink
And drinking it's fine but there's more we can do
There's pint and a half of it cooked in this stew

Since I have a meeting on Wednesday night, I spent part of the weekend making up a proper Irish stew for St. Patrick's day. The bulk of the time, as always, was cutting up vegetables, and having never worked with rutabaga before, I was unprepared for the amount of effort required to render it into bite-sized chunks. Searing the stew beef was relatively easy, but judging from the dimensions I came across, it is obvious that the definition of "cube" is pretty subjective. Using the tongs to stand un-cooperative rectangles of meat on their narrow end in some flesh-derived Jenga variant while flinching as bits of grease pop like corn is not nearly as a good a time as you might think, but in the end everything got prepped and into the fridge in good order.

This morning it all got tossed into the crock pot along with two and a half cups of Guinness, some garlic, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce and the like. Regrettably, draught Guinness is sold in cans of 440 mL and are not re-sealable, which is why my daughter entered the kitchen this morning to find me finishing a bowl of Corn Pops and then chasing it with the better part of a pint of the black stuff.

"What's that you're drinking daddy?" Fenya inquired.

"Guinness," says I.

She nodded as she headed to the cupboard for a bowl. "Nice."

By suppertime it was done to a turn, although the broth was a bit thin, so Audrey helped me extract some so she could make a roux, and after we seasoned that up we had a real winner on our hands.

Best of all, there was plenty left over, so on Tuesday night, before St. Paddy's Day, we will eat our Irish stew in front of the television and watch "The Quiet Man", possibly the best movie ever made about Ireland, and certainly my favourite.

This Wednesday, I hope you all have the opportunity to share a bowl of simple food served hot with your loved ones, or a chance to hear a sentimental song from the old sod, or to listen as someone with a brogue in their voice makes you laugh (or cry as the case may be). It's said that on St. Patrick's Day, there are only two kinds of people: the Irish, and those that wish they were. I can't say that's true, but I'm very glad for that part of my heritage, and only too happy to share the best parts of it with you.

May the hinges on our friendship never grow rusty!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Comics Need a Brightness Control

This is a great little essay from io9 about how having superheroes deal with increasingly grim and dark themes in the name of 'reality' or 'maturity' is not doing the medium any favors. The article is entitled "Superhero Tragedy Porn is Bad for Comics", and those of you with sensitive dispositions may want to forego clicking the link altogether. Kids, I'm looking at you.) There's some steep stuff going down in the funny papers that I had no idea about, despite having written about this topic previously at the beginning of the year. It's as if a bunch of editors and writers are looking at Lethal Weapon 2 (which I also disliked) and said, "Yeah! That's how you make a story personal! That's how you justify excess!" Green Arrow's former ward, Speedy, deserved better than this.

Now don't get me wrong, I think comics are a flexible medium, and dealing with mature themes in the way that Frank Miller did in Sin City is fine. But telling sordid tales on the back of characters who were established, if not for children, at least for the young at heart, could make it hard to look at these mythic characters the same way. I have to ask where this brinkmanship is going to end, a villain called Rapeman?

Even Watchmen, one of my favourite book ever, chose to do its deconstruction of superheroes with ones created for the occasion. One of the illustrations in that article means The Blob (an X-Men villain who runs the gamut from ineffectual to comic relief) has been forever altered in my memory.

I don't want to be a hypocrite here, and I admit I have enjoyed my share of dark tales told in comic form, none more so than Watchmen, although Japan's Lone Wolf and Cub trumps even that in terms of brutality and explicitness. But neither of thse stories deal with iconic figures that have been a part of popular culture for the better part of a century, and ones which have become synonymous with values like heroism.

Superheroes are a mythic representation of humanity at its finest and they need villains to fully demonstrate this, but these reflections are meant to be larger than life. In the Silver Age of comics, writers like Denny O'Neil introduced societal themes like racism, drugs, population explosions and poverty into books like Green Lantern, but it was always in service to a story, not just cheap shock or titillation. They seemed to hit the storytelling sweet spot somewhere south of Mount Olympus and its boring paragons, but a good ways north of the gutter.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Party Has a First Name...

(...it's O-S-C-A-R...)

Last night was our umpteenth annual Oscar Party, and as always, it was a great time. I don't think The Hurt Locker was really the best film, but a lot of us here love Kathryn Bigelow, and to think that she was the first Best Director who wasn't a white male ever kind of boggles the mind. Maybe I need to go back and watch Point Break now...

Perhaps not.

Sandra Bullock's film did not interest me that much, but her speech nearly made me weep. District 9 was not Best Picture, but with a $30M budget, made me wonder where the other $100+ million go on Hollywood sci-fi movies. Up did not win Best Picture (Best Animated Feature is a sop, I'm sorry), but made me wish there was a category for Best Short Film Within a Feature Length Movie for its opening montage, maybe one of the best movie love stories ever. I was extremely happy to see Christoph Waltz win for his amazing performance in Inglourious Basterds, and his acceptance speech was so full of gratitude that it warmed the cockles of my heart, including the sub-cockles. I wish Inglourious Basterds had won Best Original Screenplay since I think it is Tarantino's best writing since Pulp Fiction. Avatar's wins for Art Direction and Visual Effects felt well deserved, but how do you win a Cinematography award for a film shot primarily on green-screen? Ah, well.

I would have given the Best Picture statue to Up In The Air, which I highly advise everyone to see. All the principal actors are excellent, and I will now see pretty much anything Jason Reitman makes based on his first three outings (Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air). Vera Farmiga is excellent, and Anna Kendrick may have the best crying scene ever captured on film.

What does it say about us that so many of the Best Picture nominees dealt with alienation? Avatar touched on how separated we are from the natural world, and the art director's speech reminded us that the world we live in is as wonderful as the one they created for us; District 9 showed us a world of alien refugees living in apartheid; The Hurt Locker dealt with a man addicted to the adrenalin rush of defusing bombs; and Up In The Air gave us a portrait of a man who has willfully cuts himself off from the connections that give our lives meaning, like friends and family.

If you like movies, you really should have an Oscar Party. Even if you don't like the nominees, it's a night dedicated to the glorious potential of cinema. I know people who host Superbowl parties because they like the commercials and they have a compulsive need to entertain with chili, and they don't really give a flying rat's three fingers what the score is or who's playing, so if you like films (and I know you do), you should throw an Oscar party next year. Here's how you do it:

1) Enjoy movies (nuff said).
2) Send an invite right after the nominations are announced in February, as this gives everyone time to download I mean get out to see the nominated films.
3) Make it a pot luck so you don't have to do all the cooking.
1.5) This is really important and I should have mentioned it earlier: have really good friends and cool acquaintances, because your party won't be much without them.
Where was I? Oh, right,
4) Print out a ballot from www.oscar.com and get some copies made. Give one to each guest (and your kids if they insist).
5) Dish a little bit on the red carpet, including how ludicrous the amount of attention spent on the red carpet is. (Best shot ever: when Heather saw Catherine Zeta-Jones getting out of a limo followed by (husband) Michael Douglas and said "Aw, that's sweet, she brought her dad!")
6) Bring a big bag of wrapped candies.
7) Whenever anyone gets a guess right, praise them and throw them a toffee or some such (cf. Pavlov et al).
8) Have a small prize (i.e. gift certificate from Best Buy, movie tickets, etc) and give it to the person with the most correct predictions.

Bonus Points for The March of the Dead: every Oscar telecast includes a montage where they show all the Hollywood types who passed on in the previous year, and in the spirit of macabre humor and the trivializing of mortality, we have made it into a drinking game. Here is how it works:
1) If they show a person you do not recognize, no problem.
2) If they show someone you recognize, and you were aware of their passing, no problem.
3) If a name comes up that you recognize, but you were unaware that they had died (i.e. "Oh shit, Dom Deluise died?!"), take a drink. In some years, it is not unheard of for a drink to be taken in memory of Abe Vigoda, who is actually still among the living.
We typically make this drink a shot of some form of mild liqueur (this years sampling consisted of Butter Ripple Schnapps, Goldschlager and Travis Hasse's Apple Pie; I got away with 5 shots while Mike and Pete took 6 apiece. This was a pretty good year for us all, as we have been known to dip into the double digits, which can be harsh, but hey, that's the rules of the game.

This year's overall winner was our good friend Sylvia with 14 right, who narrowly edged out her own husband and our minister's partner (and me with 13 as it turns out, but I am disqualified as it is unbecoming for the host to win (which I think has only happened once in the last decade)). The record is still held by my sister with an astonishing 19 correct, from back when we lived at our old place. I really should keep those sheets...

Next year, if you can't come to mine, throw your own Oscar party. Be like the Na'vi and not like George Clooney's character in Up In The Air:

Make a connection.

If you have trouble with point 1.5 above, start working on it now, it's worth it. And if you hate all the nominees, get some foam bricks and throw them at the screen.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Next Best Trick

Four days after my last post, and things are already looking immeasurably better, thanks in large part to a massive weekend, full of friends.

We had the minister and his partner over for supper on Friday and broke out the Risk: Godstorm. Having an ordained individual talk about how much they wanted to invoke a death god in order to sink Atlantis really made me wonder if there was anything additional we could have done to honk off any social conservatives who happened to stop by. "The missus and I are just having a beer with our minister and his partner while we move little mythological figures around an ancient map and battle for control of the Underworld, why do you ask?" The highlight of the evening for me was when I mentioned how scared I was of the upcoming hockey game due to the hot goalie the U.S. had, and Glen very quickly said, "You know, when you say 'hot goalie', and I say 'hot goalie', they mean totally different things."

Saturday night we had The Unusual Suspects over for D&D, and watched Kevin Martin nab the gold medal for curling. Again, good folks make for a good time. Even the beer brought a novelty factor as Pete brought over a party pig from Sherbrooke, a micro-keg sort of affair that holds about 25 beer from Wild Rose Brewery out of Calgary, in this case, the Wred Wheat Ale. I have had a few samplings from Wild Rose now, and I have enjoyed all of them.

Sunday after church (and let me tell you, that was an early morning) we went over to Jeff and Heather's to enjoy the gold medal hockey game. Well, most of it, anyways. I can't truly say I enjoyed the last minute of regulation time when the U.S. pushed it to overtime, or any of the overtime itself until Crosby scored. I started making sure I sat next to someone whose first-aid ticket and CPR skills were up to date, just in case. Sudden death? No kidding... But the rest was great, and the ending was stellar. The closing ceremonies were a gas too, even if a couple of the comedy bits fell a little flat.

Tonight we began the slow process of bedroom reclamation, which involved my dusting all the furniture and cupboards and replacing the bedside lamps in preparation for the novelty of having actual clothes in the actual furniture designed to hold them and not a bunch of Rubbermaid boxes in the basement. Since we have been trying to keep a textile quarantine around the bedroom, I have been forced to leave my pjs in the bedroom whilst I pad downstairs to get dressed, and the sun is staring to come up early enough now that the 'nekkid burglar' routine has got to go. Plus it would only be a matter of time before I forgot the girls were having someone sleep over or some such and caused massive psyche trauma for all parties involved.

So, yeah, my outlook has improved considerably in less than a week. I ven got a full session in on the Wii Fit this morning. But in a related story, let me tell you about The Devil.

"They say The Devil's greatest trick was convincing the world that he didn't exist." - Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

Be that as it may, his next best trick revolves around him thinking, "I need something more physically embarassing for that guy than Dance Dance Revolution." I picture The Devil with an elbow on his desk, his head in his palm, an expression of frustrated boredom and ennui on his face as the screams of the damned echo in the distance. My picture is paper-clipped to a manila file emblazoned with a "PENDING" stamp sitting on his desktop. A junior imp of some kind, possibly an intern, shuffles his feet uncomfortably in the silence, until his superior speaks:
"This guy clearly has no friggin' idea what he looks like playing these games. Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Fit, Punch Out, nothing has worked. This is an obese 40-year-old who not only admits playing games designed by and for Japanese adolescents, he raves about it to anyone who will sit still long enough to hear him out!!" He drums his fingers across the vintage green blotter pad, then stops, and snaps them. "Okay, pull out the heavy guns; drop Just Dance in front of his nose, maybe in public."

"How about his workplace?" the Imp chimes in with an obsequious tone. "That's the bulk of his waking time these days."

The Devil waves a taloned and impeccably manicured hand with a dismissive air. "Whatever. Just make it soon; February's almost over and the full moon is on the wane."

The intern nods and quickly exits, eager to put his master's plan into motion.

And so it came to pass last week that at our staff meeting, my boss busted out the Wii instead of a regular agenda. And she opened things up with Just Dance. Unlike DDR, which can be played by a man with no arms whatsoever, provided he has decent balance, Just Dance works on a pantomime premise limited to the upper body. Copying the dancer on the screen, you execute a series of classic dance moves in time to the music, like the swim, the monkey, the hitch hiker, the point, the lariat, et cetera.

And after the director had a go (by himself, brave man), they threw it open to the group, and one of the new hires, Louise, says, "I wanna have a dance off with Steve."

Well, there is clearly no way to leave that gauntlet on the ground without looking like a grade A, blue ribbon weenie and charter member of the Funbusters Squad, so I acquiesced and headed up in front of my colleagues, and promptly got schooled to the tune of "I Like to Move It Move It" by a woman half my age who I think may actually be taller than I am.

I didn't embarrass myself score-wise, I think I can say I held my own, even if I am no longer the best dancer in my weight class (sigh), and I gained some street cred with my homies for not backing down and all that. I sought to redeem myself afterwards by saying, "you aren't allowed to be too proud of beating an old fat dude in a dance-off, lady!" but in truth, it was a pretty good time. And in greater truth, I can't see doing it in public again unless beer is involved.

And so it was that His Infernal Majesty set out to embarrass me, and failed, because while I am a long ways away from losing my ego, I have gotten a lot better at letting it know who's boss.

And when The Morning Star sought to rub my face in it by throwing the game in front of me at Costco on Saturday, instead of recoiling in horror, I picked it up instead. "I'll show you, Satan!" I thought to myself. "I'll get good at this game, so the next time the challenge comes, I'll be ready. Even if there is no beer involved!"

Besides, what better way to teach my girls the words to "Surfin' Bird" by The Trashmen?