Friday, July 26, 2013

Brush Up On Your Shakespeare

My relationship with the Bard over the course of my life has been inconstant, to say the least.  Shakespeare's legendary presence precedes his works, making it difficult if not impossible to appreciate them simply as stories in their own right.  I started out seeking Shakespeare, but found him difficult to comprehend in reading.  Taking on Julius Caesar in Junior High though, in the 'gifted' class, meant taking the time to learn the background and context of the Imperial Rome, and reading the parts in turn.

It turns out, for me at least, that reading Shakespeare's plays is the least effective and enjoyable way to experience them.  Hearing the intonations and seeing the actions make the words that much more memorable, and prevent the narrative from becoming bogged down in archaic language or sentence construction.

Not being a big one for live theater though, I have enjoyed many cinematic adaptations of his work, my favourite probably being Kenneth Branagh's brilliant Henry V.  His Much Ado About Nothing was also highly enjoyable, as was Mel Gibson's Hamlet, Ian McKellen's Richard III and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.  I'm also looking forward to Joss Whedon's b&w take on Much Ado About Nothing, which he did on a shoestring budget after completing The Avengers, a sort of cinematic sorbet to cleanse the palate, if you will.

Two weeks ago, our friends Scott and Margaret took us out to see King Lear, performed outdoors by the Free Will Players at Hawrelak Park.  The initial ambiance provided by the thunderstorm (which accompanied the tragic King's departure into a similar deluge in an example of perfect timing) soon turned into a full-on downpour accompanied by hail, and after a 25 minute break saw no hope for a let up, the play was sadly called off.

Since our hosts were leaving town shortly and were not going to have an opportunity to use their rain checks, they gave them to us and suggested we take the girls to see the festival's other offering, A Midsummer Night's Dream.  This seemed like a much better choice for an 11 and 14 year-old's first live Shakespeare, so last Friday we did just that.  I had not doubt that Fenya would enjoy the production, as she is a voracious reader, and appreciates period language, but I was concerned that Glory might find the story's multiple settings confusing, or worse yet, boring.

Liz Nicholl's review found this rendition of MSND to be a bit much, but the colourful, farcical and immersive production was a lot of fun for those of us who don't get out much.  The minimalist stage (also used very effectively for King Lear) aided only by some giant flowers and grassy green blocks, moved us effectively from the halls of King Theseus to the forest court of the Fairy-King, Oberon.

Some of the entrances and exits took place in the very aisles next to where we sat, including a brief prelude which suggests Nick Bottom to be an everyday modern(ish) Greek who heads off to the agora to drink ouzo with the other men, accompanied by a shout of "Don't be an ass, Bottom, go home to your wife!", and who might be experiencing the play (and the play within a play) in his dreams, almost Inception-like.

The entirety of the cast were excellent, but special props need to go to Jesse Gervais and Sheldon Elter as Lysander and Demetrius for their characterful slapstick, and especially Kevin Corey's Robin Goodfellowe (more commonly known as Puck), who eats up most of the scenes he is in with voracious aplomb.

Most importantly, the girls had a great time: Fenya probably got more out of the language and plot, but Glory might have enjoyed it even more, and leaned forward on her seat for almost the entire performance with a gigantic grin on her face.  Seeing Shakespeare live and outdoors, it is hard to imagine a better way to experience the legendary playwright for the first time.  I certainly hope it isn't the last, and with any luck, we can return next year as well.  In the meantime, it looks like Whedon's Much Ado is out on Blu-ray October 7th, and Branagh's ginormous 1996 Hamlet is patiently awaiting our attentions on the PVR.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Families, Tied


If you were to rank words in order of how 'loaded' they are, how full of meaning and potential for being misused or misconstrued, I think 'family' would show up fairly close to the top.

While in college, Audrey became pregnant during summer vacation. She had the opportunity to start a family, of a sort, and that's what her mom and dad would have liked, but without her degree, a job, or a father to help out, she didn't think that would be a good choice. There was even a family member that might have adopted the baby, but that felt a little too close to home as well, so she instead chose adoption through a private agency.

She kept in contact with the adoptive parents all the while Bryce was growing up, and eventually had the option of meeting him and his new family face to face about 7 years back. I won't lie; I had reservations about this. Knowing families to a be a delicately balanced chemical reaction, I was averse to messing with a proven formula. What if we were too different? What if we just didn't like each other?

It turns out I needn't have worried; we are very distinct households, but with far more similarities than differences, and I experienced the strange sensation of not just seeing, but feeling my family grow. The girls have called Bryce their brother ever since, and the fact that his father and I share not a drop of blood doesn't make him feel anything less than family to me. At that first dinner, I made a toast: "To the families of choice."

Last weekend, the boy called Robyn (still Bryce's middle name), now a man of 24 years (!), got married to his high school sweetheart, Sara.

We've known Sara for years, and she is a delightful gal. Bryce bought her wedding ring with money collected saving thousands of pop cans, hence the garland. When I introduced myself to her father last weekend, he grinned at me like I was mad, and said, "I know you! I've got your family picture on my fridge!" He gave me a hug, and once again I felt the familial geometry shift to accommodate him and his wife. It didn't feel uncomfortable; it felt overdue.

The ceremony was great, with a pastor who's known the two of them since they were children officiating. Audrey was introduced as 'Bryce's first mother,' and was warmly welcomed by everyone. There weren't a lot of dry eyes when this tall young man walked his two mothers to their seats just prior to the entrance of the bride. This photo shows Audrey, Sara's mom Barb, and Bryce's mom Rinda.

At the reception, there was a lot of reflection about the twists and turns life can lead us on, but Bryce's dad, Robb, characteristically hit it on the head when he said to Audrey's parents, "It had to be hard for you to see Bryce go, all those years ago, not knowing where your daughter's child would end up. And now here you are, and God's brought you full circle to a place you couldn't have imagined then, watching your grandson get married, and knowing you are still a part of his family."

I expressed my wonderment to Robb later on, and he shook his head in similar amazement and said, "There are so many ways each of our lives can turn; what can we do except look forward in faith, and look back in gratitude?"

Let's continue to define our families as much by our choices as by our blood, and remember to be grateful for all of them.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pacific Rim: Should You See It?

It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to see Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro's summer blockbuster about giant robots fighting giant monsters.  I was never a huge fan of Japanese-style monster movies as a kid (although I saw more than a few during Saturday matinees at the Gaiety Theatre in Leduc), but fighting robots and mecha?  That takes me back; back past the Warhammer 40,000 dreadnoughts, past the Battletech miniatures, back even past the Star Wars AT/ATs and the powered armour of Starship Troopers.  I'm thinking it probably goes back to comics I read as a child, like Rom: Spaceknight, and the Shogun Warriors.

The worst thing I can say about Pacific Rim is that there are hardly any surprises.  The movie delivers on its simple premise, and does so in a spectacular fashion.  Visually, Del Toro is in a class all his own here, delivering not only brilliant action sequences, but also reminding you about the scales involved with a delightful playfulness, such as when a missed punch sends a metal fist deep into an office building and you see the effect it has on a single desktop item.  Be advised, though: in terms of surprises, few is still more than none.

Pacific Rim is also one of the few movies I am going to recommend you see in 3D if you go.  Most directors have a few gags with the effect and then seem to forget about it (as does the viewer, until reminded by the next gag), but Del Toro uses the additional depth of field in a way the few people outside James Cameron do, in order to immerse you in this insanely detailed world he has created, most effectively within the switches and panels and holographic heads-up displays of the jaeger cockpits, but also outside as snow falls around you in a suddenly too-quiet city street, or as the camera passes through the smoke rising from a stricken jaeger

In fact, so detailed and immersive is this world that he invites the viewer to join him in it, by giving us this excellent Jaeger Designer website to play with.  You have to love a man who not only plays with toys, but shares them with others.

Both the mecha designs (which brilliantly reflect their countries of origin both inside and out) and the creatures (designed by Wayne Barlowe, of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, a seminal book from my childhood) are bold and distinctive.  This is important, because without a driving aesthetic, you end up with a Go-Bot slugging it out with a rubber dinosaur, and then it doesn't matter if Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep are in the driver's harnesses; we just won't care enough to go.

A movie with such impressive visual and kinetic chops could try to find its way to success without an emotional core, but the growing sophistication of audiences and the high standards set by movies like The Dark Knight and The Avengers means we get to eat our cake and keep it too.  Certainly,  the washed up hero being given a second chance at a desperate hour is not the most original of arcs, but a little familiarity goes a long way to grounding a movie like this where the fantasy could overtake all the humanity, and since that is what the jaeger pilots are trying to save, well, it only makes sense.

All the characters behave in an appropriate and consistent fashion, even when making foolish (or foolish-looking) choices.  There are a few mysteries of the heart and mind to be sorted out before the climactic battle, but again, no drastic or game changing revelations at the eleventh hour.  Best of all, it is a plot that requires exactly zero stupid people to either advance or resolve itself, putting it leagues ahead of a lot of other monster movies.

Acting wise, the leads do a good enough job, and it always good to see Max Martini, who I think brings a brilliant blend of machismo and vulnerability to nearly every role he takes, even with an Australian accent.  The mad-science comic relief duo of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are excellent, and Ron Perlman, unsurprisingly, owns every scene he is in as Hannibal Chau, a black marketer profiteering in kaiju organs and...stuff.

Apparently though, no one told Idris Elba he was in a retro-pastische, Saturday-matinee, burger-meal tie-in toy tentpole throwaway movie, because he brings the same intensity to his role as Marshall Stacker Pentecost I've seen him bring to The Wire.  You could lift him out of this film and drop him straight into Stratford and the people in tights would be all, 'what's next, sire?'  He brings a level of belief and conviction that dares the viewer to treat the imminent destruction of this cinematic world as anything less than the real thing, and draws us in in a manner that even Del Toro's masterful use of 3D can only scratch the surface of.

Like all great summer movies, Pacific Rim is very well paced: exposition comes to the characters in a fast but natural fashion, with no Star Wars briefing room to ease up the tension.  Character backstory is revealed as a part of the challenge in linking the minds of two pilots within a jaeger, and emotional resolution is achieved in a hurried fashion, in a grimy corridor prior to what may be a final farewell.

The title of this post suggests that I am going to tell you whether or not you should see Pacific Rim or not, but if you have read this far, you probably already know the answer.  Just in case though, let me be explicitly clear:

  • if you have an inner child, AND
  • if that inner child wants to see brave men and women defending the rest of us against horrible monsters, AND
  • if the idea of watching a 250 foot tall robot treading out into the surf to do battle gives you the least bit of a thrill, then,
YES, you should see this movie.  Hell, yes.  And soon.  And in 3D, if you can.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bachelor Survival

In junior high, there was a home economics-type class for the lads called 'Bachelor Survival', wherein they attempted to pass on the basics of cooking and mending to fellows in their early teens.
Last week I got to experience a bit of Bachelor Survival again, since Audrey and the girls headed down to High River to help clean up after their basement got flooded out. This left Nitti, Dude and myself to our own devices.
The quiet evenings were a bit offputting, but a nice change in some ways, but cooking for one is something I haven't done in a while. Thankfully there were enough leftovers to assemble that I didn't need to deploy any frozen pizzas or ramen. I fact, the remainder of a cheddar sauce, some leftover steak and dry pasta shells made for a splendid repast Thursday night, and covered Friday's lunch to boot. The fact that I take any measure of pride in this is laughable, but the dual leftover finishing move is like the household version of clearing a Tetris.
Nitti has always been easy going, although he gets a bit neurotic when left on his own, which meant he needed to sleep in Audrey's spot most nights. Dude is laid back but completely disinterested in eating the now dessicated crickets littering his enclosure, which leaves me to provide him with his preferred dish of nutritious, delicious wax worms.

Take time to chew, boy, you'll enjoy it more.
Being cold-blooded, each meal requires him to spend a certain amount of time afterwards pressing his belly against an electronically heated rock in order to digest it. Certainly nothing we ever covered in Bachelor Survival, but we all made it through the week, at any rate.