Saturday, February 23, 2013

Argo Bargle

Former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor is in the news again today, this time saying that if Argo wins best picture at the Oscars tomorrow, "it will reflect poorly on Ben Affleck if he doesn't say a few words about Canada's role".


Hopefully I am not the only one for who this seems deeply ironic: a Canadian asking for more credit for something accomplished three decades ago, and for which he (and we) enjoyed almost sole credit until details about the exfiltration became declassified.

Before seeing Argo, I was concerned that the Canadian ambassador and embassy staff who found and hid the Americans who managed to avoid being taken hostage would be portrayed as conflicted hand wringers or hapless tag-alongs witnessing CIA heroics. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see Taylor played by Victor Garber, in an understated confidence that mirrored my own impressions of how such clandestine transactions are carried out. The movie picks up the story of the escapees after they have been living as 'the house guests' of the Canadian ambassador for some time, struggling with both legitimate paranoia and cabin fever. Ben Affleck's character, Tony Mendez, arrives to deal with the most complex element of the operation: moving the Americans from the basement of a house in a Tehran suburb and over the Iranian border, under the eyes of not only the military, but also the secret police and an outraged public.

Since the story is that of Tony Mendez and is based on his memoirs (and also an excellent article from Wired magazine), there is neither time nor reason to give any additional attention to the role played by the Canadians. At the end of the day, the movie is an entertaining recollection based on actual events, not a slavish recreation of them. In fact, more of the movie is devoted to the creation of the ersatz Hollywood sci-fi epic Argo, which in real life was supposed to be an adaptation of Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light", than to either Canadian bravery or American ingenuity.

The Canadian perspective on the Iranian Escape had its own adaptation: in 1981 Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper saw Taylor portrayed by national film icon Gordon Pinsent, albeit in a more modest TV-movie. I haven't seen this version, but I am curious as to how much attention was paid to the machinations involved in creating a fake movie so convincingly that it fooled insiders in Tinseltown. I have my own ideas how it might have been alluded to:

Taylor: How do you plan to get them through the airport?

Mendez: I've got cover identities for them as workers with a movie production company.

Taylor: (nods sagely) Hmm.

Taylor's indignation apparently originated with an ending which implied the Canadian involvement was overstated due to political reasons, as well as the classified nature of the scheme itself. Fair enough; Affleck added an end-title card recognizing the Canuck contribution and thanking them. That said, I do share Taylor's disappointment that no mention was given to embassy deputy John Sheardown, who was the first to take some of the escapees into his own home, but again, it's not my picture. After the meeting with Taylor and addition of the card, Affleck thought the matter resolved, but Taylor keeps piping up whenever an opportunity presents itself, in a most unbecoming fashion. In a related note, if you read the comments section of the CBC article linked above, it is staggering just how indignant our normally rational countrymen can be with regard to a movie that they not only have not seen, but clearly state they will not see.

Furthermore, the Academy Award for Best Picture is normally awarded to the film's producer, not director. Since Affleck failed to garner a nomination for Bet Director (which I am comfortable in calling a brutal oversight), he is unlikely to receive anything at the Oscars except maybe a little overdue recognition for his skill at moviemaking.

A complex story such as this will have a nearly infinite number of potential perspectives; apparently we can look forward to Iran's cinematic response sometime later this year. This is hardly unexpected, but Taylor's constant whinging about Canada's lack of credit in this particular variation of the tale displays a lack of humility bordering on vanity that brings its own poor reflection on our normally self-effacing nation.

In the meantime though, I didn't find Lincoln as boring as most other folk apparently did, so if either it or Argo wins Best Picture, I will be pretty happy, despite their numerous historical inaccuracies and the liberties taken in pursuit of a good movie.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Django Unchained: Spaghetti Americain

Django Unchained opened almost two months ago, but Audrey and I only got a chance to see it last night, and it is another gem from Quentin Tarantino.

It is not a film for the faint hearted: the word 'nigger' can be heard over 110 times according to iMDB, and the bloodshed, while hardly constant, is nothing short of prodigious. For those who care, it is also rife with historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (set in 1858, pistols use metal cartridges, sunglasses appear decades early, and music is played long before it was ever published), but as has been said, Tarantino is a man who makes movies about movies, so some license must be given in pursuit of the Western Cinema ideal.

But for a movie crafted around slavery and vengeance, especially a Tarantino movie, there are surprising amounts of warmth and compassion, and you can also take it as a given that his trademark dialogue and humor will be on hand. Don Johnson does a splendid turn as southern plantation owner Big Daddy which oscillates between menacing and comedic, and original Django actor Franco Nero also has a brief cameo.

Most of the compassion comes from the brilliant Christoph Walz as dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Freeing Jamie Foxx's Django in so he can identify his now-wanted former overseers, he explains how he personally finds slavery abhorrent, and offers Django his freedom in exchange for his help.

While having a white character named Dr. King liberate and uplift a black man might seem like pandering to some, Walz plays his German-immigrant bounty hunter as an insightful, articulate and principled man, especially compared to the 'bounty killers' of the spaghetti westerns that inspired Django Unchained. Eventually the relationship grows into a partnership, which plays out against a stunningly shot backdrop of Wyoming in winter.

When Schulz learns Django's intention to return to the slave market where he was sold in order to find his wife, the incongruously named Broomhilda von Shaft, he likens Django to the Teutonic hero Siegfried, and offers his assistance, which brings them into direct conflict with plantation owner Calvin Candie. Candie is played with palpable menace by the often under-appreciated Leonardo Dicaprio, and his major-domo Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), and the complex relationship between the two is one of the most intriguing in the movie.

At two hours and forty five minutes, I felt the movie could be a little leaner, especially one of the larger gun battles, but again, if you are doing an homage to directors like Sergio Leone, you aren't going to do it without a certain degree of languidity. Nothing felt like it dragged, the soundtrack is diverse and eclectic, ranging from Ennio Morricone to the RZA, and some of the vistas are spectacularly photographed, so as a viewer you ever feel abandoned.

A recent mock poster referred to Django Unchained as "Inglorious Basterds: Slavery Edition", and while there is some resonance in that comparison, fans of westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, as well as Tarantino's skewed but insightful perspective on race relations are bound to be entertained by Django Unchained.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Random Encounter

Certainly, the horns were impressive, but the wingspan was what made the biggest impression, at least for most people.  He needed to stoop on his crooked legs in order to enter the hospitality suite, where he accepted an offered can of lager with a jaunty "Cheers," before positioning himself with his back to a wall.

I found myself standing next to him a short while later.  Looking at the long black claws that culminated each fingertip, I wondered if he had used one of them to open his beer, or if someone had done it for him.  "I gestured with my own drink towards the can in his hand, saying, "Nice choice, that."

His red rimmed eyes gazed down at the can of Foster's, then back at me.  "I don't take your meaning."

"It seems appropriate that you'd be drinking a beer from, you know, 'Down Under'..."

His brow furrowed for a moment, then a toothy grin lit up his face, highlighting the dangerous looking canines.  "Australia, right, right!  I hadn't thought of that."  He lifted his can in a short toast, then took a long swallow.

"It's an impressive look," someone else said.  "Especially the wings."

"Cheers, yeah," he said.  He set his beer on a nearby table, and bent his legs at the knee, once, then twice.  My eyes, looking at his hooves to see if they were truly cloven or not, were drawn up to his wings, which had reacted to the gentle up and down motion of his legs and unfurled ever so slightly before retracting back to their original position.

A friend in far more mundane attire entered the suite and beckoned him with a crooked finger.  "C'mon, there's quite a party happening on the 7th floor, and I told them I'd bring you," he said.  I think you mean conjure, I thought to myself.  Or possibly abjure, I can never keep them straight.

The fanged mouth dropped open incredulously.  "Seven?  This is only the second floor, right?  Damned if I'm taking these goat legs of mine up five flights of stairs.  You fixing to carry me?"

The friend shook his head, saying, "We can take -" but was cut off mid-sentence by the black talon pointed at his chest. 

"Before you say elevator," the horned one growled, "Take a closer look at my friggin' wingspan."

The new arrival did, and nodded.  "I'll maybe see if I can bring them down here then," he suggested helpfully.

The wings fluttered as the horns nodded. "Much better idea."

The friend turned to go, stopped at the door, and turned, saying, "Sure you're all right then?"

The red-rimmed eyes rolled over, coming to rest on me.  I looked at the friend and said, "He sure seems to be."  With a nod, he was off.

"Thanks, man," the demon said, holding his can of Fosters in salute.

I tapped my plastic cup to his aluminum can.  "Don't mention it."

Monday, February 4, 2013

Muse Concert: 2nd Lawful Good

Playing the 'what do you think they will open with?' game before a concert is always a lot of fun. Will it be an old favourite, or something from the new album? Will it be slow and dramatic, or heavy and bombastic? At last night's Muse concert, the answer to the first question was something new, and the answer to the second was 'yes'.
I had said that if they led off with a track from the 2nd Law, their latest album, then the lead single ("Madness") was too slow, so my hope would be for either the brilliantly Bond-like "Supremacy" or the cinematic/dubstep instrumental "The 2nd Law: Unsustainable". These turned out to be the first two songs played, only in reverse order. "Unsustainable" was a great choice, as it opens with a simple yet urgent guitar rhythm, punctuated by ominous fanfares, while a female newsreader's voice intones a litany of entropy, climaxing with the assertion that 'an economy based on endless growth is UNSUSTAINABLE', the last word being usurped by a Cylonish vocoder, and that's when you get The Drop.

Muse has a reputation for both dynamic live shows and creative and imaginative staging, and this tour did not disappoint on either count. A circular bank of video monitors wrapped around the stage behind the band at their feet, while another ran underneath the stage at floor level. The real visual treat came during the third song, "Supermassive Black Hole", when an inverted pyramid of monitors and lights descended from the ceiling, and I half expected Roy Neary to climb out of it.
There were fewer lasers this time than the 2010 concert, but if anything, this staging was even more creative and engaging. As the song "Animals" played, the banner monitor displayed a stock ticker while the pyramid played scenes portraying the rise and fall of a greedy or careless broker. Near the end of the concert, the circular bank turned into a roulette wheel displaying two songs from the back catalogue. Sure enough,when the 'ball' had dropped into "Stockholm Syndrome", the band obligingly tore into it like a kid opening a birthday present. A very playful way to end the pre-encore set, even if it made me sad knowing I wouldn't be hearing "New Born", which had opened the last tour. The only other disappointment for me was not getting to hear "Hysteria" live, as it has one of the all-time greatest bass lines in rock. Still, I did get to hear one of my favourites from "Black Holes and Revelations", the album that introduced me to Muse, when they played "Map of the Problematique".
Even though some of the people I attended with were there as fans of spectacle more so than of the band itself, we all agreed it was truly an epic show. Even the opening act, Britain's Band of Skulls, made a good impression on most of us. I'm surprised and a bit saddened that the show wasn't sold out, especially as Muse recently sold out three nights at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. Sandra Sperounes of the Edmonton Journal estimated the crowd at a mere 7,000; surely the Superbowl couldn't account for that, could it? Thankfully,what crowd there was more than made up for its size with a vocal appreciation for the band.
The whole darned family came with the lads and I last night (and Rev. James, the biggest Muse fan I know), and Fenya and Glory both had a great time at their first real rock concert. Glory even splurged so she could get her first concert tour t-shirt, while the more practically-minded Fenya picked up a very sharp looking water bottle. We all went to great lengths afterwards to explain that not all rock shows will be like this, and they should probably set the bar significantly lower for the next concert they attend.
I am insatiably curious as to where Muse will progress musically next; as Pete said last night, "The 2nd Law" appears to have at least a half-dozen iterations of the same band: rock, funk, dubstep, balladeers, Bond, and so on. They already sound distinct from the band that recorded "Black Holes and Revelations" only two albums ago, despite having been together for almost two decades now. As long as their live shows continue to be this energetic and entertaining though, I will not be missing any.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Classic Confrontation

After months of procrastination and a hectic set of winter holidays, Earl, Sean and I finally got together to try playing the Star Fleet version of the A Call to Arms space battle game. Sean's miniatures are very nearly completed, and Earl used some newly purchased technical pens to put the names and striping onto his Federation vessels.

Sean's Romulans were hampered by the fact that we were trying to avoid using the advanced rules, which of course include his strategic lynchpin, the dreaded cloaking device. Despite this, his King Eagle heavy cruiser still managed to cripple Earl's USS Excalibur.

For the second game, I took on the (presumably repaired and refitted) Excalibur with my Klingon D7, the Battlecruiser Vengeance. By this point, Earl had become a lot more familiar with the Special Actions available to him, which are really the heart of the game: each turn, before moving your ship, you can attempt to give a special order, such as Boost Energy to Shields!, or Close Blast Doors!, which will give certain benefits, such as replenishing damaged shields or granting a 5+ save against any damage taken that turn. Sometimes you won't want to take a Special Action, since they may drain your power and limit your movement or offensive capability. They can even involve a dice roll with punitive repercussions for failing, such as when he attempted a High Energy Turn! And ended up not only turning shallower than intended, but damaging his impulse drive to boot.

For my part, I would quite often sit down after having moved my ship only to curse at the realization that I had neglected to give the order that could have repaired my shields. Thankfully, the inability of Captain Woods to beat my dice rolls for initiative meant that I enjoyed the tactical advantage of moving last in all but three or four turns of combat, and I was able to eke out a narrow victory.
With both of us having given the order to Overload Weapons! (which doubles the damage done by photon torpedoes and disruptors), Earl moved his Constitution class heavy cruiser into a decent enough position, but I instead opted to move straight backwards, putting me into his aft starboard quarter, and out of the firing arc of his deadly torpedoes. My D7 opened up, and blew Excalibur's superstructure apart, limping away from the battlefield with no shields and only one hull point left before being crippled itself.

We had quite a bit of fun, even without using any terrain (planets, asteroids, gas clouds) and only one ship apiece. As we increase the size of our engagements and the amount of rules we use, I am certain our enjoyment will only increase. The A Call to Arms rules use a very simple set of base mechanics which are then supplemented by a number of attributes and exceptions that make the sequence of play very easy to follow, even if it takes a little time for everyone to figure out what the different ship and weapons traits actually mean.

In fact, even the rules for Cloaking Devices look surprising straightforward; instead of secretly plotting your moves in writing, your model remains on the table, ignoring weapons fire on a roll of 2+. Once you disengage your cloak, however, it can be moved up to 6" in any direction, and turned up to 45 degrees, meaning that opponents only have an approximate idea where a cloaked ship may be, and a cagy Romulan player will always wait until winning initiative to uncloak, and very likely get a fatal drop on them with the intensely unpleasant plasma torpedo.

There are plans afoot for a multi-ship encounter at G&G VIII with nothing but D7s and Constitutions, which I think could be a lot of fun, but in the meantime, I can't wait for the next opportunity to test my tiny fleet. I am certain Capt. Woods is clamouring for a rematch as well!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Adventures of Gub Wootini

At long last, the girls and I finally took advantage of the Star Wars: Identities exhibit at the Telus World of Science.  It is a world class bit of curation and edutainment, and I strongly suggest checking out before it moves on in early April.

In addition to hosting a plethora of original props, maquettes and artwork dating all the way back to production of the first film in 1975, the exhibit also takes attendees on an exploration of identity, the various elements of our heritage and environment that help to determine who we are.

There are numerous comparisons between the prequel's main character, Anakin Skywalker, and his son Luke from the original trilogy (which made me feel a little bad for not having watched them at all with Glory).  Despite similarities in their genetic makeup, sharing the same homeworld, and both losing family members at a young age, Luke and Anakin couldn't be more different.

As you proceed through the exhibit, you are actually given the opportunity to create your own denizen of the Star Wars universe, which, despite my continued apprehensions about the prequels, continues to be a colourful and fascinating place to explore and inhabit.  You choose everything from race and gender, to the parenting style you were raised with and culture of your homeworld, through friends and mentors, and on to a randomly determined event, like having your home planet destroyed (as happened to my Mon Calamari,  Dubb Steffra ), or winning a city in a game of chance (which happened to Fenya's Nautolan, Nallah).  Glory's Ewok, Gub Wootini, ended up chained to the belly of a crimelord, but managed to throttle him and escape.  Good thing she saw Return of the Jedi recently, eh?

At each stage, there is a short video, which had a lot of neat insights into current thinking as to how our culture, occupation, personality and values factor into the decisions we make, which in turn are so intrinsic in determining who we are.  The audioguides you wear automatically pick up the appropriate soundtrack for each station, and a bracelet records all the choices you make for your creation.  At the end, you are given the choice of joining or rejecting the Emperor, and can then see your character and their story projected onto a large display screen.  They also provide links so you can view them at home or share them with friends.  I find myself thinking that this process would be a great mechanic for creating characters for a tabletop role-playing game, as opposed to optimizing dice roles and crafting a background to fit.

The exhibits are very well presented and include not only props and costumes and such, but also some interesting insights into the challenges of creating the movies, some of which I had never heard before, despite having been interested in the topic since I was 9 years old.  There is a bit of a thrill seeing one of the original Han Solo in carbonite props, or Jabba the Hutt's eyes.  Being able to closely examine Boba Fett's bandolier, or a Stormtrooper's armour can bring back a lot of the wonder that drew me into George Lucas's universe to being with.

We watched the original trilogy last week in preparation of the visit, and the girls enjoyed seeing firsthand how much work goes into creating a cinematic setting as diverse and visually original as this one, but my favourite part was how many talking points the identity portion of the exhibit presented.  Why are our friends important to us?  How do the values we profess affect our choices?  Why do similar people react so differently to the same situation?

Following the destruction of his home planet, I decided Dubb Steffra should choose to dedicate himself to the preservation of its culture.  I couldn't tell you why I didn't choose the more adventurous path of joining the alliance and overthrowing the despot responsible, but at the time I had to choose, the notion of a planetary identity being completely extinguished, even a fictional one, seemed impossibly tragic.  Surely if that could be prevented, the despot could never truly accomplish his genocidal mission, could he?

For myself, the exhibits' narrator asserting that the difference between a mentor and an educator is the fact that a mentor educates through example and not just lessons should not have been a revelation, but it kind of was.  Who around us are we mentoring to and we don't even know it?

The exhibit's program asks us to consider 'what forces shape us?'  Star Wars is a fascinating filter to examine this question through, and anyone looking for insights into how both movies and people are made will find it worth spending an hour or two at this exhibition.