Friday, January 30, 2015

The Far Side of the Curtain

"Overture!  Curtain, Lights!
This is it, our night of nights
No more rehearsing or nursing a part
We know every part by heart..."  - B. Bunny, et al

Since last Friday, Fenya has spent every night except Sunday rehearsing 6:30 to 10:30 at the Jubilee Auditorium from for her part as Spirit #2 in the Edmonton Opera Company's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.  This is addition to the costume fittings and technical sessions required by such an undertaking.

Makeup, costumes, choreography; she even had to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk inherent of being on a stage where pyrotechnics (!) are in use, and all of this before a single note is sung.

It's been as taxing as you might expect, but every night when I pick her up from the stage door of the Jube, she has a smile on her face and a story to tell about what transpired that evening.  The other castmembers have been very nice to her and her two fellow choristers playing Spirits #s 1 & 3, and they have been nicknamed Vodka, Cognac and Scotch (Fenya is Cognac).

The vast majority of my thimble-sized operatic knowledge is derived from either vintage Warner Bros. cartoons or depictions within other movies, such as The Untouchables using I Pagliacci to help Sean Connery win his Oscar, so I have been reading the summaries and director's notes on the EO Co. website to keep from going in completely blind.  I had no idea that The Magic Flute is full of references and imagery relating to Freemasonry, and that the initial production may have contributed to that order being banned in Austria.  Certainly, repeated references to the number three and a quest for enlightenment is likely to bring to mind certain conspiratorial organizations, but back in the day, this was sufficient motivation to have the monarchy take a dim view of all this sort of power sharing nonsense.

The director has opted for sets and costumes that suggest an Indo-Asiatic pop-up book, with some ambitious staging (and pyrotechnics!), so I am quite excited to see how it all comes across in the auditorium tomorrow night.  Thursday's dress rehearsal was presented to an audience at a discount which seems like a great idea, and went off without a hitch.

The Edmonton Journal also did a preview article yesterday talking about the Bollywood inspirations and the overall youth of the cast.  Fenya showed me a YouTube video in a series called Opera Cheats, in which her production's Queen of the Night (Teiya Kasahara) summarizes the tragic Madama Butterfly in a humorous and succinct fashion.

I wonder if all those years of Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny references have helped remove some of the starch from the opera crowd?

Regardless, I am glad the experience has been so good for Fenya and her choirmates, and I can't wait to see what happens tomorrow when the curtain goes up; I'm certain that the heights will indeed be hit.

UPDATED: Edmonton Opera Company has released a little preview video (and yes, you can see Fenya in it briefly...)


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Judging An iBook By Its Cover

I don't normally pay a lot of attention to the iTunes updates that get emailed to me; I'm still too fond of physical media, for reasons ranging from security to tactile appreciation to appreciation for things like liner notes. The indication that the first novel in Ian Fleming's James Bond series, Casino Royale, was available as a free download for the iBooks app did catch my eye, however.  As any right-thinking adolescent male would be, I'm a bit of a Bond afficionado, but I've never read any of the books, nor made any use of the iBooks app.

Before even getting to the content, however, I was struck by the stylish cover designs, presented in a brilliantly consistent "007" motif, with striking colours and minimalist elements conveying the specifics of the particular adventure.  A bowler hat centered on gradiated gold for Goldfinger, or a silhouetted martini resting on the back of a playing card, itself surround by the green baize of a baccarat table for Casino Royale.

The iBooks app uses an ersatz bookshelf to display the books in your collection, similar to the manner in which your magazine subscriptions are displayed in the Newsstand app where my Maclean's subscription resides.  The urge to throw more Bond books on that shelf based purely on aesthetics and a collector's compulsion to fill shelf space wherever possible is undeniable, and I imagine the recent relocation of the Bond collection into the public domain (at least in Canada) is the reason behind the $1.99 pricing that makes this dangerously accessible.

Reading the books on the iPad seems comfortable enough; crisp, scaleable type, and a brisk page-turning animation that adds familiarity without being too distracting.

When I was waiting for Fenya to come out of her rehearsal last night, I turned the app on to read a few pages in the parking lot of The Jube, and was delighted when the iPad sensed the lack of ambient light in my darkened vehicle, and automatically switched the pages from black-on-white to white-on-black.  I'm about a third of the way in, and have found the reading comfortable and intuitive thus far.

As to the novel itself, well, it's a little early to tell, but book-Bond is clearly quite a bit colder and more manipulative than his movie counterpart, but no less suave.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Honorable Lobbyists: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Reviewed

So, let's begin by saying I had no particular desire to see The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I have only seen two of writer/director Wes Anderson's movies to date (Bottle Rocket and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and while I enjoyed them both, I guess I never saw what all the fuss was about.

I wasn't opposed to seeing it, you understand, I just didn't have a lot of desire to, having not even seen the trailer.  Fenya did, however, and having the weekend to ourselves and the need to start seeing nominated movies prior to Oscar night sealed the deal and we watched it yesterday afternoon.

And I am very glad we did.  I enjoyed it tremendously, and can recommend it wholeheartedly to most of the people I know.

Now, I have never been one in favour of the scoring of movies on some sort of numeric scale. Honestly, the idea of some artistic algorithm that can somehow compare The French Connection to both Inception and The Blues Brothers on any sort of mathematical basis is almost ludicrous on the face of it.  Even within a single genre, how do you contrast films like Zulu, Glory and Blackhawk Down?

Even Siskel & Ebert's binary recommendation of thumbs up or down is subject to qualification;one might recommend a movie provided you bear in mind the key performance is by an inexperienced actor who is sure to grow in both skill and stature, while the other might commend a martial arts film, but only to fans of that particular type of movie.

I start with a couple of assumptions, the first of which is that given the time, effort and capital involved in making one, no one sets out to make a bad film.  Yes, sometimes they seem to turn out that way, but I am not cynical enough to believe such failures intentional, excepting parody and irony, of course.

Secondly, I think every movie has its audience, and reviews should focus on helping the reader determine whether or not they have the potential to be that audience.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson's most popular movie to date, grossing $175 million prior to its release on video next week, and it is also 2014's most successful independent movie, so there is no question that there is a broad base of appeal.  Having said that, however, like a lot of Oscar contenders (or all movies, I suppose), this film is not for everyone.

Opening with a visit to the grave of an apparently beloved novelist, the visitor opens the eponymous book, which then flashes us back two decades, to the novelist himself (Tom Wilkinson), narrating his own prose.  He then flashes us back to a visit to the namesake hotel in the fictional country of Zubrowka during the 1960s.  During that visit, a chance encounter has him (now played by Jude Law) listening spellbound to the hotel's owner (F. Murray Abraham) recounting the adventures of the hotel's legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave H, (Ralph Fiennes) in 1932.

As an unabashed fan of competence porn, watching M. Gustave discharge his duties and responsibilities with long tracts of whip-crack dialogue filled with meaningful details, often while keeping as brisk a physical pace around the magnificent old hotel, I was completely delighted.  Ralph Fiennes, so well known for his ominous presence in roles such as Voldemort, or the Nazi commandant in Schindler's List, is absolutely enchanting as the fastidious, perfumed, poetry-quoting and elderly female-squiring major domo.

When one of his octogenarian patrons suddenly dies, however, he is drawn into a mysterious intrigue involving the dowager countess, her estate's lawyer (Jeff Goldblum, in a rare role that never requires him to stammer), her nefarious son (Adrien Brody), her domestic staff and a priceless painting.

Through it all, M. Gustave is accompanied by his newest hire, Zero, the Lobby Boy.  Tony Revolori, in his first film role, portrays this protege as an honest and loyal page, as well as a committed confidant and friend.  And despite all this, still possesses the courage to caution his mentor against flirting with his own paramour, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).

Despite taking place in a relatively short period of time, The Grand Budapest Hotel exposes us to hotel workings, high society, intrigue, art theft, war and peace, all done very briskly with a running time of only 100 minutes.

Wes Anderson effortlessly weaves humour, pathos, tension and absurdity in such a way that I sometimes had to remind myself I wasn't watching a cartoon.  Watching characters exit the foreground stage left, only to reappear a second later entering the background from the same edge, so we could watch them traverse the screen in silhouette brought artists like Tex Avery or even Chuck Jones to mind.  The colourful palettes he chooses to fill his screen with in every scene but one did little to change this opinion.

Also masterful is the manner in which he uses the aspect ratio of the film to signify which time period we happen to be in, starting with a full frame (2.35:1), and then letterboxing the author's recollection (1.85:1), and using an almost square frame (1.35:1) for the 1930s, which takes up most of the film.  It's a bold and clever choice; I think most viewers will find it helps in keeping track of where in time they are, even if many of them are not initially conscious of the effort.  Anderson and the studio actually sent around very specific instructions as to how the film is to be screened in service of this device:

It all helps to establish The Grand Budapest Hotel as the kind of movie they talk about when they say, 'they don't make 'em like that any more', when apparently they do.  So few directors have the courage or skill to play with the medium itself these days, that I am inclined to think of Wes Anderson as a slightly gentler and more whimsical Quentin Tarantino, believe it or not.

The question remains then: if I think the film is well written, well acted and well directed, why can't I just rate it a 8.648 or suchlike and have done with it?  Well, I again direct the reader to para. 4, above.

I think most people, on the whole, are likely to enjoy the film, as I certainly did.  You are more likely to enjoy it if:

  • You have a high tolerance for absurdity.
  • You don't mind a little darkness mixed in with your levity, in the form of a handful of murders, numerous fights, and a little bloodshed here and there.
  • Bright splashes of colour are not too distracting.
  • You don't insist on your narrative being delivered in a strictly linear fashion.
  • The idea of Voldemort growing hair and a nose and becoming absolutely charming is not too offputting.
  • The assurance of happy endings for all the sympathetic characters is not required.
  • You are not intimidated by lengthy patches of rapid-fire dialogue, occasionally containing foreign words and phrases:

Zero: Do you have an alibi?
M. Gustave: Of course, but she's married to the Duke of Westphalia. I can't allow her name to get mixed up in all this monkey business.
Zero: Monsieur Gustave, your life may be at stake.
M. Gustave: I know! The bitch legged it! She's already on board the Queen Nasstasja, halfway to Dutch Tanganyika.

There is a also a brief depiction of a sexual act, a few frank descriptions of same, and f-bombs galore (Tarantino again?), but by and large, the content is fairly tame.

Nothing insurmountable or even really challenging here, but rest assured, you will undoubtedly speak to people who didn't particularly enjoy this movie, and they may cite one or more of the above as the reason.

Suffice to say, I really enjoyed the Grand Budapest Hotel, as did Fenya, The pace, the period, the presentation; all combined to tell a delightful story of friendship, loyalty and love, much of it in the context of service to others.  I love a good turn of phrase, especially those that have the phrasing and cadence of earlier times, like the ones in True Grit, or The Sting, and this film resonates with them.  I have pre-ordered the BluRay, and following the Oscars, you are likely to find me catching up on Wes Anderson's other movies.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Here in Alberta, where we, collectively, have no idea how to manage our natural resources compared to, say, Norway, there are a lot of nostalgic sounds making a comeback:
-the sub-glottal gulps of pundits and economists, wondering just how much lower oil prices can go, and what this might mean.
-the slithery clicks of multiple belts being tightened.
-the clattering rumble of ideological wagons being drawn into a circle, as governments and unions begin circling them in anticipation of government budget shortfalls, and the cuts likely to follow.
-the silence of breaths being held by virtually everyone as we all ponder what new development might be next in our fiscal dramas, both macro and micro, both as spectators and as participants.
Suncor has already laid off 1,000 people, 17,000 more people at Target stores nationwide will soon be looking for work, and a recession at this point is beginning to look inevitable.

With Audrey working in a school, and myself at a Crown Corporation, our futures aren't grim by any means, but they are certainly more tentative than they were a month or so back.  Most of the people I know have spent parts of their adult lives unexpectedly looking for work, and we all agree: we'd far rather work at a job we didn't love than spend our days seeking employment.

My own circumstance came in 2007, at the end of more than a decade working for Games Workshop. I had worked up through some leadership positions at the headquarters in Mississauga, then transitioned to retail to facilitate moving back to Alberta in 1999.  I managed a store in Edmonton, then oversaw both stores, and ended up looking after all of Western Canada, from Winnipeg to Victoria.

I loved visiting the shops, talking to staff, sharing insights with the various store managers, but in truth, didn't enjoy it as much as I had my previous roles.  Something about managing from a distance didn't really suit me, and as I struggled to deal with the baggage of store managers I hadn't hired, I was already wondering if the time had come for GW and I to part ways.

It turns out I wasn't the only one thinking that.

I thought it was unusual that my boss, the Head of Retail, was coming to Edmonton only a week before I was scheduled to head to HQ for a conference, along with the rest of the retail managers.  When I discovered that the head of HR was coming with him, well, I didn't exactly need spider-sense to determine that things were awry.

They strolled into the West Edmonton Mall store that I operated out of most days, and after exchanging pleasantries with the rest of the staff, we left the store to go chat.  Normally, this involved a trip to the Tim Hortons franchise located above the ice rink, but my suspicions were confirmed when we bypassed it, and made our way to the hotel.

The room they were using was large enough to have a table we could sit at, and sensing a need to lighten the moment, I made some sort of quip about the fact that if the door opened up onto a single bed with the covers turned down, they were going to be in for the fight of their lives.

They both chuckled, but my boss moved quickly to the topic at hand; the retail chain was not doing as well as it had in the past, and the western stores were no exception.  There was a real need to make some significant changes, and the long and the short of it was, my position was being eliminated.  When the comprehensive reorganization was completed, my number one subordinate and former assistant manager would be looking after the western stores.

It was blunt, but I appreciated the brevity of it.  My boss explained that I would receive a severance package, and that he had arranged for my health benefits to be maintained for another two and a half months, which I know he would have been under absolutely no obligation to do.  He and the head of HR would come to my home that evening to collect the company vehicle (a Dodge Caravan, used primarily for hauling gaming tables and stock from store to store), my company phone, and any personnel files or other administrative items not in the shop.

Given the circumstances, I can't say I was surprised at this turn of events, but it was still rather shocking.  I had been looking forward to seeing my comrades at the conference next week, but now wouldn't even have the opportunity to say goodbye to their faces.  Still, despite being inevitable, my departure was still being treated with respect, which I appreciated immensely; I was simultaneously crestfallen and grateful.  I accepted the terms of the severance package, completed the paperwork, and not long after that, we were making our way back to the store.

I told my boss that leaving the company was only the second worst outcome I had foreseen for our meeting, and he asked me what would have been worse.  "You telling me that you were being let go," I told him, "Because I would have felt responsible for it, at least in part."

He had always been a hard fellow to catch wrongfooted, but his soft reply of "oh, wow," suggested I might have finally done it.

My boss and I had always had a good relationship; we each took what the other said with a grain of salt sometimes, but knew we could always count on the other for honesty and directness.  The GW culture was almost startlingly informal at times, with many a conference devolving into lager-fueled escapades and shenanigans, but it turns out you can very quickly determine the cut of a man's jib by playing games and drinking with him; in vino veritas and all that.  There was a clear demar cation of authority in our interactions, but I considered (and still consider!) him a friend.

He broke the uncomfortable silence on the way back by saying, "It's been a while since we talked, and there's all this other non-work stuff I want to ask you about, but now it all feels like, 'aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?', y'know?"

Despite it all, I had to laugh, and we paid serious attention to trivial matters for the remainder of our walk.  When we got back to the store, I collected my things, said so long to the staff as though leaving for the day, and left the two from HQ to explain what had happened, as we had arranged.

As I drove home, I wondered how best to break the news to Audrey, then ended up spending an hour in a slushy parking lot waiting for AMA to come change the tire on the Caravan, When I finally got home, earlier than expected, I don't recall exactly what I said to her, but it was something along the lines of "I don't work for GW any more."

Understandably, her reaction was shock, and fear:  "What are we going to do?"

No 'are you okay?', not 'how?' or 'what happened?' just an immediate leap to defensive panic.  And after everything else, that was just more than I could take.  I raised my voice, we both got a little upset, but only briefly, and when I explained the severance package and benefit situation, she was able to look at the situation with a little less panic and a little more hope.

Shortly after that, the phone rang; it was my number two man, and he was beside himself, upset, I think, as much with the suddenness of my departure as the rationale for it. I reassured him that while I was nowhere near happy with the situation, I understood the company's position, and did not feel I was being treated harshly or unjustly; it was just unfortunate.  I can't help but think that if I had been less convincing, he might have up and quit on them, despite just having been promoted, and there is a strange sort of gratification that comes from that.

By the time the Ontarians came by to pick up the van that evening, I was feeling much less desperate and wounded, and far more philosophical about the entire affair; so much so, in fact, that I invited them in for a beer, and to my surprise and delight, they agreed.

Walking downstairs, my (former) boss noted all the balloons on the walls, and asked just how much of a happy face I was putting on the whole situation.  I explained that we weren't celebrating my unanticipated departure from retail, but today had been Glory's fifth birthday, and saw him wince.

The head of HR had started with GW as a store manager prior to becoming the retail boss and then migrating to HR, and over a beer, the three of us discussed some of the more acrimonious partings our company (and we ourselves, at times!) had witnessed over the years.  After a few head-shaking recollections and even more belly laughs, he wrapped it up by saying, "At least this time, when people ask me how it went, I can say, truthfully, that I have never seen a guy act with more integrity."

I`m a fortunate man, in that people have had occasion to say kind and flattering things to and about me over the years, but that one really took me aback.  I`m experiencing a little ocular humidity now, just in recalling it.

They finished their beers, and I thanked them for everything, and they did likewise, and for the first time as an adult, I found myself unemployed.

Sure, things eventually worked out, and I escaped retail, and I am with a good organization now and hope to be with them for a good long while, but there was a lot of tension and uncertainty in the middle parts there, I don`t mind telling you.

And as the clouds of uncertainty boil along the horizon, and the prevailing winds begin to build from that direction as well, we are reminded of the one thing that is certain: things will probably get worse before they get better.

But on the other hand, they are likely to get better before they get worse again; the trick is just finding a way to hang in there until they do.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Serenity Gulch: Divvying Denizens

Some time ago, a weighty box from England arrived at my door, containing over a hundred finely sculpted Old West miniatures from Wargames Foundry. These then needed to be rationed up betwixt the eight participants (of which, I am one), with the leftovers coming to me as bystanders, set dressing and so forth.

Rather than simply dividing them up by lot, I opted for a far slower and more tedious methodology, but one that was indisputably more fun. Providing pictures of all the available miniatures and a link to a shared Google Docs spreadsheet, we each picked a single miniature in turn, updated the sheet, and alerted the next in line via group email. Sure, it took significantly longer, but it assured that most of the players got at least some of the figures they wanted, as opposed to leaving all of it to blind chance. And, if I'm being honest, there is a certain visceral thrill in hearing someone opine, "aw, man, I wanted that guy!"

Last week we finished our final picks, and at long last the time had come for the sorting. I laid out all 25 packs in numerical order, printed a copy of the spreadsheet, and had the iPad nearby so I could look at the pictures online.

I labelled a zip-lock bag for each player in turn, and added the appropriate number of bases (this is going to make quite the dent in my assortment of bases!). I then proceeded vertically through the spreadsheet, determining which pack held the next selection, pulling up the picture and finding the best match.

This took the better part of an afternoon, but fiddling with toy soldiers is its own reward in such instances, and taking a closer look at the details of some of the miniatures gave me an even greater appreciation for them. Especially the one labelled 'Sneaky Pete', who appears unarmed in his picture, but has a pisto.concealed behind his back, which seems appropriate.

Now that they are all sorted, I need to get busy cleaning off the flashing and mould lines, attaching them to their bases, and adding some sand for texture. So far I have completed one set, and just need to package It and ship it out to B.C. so I can get started on the ones for the locals.

Once that is out of the way, it is either straight into painting them, or perhaps back to building more of the town itself; we'll see how I'm feeling when I get to that point.



Sunday, January 4, 2015

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar

With Audrey's sister Vera out from Ontario, their folks decided to bring their 55th (!) wedding anniversary observances up from the summer, and booked a banquet room at the Heritage Inn in High River to host the affair. Their place is still being fixed from 2013`s floods, so they arranged for us to stay at the Inn as well as Audrey's other sister, Betty, and her family as well, which I thought was awfully decent of them!

Sadly, Fenya and I had to depart at noon on Saturday due to a previously scheduled rehearsal, but we went out there a day early and got to spend some time visiting and playing games with Oma and Opa.
Friday afternoon, Vera and Audrey wasted no time preparing to make the traditional Dutch New Year's treat of oliebollen, a type of deep fried pastry, often filled with fruit like raisins or apples.
Oma was impressed with the novelty of oliebollen being made without her having to measure, mix or boil them in oil, although the sisters would sometimes solicit her sage opinion on things like batter consistency or oil temperature.

Before too long, ice cream buckets lined with paper towels and overflowing with hot, tasty oliebollen made their way to the table where the girls and I were playing dominoes with Oma and Opa. Dishes of icing sugar for dipping soon followed, and we spent much of the afternoon gorging ourselves on this decadent and greasy delicacy.
We reached our capacity for oliebollen later in the afternoon, well before we had to start rationing to ensure the would be enough for Betty's family, travelling to High River through a phenomenal winter storm with blowing snow.

Sadly, despite the confidence that comes from Audrey having made the dish independently, I am not sure if our house will ever see fresh oliebollen; Oma uses a huge cast iron cauldron to heat the oil, and I am unsure if we have anything that would have sufficient volume and depth.

You know, yet.