Sunday, December 25, 2011

Yuletide Felicitations

We had an idea for our Christmas photo this year that didn't pan out, so we did this instead; it clearly falls somewhere in the no-man's land between sincere and ironic, which, in many ways, sums us up pretty well...

Given the sudden onset of holiday insanity syndrome, I shouldn't be surprised that I nearly forgot to make an update this week.  At any rate, Christmas Day seemed an opportune time to show the extreme to which my lovely wife takes her Christmas decorating.

This brief video was shot after the stockings and gifts were all opened, so it is a bit more chaotic looking than usual, but even this short tour of the living room reveals two or three of our five Christmas trees, most of the holiday candles and assorted other decorations.

I should explain that this is not a complaint, I just find it amusing and ironic that my wife can josh me about my nerdly obsessions while demonstrating such devotion to holiday accoutrements; I have sometimes referred to her spiritual denomination as "Christmastian".

It's been a lovely Christmas so far; my sister, her boyfriend and his son joined us for Christmas Eve and our church's pageant.  After church we exchanged gifts and played a rousing game of "Scabs & Guts", a 'meducational' trivia game.  This morning we opened our stockings, and our guests headed out for the rest of their visits.

My sister-in-law and her three children arrived shortly after that, and once everyone had a latte in their had, we exchanged another set of gifts.  My favourite came from my nephew Mark; if you are only going to have one beer before dinner, this is clearly the way to go. 

And Fenya made my cool new Batman pyjama pants in her sewing classes; how cool is that?

Hoping you are all enjoying a festive holiday and merriest of Christmases!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dinner & A Show

Watching the girls grow up and become more independent is bittersweet to be sure, but one of the fortuitous ancillary benefits is no longer needing to find a babysitter, allowing Audrey and I to step out and splurge for a change.

After getting the girls' dinner sorted out we went to Lazia for our own evening victuals.  An excessively modern Asian fusion restaurant with imaginative food and a comprehensive cocktail menu, even though I opted for their house lager, Drunken Master, brewed for them by Big Rock.  Audrey had a creamy macadamia nut concoction served in a martini glass that was delightful, and then another, as we were attending a movie afterwards just across the parking lot, so there was no need to drive anywhere anytime soon.

We shared an order of kung pao chicken hand rolls, served with crispy noodles and lettuce leaves to bind them up.  This is by no means a practical means of attaining sustenance, but it was messy, fun, and altogether tasty, with the cool, crisp lettuce providing a nice counterpoint to the spicy chicken and cashews.

For dinner, Audrey had the catch of the day, cod served with mesquite grilled prawns.  Seeing the wisdom in her seafood inclination, I ordered a seafood rice bowl teeming with mussels, prawns, and whitefish, served with a mild coconut curry.  The service was excellent, and the food arrived so quickly, we even stayed for dessert to kill a little time, which had not been our intention.

After dinner we meandered to theater and enjoyed a game of air hockey and dinosaur safari in the amusement parlour and then took our seats for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

As with most sequels attempting to build a franchise, the primary rule appears to be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and that aphorism is clearly in play here.  There is very little new here, and in some ways it feels as though the original bromantic comedy has simply been extended by a few extra reels.

Not that there is anything wrong with that!  Robert Downey Jr. plays yet another reflection of himself as Sherlock Holmes; a tortured genius who just might be too smart for his own good.  Jude Law remains dapper, jaded, and if not unflappable, certainly flap-resistant as his companion and partner, Dr. Watson.

The welcome newcomer is Jared Harris as the diabolical Prof. James Moriarty, Holmes' nemesis, and possibly the archetype for a thousand pulp and comic book villains in the century that followed his original literary incarnation.  Harris plays Moriarty with sufficient charm but without ever losing the ineffable sense of menace that such a character should exude.

The period references are again very well done, and movie serves admirably as a time machine to Victorian Europe, and the international strategic posturing familiar to students of history and those who play the game Diplomacy.  Sticklers for historical accuracy however, should be forewarned that they could very easily have called this film Steampunk Holmes.  All the hallmarks are here: anachronistic weapons, pernicious automata, gilded lethality, and, yes, brass, and goggles.

Not that there is anything wrong with that!  It has never been the intention of director Guy Ritchie to faithfully recreate the period , setting, or even the plots of the original Sherlock Holmes writings, but to capture the flavour and essence of them, and repackage them in a way palatable to audiences grown jaded with mere fantasy, but inoffensive to fans of the original works.  It is a difficult balancing act and there will be many who say he has failed, but I think Guy Ritchie has pulled it off once again.  His action set pieces are balletic and mesmerizing, and more than his camera work and use of slow-motion, it is his sonic artistry that continues to impress me, using all manner of sound effects and audio cues layered over rapid cuts to simultaneously mislead and provide insight to the viewer, often in a time-delayed fashion.

Simply put, if you enjoyed the first one, it is probably worth a trip out to see it on the big screen, and more importantly, on a good sound system  Audrey and I saw it in one of Cineplex's AudioAVX theatres, which provides a generally excellent viewing experience, in addition to reserved seating (for an expected premium in price, obviously).

All in all, a wonderful evening, and a very suitable way to spend our 19th anniversary.  When we were married, having a number of the wedding party still in school meant scheduling our wedding after the end of exams, and perilously close to Christmas, which has since resulted in more than one year where we have had no choice but to honour only the smallest of observances, and to take a rain check on proper festivities that did not always come to pass.

Spending time in a restaurant far more trendy than we are, sipping drinks and sharing reminiscences as well as forkfuls of food from each others' plates, and then curled up together in a theatre watching a hip incarnation of a classic detective story that has at least as much to do with affection as it does with deduction, was not only a welcome departure from many previous years, but it might have actually been ideal.

Happy anniversary Audrey; here's to 1.9 decades of honeymooning!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

This Christian Will Miss Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed away this week after a battle with esophageal cancer.  A gifted essayist and prominent atheist, it might seem odd that some of us had a discussion after church this morning as to whether he should have been mentioned in the 'prayers of the people', where we ask for grace and peace for those in need, including the friends and families of the recently departed.

I opened the discussion by saying that a couple of obituaries had included some variation on the idea that the writer would ask that Christopher Hitchens rest in peace, but that a) he didn't believe in any sort of afterlife, b) given his predilection to effectively argue unpopular positions, he probably wouldn't like to rest in peace anyhow.  Do you undermine the man's opposition to organized religion by asking for peace and grace for his loved ones at a time of grief, or do you compromise your own professed values by not doing so?  Do you risk alienating attending the service those who felt Hitchens was unnecessarily provocative and combative?  Later on I asked our minster, James, if it would have been appropriate to mention Hitchens' passing, and he certainly thought so, but hadn't considered it while putting the prayer together.  Others have struggled with the best way to recognize his passing, and none have expressed it so eloquently as fake newspaper The Onion with their headline, "Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate to Christopher Hitchens."

For my two cents worth, I was grateful to Christopher Hitchens for forcing people like myself to examine their faith critically, and from the perspective of an insightful outsider.  In his book God is Not Great, he suggests that Christians in particular have nothing to support their beliefs but faith itself, and calls on them to be brave enough to admit it.  Despite being diametrically opposed on the question of spiritual faith, we both shared an opposition to superstition, persecution and intolerance.  Even when I disagreed with his viewpoint, there was no denying the articulation and conviction of his arguments.

More important to me than his potentially ironic standing as an atheist icon was his dedication to the values my faith group tries to share, such as truth, and justice, and most importantly his fearlessness in doing so. He walked in lock step with the Bush administration's actions in the Middle East following 9/11, including the invasion of Iraq, and debated that act with British M.P. George Galloway, asserting his position despite the boos from the audience.  Despite supporting the invasion, he allowed himself to be waterboarded, dismissing that same administration's assertions that this was an 'enhanced interrogation technique' in a Vanity Fair article famously entitled, "Believe Me, It's Torture".

There are people of faith who believe Hitchens is perhaps now surprised to find himself experiencing the afterlife he did not believe in.  Perhaps he is, but this 'eternal reward' is not the pole I build my tent of belief around.  The only assertion I can make is that the world we live in can use more articulate, passionate and rational people who are dedicated to that most elusive of goals, the truth, regardless of their beliefs.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Good Coverage: Where is My Mind

There are those that oppose them, but I have always appreciated sincere cover versions of songs I like.  Sometimes it is a real testimonial to the strength of the song itself that it can survive or even thrive being interpreted by another artist, often in another genre.

Sometimes this homage can be playful, like Finnish metal band Turisas covering Boney M's "Rasputin", sometimes it can add soul to an already good song, such as Earth, Wind & Fire performing "Got to Get You Into My Life" (my favourite Beatles cover). Sometimes they are whimsical and yet still respectful, like Paul Anka's brilliant cover collection, Rock Swings.  I'm certain the slow, piano-based cover of Tears for Fears "Mad World" by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews helped sell a few copies of Gears of War, too, thanks to its use in that commercial.

One of my favourite Pixies songs (and not a cover) is "Where is My Mind", which is the musical backdrop for a milk commercial currently playing on television, and can also be heard playing at the very end of David Fincher's awesome film Fight Club.

Cleaning up in the kitchen this morning, I had an urge to hear the tune, but the only Pixies album I had on my iPad was Doolittle.  No worries, I thought, I'll play it on YouTube instead.

The song finished before my chores did, so I dried my hands and prepared to make another selection.  One of the suggestions on the YouTube page was a piano cover of "Where is my Mind", by French composer and musician Maxence Cyrin.  The video is set to scenes from the Greta Garbo film The Mysterious Lady, and suits it wonderfully, especially at this slower tempo.

It turns out Monsieur Cyrin's most recent album, Novo Piano, has covers of Daft Punk, MGMT and Nirvana, in addition to this Pixies cover, so I am hoping to find this album at some point.  The video for The Arcade Fire's "No Cars Go" is also a great little short film in its own right.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Felt Something: The Muppets

We went to our first family movie outing tonight since X-Men: First Class in the summer, and saw The Muppets. Like they were for a lot of people, the Muppets were a key part of my childhood, both on Sesame Street and in their own television variety show, and it has saddened me over the years to see them losing ground to other pop-cultural and entertainment entities.

I can't tell you much about Jason Segel except I see him in ads for How I Met Your Mother, which I know is enjoyed by a lot of people I respect, but apparently he is a huge fan of the Muppets, and was a big reason for this movie getting made, and actually helped write the screenplay.  Based on this alone, I am now a fan of his.

If you have ever enjoyed the Muppets, you need to go see this movie, and quickly.  I'm afraid there is not a lot more I can tell you, because for something so familiar it is almost trite, there are a couple of great little surprises in this film.  Don't let anyone spoil a single gag or cameo for you, even though there are plenty.

I missed Frank Oz a great deal, especially in Fozzie's voice, but I can't agree with his feeling that the characters were not being treated with respect in the screenplay, and that the humour came from broad, cheap laughs.  Well, okay, that second part is kind of hard to disagree with, but it's always been that way, hasn't it?  This first Muppet movie in over twelve years (!) has really captured the feel for me of the classic, corny Muppets I grew up with, plus a lot of my newer favourites, like Bobo the Bear and Pepe, the King Prawn.

Best of all, the filmmakers (and through them,the Muppets themselves) are completely self-aware that they are out of step with current tastes, that this kind of simple whimsy really has no place in the cynical entertainment marketplace of this second decade of the 21st century.  And that is all the more reason to see it, and see it soon.

That's not to say it's perfect; it's a bit uneven in places, but for anyone who is a fan of the television show, you are not just used to this, you've actually come to expect it, right?

I really don't want to chance spoiling anything for you, but since I want this post to be more than just "See it; trust me!", here are my

 Top 10 Reasons to See The Muppets in Theatres ASAP

10. Amy Archer is wonderful, and should get more work.
9. Rockin' 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
8. Singing and dancing, just like the old show.
7. Most of the cameos are quite good.
6. Hearing 'The Rainbow Connection'.
5.Some of the cameos are actually great.
4.Jason Segel has put together a great story about the world's biggest Muppet fan, and it isn't him.
3. One of the cameos is indisputably brilliant.
2. Chris Cooper is the best villain without a maniacal laugh ever.
and the number 1 reason you should see The Muppets in theatres ASAP
1.  It is just absolutely, one hundred percent #%&ing delightful.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Following Thanks, A Season of Giving

I know a couple of people who recently wrapped up some fundraising for prostate cancer in support of Movember.

I've seen a few boxes getting filled for Santa's Anonymous, which is an awesome charity. I've loved Santa's Anonymous since I was a kid hearing "And a Creature Was Stirring" on 630 CHED for the first time. (Seriously, if you haven't heard it, or just miss it, take four and a half minutes and listen to it here.)

At work, we have teams competing to see who can gather the most toys for the kids at the Stollery Children's Hospital, and that's going ridiculously well.

Everyone at my church was given some white kitchen garbage bags and a list of needed items about two weeks ago, and today, on what is called White Gift Sunday, we all brought our bags to the front of the church.

There is nothing fancy in them,and very little in the way of toys, but there are new socks, winter caps, underwear and mittens; razors, deodorant, toothpaste and feminine hygiene products. All these bags and everything in them (as well as some cash from the people whose faces this morning practically screamed, "Oh crap, that's today?") will be brought to the Mustard Seed Church and Bissell Centre in downtown Edmonton.

It's not the kind of stuff that's going to turn anyone's life around, but in the midst of winter, it has the potential to make a lot of lives just a little more bearable.

The older I get, the more Christmas turns from getting to giving for me. At first this was centered on the lovely lady who (astonishingly) chose to share my life, and then it gravitated to our offspring.

As they grow older, I've come to realize that one of the most important things I can give them is a model of what giving looks Iike and who it benefits. And not just the obligatory tithing we all do when a hat gets passed; the thing I appreciate the most about White Gift Sunday is that both girls have some money they set aside for charity, and they get to choose some items that will have a positive impact on someone else's life. The fact that this can be something as simple as toothpaste tells me that as a society, we are still short of getting our balancing act right.

For everyone who gives, no matter what or how or when, you have my thanks. Please take a moment to let others know that you are giving, so that they can get the idea and maybe give a little too.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, December 2, 2011

Heroes: Less Filling or Great Tasting?

I've never really come down off the fence in terms of Marvel versus DC.  Batman and Superman have always held more appeal for me as individual heroes, but I still have mad respect for Spider-Man and Daredevil.  Thanks largely to the excellent animated series, the Justice League will probably always be my favourite super-team, but choosing between the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans of DC and Chris Claremont's run on X-Men would probably be a photo finish.

The difference between the two universes is both subtle and distinct, but I don't think it is easy to articulate.  Both universes run the gamut from street level to cosmic storylines, often in the same book, but I think cartoonist Scott Kurtz once expressed the difference as DC being about tying a towel around your neck and pretending you're Superman, while a Thor fan is more likely to pontificate about the mysteries of the universe.  For myself, I don't know if I can define what makes these two comic book settings unique, but vive la difference!

One area I think Marvel has demonstrated its clear superiority in is in transferring their universe to the big screen.  While DC's animated offerings (Bruce Timm's Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League) have set new standards of brilliance in doing this on television, Marvel has really outdone them at the movies.  Yes, Richard Donner's Superman has a lot going for it, especially the casting of Christopher Reeve, and Christopher Nolan's take on Batman has been undeniably awesome, but no one in their right mind will try to put these interpretations on the same screen, while Marvel Studios has very intentionally crafted a crafty linkages that not only acknowledge Captain America, Thor, Hulk and Iron Man live in the same universe, but will soon star in the first big-budget super-team movie, The Avengers:

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited about this prospect, and watching Captain America: The First Avenger tonight hasn't done anything to dampen my enthusiasm.

Director Joe Johnson showed himself to be a deft hand with period superheroics years ago with Disney's adaptation of Dave Steven's wonderful comic The Rocketeer.  I made a joyful little squee-noise when I heard he'd gotten tapped to direct Captain America, because this is a character which is very easy to get wrong.  Feel free to watch the 1990 attempt if you don't believe me.

I seriously don't think there is a missed note in this movie.  They move very quickly from revenge (never once mentioning Pearl Harbor) to establishing the Nazi super-science division, Hydra, and its leader, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) as the villains of the piece.  When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), inventor of the super-soldier serum that will eventually give the Captain his powers, asks scrawny, 4-F Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) if he wants to kill Nazis, Steve responds, "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from. "

Costumes are often the most difficult element of these adaptations, and although there was some initial concern on the the internet (like there always is), I think they got it spot on here.  Captain America's costume is a brilliant mix of comic book idealism and battlefield practicality, evoking flying aces and paratroopers as much as Jack Kirby's iconic design.

Like Spider-Man did back in the day, Captain America establishes strong motivations for its principle characters, heroes and villains alike.  For the Red Skull, its about the application of power and world domination; for his research stooge Arnim Zola, it's about the application of undiscovered science; for Steve Rogers, it's the moral principle of doing what's right, especially when it isn't easy.  The story brings these characters and the plot around to a very satisfying climax, and while it doesn't pose any really tough questions for the viewer the way a film like The Dark Knight might, it still takes care to show the price of principle.  My worries about Joss Whedon (writer/director of The Avengers) adding his touches to the script in order to make sure Cap is the same fellow in both movies appear to have been needless.

While no one goes to a superhero movie for the acting, everyone aquits themselves admirably.  Chris Evans does an equally awesome job as scrawny Steve Rogers and brawny Captain America.  Pride of show has to go to Tommy Lee Jones, who, like so many great actors, really appears to be playing himself as the gruff colonel in charge of the super-soldier project.

And although screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have done a marvelous job of making this film accessible to those with no comics background, it is laden with nods to the larger Marvel universe beyond even what we will see in next year's Avengers.  It would have been terribly easy to use yet another generically evil Nazi labcoat as the Red Skull's right hand man, but having eventual super-villain Arnim Zola in the picture was a great touch. Adding Howard Stark (Tony 'Iron Man' Stark's dad) to the origin added even more structure to this shared universe, and didn't feel at all contrived. Seeing Dum-Dum Dugan was great, but casting Neal McDonough from Band of Brothers to play him made it even better, and knowing that his British comrade James Montgomery Falsworth is also the costumed hero known as Union Jack is just icing on the cake.

There's even some nice nods for film buffs, my favourite coming near the beginning when the Red Skull approaches his mythical prize, the Cosmic Cube: "Let the Fuhrer dig in the desert for his trinkets..."

Best of all, the movie is completely bereft of the rah-rah jingoism that the character of Captain America was practically designed for when he was first created back in the '40s.  The movie and the title character proceed with a balance of power and humility which they never seem to lose, and which epitomizes our southern neighbours when they are at their best.

As much as I am looking forward to the next Chris Nolan Batman movie, I am also surprisingly glad to hear DC/Warner will be looking to reboot Bruce Wayne's alter ego for the movies shortly afterwards.  First of all, who would want to follow that act without a significant re-shuffling of the deck?  More importantly, could this give DC the opportunity to create a cohesive movie universe that could have their seminal characters interacting and even perhaps (gasp) teaming up?

If it does (and I certainly hope this is the case!), I really hope they are sitting up and taking notes at films like Captain America.