Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Double-Feature: Batman v. Superman, Reviewed

Let me begin by just saying this: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a good film.


This is probably not much of a surprise to most people, and certainly in keeping with the movie's dismal Rotten Tomatoes rating of 28%. It takes far too long to get underway, is almost brutally cynical in its outlook, and is dour and almost devoid of idealism, which sadly, may be the new defining characteristics of the DC Cinematic Universe. Plot holes abound, and like a horror movie, smart people have to act stupidly in order to move the story ahead.


Would that this was the worst of it, but no; worst of all is the casual disregard it has for almost all of the legendary characters they use.


Batman is embittered and borderline paranoid (which is not too much of a stretch), but also far more ruthless than his comics incarnation, branding his bat-symbol into the flesh of the worst of his adversaries, and firing machine guns indiscriminately from both his air and ground vehicles.


Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, has all but given up on journalism in favour of advertising, actively urging Clark Kent not to pursue news stories in favour of a sports piece.


Martha Kent, Clark's mother, suggests her son hang up the cape if people don't appreciate him.


Lex Luthor, the archetypal Superman villain, has no real reason for hating Superman to the degree he does, but is willing to through almost the entirety of his resources into destroying him. There is no apparent endgame, no hidden agenda, he is just willing to do the unthinkable in pursuit of his goal, because that is what Lex Luthor does.


And Superman himself, though he is treated more as a plot device than an actual character, remains aloof and indifferent through most of the movie.


As the director and chief visionary of the DCCU, I want to hang a lot of the blame for this film's missteps on Zack Snyder, but in retrospect, I wonder if the screenwriters, David Goyer and Christ Terrio, deserve the lion's share. The terrible characterizations, tepid first act, and pointless and confusing dream sequences are certainly more their product than Snyder's.


Frankly, the ultimate responsibility for my dislike of the film probably lies elsewhere, and might not even rest with a person, but some agglomeration of executives at Time-Warner, owners of both DC Comics and Warner Studios. In the same way that some discharitable souls describe a camel as 'a horse designed by committee' (which is not terribly fair to camels but exceedingly generous to many committees), my gut instinct is that the filmmakers were asked to help birth an entertainment Frankenstein's monster.


They needed to deliver a summer tentpole movie (in the spring) that incorporates elements from two of the most influential and best selling comics ever published: The Death of Superman, and The Dark Knight Returns. Added to this was the requirement to softly reboot the Batman franchise that was so ably closed off by Christopher Nolan, AND to lay the foundations for a new Justice League movie series. It's a lot to ask for, frankly, and I should state that it is not a complete failure.


Surprisingly, Ben Affleck turns out to have been a great choice as Batman. He brings an intense physicality and intimidation to the role, and in costume is a virtual incarnation of the latter-day Batman portrayed in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Best of all, he brings that same intensity to Bruce Wayne, but coupled with compassion. Affleck is able to portray a haunted playboy with a secret life that echoes the same sort of real-life stunt casting that got us Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark.


Likewise, Gal Gadot makes a credible and formidable Wonder Woman, even if her role in this film is fairly minimal. If the only thing BvS did was whet my appetite for her own upcoming feature, I wouldn't feel my time was wasted.


For all his faults, Zack Snyder is a wonderfully creative director, and the fight(s) that make up almost the entirety of the third act of the movie are imaginative and well done. Even some of the quieter moments are well handled, but the highlight for me was Batman taking on a score of gunmen in a warehouse using a combat style that was part jiu-jitsu, part pro wrestling, and 100% comic book.


Too much of any bad thing is rarely good though, so by the time Jesse Eisenberg's Asberger-y Lex Luthor figures out how to sic a Kryptonian cave troll (Doomsday) on our heroes, it's tough to get excited at yet another CGI chain explosion. The best part was listening to background characters explaining how most of the buildings impacted by the slugfest were empty, and obvious response to the distaste audiences have developed for wholesale city wreckage.


I will give the filmmakers kudos for having the guts to muck with the status quo, however, and the fact that such a film managed to surprise me at least a little bit has to be worth something.


In the end, BvS is worth seeing if you have a vested interest in the characters in it, as I do, or if you are curious where DC might be taking their properties in a Marvel-style shared universe. It is also worthwhile if you want nothing more than the tights and fights that comics are famous for. Those looking for something with a little more depth are advised to give this one a miss.



I recently came across the two cereal flavours tied into this movie, and gave them both a try this morning.


Not unlike the movie they emulate, the cereals' real triumph is in packaging; colourful boxes with textured logos depicting the iconic bat and Superman's diamond. The edible portion shares this predilection, enabling the fast-breaker to enjoy chocolate strawberry bats or caramel crunch super-emblems.


The chocolate flavour is dark, almost bitter, countered somewhat by the sweetness of the strawberry. The fruity aroma brings mixed emotions as at once I realize I am enjoying a chemical cocktail only tangentially related to organic matter, but nostalgically whisked back to the FrankenBerries of my childhood.


Superman's diamonds are a bit more biscuitty in texture, with a more subtle flavour than I anticipated; less like the centre of a Caramilk, and more reminiscent of dulce de leche.


Ultimately I expect to mix the cereals in a 50/50 blend and top them with sliced bananas, but at this point, the cereals reflect the movie once again, and I find myself preferring the Batman portion.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Devil May Care: Daredevil Season 2, Reviewed

I would love to tell you it was common sense or a new appreciation for delayed gratification that prompted me to take 9 whole days to finish watching season 2 of Netflix's Daredevil, but that would be a lie. In truth, it was just scheduling.

More than half of this season was watched on my iPad this time around, either at the Sturgeon Hospital or during interludes while visiting the in laws in High River, but I finally watched the last half of episode 13 tonight. Now, you've probably already made up your mind as to whether or not you are going to watch season 2, but as a guy with three-and-a-half decades of being a fan of ol' hornhead, I feel obliged to weigh in regardless.

Daredevil season 2 has a lot going for it: great cast, great action, and the debut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most popular morally conflicted characters, Elektra and the Punisher. Still and all, I can't say I liked it as much as season 2 1.

I'm surprised to say it, since Elektra and her feud with the mystical ninja clan The Hand is what sparked an interest in these feudal Japanese spies and assassins that permeated my adolescence and lingers to this day, but her story just didn't feel as compelling as it has in her various comic iterations.

Make no mistake, I have no issues with revisionism in comic characters, but Elektra's initial appearance in the comics is as a paid assassin, wading grimly into the organized crime and noir-influenced gang wars that typified Frank Miller's run, a run that made Daredevil a breakout hit and established him as a writer to be reckoned with. Like her namesake from Euripedes' play, her adult life is defined by the loss of her father at the hands of criminals while at college with Matt Murdock in his pre-Daredevil days.

In the series, she re-enters Matt's life as a wealthy socialite, concerned about shady goings-on at one of her portfolio holdings, Roxxon Oil. Flashbacks to their college romance are a heady mix of combative flirting and adolescent risk-taking, with a faint veneer of Natural Born Killers. Thankfully, The Hand still have role to a play, and they are just as inscrutably apocalyptic as they are in the comics.

Cambodian-French actress Elodie Yung brings continental sophistication and natural exoticism to her portrayal as Elektra, as is only appropriate; I just wish her story was a little more substantive, and that they had kept a bit more of the original backstory for her TV debut.

Jon Bernthal's Punisher though, that is a treat. I am most familiar with the 80's iteration of Marvel's premiere villain-killer, a somewhat transparent iteration of of Don Pendleton's paperback vigilante The Executioner. In those comics, writers like Steven Grant and Mike Baron portray former Marine Frank Castle as a ruthless, intelligent, but somewhat detached veteran who brings military tactics and equipment to an increasingly militarized one-man war on crime.

Netflix gives us a Punisher who is short on style and long on fury. Bernthal's Castle is an indignant and enraged man who is less the calculating jungle predator of the comics and more of a charging buffalo who is brute-forcing his way through the gang factions he holds responsible for the death of his family.

This version of the Punisher feels a bit more blue-collar, which took some getting used to, but the showrunners wasted no time echoing his relationship with Daredevil from the comics, setting them up as adversaries and moral opposites.

The Punisher story runs somewhat in parallel to the Elektra angle, which I think may have been part of the reason this season didn't feel as coherent or cohesive as the first. The only common link between them is poor conflicted Matt Murdock, whose life becomes more and more unravelled as he tries to figure out what he wants, and balance it with the needs of the city he loves. I hate to say this, but the angst and guilt that drives this character really makes this feel more like a DC movie in many ways.

In the comics, even at their darkest, Daredevil has allowed its title character an opportunity to swagger, to cultivate a somewhat swashbuckling air, but Charlie Cox gives us a Daredevil who is, in many ways, grimmer than Batman. Thank goodness for TV's Supergirl and The Flash, who remind us that some superheroes actually enjoy what they do!

None of this is to say you shouldn't watch Daredevil, or that I didn't enjoy it. There were lots of things to like, including a couple of unexpected surprises I will let you discover on your own, but in brief, I really appreciated:

  • The new costume; the helmet looks better, with more pronounced horns, and more red in the suit overall.
  • A billy club even more in keeping with the source material.
  • Much-needed comic relief from Eldon Hensen as Foggy Nelson, who continues to deftly sidestep buffoonery through periodic displays of intelligence and bravery.
  • A commitment to great action; remember the hallway fight in season 1? I honestly think they outdid it in episode 3 of season 2.
  • More displays of legal brilliance from Nelson & Murdock.
  • A willingness to blow up the status quo.
  • Ninjas.
  • Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) as someone who not only provides needed exposition on occasion, but who displays her own bravery and intelligence, and who is instrumental in advancing the story.
  • Limited but effective callbacks to season 1.

In short, while I miss Buffy alumni Steven S. Deknight, who replaced another Whedonverse expatriate, Drew Goddard, as showrunner last season, Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez do show that they know a lot about what makes The Man Without Fear tick. Their rookie season is a good one, if perhaps a bit overstuffed or overreaching at times.

I am confident we will see Daredevil again, whether it is in season 3 or in the eventual Defenders series which will link all the Marvel TV properties (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist), and I will be there to see what hell the powers that be will bring to bear on the Devil of Hell's Kitchen

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Attack of the Nephrolith

Because I was eating a second portion of roast beef at nearly midnight on Saturday night, I assumed the sudden pang I felt in my lower left flank was simply due to overdoing it, so I slowed my pace accordingly.

But the sensation intensified as the night wore on, and after retiring for the evening I found myself either unable to sleep or waking up every couple hours to visit the washroom.

Laying in the dark, I started to wonder if it might be serious. A year ago, Island Mike had acute appendicitis, so on my next urination peregrination, I brought the iPad along to double check the symptoms. After discovering that the appendix was on the opposite side of my discomfort, I was at once relieved and apprehensive; if not my appendix, which organ was acting up? Sleep, evasive all night, eluded me from that point on as I wondered and worried.

By the time it was light outside, I was visiting the bathroom a couple of times an hour, and had resolved to visit the medicentre. Seeing Mike's wife Kelly, a practicing nurse, awake while I was on my way to the upstairs lavatory, I asked her opinion.

Like me, she ruled out the appendix, and thought the issue seemed too high for my gall bladder, but agreed with my suspicion it might be my kidney. She also suggested bypassing the clinic and going to the hospital, for faster access to the imaging that might be needed for my diagnosis.

After saying goodbye to the remaining Geekquinox guests and thanking Pete for another wonderful evening, Audrey and I made our way to the Sturgeon Hospital in St. Albert, since it is both close to our house in Castle Downs and usually less busy than the city hospitals. Despite it being only about a 40 minute trip, we still had to make a pit stop midway, and even then I needed to go again by the time we got to the emergency room.

I resisted the urge to bypass the admission desk for the washroom, correctly assuming that they would want a specimen bottle filled. The nurses were quick and sympathetic, noting that my blood pressure was pretty high, but suggesting much of this might be due to the circumstances of my discomfort.

They got me the standard issue dignity-resistant hospital gown, and admitted me to an intake room with a stretcher and chair. Audrey diligently waited with me for the first hour, but had to return home to the girls by noon. The hospital does have wifi, and I'd had the foresight to bring the iPad with me (as well as a charger, just in case) so I was halfway through the the 4th episode of season 2 of Daredevil when the doctor was finally able to see me. To my surprise, I recognized him, and said "Hello, Dr. Stan."

He looked up quizzically from my charts with a cocked eyebrow, and in his lilting accent (West Indies maybe?) asked how I knew his name. I told him that he had looked after my Mum, the nice Newfie lady, when she broke her arm back in December. He smiled at that, and asked how she was doing.

When I told him that not only had her surgery and recovery gone well but she hadn't had a cigarette since then either, he nodded sagely, and said, "You see, everything happens for a reason."

He asked me a few questions about the pain I was having, pressed and prodded me a little bit, and said, "I think we are probably dealing with a stone, so we will get you a CT scan to make sure. You are probably looking at another hour and a half or so," he added apologetically.

"I'm in no rush," I assured him. Honestly, despite the horror stories I had heard about kidney stones, I had been bracing myself for all manner of bad news, from diabetes to cancer to acute renal failure. When Dr. Stan had come through the curtain of my intake room, I had half expected him to say, "We've called your family in case we can't find a transplant in time; are your affairs in order?", so by those standards, a kidney stone was still getting off pretty light.

They moved me to the patient care area, a medium-sized room with about a dozen comfy chairs separated by curtains. I finished episode 4, tried fruitlessly to nap, and when the nurse came by to check my blood pressure again, she said the doctor should be with me before too long. When I explained that I hadn't yet had my CT scan, she shook her head, apologized, and took off to see that I got one.

Not long afterwards, a technician came and led me to a room containing a massive scanner. I had changed back into my civvies because it was easier than carrying them, but now had to wrangle my way back into the drafty gown. I lay down on the bed and armature that lay before the circular scanner, which reminded me a little of The Guardian of Forever from the old Star Trek.

This was my first experience with Computer-assisted Axial Tomography (and no, I have no idea why they stopped calling them CAT scans), and I was too busy marveling at it to be particularly apprehensive. Once they had me lined up properly and my hands in the right (non-pinchy) places, the armature effortlessly swung my ample frame into the aperture for scanning, and all I had to do was follow the breathing cues given by the soothing robot voice.

After getting changed back into regular clothes, I went back to the Patient Care area to see that business had picked up considerably while I'd been away; my #7 seat was now occupied, and only three or four of the dozen chairs were still free.

Thankfully I didn't have to wait too long before Dr. Stan returned. "We're gonna send you home," he said, beckoning me to follow. I attempted to toss my gown into a linen basket we passed, noting I needed to return and get it all the way in, as he led me to a wall display and pulled up my scan.

I have a hard time guessing the scale of the article in question from this image, but picturing this stony formation tumbling around my insides, the first image that came to mind was not from a good movie:
"It's the size of Texas, Mr. President."

"There's the stone, and we are just gonna let it pass," Dr. Stan asserted. He outlined the meds that would aid in the process and help me deal with the discomfort which was to come, then told me they were going to take an X-Ray to localize the stone even further, just in case. Then I would be free to go.

I retrieved my gown from its perch on the side of the linen hamper and made my way to the Diagnostic Imaging Centre, changed once again, clambered onto another stretcher, and enjoyed receiving more roentgens. Two days later, this radiation has not produced any discernible superpowers; it's unreasonable of me, but yeah, maybe I am a little disappointed. After the x-ray, Audrey came to collect me, and we headed to the pharmacy to get my prescriptions filled.

Returning to work, I advised a handful of people about my situation, in case I succumbed to the allure of my prescribed Tylenol 3s and was unable to come to work at some point later in the week. I was grateful for their sympathy, but explained it could have been much worse, even within the kidney stone subset. You see, it turns out there are things called staghorn calculi, which, well, if the name didn't give it away, the picture should make things crystal clear:

Like I said, lucky.

It turns out one of my new teammates is a font of information about kidney stones, having developed a staggering 14 of them during a bedridden pregnancy. She advised me to drink plenty of lemon juice and water, and to ingest apple cider vinegar bills in aid of reducing the size of the offending mineral formations, counsel I took to heart that very evening.

Pain is a pretty subjective thing, but I wanted to get an idea what to expect when The Passing comes to pass. My colleague told me about how the lady in the hospital bed next to her was constantly asking for pain medication and not receiving it, so she was a little self-conscious when she called the nurse over and asked if she could get her dosage raised.

When the doctor acquiesced, her neighbour was incensed, screaming how unfair it was that my coworker could get more drugs but not her, and the doctor was not having any of that. He strode over to the other bed, and essentially told her, "This patient is in far more pain and discomfort than you are and is doing a way better job of managing herself, which is why she can have more painkillers. You should be grateful you don't have her kidney stones, when all you have to worry about is coming off heroin addiction."


At this point, I describe my current level of discomfort as akin to having swallowed a leprechaun with a black belt in tae kwon do and wearing heavy cowboy boots. The worst part is knowing that at some point in the not too distant future, the little blighter will be getting his hands on a pitchfork and blowtorch. Until then though, it does help to remind myself how much worse it might have been.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Game's Afood - Vernal Geekquinox 2016

Geekquinox is the name for our friend Pete's biannual dinner party, commemorating the two days every year that have equal amounts of darkness and light. It's become a real highlight of the year for all of us attendees, and looking at the amount of creativity and preparation Pete brings to the menu alone makes it fairly obvious why.

In addition to pushing the envelope of his culinary skills with new techniques like sous vide, or exotic dishes like kofta (a type of meat loaf common to an astonishingly wide range of places), Pete brings his considerable creative prowess into play by crafting the menus around a strong theme. This year's theme was 'games' which is appropriate since that seems to be the common thread that brought, and keeps bringing, us together.

Some of the gaming links were admittedly tenuous, but the highlight for me were the icosahedronical cakes made to look like the 20-sided dice so ubiquitous to nerdy gaming. Ellen's daughter Elizabeth put a day's work into aiding Pete with his preparations, including icing said cakes, and displayed tremendous focus and perseverance in doing so.

Watching Pete bring new tastes and technology into his dining machinations is always a treat, from the immense scale of his roast beast...

...to the sous vide controller he used to prepare the carrots...

...to the sartorial choices he makes in his safety equipment...

...Pete brings a sublime blend of ingenuity, hospitality and gourmanderie to his dinner parties. But, as hard as it might be to believe, the dining, as good as it is, is probably less half the appeal of Geekquinox, at least to me.

The people though, continue to amaze and delight, and this time, Island Mike and Kelly were able to come out from Vancouver Island to join us. Being no strangers to epicurean delights and tremendous sushi fans, they greatly enjoyed the Hamachi shots (as did we all, even those who aren't necessarily fans of sushi!), among other things.

Even more, it was a chance to talk about, well, everything, from movies to parenting to the challenges in our respective workplaces.

And perhaps have a sampling or two from Pete's cellar.

Pete has been doing these crazy shindigs for 5 or 6 years now, and like the wine he serves, they seem to keep getting better with age. Or maybe it's us? At any rate, I can't describe the evening as inimitable, because I know 6 months from now, Pete will likely have outdone himself again. I will content myself by expressing how grateful we all are to have a friend so dedicated in spoiling us as thoroughly as he does, all in the name of friendship!


A lovely group photo, courtesy of Earl J.Woods and The Earliad.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Marvel's Superhero Civil War

The massive comic story that inspired the upcoming Captain America threequel isn't exactly accessible for most casual readers. It's a sprawling story that encompasses nearly every regular Marvel comic and character, which took almost a year to unfold, and, frankly, wasn't terribly well executed in places.


Which is a bit of a shame, as it was built around an intriguing notion: the idea that these masked characters, with or without super powers, need to somehow be held accountable for their actions, and that secret identities, by their very nature, reflect a threat to an ordered society.


This animated video explains the comic story fairly comprehensively in 4 minutes, in case you are interested in the source material at all. It is by no means required watching, any more than the comics are required reading; Marvel is a smart enough studio to recognize the need to keep the story simple, even as their cinematic universe grows more and more complex.


The MCU doesn't really make much use of secret identities: Tony Stark outed himself as Iron Man as his final act in the first movie, it appears most people and certainly all SHIELD agents know that Captain America is Steve Rogers, and this fall we will meet Benedict Cumberbatch as Earth's Sorceror Supreme who doesn't even have a flashy nom de guerre, Doctor Strange. Thankfully, now that Sony Pictures has allowed Marvel's favourite son to appear in Marvel Studios movies, at least Spider-Man will be on hand to bring the classic alter-ego angst to the proceedings.


But Captain America: Civil War started production well ahead of Spider-Man's return to the fold, so it begs the question: without the privacy angle for costumed adventurers, is there enough story left in Civil War to hang a summer tent pole on?


Probably, yes.



With the marketing asking everyone to pick a side between Cap and Iron Man, this event film has all the earmarks of a prize fight, with evenly matched teams of colourful characters lining up against each other in the manner of a football scrimmage. And don't get me wrong, I am really looking forward to one of, if not the, biggest hero-on-hero conflicts ever depicted onscreen. But such a showdown is not the heart of the story.


Civil War is about the choices people make. Tony Stark chooses to stand up for a world where 'normal people' can perhaps feel a bit safer around the increasingly powerful individuals living among them, which is certainly a laudable goal. Cap, on that her hand, is committed to individual liberties and the freedom to act, which seems fairly reasonable for someone literally wrapped in his nation's flag. Because it is his movie, Cap is probably the more right of the two, but that by no means makes Tony wrong.


Watching him and the others navigate the choices they make and the repercussions that ensue, and the possibility of others changing their minds, that's what is going to make this movie a compelling watch. As happy as I am to see Ant-Man riding one of Hawkeye's arrows, and Black Panther fighting alongside Black Widow, and Spider-Man in all his Technicolor 1960's glory, bright and beautiful in a way that Zack Snyder's muted Superman can only hope to emulate, what I am most looking forward to, honestly, is a movie wrapped firmly around an idea.


Yeah, sure, that idea comes colourfully, even gaudily wrapped, with legendary characters squaring off against each other (did you realize Captain America turns 75 this year?) but Kevin Feige and the rest of the Marvel Studios brain trust have firmly grasped onto the idea that comics are, in their fashion, the mythology of the 20th century, carried into the 21st by our love of the avatars of the mythos. Mythology has always been a means of using larger than life stories to explore and understand the world around us.


I'm no expert, but to my eyes, the United States is currently experiencing a level of fractious divisiveness unequalled since the actual American Civil War: Republicans vs. Democrats, rich vs. poor (or perhaps middle class vs. everybody), citizen vs. immigrant, black vs. white, the list goes on. Captain America: Civil War may present a more apt look at our southern neighbors than any of us are really comfortable in admitting.


In the end, it doesn't really matter to me which side 'wins' this conflict; superheroes fight each other all the time, it is practically a trope-ish requirement; look at how Thor comes into the Avengers. No, what matters is how they move forward, and that is what I hope they get a chance to address in Captain America's fifth movie appearance.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Talk Like the Animals: Zootopia, Reviewed

If Disney Animation's latest feature was only the funniest talking animal movie in years (which it indisputably is), that would be enough to justify its blockbuster status. As it happens though, Zootopia is also the smartest and most insightful cartoon to come along since Inside Out, which means a whole different group of people really ought to see it.

The story (in case you have somehow escaped the Mouse's mighty marketing machine) follows a bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) intent on escaping the family carrot farm and becoming the first rabbit police officer in the metropolis of Zootopia. Zootopia is an immense city encompassing a dozen different ecosystems, from the rainforest to the tundra, and where all manner of mammals have learned to dwell peacefully together, regardless of whether they evolved from predators or prey.

But old habits dies hard, and between the various species there is suspicion, resentment, and as much profiling as we see in our own world today. In fact, despite the hard work it takes Judy to get through the police academy, many believe she has only been hired due to Mayor Lionheart's (J.K. Simmons) new 'Mammal Inclusion Policies'.

Officer Hopps' crosses paths with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a - dare we say it? - sly fox who she first aids in overcoming exclusion, but afterwards discovers she has aided him in one of a series of quasi-legal hustles he uses to make his way in the world. When tasked with helping solve a spate of missing mammal cases, she displays her own guile in leveraging his assistance, and an inter-species buddy-cop story begins. In fact, the legacy to classic Hollywood action movies is so strong, she is even given 48 hours to solve the case by her water buffalo chief of police, voiced by Idris Elba. Chief Bogo even gets a little dig in at Disney itself:

Chief Bogo: Life isn't some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go.

Zootopia has a lot going for it: great characterizations, a tight plot (for a talking animal flick at least!) smart humour and slapstick in equal and enormous doses, and some of the most thoughtful design work ever seen in a movie like this. Every vehicle reflects the physicality of the animal driving it, from the articulated cabin of the giraffe's coupe to the wide wheelbase needed to accommodate the moose's heavy antlers. This is one of those rare all-ages cartoons from the old school, where there is something for pretty much everyone, and outside of those who simply cannot bring themselves to enjoy movies int he animated medium, I can't think of anyone I wouldn't recommend it to on those merits alone.

But, amazingly, there is more.

Very early in the movie, Hopps is referred to as 'cute' by a well-intentioned colleague, who she gently strives to illuminate:
Clawhauser: O. M. Goodness, they really did hire a bunny. Ho-whop! I gotta tell you, you're even cuter than I thought you'd be.
Judy Hopps: Ooh, ah, you probably didn't know, but a bunny can call another bunny 'cute', but when other animals do it, that's a little...
Clawhauser: [Mortified] Hoo, I'm so sorry! Me, Benjamin Clawhauser, the guy everyone thinks is just a flabby donut-loving cop stereotyping you.

Even when it is being playful, Zootopia does not shy away from the fact that these now peaceful animals have a shared history that is bloody and unpleasant, and it resonates in their interactions today. In fact, it embraces this, and finds tremendous and insightful parallels to our own world in tragedies like the Ferguson riots and the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Hopps tries to explain that there is a biological component to a recent series of savage attacks, Nick's sense of indignation and betrayal is absolutely palpable. When the mastermind reveals the insecurity that motivates their evil machinations, it brings to mind all the ways that fear and divisiveness are used to keep us from achieving greatness together, from the increasingly violent Trump rallies, to the Alberta man who insists on wearing his Oilers hat due to 'religious principles'.

Ideally, every kid will not only get a chance to see Zootopia, but will also bear it in mind when some nearby grownup (and I use that term pejoratively) speaks disparagingly about initiatives to give aboriginal people a seat at the table, or closing the gender wage gap, or about how wearing religious garb in public is really not very 'Canadian'. I hope when it happens that kid remembers this movie, and just how much actual work it takes to build a place where everyone can work together to be what they need to be.
Judy Hopps: I came here to make the world a better place, but I think I broke it.
Chief Bogo: The world has always been broken. That's why we need good cops.

Despite the title, it turns out that Zootopia is not a perfect place after all, but in a lot of ways, they have a better plan for getting there than we do. Maybe they aren't the funny animals after all.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Anne At The Arden

We attended Cantilon Choirs' production of Anne of Green Gables last night at the Arden theatre in St. Albert; it's a lovely stage, with great acoustics and lighting. Fenya played the part of Diana Barry, Anne's best friend in her new home of Avonlea, P.E.I..

The musical takes a few liberties with the story, giving a new motivation to the eventual departure of Mr. Spencer, the overbearing teacher, which is linked to the over-tutored Prissy Andrews.

The costumes, hair and makeup were exquisitely done, and captured the period perfectly.

The staging was fairly minimalist, but very effective, and occasionally imaginative. When the pennants dropped from overhead, it was all too easy to believe you were witnessing an outdoor picnic in June, complete with handmade ice cream (which leads in to Fenya's big number of the same name).

Here she regales the younger students with tales of the wondrous things she witnessed in the bustling metropolis of...Charlottetown?

Fenya also got a lovely duet with Elizabeth as Diana and Anne sing about being 'Kindred Spirits', prefaced by Diana's confession that her dream is to eventually "marry a wicked young man, and then gradually reform him."

When Prissy returns to Avonlea, it is as Mrs. Spencer, and roundly pregnant. And if that's bad enough, you have to listen to the smug git sing about the results of planting a tiny seed...gak! I understand the actress also didn't warn her boyfriend in the audience that she would be appearing laden with child, but I hope his response was memorable.

It was a capacity show, largely full of friends and relations, but it was tremendously well done, and appreciatively received by the audience.

Given how expressive she is, I'm still a bit saddened that Fenya was never particularly interested in drama, and sure, it's probably just a father's vanity, but when I see her do something funny on stage, I think, 'Your loss, Hollywood."

Elizabeth was a wonderful Anne, full of dramatic vigor and mischievousness.

Here, some of the principals ham it up in reaction to the apocryphal pregnancy.

Since this may be Fenya's last big production with Cantilon (since she is taking a gap year before starting university), I'm glad her Aunt Betty got a shot of her with the choir's artistic director and conductor, Heather Johnson, who has been such a big part of Fenya's life for the past 12 years.

Kudos to everyone involved in such a magnificent production!

Friday, March 4, 2016

No Winspear Mosh Pit: Nightwish in Concert, Reviewed

Nightwish. At the Winspear.

It is simply not possible to overstate the awesomeness of having one of Europe's preeminent and influential power metal bands play in Edmonton's premiere concert venue.

For the majority of people who do not know that Nightwish is even a band, let alone what sort of music they play, let's clarify that they describe themselves as a 'symphonic power metal' group, originally built around crushing power chords, an eccentric keyboardist and songwriter, and an immensely talented mezzosoprano named Tarja Turunen. Skillfully weaving together heavy metal, opera, and symphonic and soundtrack music, they were considered pioneers in the burgeoning genre of power metal when they formed 20 years ago, and are Finland's third most popular recording artists (for comparison, Madonna is 11th).

To be completely honest, when the tour was announced, I was initially more interested in the opening acts of Delain and Sonata Arctica, having only a couple of Nightwish CDs in my collection. After purchasing their most recent album Endless Forms Most Beautiful (the first studio release with new lead vocalist Floor Jansen), I was eagerly anticipating a great show from the headliners.

And that's what we got.

Their show opened on a darkened stage, and Hans Zimmer's "Roll Tide" (from the movie Crimson Tide) filled the air to set the mood. The lights slowly came up as the music changed to the introduction from Shudder Before the Beautiful, and cheers rang out as the band took their positions, and became deafening when Floor strode onstage.

And I do mean strode; the woman has a considerable stage presence, which is aided by the fact that she is 6'1", and had a strategically placed fan in front of her mic stand to add a little motion to both her long hair and the cape she was wearing.

For the two opening acts, ushers had actually asked concertgoers to remain in their seats, but three songs in, Nightwish had everyone in the sold out Winspear Centre on their feet, throwing the horns, banging their heads, and cheering throatily.

Dutch openers Delain did an admirable job getting the crowd warmed up, but were down one guitarist (much to the chagrin of many ladies in the crowd, as bassist Otto Schimmelpennick van Oije is indisputably good looking and puts many dedicated metalhead hairfarmers to shame with his locks), but have also added petite tour guitarist Merel Bechtold to their lineup.

I've no idea where Otto was, but I was also surprised and delighted to discover (at the merch table) Delain had released a new EP, Lunar Prelude, and opened with its new single, Suckerpunch. It is the kind of powerful, catchy anthem you'd expect from a synth based outfit, gives vocalist Charlotte Wessels quite a bit to play with, and it almost made up for the fact that they didn't play Stardust.

Apparently I need to get on Twitter in order to keep up with the bands I like, and I hope the next time Delain comes to town they do so as headliners, so if anyone reading this hears anything about future appearances, please let me know!

Sonata Arctica is one of my favourite bands, full stop, and vocalist Tony Kakko is a funny and engaging frontman with a tremendously powerful voice. Both their set and their setup suffered a little from opening act-itis, insofar as both volume and mixing needed a bit of work, but I still wish they could have played a longer set. They did get in Audrey's favourite, I Have a Right, a song written around the UN Declaration of Rights of the Child, and closed out with their signature hit Don't Say a Word. Opening acts don't really get encores, but SA got everyone up to sing their traditional closer, "Vodka/ We want some vodka" to the tune of Hava Nagila,

All the artists made a point of expressing their appreciation for the classiness of the venue, but I wonder if the venue perhaps dampened the crowd's enthusiasm a bit. It's not like there is room for a mosh pit at the Winspear, y'know? Being a fat, middle-aged guy (a demographic with ample representation at the concert!), I was fairly content to sit and bop my head, but was actually glad when I had to take my feet during Nightwish's performance.

Our friends Jon and Michelle joined us from Camrose for the show, Jon mostly as a Delain fan and Michelle as a classically trained voice and piano teacher who is also a willing explorer of unfamiliar musical genres, and you could not have asked for a better concert to showcase such variety.

Keyboardist and songwriter Tuomas Holopainen somehow manages to imbue powerful, guitar driven heavy metal with melodic and symphonic elements from many cultures, and the tracks from Endless Forms have a significant Celtic influence to them. This is probably due in no small part to bringing former session musician and uillean pipe player Tory Donockley officially into the band 3 years ago, around the same time they welcomed Floor.

Donockley is a charmer and a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing the aforementioned great Irish warpipes, the mandolin-looking Celtic bouzouki, Irish pipe and tin whistle, bass guitar and even adds cumbrian chanting to the beginning of My Walden.

Nightwish transitions naturally and seemingly effortlessly from operatic vocal solos to shredding guitar work on tracks like Stargazer. The shredding is courtesy of Emppu Vuorinen, who, to his credit, shows no discomfort at playing right next to a vocalist who towers 10" over him (his nickname is The Hobbit, and the band's visual presence made me think they could model for D&D covers  or a movie adaptation of Gauntlet - Rogue, Wizard, Valkyrie and Gnome).

They have tremendous variations in both pace and volume, with ballads like Bless the Child generating a forest of waving arms from the crowd, some holding their cellphones, but the one old-schooler with an actual lighter was swiftly admonished by a Winspear usher.

Watching bassist (and supporting composer, as it turns out) Marco Hietala, imposing and impish with his forked beard and wicked grin, switch from growling background vocals to taking the lead on the softer but still powerful ballad While Your Lips Are Still Red while wielding en enormous double-necked guitar was a real revelation.

These slower spots were also a great chance to catch our breath before the big finale: the middle third of The Greatest Show On Earth. The album version is a 26 minute epic (!) praising the miracle of evolution, and including references to the Goldilocks zone and LUCA. Science!

Floor Jansen is a marvel. As a singer, she displays the same degree of versatility as the rest of the band, singing ethereally to open Bless the Child and operatically on Stargazer, then bringing ominous and husky growls to the verses of Greatest Show On Earth before just fully rocking out on the chorus.

Her countenance can portray the ominousness of Morticia Addams while singing, or the playfulness of your favourite cousin while smiling and chatting up the crowd, and with a stature and presence that could see her standing in for Wonder Woman if Gal Gadot doesn't work out onscreen.

Exhorting the crowd to sing along with the final line of "We were here", she sustained the last notes longer than anyone, her voice still clear and powerful after an 11 minute song wrapping up a 90 minute set that saw her singing on every number save one.

As a newcomer to power metal, Michelle was pleasantly surprised how much she enjoyed the show, favouring Delain the most, but enjoying Nightwish more than she expected. Jon was a bit let down, Nightwish didn't play the title track from the new album but had a great time. Glory and Audrey had a wonderful time, and especially appreciated the humor and energy Tony Kakko brought to the middle of the evening.

For me, it was a perfect confluence of three talented bands playing music in a genre we just don't get to hear enough of in Edmonton, and in my favourite venue, and with people dear to me. Last night was very likely the highwater mark for power metal concerts for me, and I think it will be quite some time before it gets supplanted in my memory, if ever.

My hope is that the fact that it was a sell-out show combined with the artists clear appreciation for both the venue and the crowd means that word will spread, and that we will perhaps see even more shows like this before Nightwish returns, And that return cannot happen soon enough to suit me.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Oscar Night 2016: Witness!

Well, that was one for the books, and probably the most enjoyable Oscar night for me in the past decade.

Let's start with the people: not only did we push our little basement right up against the edge of its occupancy limits, but everyone seemed to be pulling for all things Mad Max. Shouts of "Witness!" accompanied the six accolades Fury Road eventually garnered, and we were all disappointed that George Miller got shut out of Best Director and Best Picture.
And how about the jacket Fury Road's costume designer wore down the aisle as she went onstage to collect her statuette?

The awards themselves elicited very few exclamations from the assemblage, and the only real surprise came at the end, with Spotlight beating out the heavily favoured The Revenant for Best Picture. Alejandro Innarittu certainly put together a powerful and beautiful movie, and one which especially earned its award for Cinematography, but I was glad to see an upset, especially for an ensemble newspaper pic.

Host Chris Rock not only addressed the #Oscarssowhite controversy, but fully embraced it, and was relentless in bringing the issue forward to elicit both laughs and insights. He definitely ruffled some feathers, and judging from the online comments I've read since, my guests and I may (ironically) be in the minority of people who thought he did a great job.

This year they finally introduced a text crawl so that winners could actually say something instead of hurriedly spitting out a laundry list of obligatory gratitude. Unfortunately, very few of them took advantage of this, but hopefully they keep it around for at least one more year and see if it catches on.

Some winners stepped away from this unfortunate tradition, including the sound crew from Mad Max who praised George Miller for making a loud, loud movie that also contained silence, the director of Girl in the River who pointed out her film may have helped the Pakistani PM change the law on honour killings, and the writers of The Big Short said pithily, "If you don't want big money to control government, don't vote for candidates who take money from big banks, oil or weirdo billionaires."

Now, let me say that there were some issues with this year's In Memoriam presentation, ably accompanied by Dave Grohl playing The Beatles "Blackbird". Most notably is the inexcusable absence of Abe Vigoda; how in the hell do you include Alex Rocco, who played Moe Green for only two scenes, but leave out the guy who played Sal Tessio? I'm sure it wasn't personal -everyone liked the guy - but it still feels like an infamia.

The bigger issue for me, personally, came during the March of the Dead, the irreverent yet respectful drinking game we play during the In Memoriam segment of the telecast. Now, I can't tell you what a 'good' score is in MOTD, and it is not really a competition. If you don't pay attention to the credits of a movie, you are not likely to have to take too many drinks. On the other hand, if you pay attention to the names of the people who make your movies, but don't read a lot of entertainment news or IMDb, you can end up getting punished. Like severely.
I do both of these things, but still ending up having to take an unprecedented nine drinks, one for each person whose name I recognized, but whose death surprised me (including, sad to say, Alex Rocco). Poor Rev. James regrets playing every year, but because he is a stout-hearted fellow and a game fish, he keeps coming back for more, this year to the tune of 8 shots.
He opted out of the honour shot many of us took in remembrance of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee, a man who not only portrayed Dracula, Scaramanga and Saruman on the silver screen, but lived a life so colourful he makes Dos Equis' 'Most Interesting Man In The World' look like Dennis, the new guy in Accounts Receivable. James also got the quote of the night in expressing his distaste for the shimmery Viniq liqueur we used for some of the shots, by saying "It tastes like Jonestown."

Pete and I also took a memento mori shot for Abe Vigoda, a man for whom reported deaths preceded him by decades; rest in peace, Sally.

In the end, we had a tie for the most correct predictions, with 16 picks apiece for both Totty (cribbing from Nate Silver's website FiveThirtyEight.com) and Rev. James (divine insight and dogged allegiance to Fury Road), so they each got a tiny trophy but I neglected to get a photo. James also got an extra raffle ticket and a second trophy for being the first Oscar Bingo winner, but Jeff, with far less prognosticating ability, ended up winning the draw for a night at the movies.

Sure, the broadcast went a little overtime (as usual), and not everyone can be a winner, but we all seemed to have a good time, so I will call this year's Oscar party a success, and I am already looking forward to next year!