Sunday, November 25, 2012

Skyfall VIPs

When we are first introduced to the cinematic Bond, in 1962's Dr. No, it is without the benefit of any sort of origin story.  Sean Connery simply saunters on, scintillates between extremely cool and very, very cold, and enters into filmic mythology.

Through five additional actors and five decades of films, very little is told to the viewer about Bond's past prior to his entry into MI6, aside from the hint of military service, presumably in Her Majesty's Navy.  Even the reboot begun with Casino Royale, which places Daniel Craig at the very onset of Bond's 'double-O' career, does so without a personal motivation or score to be settled.

As only the third iteration of James Blond, it feels a little early for Skyfall to be talking about change.  But when M's (Judi Dench) new boss (Ralph Fiennes) talks about transitioning her out of MI6, and questions Bond's ability to return to the field following his being presumed dead, it feels pretty natural.  After all, Casino Royale came out over half a decade ago, and with fewer and fewer gadgets picking up the slack, there is alot more physicality for the actor to pick up, which Craig still does with aplomb.

Skyfall manages to hit all the requisite Bond checkpoints (Chases? Check.  Escapes?  You bet.  Nasty close quarters fights? Absolutely. Bluffing your way into a casino with charm and a tuxedo? Mais bien sur!) without ever feeling tired or played out.  Maybe that's because much of the movie focuses on M, whose leadership is called into question at the start of the movie, and she spends much of the rest of it on the defensive, explaining her actions, including the ones that left Bond for dead before the opening credits.  Dame Judi Dench has always been stellar in her turn as M, but she has a lot more to work with in Skyfall, and the movie is much better off as a result.

Javier Bardem's villainous Mr. Silva is so captivating it makes you wonder why they wait until the second half of the film to unveil him.  In a catalogue that includes some of cinema's greatest villains, Bardem's portrayal of a wounded and disturbed genius is a tremendously well done blend of villainy and vulnerability.  Until the Craig iteration, the Bond villain often had to function as a dyad of Mastermind and Heavy (Goldfinger & Odd Job, Drax and Jaws, etc), but Mr. Silva is credible as both.

It is also a treat to meet the new Q, played by Ben Whishaw, who sets the tone for the enterprise when he equips 007 with his trademark Walther PPK (albeit with a palmprint scanner) and a homing beacon.  When Bond expresses disappointment, Q's smug response of, "What were you expecting, an exploding pen?  We don't really go in for that sort of thing these days," tells both Bond and the viewer that the days of laser wristwatches are well behind us.  (That said, I think more accessible gadgetry, like both the briefcase and shoe-blade in From Russia With Love would be appreciated, at least by me!)  There are a couple of choice moments for longtime Bond fans though, which I shall not spoil for you.

Skyfall works both as an action packed espionage romp, and an exploration about the costs of intelligence work, both individual and societal, in a post-Cold War, asymmetric environment, where telling the white hats from the black gets more complicated every day.  What drives a person to stay in such work, or to return to it when they are given an out?

On its own, it is not quite as fresh or well-executed as Casino Royale, but I enjoyed it far more than Quantum of Solace.  There are not a lot of belly laughs in it, but more chuckles than the first two Craig outings. If you enjoy Bond movies at all, i would recommend checking it out, and soon, you can enjoy being surprised at a couple of points.

This was also my first experience at the Cineplex VIP Cinemas, where you pay a premium price for premium, reserved seating in an 18 years and up environment.  There is a licensed lounge where you can enjoy a beer or a cocktail while you wait for your theater to open.  There are even themed drinks, so Audrey enjoyed an MI6 in a martini glass while the rest of enjoyed pints of Big Rock Traditional, and shared some deep fried dill pickles which were extremely awesome.

Once the theatre opens, you can take your place in a cushy seat, pull out your little table and place an order for either hot food menu items or popcorn and movie snacks, which are brought direct to your seat in a remarkably short period of time.  James and Glen had the Angus burgers, while Audrey and went tapas-style on the appetizer menu and tried the Thai chili chicken bites, yam fries, and spring rolls.  About the same price and quality you would pay in a pub, the experience of having these morsels brought to your seat prior to showtime (along with another pint) is quite the treat.

Be forewarned, apparently an adult-only screening is no assurance against juvenile behaviour, like the git in the front row recliners who felt compelled to check his smartphone for messages every twenty minutes or so.  Is it out of line to go down and ask if such a person is a doctor?  You know, because the messages must be pretty important to keep checking them in the middle of a film like that...

At $20 a seat, I like movies too much to only go half as often as I do, which is what it would take to do this every time.  But for special occasions or busy opening weekends, the VIP experience is definitely worth trying at least once!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Which Corb Lund Presents Me with Lumber

Some time ago  I posted a review of Edmonton alt-country artist Corb Lund's latest album Cabin Fever. I posted a link to the review in the comments section of his website, and my good friend Earl put the link out on Twitter as well. The post ended up getting over 300 views, which is pretty good for a blog with a regular readership well into the ten, and even garnered a comment from a fan in Australia.

Part of the reason for my cross posting to was the opportunity to enter the "Spread the Fever" contest, and I also entered a vacation photo, and a couple of weeks back, I got an email saying I'd won! The prize pack came in the mail yesterday, and I got to open it last night.

As weird as a semi-random chunk of wood might be, it is also one of the best parts of the ensemble; details to follow.

The complete discography, all autographed, and including the concert DVD from the Edmonton Coliseum.

The album t-shirt, classic and succinct in basic black.
The autographed 8x10 glossy.

And the comprehensive explanation about the wood. The short version, for those of you attempting to read this on your telephones, is that it was carved off a leftover log from the titular cabin of "Cabin Fever", a cabin intended for Corb and his girlfriend, and built by him and his uncle. His uncle passed away due to a cancer a couple years after the cabin was finished, and the girlfriend has moved on as well, which is probably just a bit more country-style than even a musician working in that genre might want.

The log was cut by Corb, signed by Corb, shot by Corb with a pump-action .22 (for character, one imagines, or possibly just 'cause), branded by Corb with a three generations old branding iron, and a staple driven in the top with a pair of 'lucky fencing pliers'.

As memorabilia, it really is hard to beat, and the temptation to put it all into some sort of unified display or a shadow box is compelling, but I worry it might end up coming off a little...I dunno, shrine-ish? I mean, you are only a couple of candles off at that point, really.

Funniest of all was as I unpacked the piece of log from its envelope, explaining how excited I was to get it, Glory asked me, "But Daddy, why does he give you wood?"


A quick check of my wife's expression in the third base coach's box quickly apprises me that I would be well served not following through on my initial response selection, which appeared, Terminator-like, before my eyes in a stark futuristic typeface:


He doesn't! Well, I mean, he does, but only literally. Wait... honey, help me out here...

He's a fine lookin' man, that Corb Lund.

That's pretty personal, don't you think?

Ask your health teacher.

I'll be in my bunk.

Because I won a contest, now eat your cereal so you aren't late for school.

Of course I opted for the last (safest) response, then nearly undid myself when I mentioned telling someone at work the story, and Glory piped up with, "I don't get it, why is giving someone wood funny?"

I suppose the possibility exists of her reading this post years from now, and going "Oh," in a moment of regretful satori, and if that happens, darling, I am sorry, but it was pretty funny, and I had to share it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Naughty Boy and What He Did

A woman I know very well works with troubled children, in a tough school, in a rough neighbourhood, and she told me this story:

One day, one of the boys who went to that school did something naughty: he lived with his grandmother and uncle, and he went into his uncle's desk drawer and took some of the bullets that were in there.  Luckily, all the guns that the bullets were for had been locked up.

The naughty boy took the bullets to school and showed them off to his friends. Some of the bullets were very small, and didn't look like they could really hurt anyone, even though they could.  They were called .22s  One bullet though, was bigger and scarier looking than the others, and it was called a .303.  The smaller bullets were used for target shooting or for killing smaller animals like gophers. The larger bullet was used for hunting larger animals, like deer, and had even been used by soldiers in wars.

The naughty boy got a very bad idea, and asked for the bullets back.  He went into the bathroom, and some of the other boys followed him.  They watched as he wrapped them in a big clump of paper towel and set it on the floor.  Then he asked if anyone had any matches or a lighter, because his had been taken away the week before. (The teachers knew he liked to start fires, because he had done it before.)

"What are you going to do with it?" one of the boys asked.

"I'm going to set the paper towel on fire, and it is going to make the bullets go off," the naughty boy replied.

Some of the other boys thought this sounded like a very exciting idea, so they left the bathroom and started asking their friends for a lighter or matches.  No one they talked to had anything to start a fire with though, so the naughty boy took the bullets out of the paper, and gave some of them to the other boys.

Later that day, one of the boys was spinning a bullet on his desk, and his teacher saw it.  "What is that?" she asked the boy.  The boy got very nervous and scared, but finally told her what it was, and who had given it to him.  She took the bullet away, and got other teachers to help find out which other boys had been given bullets, so those could be taken away too.  Then they took the naughty boy to the Principal's office.

Because what he had tried to do had been so dangerous, the police had to be called.  While they were waiting for the police officers to come, a teacher asked the boy, "What do you think would have happened if you had managed to light the paper towel on fire?"

"The bullets would have gone off and shot around the room," he said.  He did not sound scared, or even sad or angry that he had been caught, he was just stating a fact.

"And what would you have done then?" the teacher asked.

"I would have gotten out of there right away," he replied.

"What about the other boys?" the teacher asked.

The naughty boy looked at the teacher.  "I don't care, I wouldn't have been there.  I would have gotten out right away."

The police came, and so did his grandmother who he lived with.  When all the talking was done, it was decided that the naughty boy could still come to school, but that he would have to talk to a special type of doctor, who would help the teachers to know if the boy was in danger of hurting anyone or himself.

The naughty boy would also have to be searched at the start of every school day, to make sure he wasn't bringing anything else dangerous to the school.

There wasn't very much the policemen could do, because the naughty boy was only eleven years old.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Snow News is Good News

There are a lot of reasons a person's picture might end up in the newspaper. Somewhere near the middle of a continuum that includes an orange jumpsuit wearing perp walk at one end and being given the key to the city by the mayor while your cape billows in the wind at the other, is having your face immortalized in a spray of snow as you plummet downhill on a sled.

Our friends from Camrose were up for the weekend with their young boys, and the combination of bright sun, no wind, and fresh snow made the allure of the sledding hill at Government House Park irresistible.

I thought it would be busy since we didn't get there until just before noon, but there were no other cars in the parking lot, and only a handful of other people, most of whom busied themselves on the steeper hill at the foot of the Royal Alberta Museum.

Government House has been my favourite place for sledding for years now, but I have never seen it looking as beautiful as it did today.  Bright and clear, with patches of ice still scudding down the unfrozen North Saskatchewan, and tree branches piled with snow in a way that made them look as artificial as a ceramic Christmas village.

We hadn't been sledding long when a man with no toboggan, nor tube nor krazy karpet, but with a large bag and a laminate made his way to the foot of the smaller hill we were using, and asked if he could take some pictures for the Edmonton Sun.  "You don't have to do anything except ignore me," he joshed, so we agreed.

Going downhill face first, as I am inclined to do, means that any fresh snow I encounter is likely to be worn or ingested, and hearing the autowinder (or whatever you'd call  it on a digital camera) clicking away as I slowly drew to a halt made it pretty likely that my facefull was captured in some fashion.  Picking myself up, I heard him chuckle, "The beard full of snow really makes that picture."

"Old Man Winter, Middle-Aged Guy Winter; not a lot of difference," I replied.

When he was finished, he asked for our names, and said if any of them were picked, they would be in tomorrow's paper, and even if they weren't, they might make it to the website.  Surfing on the iPad after supper, I swung by their site and saw Glory's picture as the link to a slideshow entitled 'Winter in Edmonton.'

I wasn't surprised to see her there; she brings a lot of charm and joie de vivre to the table, and I think this picture conveys that pretty well.  What does surprise me is that of all the people sledding, including my darling daughters, charming wife, and my godson and his brother, mine is the picture they chose to use?

Must be the hat.

UPDATE:  The paper edition of today's Sun had yet another picture that someone from church was nice enough to clip for us:
I can't get over how much younger Glory looks in these!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

California Coasters, Etc.

Food, drinks, shopping, characters, weather, Hollywood; there are lots of reasons to visit Southern California, but the principal motivation for me will always be the rides.

Thankfully I had looked ahead and was prepared for the ride I was most looking forward to (Indiana Jones and The Temple of the Forbidden Eye) being closed for repairs, so I could moderate my immense disappointment prior to arrival.  Having been two decades since Audrey and I last visited the Magic Kingdom, there was plenty of new stuff to see, including an entirely different park, Disney's California Adventure.

We rode all the old favourites, like Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Some of the rides had been seasonally adapted, like Space Mountain's Ghost Galaxy, which had a spectral figure chasing you through the stars, and Haunted Mansion, which now included Jack Skellington.
I'm obviously a huge fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas, seeing as it is the closest I will ever get to an Oingo Boingo musical, but a part of me missed the creepiness of the original attraction.
My favourite thing about Disney is how they do nothing by half-measures.  The attention to detail in the set dressing is always amazing, even when you are just lining up for the rides, like Star Tours.  Looking at the maps and curios while you are waiting your turn to board a venerable attraction like the Jungle Cruise can really help to set the mood.  Given how few children are exposed to genres like jungle exploration movies and such, it has to be difficult to establish the tone, but props to the House of Mouse for making the effort.

California Adventure is an intriguing premise; rather than simply link an expanded park to the newer Disney and Pixar movies, they have endeavoured to create a Southern California as it was when Walt Disney arrived there early in his career.  Where Main Street USA is a reflection of Marceline, Missouri, where Disney grew up (and which you can also glimpse in Lady and the Tramp), Buena Vista Street reflects the exotic sophistication of 1923 Los Angeles, complete with the Red Car trolley I only know from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Condor Flats is dressed like the hangars and airfields of the 1930s, and Paradise Pier is presented as a classic roaring '20s boardwalk, with a giant ferris wheel,  various games, a carousel, and a fantastic roller coaster, California Screamin', which we rode multiple times.  Even Glory, who isn't necessarily the biggest coaster fan.

The newest area in California Adventure is Cars Land, and while I am not a huge fan of this particular Pixar franchise, the quality of the designs and clever execution of the conceit cannot be overlooked.  On our third day we ran straight to the newest and most popular ride, Radiator Springs Racing, in order to avoid the 90 minute plus lineups it generates later in the day.  The ride got shutdown just before we boarded, and took about an hour to get running again, but sitting down in the shade and taking the strain off the 2" blister on my foot made that a lot easier to take.  Another well executed ride, it combines a spectator experience of driving through Radiator Springs and encountering the various automotive characters with a full-on race against against another car into banked corners and chicanes. 

There is also wilderness themed area, Grizzly Peak, with a fantastic obstacle/exploration zone for younger fans, and the Grizzly River Rapids run, a raft ride which was extremely enjoyable given how hot it was outside. It was only the second wettest ride we encountered, though.

My favourite ride though, had to be the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  

As a pure thrill ride, I have been on longer and scarier drops, even the Mega Drop at the Conklin Midway is more intimidating in that regard.  But the presentation for the Tower of Terror is probably the best of all rides we went on, beginning with the line up, which leads you through the lobby of a decrepit hotel, with cobweb encrusted statuary and faded draperies, past the front desk and into a library.  The door closes, and you watch the introduction of a 'lost' episode of the classic Twilight Zone, complete with Rod Serling, and as lightning flashes in the library windows, he dutifully explains how decades ago, on a night just like this, a bolt struck the Hollywood Tower Hotel, sending 5 guests on a one-way trip to...well, you can probably guess.

You are then led through the 'basement' of the hotel, past gray-green pipes, the laundry machines, the maintenance man's workbench, and so on, and board a maintenance elevator similar to the one from the original tragedy, only equipped with seats and belts.  I don't want to give away the ride, but the story continues, as the elevator doors open on a couple of tableaux, all accompanied by the ominous tones of Rod Serling, who concludes with 
One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare.
That door is opening once again, but this time it's opening for you.


At Universal Studios, we enjoyed the Transformers 3D ride, and Audrey and Fenya tried the Mummy ride, which they said was all right, but the two best things there were the 360/3D Kong portion of the tram ride, and the wettest ride in California, Jurassic Park.  Despite having a couple of elements that weren't working (the falling truck gag and one of the raptors), the animatronics that were up and running were top notch, especially the T. Rex, and the final descent is completely saturating.

While the line-ups could sometimes be a bit tedious, and criss-crossing the parks to take advantage of the various FastPass opportunities could be murderous on the feet, the rides are still my favourite part of the Disneyland experience.  They appeal to my inner child in a way that few other things do, and re-experiencing them with my wife while introducing them to my children was absolutely joyous.

I hope it isn't another 20 years before I make it back.  For one thing, I really need to go on the Indiana Jones ride.  For another, the bus driver who took us to Universal Studios pointed out a couple of patches of undeveloped land in Anaheim that Disney has purportedly purchased for their next venture: Marvel Land.  They hope to have it open in 8-10 years, which means I might be asking to return for my 55th birthday. Who's with me?