Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscars 2017

That was quite a night!

Forgetting for a moment that Best Picture and Best Director split for the 4th time in 5 years (and rarely before that), the amount of diversity represented by awards winners or the excellent job done by host Jimmy Kimmel, the astonishing - I dunno what to call it, photo finish? - made the 89th Academy Awards one to remember!

Totty had the best predictions with 16 (I was only 1 behind this year!) and won the free movie tix raffle (you get an entry for each correct answer, so it was weighted a bit in his favour) for good measure.

Pete was the leader for observance in the March of the Dead with 5, and I was only 1 behind in that competition as well, thanks to Arthur Hiller, Michael Cimino, Curtis Hanson and Ken Howard.

Kimmel made an excellent host; his recurring gag of parachuting various theatre candies from the ceiling was inspired and kept the energy levels up where they need to be in a 4 hour telecast, and his prank that involved detouring a Hollywood tour bus into the Dolby Theater and the Oscars ceremony was nothing short of brilliant.

Betting favoured Denzel getting Best Actor as he won the SAG award, but I was grateful to see Casey Affleck win it; his performance in Manchester By The Sea was nothing short of heartbreaking.

I was very surprised that Moonlight beat out La La Land for Best Picture, but there is no questioning it is a great movie. I was absolutely gobsmacked when the producer of La La Land interrupted his own acceptance speech to say Moonlight had won.

The second acceptance speech, which encouraged a number of minorities, sexual, racial and otherwise, to keep faith that they will see themselves mirrored on screen, was delightful and encouraging.

None of the speeches went political to the degree that Michael Moore did back in 2003, but there was a lot of encouragement for diversity, openness, and collaboration, and derision of the idea of deconstructing the world into camps of "us" and "them" that were very encouraging.

I shared Kimmel's surprise that Trump hadn't tweeted about them, despite the fact he was attending the Governor's Ball;

All in all, a great telecast, a great year for movies and a great party!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sergeants Rock

We saw Hacksaw Ridge Sunday night, Mel Gibson’s film about WWII conscientious objector Desmond Doss. It’s a good movie about an almost unbelievably true story, built largely around a bravura performance by former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, but also featuring a great turn by Hugo Weaving as his father, a drunken and embittered WWI veteran. The biggest surprise for me though, was appreciating Vince Vaughn in a non-comedic role.

Vaughn plays Sgt. Howell, Doss’s platoon leader, who not only takes his recruits through basic training but on to the field of battle at Okinawa. But during his introduction, we get treated to the special kind of insightful and creative abuse so endemic to recruiting sergeants and drill instructors, at least in the movies.

Sgt Howell: I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques. Makes me want to pull an ear off, Private! Can you carry your weight?
Desmond Doss: Yes, Sergeant!
Sgt Howell: It should be easy for you then. Corporal!
Corporal Jessop: Sergeant.
Sgt Howell: Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds.

Or consider the following, as delivered to a completely naked individual:

Sgt Howell: Have you ever roped a goat, Hollywood?
Hollywood Zane: No, Sarge.
Sgt Howell: Have you ever looked into a goat's eyes?
Hollywood Zane: No, Sarge.
Sgt Howell: Good. That would be unnatural.

You can have a decent war movie without a colourful sergeant (Black Hawk Down did it, after all) but a good NCO makes a good movie better.

Full Metal Jacket - Sgt. Hartman is probably the gold standard for modern movie sergeants, probably due in no small part to R. Lee Ermey’s experience as a real life Marine Corps sarge. A perfect storm of well written content and the vocal delivery equivalent of CAPS LOCK.

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be "Sir". Do you maggots understand that?
Recruits: [In unison in a normal speaking tone] Sir, yes Sir.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Bullshit I can't hear you. Sound off like you got a pair!
Recruits: [In unison, much louder] SIR, YES SIR!
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings. You are nothing but unorganized grabastic pieces of amphibian shit! Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard but I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless. And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?

Heartbreak Ridge - Clint Eastwood’s tough-as-nails Gunny Highway is almost as abusive as Sgt. Hartman, but is committed to the development of his men, and actually deploys with his platoon during the invasion of Grenada. Plus, other than Sgt. York, not a lot of war movies have a sergeant as the main character, right?

Highway: My name's Gunnery Sergeant Highway and I've drunk more beer and banged more quiff and pissed more blood and stomped more ass that all of you numbnuts put together. Now Major Powers has put me in charge of this reconnaissance platoon.
Lance Corporal Fragatti: We take care of ourselves.
Highway: You couldn't take care of a wet dream. God loves you.
Collins: I know that!
Highway: You men do not impress me!

Gettysburg - Sgt. Kilrain is a Mick after me own liver and kidneys, a campaigner from the Auld Sod who admonishes his colonel, a former college professor, for walking instead of riding the horse he’s been provided.

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Colonel? Colonel, darlin'. Rise up, me bucko. (Chamberlain groans.) Oh, I'm sorry, darlin', but we've got a bit of a problem here, Colonel, would ye like to hear about it? Would ye wake up, sir? We got a whole company comin', sir. This way. I'll give ye time to wake up, but we've got quite a problem. Altogether, 120 men are comin'. We're to be havin' them as guests.
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: (still half asleep) What?
Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Yeah. Should be here any minute.
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: Who?
Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Mutineers. Mutineers, Colonel, me lad. 120 men from the old 2nd Maine which has been disbanded.
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: 120 mutineers? (gestures for Kilrain to keep talking.)
Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Yes, sir. Ye see, what happened was the enlistment papers on the old 2nd Maine run out. So they were sent home. All except these 120 fellows who'd foolishly signed 3-year papers. 3 years, that is. So these poor fellows, they got one more year to serve, only, you see, they thought they was signin' to fight only with the 2nd Maine and the 2nd Maine only. So, they, uh, quit. They resigned, ye see. 120 men! (Chamberlain puts his head down.) Colonel? Are ye all right?

Aliens - Sergeant Apone doesn't get a lot of screen time, but every time he is on screen he exudes discipline and proficiency. Another real-life sergeant, actor Al Matthews was the first black man promoted to E-5 in the U.S. army.

Sergeant Apone: All right, sweethearts, what are you waiting for? Breakfast in bed? Another glorious day in the Corps! A day in the Marine Corps is like a day on the farm. Every meal's a banquet! Every paycheck a fortune! Every formation a parade! I *love* the Corps!

Fort Apache - This one’s a twofer; you get Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen from The Quiet Man as Regimental Sergeant Major O’Rourke…

Lt. Col. Thursday: This Lt. O'Rourke - are you by chance related?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: Not by chance, sir, by blood. He's my son.
Lt. Col. Thursday: I see. How did he happen to get into West Point?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: It happened by presidential appointment, sir
Lt. Col. Thursday: Are you a former officer, O'Rourke?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: During the war, I was a major in the 69th New York regiment... The Irish Brigade, sir.
Lt. Col. Thursday: Still, it's been my impression that presidential appointments were restricted to sons of holders of the Medal of Honor.
RSM Michael O'Rourke: That is my impression, too, sir. Will that be all, sir?

...and Sgt. Mulcahy, respectively.
[in the storeroom at Meacham's trading post, the soldiers find boxes marked "Bibles" - Col. Thursday tells the men to open them - when they do, they find kegs of whiskey instead]
Sgt. Quincannon: Bibles, sir!
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: [Col. Thursday hands a cup to Sgt. Mulcahy] Sergeant, pour me some scripture.
[Sgt. Mulcahy dips the cup into a keg and hands it to Col. Thursday. He takes a sip and spits it out]
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: What's in this? Brimstone and sulfur?
Silas Meacham: You know what it is and I'm entitled to keep it.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Your license may permit you to keep a medicinal store of whiskey, but this is no whiskey.
Silas Meacham: Perhaps you're not used to frontier whiskey.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: I don't know... I've tasted most everything.
[to Sgt. Mulcahy]
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Sergeant, you a judge of whiskey?
First Sgt. Festus Mulcahy: [looks around at the others] Uh, well, sir, some people say I am and some say I'm not, sir.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: [hands him the cup] Tell me what you make of this.
First Sgt. Festus Mulcahy: [takes a drink - makes a face at Meacham - takes another drink] Well, uh, it's better than no whiskey at all, sir.

And after being told to destroy the whiskey, and handing out cups to the other men:

First Sgt. Festus Mulcahy: "Destroy it," he says. Well, boys, we've a man's work ahead of us this day.

But my favourite probably has to be the straight and proper, cool and unflappable Colour Sergeant Bourne from Zulu, as portrayed by Nigel Green. His admonishment of the incarcerated preacher who tries to convince his guard to desert is delivered as coolly, professionally and impeccably as his bayonet strikes:

“Mr. Witt, sir, be quiet now will you; there's a good gentleman. You'll upset the lads.”

I don't know if Vince Vaughn's Sgt. Howell will resonate with me through the years the way some of these cinematic NCOs have, but he makes a worthwhile contribution to the canon.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Picture of a Man at Work

It's an old picture, torn from the pages of the September 1995 issue of Premiere magazine (remember that one? It's been off the newsstands since 2007) and tucked into a three-ring page protector. I rediscovered across it in the bookshelf cupboard in the Batcave while tidying up the other day.

It's a picture of Robert Rodriguez, one of my favourite directors. He's made a lot of movies I've really enjoyed over the years, most notably Desperado with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, probably the sexiest action pic ever made. He made his first movie, El Mariachi, for a reported budget of $7,000, on mostly borrowed equipment, which he financed by being a paid subject of medical experiments (and where he met the man he cast as the villain!).

His repertoire has a ridiculous range, second only to George Miller in my estimation, directing violent affairs like Machete and Planet Terror right alongside the family-friendly Spy Kids franchise. But while all of these facets make him cool, they aren't what make him one of my favourite directors.

It's his character.

Comic creator Frank Miller has a well-deserved reputation as a bit of a difficult crank to work with, and had expressed disbelief that anyone could adapt his own works in a satisfying manner. Rodriguez again used his own money and a volunteer cast to create a short based on Miller's brutal but brilliant noir crime story, Sin City. Miller loved it and agreed to co-direct a feature film with Rodriguez.

But the Director's Guild of America does not permit co-directing, so Rodriguez quit the DGA in order to make the movie in a manner that satisfied both himself and the property's creator. Although he did subsequently rejoin, it was a poignant statement about creative independence.

As evidenced in the Black Mamba commercial he shot for Nike with Kobe Bryant, Robert Rodriguez is someone who takes his work seriously, but doesn't take himself seriously.

But neither that anecdote nor a funny, self-aware shoe commercial is  what makes him  one of my favourite directors. And the picture always reminds of just what it is that distinguishes him in my eyes.

It was taken by Brian Smith during the filming of Desperado. Rodriguez looks just impossibly badass despite the fact that it is a staged shot. He wears cargo shorts and a grey t-shirt, accessorized by a fisherman's vest full of lenses, and a red bandana tied around his head kerchief-style to keep the hair out of his eyes. He has a bandage on his nose (covering the two stitches he got from an altercation with a viewfinder), but the most notable feature is the steadicam he is holding, attached to the harness on his chest. The dramatic backdrop, a flaming Lincoln situated mere feet behind him, completes the effect.

The accompanying article talks about his difficulty in moving from an indie film like El Mariachi to a big-budget actioner from a major studio. How he annoyed some reps from Columbia because he claimed he didn't know what an AD (Assistant Director) was. How he kept even this larger budget under control by casting a cameraman as a cancer patient. How he took a three day course in steadicam operation so he could take the shots himself to save both time and money.

The bulk of my admiration, though, comes from a single anecdote: with rapidly diminishing light, Rodriguez determined a superior angle to shoot a scene. His production assistant said there was no time to move the dolly tracks that would allow the camera to move laterally in a smooth enough fashion to capture the pan the director wanted, and said they would simply have to keep the shot they already have.

Rodriguez surveyed the ground, framed up what he wanted in his mind's eye and said, "Nah, get me a shopping cart and a steadicam, and I'll do it myself."

I don't know what I like more about this tiny tale, this microscopic Tinseltown fable; the fact that Rodriguez had such a clear picture of the shot he desired, or that he was able to come up with such a creative and unconventional way to get it.

Sometimes I struggle to determine what the heck it is I want, as I am sure many of us do from time to time, and when I do know, I will often take the path of least resistance to get it. Not every time, to be sure, but enough to annoy myself in retrospect.

Looking at that picture of a man who not only has a clear vision, but has equipped himself in a way that removes as many obstacles between him and it as possible is, to me at least, inspirational. That's why I tore it it from a magazine that I bought in Edmonton so I could have it in view on my desk in Mississauga while working in sales for Games Workshop.

This overly dramatic image of a man I have so little in common with is a great reminder of the importance of vision, the value of persuasion and persistence, and the notion that there are nearly an infinite number of ways to accomplish most things. Important ideas, these, and timeless.

So much so, in fact, that I think I will bring it to work tomorrow.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Coming Distractions

Under ordinary circumstances, I live in a high degree of anticipation for film releases. Marvel Studios alone has laid out three movies a year for the next three years, and as a result I am eagerly awaiting not only Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok this year, but also looking ahead to costume tests and casting details from Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Captain Marvel. And Star Wars and DC have their long term plans as well.

But 2017 has a special place in my heart.

This year's cinematic spectacles have a dual purpose; certainly they will entertain, some more so than others, but more importantly, they will serve as a buffer, a cushion, a form of psychic insulation.

They will hopefully keep me away from US news.

Like a lot of people, I followed last year's presidential election pretty closely, reading articles on the Washington Post and New York Times even as the Republican nominee mocked their reporters and dismissed their reporting. I watched in disbelief as a supremely unqualified and unsuited individual became the leader of the free world, surfing to power on a wave of populist disenfrachisement, and have been alternately astonished and horrified at his actions since taking office.

To make matters worse, the absence of any sort of viable middle in American politics means that both the right and left are getting more entrenched, and social media is filed with the smoldering wreckage of former friendships and shattered relationships.

Oh, make no mistake, we have similar problems here in Canada, especially in Alberta (carbon tax debate, anyone?), but they feel far more understated and much less, well, dangerous. And at least in Canada I can by a party membership and vote for a leader if I am so inclined, and try to exert some influence there, but south of the 49th parallel? If his own citizens are protesting in the streets to no avail, and he is trying to find ways to circumvent judges and attorney generals as they attempt to maintain rule of law, I'm pretty sure the ranting of one more foreign national, especially one from Soviet Canuckistan, is going to fall on deaf ears.

And if I stopped to think about it, this rise in populism, coupled with a global financial slowdown and underscored by military adventurism in the Crimea and South China Sea, would all probably coalesce into my wondering how people in the if my general sense of foreboding would be familiar to anyone who lived through the 1930s. Which is depressing and intimidating in equal measure.

So I'm taking a break.

I'm not going full cocoon, no ostrich-mode for me, but I have already reduced my intake of American news to headlines for the most part. I'm staying away from op-eds, and avoiding punditry altogether. I've determined there is little to be gained from it, so I am focusing some of those energies into the enjoyment of largely escapist entertainment for the remainder of 2017. With some careful scheduling, I can move from release to release like an orangutan brachiating his way through a rainforest canopy.


The Lego Batman Movie (who didn't love The Lego Movie, a kid's version of The Matrix?)
A Cure for Wellness (wow, this looks trippy)


Logan (final turn for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine after a decade and a half of awesomeness!)
Kong: Skull Island (great 70s esthetic, John Goodman, and a sequel featuring a fight with Godzilla!)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Guy Ritchie doing a street level Morte D'Arthur? I'm in!)
Ghost in the Shell (boo whitewashing, yay cyberpunk manga adaptation with great art design!)
(also: When the heck am I going to find time to watch Iron Fist on Netflix?)


Colossal ( the trailer, I can't synopsize it without wrecking it)


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (hope the soundtrack is good)
Alien: Covenant (guess I had better watch Prometheus, huh?)
Life (more scares in space)


Wonder Woman (cautious optimism based on a great trailer)
Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle (the sequel I am most surprised/delighted to see)


Spider-Man: Homecoming (Spider-Man's first feature in the MCU!)
Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan's WWII film is perhaps the movie I am most stoked for)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (opens same weekend as Dunkirk and looks great!)
The Dark Tower (Idris Elba plays Stephen King's knightly gunslinger)


Baby Driver (caper film by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and what a cast!)


Huh, the schedule must have shifted; I could have sworn there was something out in September I wanted to see... oh well, guess I will stay home one weekend and binge-watch Marvel's The Defenders on Netflix, huh?


Blade Runner 2049 (didn't want to see this, didn't think it needed making, but it looks SO GOOD)
(Also, Stranger Things Season 2 comes out on Hallowe'en!)


Thor: Ragnarok (guest starring The Hulk for the first time since Age of Ultron)
Justice League (I'll level with you, this might not even be good, but I have to go)


Star Wars: The Last Jedi (The Force Awakens was a lot of fun; can a new director stay the course?)

So there you have it: a year of insulation from the rancour and divisiveness of American politics. Just thinking about all these morsels of cinematic experiences has improved my disposition in the last few minutes!

Sure, there are some tumultuous times ahead on our side of the border too, with both the federal and provincial Tories casting about for new leadership, but with any luck things will stay a bit more civil and perhaps less surreal. In the meantime I will confine my perusings of happenings in Washington to the minimum, and have resolved not to get worked up about them.

Sometime in 2018 I will poke my head out of my escapist burrow and see how things are going in the lead-up to the mid-term elections, and with any luck, I will be strengthened by my sabbatical and more prepared to grapple with the issues of the day as well as the caricatures behind them.

And if not, sequels to The Incredibles and Pacific Rim are on deck along with Infinity War and an adaptation of Ready Player One that year, so my back-up plan is already in place.