Sunday, May 31, 2015

Maximum Madness: Fury Road, Reviewed

Let's just get this out of the way, shall we? Mad Max: Fury Road is full on, straight-up, high-octane crazy, but it may be one of the best examples of cinematic insanity captured on celluloid since Stanley Kubrick died.

Pretty amazing for a reboot, which, in many ways, had absolutely no business making it to the cineplex in the first place.


Reboots of cinematic franchises are becoming a familiar element of 21st century moviemaking; James Bond, Batman, Spider-Man (twice!), and now Mad Max.


This time though, it's the original creator, George Miller, who is overseeing the re-birth of one of the all-time great action movies. 70 year old former physician, George Miller, who made the first Mad Max movie almost forty years ago and pretty much invented the 'Oz-ploitation' genre, has spent the last three decades making family films like Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City (a great film, by the way). Oh, and not succeeding in getting a Justice League movie made about 8 years back, which now feels more tragic than ever.

How a person matching that description could get $150 million dollars to revisit the post-peak-oil wasteland of Australia, And with so little studio interference that he can make his own leading man the sidekick to Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, then take the whole she-bang to Namibia to scratch his David Lean itch is absolutely astonishing.

The fact that he has crafted a tightly knit and gripping, though minimalist, narrative to tie the whole works together is nothing short of miraculous.

Fury Road has been out for a couple of weeks now, so you have probably already heard how Tom Hardy, as the titular Max, probably has less to say than Kurt Russell's Soldier in that film, and how he gets captured and waylaid for the majority of the first act. You may have heard Furiosa is the real main character, enabling the film to take a surprisingly feminist stance at some points. Worst of all, you may have heard that his iconic ride, the last of the V-8 Interceptors, gets taken out of action very early on in the story.

This is all true.

But it doesn't make the movie any less awesome, and here is why:

You may have noticed that the Mad Max trilogy has been gradually amping up the intensity and societal craziness as the films progressed. In Mad Max, there is very little separating Max's world from our own, but in The Road Warrior, with a bit more gestation time, some experience and a bigger budget, you know right from the jump that things have gone off the rails. Seeing Max's battered car evade crossbow-wielding biker savages in order to sop up some leaking 'guzzoline' with a dirty bandana, you are given a very clear picture of how things have deteriorated, and without any dialogue for the first ten minutes or so.

By the time we get Beyond Thunderdome, with MasterBlaster running Bartertown and Tina Turner's Auntie Entity demonstrating her authority with a one-hundred pound chainmail dress, it finally sinks in that civilization and society have irrevocably changed.

Miller has had his ideas about Mad Max's madder world percolating for three decades now, and the place is crazier than ever now. The outlaw gangs are no longer on the outskirts of society, they are society, and their leader, Immortan Joe, is worshipped as a god on Earth, or at least a prophet of old. He has used his control of water to exert total domination of the populace via the speed cult of chrome-coveting 'half-lifers' that wish for nothing more than to die in his service so they can be reborn and live again in his twisted take on Valhalla.

Using slaves like Max as 'blood bags' to help stave off what is either radiation poisoning or just the high cost of red-line living, these half lifers take him in pursuit of a rogue Imperator driving one of the Immortan's War Rigs. Once Max has the chance to break free, Furiosa and her precious cargo becomes his best shot out of the desert, with his vampiric nemesis Nux (an almost up recognizable Nicholas Hoult) in close pursuit.

As mentioned, there are those who feel Max's role is incidental, and unbecoming of a hero in his own film, but I have bad news for these individuals, as they are madder than Max:

Max has never been the hero.

He is the focal point and the protagonist, sure, but does very little in terms of selfless bravery. In the first film, Max starts out as a normal fellow who loses his bottle when the lawless ones destroy his family (the madness being played up very effectively via flashbacks and intrusive visions in Fury Road); he is as much a victim as a hero, and his vengeful actions make him an anti-hero at best.

Likewise, it can be argued that Max is not the hero of The Road Warrior, merely the viewpoint of a crazed survivalist bystander who encounters a community trying to save themselves. They do something heroic by breaking out of a besieged refinery with a tanker of precious fuel, with Max essentially along for the ride with only a fatalist's choice in the matter. Even in Thunderdome, the mantle of hero comes uneasily to Max, he is mostly a man willing to do what it takes to survive, but with some lines he is still unable to cross, despite his loss.

This film starts out much the same, rebooting the series at point well after Max has lost his family, and for most of Fury Road, Tom Hardy's take on Max is a crazed, rock-hard and soul-deadened shell of a man unwilling to let the plight of others distract him from his ultimate goal: freedom or death, but on his terms. No explanation is given, no single transformative moment builds the trust both sides need in order to transcend their horrible and hopeless situation, but progress is made, regardless.

Fury Road is a visceral, visual feast of the action canon, and is well worth seeing in the cinema. The landscape shots of the Namibian desert standing in for the outback are breathtaking, punctuated at times with colourful signal plumes, and at others with astonishing cloud formations. Personally, I think D.P. John Seale gives guys like Roger Deakins a run for their money in several places in this film, and would love to see the Academy give a cinematography nomination to it.

The stunts are absolutely top-notch, making me fear that Namibia perhaps has the same lackadaisical attitude towards stunt performer safety as, say, the Thailand of Tony Jaa. When your film is essentially a 90 minute chase scene interrupted only by the barest requirements of plot and exposition, your chase had better be awesome, and Fury Road delivers the goods. Outrageously re-worked vehicles that make Lord Humungus' armada look like Shriners on parade, and jumps and crashes that make those from The Road Warrior look like they were filmed on a 1:72 scale slot car track, and almost all of it real. A minimum of CGI was used, primarily to enhance the landscape or remove safety harnesses and wires.

Best of all for me, though, is the production and art design. Miller takes care to bring beauty and detail to his harsh environments and encampments, because that is what humans do: we try to pretty the ugly things up, no matter what our circumstances are. From the audacious vehicle designs to the motorhead's temple, thought and care and purpose has gone into everything you see on screen. And yes, that even applies to the fellow riding the truck full of amplifiers who is playing a flame-throwing guitar as he whips Immortan Joe's acolytes into a frenzy. Fury Road takes place in a world as alien and off-putting as anything ever seen off-world in science fiction, and is all the more disturbing because of its familiarity.


If you are looking for a complicated or nuanced story with deep character development and crisp dialogue, you will need to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you are comfortable with a gorgeous (but minimalist), imaginative and highly kinetic vision of a nightmare future that gives Warhammer 40,000 a run for its money, then go check out Fury Road. Theron balances out her toughness with a surprising vulnerability, and Hardy's intensity about the eyes make him a real treat to watch on screen, even when he has very little to say.

Me? I'm counting down the days until I can get my hands on the BluRay, and then I will begin waiting in earnest for the next instalment of Mad Max; Tom Hardy has been signed on for three more films. I only hope they are as chrome as this one; Fury Road is a movie that goes to 11.



Wednesday, May 27, 2015

G&G X: Batcan Unmasked

Most of the crew who worked on construction of our new basement relief station did so in anticipation of increased comfort and convenience at Gaming & Guinness X; it seems wholly appropriate then that all but one of them didn't actually see it in its finished state until G&G itself.


Jeff dropped off the majority of the beer Tuesday night, and got a good chuckle out of it; most of the rest of the G&Gang saw it on Wednesday evening, save Totty. Waylaid by a shifting work deadline, he didn't get a chance to check it out until Thursday evening.


I had sent out a picture showing the paint and ceiling tiles in place, a.k.a. the 'grown up' bathroom in order to assure them that it was in fact structurally complete and operational:


G&G, however, represented their first opportunity to see what an affectation for bat-shaped iconography and access to a tremendous assortment of stickers would do, once I dropped the leash on my inner 14 year old:

(Fenya kindly made the curtains out of my old Batman pyjama pants (also made by her!); the mask on the wall references Scott Snyder's popular and macabre 'Court of Owls' storyline.)

(Glory decorated the can of air freshener with some cartoon-themed duct tape; the t.p. came from Happy Harbor Comics.)

(That bat-logo measures 40" across and doubles as a dry erase board. I left the pen off because what the heck sort of messages are you going to leave for others in a household bathroom? "Don't forget to wash your hands!"? Or perhaps the immortal poetry that begins with the words, " Here I sit, broken hearted..."?


Regardless, everyone was glad to have an extra commode on hand over the weekend, and the response to the theme thus far has been universal acceptance.

I know it can't last; I realize that at some point a casual acquaintance is going to roll their eyes, or look at Audrey and ask how she puts up with this sort of nonsense; I'm looking forward to seeing their expression when she confesses that the Bat-theme was her idea!


Sunday, May 24, 2015

G&G X: Nine for Ten

There is a core group of 8 of us who comprise the majority of Gaming & Guinness events; sometimes situations preclude everyone's attendance, such as work or distance. For instance, this year, a rescheduled assignment kept Mike T. from joining us until Thursday morning, but Colin made it out from Vancouver Island to attend for the first time in six years.

This brought our total number of attendees up to nine, like the Fellowship of the Ring.  Or perhaps more like the Nazgul; it can be difficult to distinguish...

He brought the drinkers:teetotallers ratio down to a paltry 2:1, but despite a legendary beer being half of the name, G&G has never been focused on drinking. The half-dozen Edmontonians can get together for a game and an ale just about any time, and we often do, but bringing in the out-of-towners and having lots of people stay the night prompts a more carefree attitude and deeper fellowship. Sharing meals together gives us a chance to catch up, to chat in a manner that often eludes even those of us unseparated by time zones.
But dice and models and cards are the hub by which our wheel turns, and the gaming was good this year, as it is every year. Island Mike kicked things off Wednesday with a game of Wits & Wagers, a trivia game using exclusively numeric answers, and placing player guesses on a betting line. The game itself is a ton of fun, and the wagering angle means even those who aren't good at trivia can even things out very quickly, but Mike had also created a set of questions linked to the 9 previous G&Gs, making the experience absolutely exquisite.

Thursday saw Mike T. make it back in time for our very first game in Serenity Gulch. Despite the fact that I didn't get as far in building and painting the town and miniatures as I would have liked, everyone seemed happy with the 'work in progress' rendition we ended up with.
The quick and easy nature of the Legends of the Old West rules made the game easy to pick up. We gave each player two miniatures to run, one sheriff or desperado (hero level) and one vigilante or rowdy (henchmen level), and ran a straight up street crossing gang fight with 8 models a side. Then we kept the same sides and tried a scenario out of the book, with the Outlaws edging out a victory over the Lawmen, ably abetted by Mike T.'s Apache Scout.

Thursday night we played one of the best games of Formula Dé I can recall, with the lead changing hands many times on the Monaco course before victory went to Colin, who insists the game would be more interesting if the vehicles were armed.

Friday afternoon was the introduction to the X-Wing miniatures game for most of us, and we were all suitably impressed: fast, simple mechanics, a fairly elegant movement system that has players revealing their pre-set maneuvers simultaneously before using a template to move their ship, and very well done models that come pre-painted.

Earl set up a scenario in which Darth Vader and a hand-picked squadron of Imperial fighters ambushed Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in retribution for the destruction of the first Death Star.

Totty selflessly sacrificed his two TIE Fighters, keeping the Millennium Falcon tied up at one end of the table while Darth Vader, my TIE Interceptor and two other fighters went after Luke and his escort.
Astonishingly, the Force was not enough to save Luke and his X-Wing and the Imperial heroes restored order by eliminating the terror-pilot of Yavin IV with a jail of turbolaser fire! At least, that's how the press release will read. I'm sure he ejected safely and is awaiting his chance to return to the fight,

Friday afternoon we schlepped down to Windermere for a VIP screening of Mad Max: Fury Road, and it was a great movie I intend to review later. Friday night was our opportunity to return to Rock Band, after Jeff went out to pick up a power cord for his PS 3. We were all a bit rusty, but with suitable amounts of liquid courage, a good time was had by all.

Saturday got off to a late start since the last of us wrapped up Rock Band after four a.m., at which point I put the chili together for Saturday night. Thankfully, a modest amount of prep work and the use of a slow cooker meant I got to bed a little before 5:30.

Would that as much planning went into the Call to Arms: Starfleet Battle game for the afternoon, but judicious application of a club-style 'Every Man/Klingon For Themselves' meant we were still able to finish by supper time.
The cutthroat nature of the scenario meant that a few people ended up leaving somewhat early, but consoled themselves by getting in a game of Pimp: The Backhanding on the floor, so they could still keep an ear on the happenings in the Harp Nebula.
Three Klingon ships met their objectives, of which my beloved battlecruiser Vengeance was one, having successfully boarded the U.S.S. Excalibur, subsequently destroying it, and then chasing off another Federation lapdog. Truly, a dark day for Starfleet!

Saturday's traditional chili dinner, like most of our meals, was taken outside. The weather broke Alberta G&G tradition by not snowing as well as being very, very warm. This also gave us a chance to take the group photo and show off the amazingly suave jackets Pete had made to commemorate our tenth (tenth!) year of Gaming &Guinness.
The final marquee game, as always, was Circus Maximus. This year we allowed everyone to take a medium chariot for free, hoping to tip the scales a bit more towards carnage, since our favoured light chariots are useless for ramming.

Thanks to two players thinking along the lines of, 'well, if a medium chariots good, then a heavy must be even better,' those scales tipped like a teeter totter after Shaquille O'Neal gets off his end. Of the nine chariots that started, only six came out of the first corner.

I took myself out of contention early on by swerving instead of braking to evade one of the heavies, but stuck it out and managed to finish the race. Island Mike was again the victor, taking the coveted Circus Maximus trophy back to Vancouver Island, with Earl and Scott rounding out the podium.

As always, G&G is a happy blend of the old and the new: new games, like Legends of the Old West and X-Wing and Wits & Wagers. New beers, like the Mellow Moon Pineapple Hefeweizen or the growler of Hogsbreath from Hogshead Brewing. And the old? Well, Saturday morning, that felt like us, frankly. But many tried and true games as well.

A decade later, I can't tell you how we did it: how we kept the momentum up on something that was initially a one-off event, prompted by the vision of filling a long empty basement with friends and games, and not having anyone need to drive home if they didn't want to. Somehow those first crude t-shirts made with iron-on inkjet transfers made it into an event, and captured the imagination of friends whose companionship I count among my most valued possessions, and whose commitment to fun and fellowship will keep this silly tradition going for at least another decade!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

G&G X: G minus 1...

Serenity Gulch waits on the backburner as our homestead, El Modesto, prepares for the imminent arrival of an anticipated octet. Patio furniture moved from standby to active, ground beef browned for Saturday's chili, and victuals obtained from both Safeway and Costco.


Most importantly though, Jeff arrived tonight with the potables so they could be chilled in time for tomorrow's opening ceremonies. The initial deployment is impressive enough...



But a good commander always leaves something in reserve...


Victoria Day Tradition

Such a privilege to come back to Rundle's Mission at Pigeon Lake every year at this time. Audrey has stepped into the organizer's shoes, delegated the bigger stuff effectively, and as a result, a good time was had by all.

Despite the record number of mayflies...

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Serenity Gulch: Hotel Excelsior

Yessir, the Hotel Excelsior is the pre-eminent place to stay here in the booming little town of Serenity Gulch! Sure, they got rooms over at the Emporium, but, well, to be frank, we cater to a slightly more so-phisticated clientele.

The Excelsior has the best facade in the county, if you don't mind my saying so. My old daddy used to say, 'son, you got but one chance to make a first impression'. That's why we stripped off all the original paint when it started peeling right after our first good rain in seven months. Got a crew coming in from Carson City with new linseed oil paints next week, gonna dress this girl up fine.

My concierge done got himself stabbed in a romantic altercation a week back, but there is usually someone at the desk, and always in earshot of the bell. There are two rooms on the ground floor, which has been a blessing for our guests afflicted with any sort of infirmity what impedes their mobility. My cousin's husband has the gout; can't manage the stairs.

The upstairs bannister is brand new; freshly turned spindles to replace the ones that got busted up when a vociferous supporter of the Confederacy found himself escorted to the lobby suddenly and without due preparation, as it were. 'Safety first' is our motto here at the Excelsior, yes sir.

The real plum of the place, if I may say so, is the Gubernatorial Suite, a spacious and generously appointed room with its own private balcony overlooking Main Street. Now, the territorial governor has yet to actually stay here as of yet, but it is my understanding that he is aware of our standing invitation, and is merely awaiting the appropriate window in his schedule.

What's that? Oh, I'm sure that to the untrained eye that looks very similar to a bullet hole, but I assure you, that is merely an imperfection in the glass, which we are having sorted out with our suppliers back East.

I had hoped to bring some figures and paints along on our annual trip to Rundle's Mission, but there was just no space to be had. Audrey suggested bringing the buildings, which ship flat when unassembled, and can go in space left in the food bin for the trip back.

Glory and I found ourselves at loose ends last night, and so we got stuck into constructing a surprisingly complex little building. It took the two of us to get the staircase figured out, and I had no idea that the left over pieces made up the front desk until I checked the website just before going to bed late last night.
Even without paint, the Hotel Excelsior is a grand edifice, and another two-story building will really help bring Serenity Gulch into its own!