Sunday, March 26, 2017

It Appeared Mysterious-Lee

Sometime around Christmas, a package arrived without fanfare nor identifiable origin. It was a bright red box adorned with the famous signature and telltale sunglasses of pop culture icon Stan Lee.

Being a fan of the man (yes, in spite of his many flaws and almost embarrassing relentless assault of self-promotion), I tore into it right away.

The box contained items from the "Stan Lee Collection", a swath of knicknackery and apparel that was staggering in both range and whimsy:

A letter welcoming me to the association of "Friends and Fans of Stan", praising me for my judgment and insight.

A reprinted comic featuring The Inhumans (coming soon to Marvel TV) and a lithograph featuring The Man himself in a pose reminiscent of his most famous creation.

A trio of items featuring Stan's ubiquitous expression "Excelsior!", a pin, badge, and collectible coin (with a comic cel insert).

Then a ring (a really nice weighty one too), emblazoned with the selfsame exclamation, and a membership card, and an...ocarina? Of doom, apparently? Like I said, whimsical.

And a high quality notebook embossed with a caricature of Smilin' Stan, and possibly the oddest item, a set of shirt buttons, spelling out S T A N  L E E. Crazy! But cool nonetheless. There was also a cute figurine shaped like a soda can, but it went very quickly to my desk at work.

Oh, and maybe my favourite current tshirt:

I've approached those I thought most likely to have provided this windfall, but they have all professed ignorance (and in one case, a degree of jealousy).

If you are the benefactor in question and happen to be reading this, thank you very much! I really appreciate this strange assortment of items in honor of a major influence and creative legend.

One of my favourite little things in it is this passage in the welcome letter, outlining Stan's Code of Conduct:

Word to live by, right up there with "Face front, True Believer!"

Excelsior, indeed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Marvel's First Misstep? - Iron Fist, Reviewed

Well, it was bound to happen, I guess; Marvel has finally misstepped. Netflix’s Iron Fist is not just a poor comic adaptation, it is pretty poor television across the board.

It pains me to write this, because I was beyond thrilled when a C-level Marvel Comics hero spawned in the 70s was chosen to round out Netflix’s ‘Defenders’ lineup. Because he had the most fantastical origin, which involves leaving the monastery where he was raised in order to battle a dragon barehanded and steal its power, it made sense to leave him until the end of the batting order after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. But amidst all the hubbub about cultural appropriation and whitewashing, the showrunners committed a far greater sin: they made a boring show. About a comic book character.  And not just any comic book character, oh, no.

You see, when writer Matt Fraction teamed up with Ed Brubaker to create a new book for Danny Rand’s alter ego ten years back, he was asked what makes the character a good fit for comics. His reply was reputedly, “What, are you kidding me? Kung fu billionaire.”

I don't know how you make that boring, but Netflix and showunner Scott Buck? They managed to find a way.

There are hints of a family struggle as Danny Rand (Finn Jones), returning to New York after being presumed dead for 15 years, tries to reclaim the birthright of his father’s corporation from the son and daughter of dad’s former business partner. The fact that he is also the legendary Iron Fist barely comes into play the first few episodes.

Obviously I can only speak for myself, but I did not actually tune into a show about a kung fu billionaire in order to watch protracted scenes of boardroom machinations and familial skullduggery. But for a while, that's what you get.

The family drama is not uninteresting, but takes far too much time to unspool, and worst of all, I found myself not caring too much about any of the characters, including Danny. There are a few unexpected moments that perk things up from time to time, but on the whole, things just take too long to happen, something not altogether uncommon for Netflix’s Marvel shows, sadly.

The biggest problem though, is Finn Jones himself. His Danny Rand goes from Zen-like grace and compassion to a man needing anger management with very little in the way of rhyme or reason (although that may be a factor of multiple writers over the season). He is not a particularly expressive thespian, and spends way too much time sulking pensively.

And, worst of all, he isn't a very good fighter.

Don't get me wrong, dude is fit and all, and some of the blame needs to go to the directors, and I appreciate you sometimes have to spend a little from the Laurence Olivier stack in order to bump up the Jackie Chan pile, but the kung fu is lacking in both quality and quantity. In fact, I think there are some episodes where you get more hands being thrown in the animated opening credit sequence than in the rest of the episode. Seriously.

Now, Jones is an actor, not a fighter, and soft, circular forms like kung fu are much harder to pick up than hard linear forms like karate, but ask anyone who has seen both shows who would win in a fight between Daredevil and Iron Fist, and no one is going to say ‘Danny Rand with a k.o.', I assure you.

There are a few other things that burned me up: inconsistent powers for a major villain, a cell phone plot hole near the end, the lack of comic book influence beyond the title character, and so on.

So why watch it? I mean, besides being a glutton for punishment like me, I mean? Well...
  • Colleen Wing, played by Jessica Henwick (a former Sand Snake from Game of Thrones) is absolutely awesome: beautiful, tough, compassionate, complex, and good at kicking ass barehanded or slinging around a katana. 
  • Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) aka Netflix’s Agent Coulson returns. She is not only great in her role (as usual) but also gives Iron Fist a chance to pass the Bechdel Test, surprisingly. (Hey, here’s an idea: team up Colleen with Misty Knight from Luke Cage like they do in the comics (as The Daughters of the Dragon), add Claire to the mix and give them their own show. I would watch the hell out of that!)
  • The first time Danny summons the Iron Fist, it is actually pretty cool.
  • Complex motivations - Danny’s childhood friends, Joy and Ward Meachum, alternate between being his rivals and his allies in his return to Rand Corporation, and are far more than just villainous cutouts or potential love interests. Their relationship with their own father takes a number of twists and turns over the course of the series.
  • The episode directed by Wu Tang Clan's RZA, "Immortal Emerges From Cave", is not bad at all, with intriguing opponents, some imaginative production design and set dressing, and a couple of visual nods to Fraction's "Immortal Iron Fist" run.
  • About ten seconds of smuggled b&w footage taken by the Chinese military in the 1940s that tease what might yet come.
  • They do build a larger story leading up to The Defenders, aka Netflix’s Avengers. Fingers crossed?
I'm not giving up on Iron Fist yet, I have too much invested in the character and there is sooooo much good stuff to be wrung out of the comics: the legends and legacies of the many Iron Fists that preceded Danny! The Steel Serpent! The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven! The Immortal Weapons Tournament! Fat Cobra!

Whoever is running The Defenders gets another stab at the character before any decisions get made about a second season, and hopefully that sets Iron Fist back on course a little bit. If a second season dos get greenlit here are my suggestions for having the Living Weapon of K’un L’un get his mojo back:
  • New showrunner- sorry Scott Buck, I just don't think you get it. Is Steven DeKnight free? Could RZA run a show if Jeph Loeb reined him in a bit?
  • Yeah, you guessed it - MORE KUNG FU
  • And better kung fu, for that matter. Get Yuen Woo-Ping and his wire wizards from The Matrix on the case. Use slow mo creatively, strive for longer takes, get some wild angles in there.
  • Improved Iron Fist f/x: and I'm quoting here: “until that hand begins to smoulder, to glow, and to harden...until it becomes...LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON”. Make the glow bigger, make it hotter, give it a sound effect, make it a bigger deal.
  • The Costume: use it, man, use it. Let comic shows look like comics for pity's sake.
  • And this goes for the rest of the Netflix Marvel crew as well: try to smile just once in a while, huh? Surely there is some joy to be had in being a super-powered so-and-so? I mean sure, Daredevil has his guilt, and Jessica Jones has her PTSD, but Danny Rand? Kung fu billionaire? Can we make him just a smidgen more fun to be around?
Luke Cage? Don't change baby, just get out of jail and bring some righteousness to The Defenders; they might need it.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Saints Preserve Us - Vernal Geekquinox 2017

Because of its proximity to St. Patrick's Day this year, Pete declared that the theme for this Geekquinox would be "Drinking With The Saints". In addition to the always extraordinary culinary component, each course would be paired with a signature libation.
The amount of effort and attention the our host puts into these shindigs simply cannot be overstated, and it is a joy to watch him work his way through the menu. Sometimes it calls for specialized equipment, such as the gloves and goggles needed while chopping habaneros for salsa.

Sometimes the situation requires a small amount of actual derring-do, as when he rose to the occasion while decanting the delightful Licor 43, a vanilla-scented liqueur from Brazil.

Or chopping onions and peppers and placing them atop marinated pork before wrapping the entire affair in banana leaves so they stay moist while cooking in his Big Green Egg bbq/smoker.

Some of the dishes presented were an explosion of colour, such as the rodizio chicken. (Need I mention that it was also succulent and delicious?)

But one of the night's favourites, by all accounts, was one of the simplest; the pan seared scallops.

The drinks likewise encompassed a broad swath of styles and tastes, from pickleback bourbon... the elegant Aviation cocktail, probably the best-smelling concoction I have ever imbibed. It brings together an artisanal gin (in the most art deco bottle I have ever seen), creme de violette and maraschino liqueur to tremendous effect and garnished with a brandy soaked cherry; a real Gatsby-level cocktail to be sure.

I couldn't help but notice the absence of St. Hubertus from Pete's list. This patron saint of hunters is famed for seeing the vision of a cross between the antlers of a great stag, an image which now graces the bottle of a somewhat infamous potable. Being a gracious host, he allowed me to rectify the oversight during a lull in the proceedings. He even let me bust out a bit of verse for the occasion:

A Visit From St. Hubertus

T’was the evening of Geekquinox, and all through Pete’s pad
There were appies, libations and laughs to be had
We arrived just in time, and our fellow guests beamed
For our host had us drinking with saints as a theme

I perused the rich menu with both foods and potables
But I discovered an absence I considered quite notable
Some saints were there listed with imbibable purpose
But no trace could I find of the great St. Hubertus!

Pete confessed this not a purposeful omission
It was space, not intentional sin of commission
Last year's Canada theme was a hit with geography
But Hubert’s absence struck me as poor hagiography

Hubert, you see, was a huntsman in Germany
Whilst out in the woods a great stag he did chance to see
But a cross twixt its antlers did cause him to stay
And a herb based elixir is his legacy today.

Thankfully this shortcoming was anticipated
To add to Pete's party left me feeling elated
I rushed to the downstairs and into the freezer
And brought up a green glass of party increaser.

“Eat stew and fried green beans, eat endives and chicken,
Eat scallops, eat pretzels, but whatever you’re pickin’,
Stay true to the saints, don't bow out like a shyster
Step up to Pete’s bar for some cold J├Ągermeister!”

The shots were all poured and imbibed in a line
And while not all partook, all there had a good time
You could hear folks proclaim as the glasses were cleared up
“That's pretty good stuff, though it tastes of cough syrup!”

Of course, there are others who have a differing interpretation of this divine vision, particularly if they have become inspired to partake of multiple servings:
As always, a wonderful time with wonderful people. Thanks again Pete!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Monstrously Good - Kong: Skull Island, Reviewed

The original King Kong was was released almost a century ago now, in 1933. Since then, almost everything about cinema has been improved: the colour, the sound, the resolution, and especially the special effects. So why haven't monster movies gotten commensurately better?

Kong: Skull Island doesn't improve upon the original as a whole, but it is a long overdue return to form, and proof that there is still room to make a solid, old-fashioned monster movie in the modern age.

All the trappings of the original are there: it's still a voyage by boat to an uncharted island, with a crew of explorers and troops that don't know what they are getting into, but the galvanizing element is not commerce this time, but science, with a side of vengeance.

The timeline has moved up 4 decades, to 1973, at the end of the Vietnam war. John Goodman, as the head of an organization called Monarch, gets the funding to make one final expedition to a place called Skull Island, and even wrangles a military escort. Samuel Jackson gets the call as the colonel in charge of an assault helicopter squadron who is not yet ready for peacetime. Tom Hiddleston is the requisite great white hunter, in this case, an ex-SAS trooper who is an unmatched tracker. Brie Larson rounds out the principals as a peace-loving war photographer, and, yes, as a result, you have Nick Fury, Loki, and Captain Marvel all in the same movie.

A handful of scientists and military pilots from central casting finishes the party, and unlike Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong, they waste very little time getting to the titular location. Best of all, they are not there long before Kong makes his presence known, and the landscape is littered with scattered bodies and wrecked helicopters shortly thereafter.

Kong has more than doubled in size since his last iteration, growing from 25 to 50 feet tall. This not only makes him even more threatening to the humans onscreen, but sets him up nicely for a showdown with Godzilla in 2020. He is tremendously well animated, but I do miss the more simian behaviours captured by Andy Serkis last time around. This Kong is far more bipedal, and perhaps not quite as expressive, but makes up for it with an imaginative fighting style which is clear, kinetic and absolutely savage.

Most importantly though, Kong is not the only monster on the island, which is positively teeming with creepy creatures in a variety of scales. John C. Reilly, as a pilot who crashed there in WWII, provides quite a bit of exposition as to the current state of affairs on Skull Island, and where most previous Kong movies have made the eponymous ape sympathetic to some degree, this film is content to present him as the least horrifying of a number of other monstrosities, and an unlikely defender.

So what makes a good monster movie?

Good monster designs - not just Kong, but a number of other nameless abominations; scary looking and backed with great animation.

A real sense of peril - the body count starts shortly after the expedition gets to the island, and does not let up.

Imaginative attacks - there were a couple of standouts here, and the movie plays against familiar tropes a couple of times.

Plot unpowered by stupidity - while there is evidence of monomania and revenge in a couple of key players, but everyone acts with purpose, and in a consistent manner. Some bad decisions at times, sure, but no stupid people to push the story forward or 'shake things up'.

Survival is the focus - while there is a detectable chemistry between Hiddleston and Larson, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wisely leaves that field fallow while everyone is busy trying not to be killed.

And maybe a jump scare or two, as evidenced by the death grip Fenya kept on the hands of both her mother and her sister while viewing it Friday night.

Kong: Skull Island takes a lot of its visual design from Vietnam war movies like Apocalypse Now, as evidenced by this IMAX poster, and they don't miss a step. From the twin Hueys and Sea Stallion helicopters, to the M-14 carried by Jackson, and the camera equipment carried by Goodman and Larson, everything evokes the period extremely well. And maybe it's been too long, but viewing those squadrons of slicks in the air from above, rotors turning in super slow motion, and popped out from the background by very effective use of 3D, was real treat in and of itself.

Look folks, there are no Oscar monologues to be had in this movie, but everyone in it is committed, and the end result is an effective amusement park ride that bodes very well for the future. That fact that this future involves yet another shared cinematic universe will undoubtedly make some roll their eyes, but if they approach it the same way, I look forward to seeing King Ghidorah, Rhodan and Mothra return to the big screen once more.

If I could see them at a drive-in theatre, that would make things just about perfect.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Wolverine's Sunset: Logan, Reviewed

(I've taken care to make this review as spoiler-free as possible!)

Ironically, for an R-rated comic book movie about mutants, Logan possesses a tremendous amount of humanity. Its languid pace, tragic undertones and the way its characters pursue redemption and freedom make it one of the best X-Men movies to date, and a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman's 17 year performance of an iconic character.

I mean, honestly, think about it: Sean Connery played Bond in 6 films over 11 years, Roger Moore 7 times in 12, but if you count the cameo in First Class, Jackman has portrayed Logan 9 times since 2000. That is more than 17 years of physically demanding and emotionally committed acting scrutinised by some of the most critically observant and opinionated fans in the world, and he has pulled it off with considerable aplomb. It was gratifying to see him bring the story to a close with such a well-crafted film.

Mark Millar's comic "Old Man Logan" about an even more aged Wolverine living in a dystopian future ruled by supervillains, is touted as an influence on this movie, but only in tone, and that is probably for the best. Director Joseph Mangold and Jackman both wanted a movie with elements of Shane, The Wrestler, and Little Miss Sunshine in it. Both the pace and the look of the movie are reminiscent of the '70s, despite the fact it is set in 2029. Even the IMAX poster evokes this period:

In 2029, there are nearly no mutants to speak of in the world. Logan keeps Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in hiding at a remote location south of the border because his aging mind can no longer control his immense psychic powers. Logan himself no longer strides with confidence onto the screen, but walks in obvious discomfort and stiffness, both his healing factor and his joints corrupted by his adamantium skeleton, now slowly poisoning him from within. There is friction between the two men, reminiscent of any child caring for an aging parent, but also complicated by hints of a tragedy that Charles may have caused.

Logan's plan to buy a boat and head out onto the ocean with Xavier is compromised when he meets Laura (an amazingly intense 11-year-old Dafne Keen), a young mutant who is regarded as property by the research firm who essentially created her. The movie shifts gears smoothly from western to road movie, as Logan, Laura and Xavier make a desperate flight to a potential sanctuary, and as Logan discovers the truth about his connection to the child he now finds himself caring for.

Richard E. Grant and Boyd Holbrook provide the villainy of a smarmy scientist and his hired muscle, but their brutal cynicism and almost complete lack of humanity somehow keep them from devolving into tired tropes.

Like all the best X-Men comics from the glory days of Chris Claremont, there is action galore, but brilliantly underscored by quieter moments; watching tv in a hotel room, sharing a family meal, a childish prank trimming Logan's beard into his signature muttonchops. But in this first R-rated Wolverine picture, the violence, when it comes, is sudden, brutal, relentless and savage.

Surprisingly, I think Mangold shows a fair bit of restraint when depicting the results of fighting an unstoppable berserker with a fistful of unbreakable ginsu knives, but while he doesn't drench the screen in gore, assailants do have extremities lopped right off, are stabbed through the head, or slashed across the face to devastating effect. And with Laura possessing her own claws and even less restraint than the titular character, well, I think it is fair to say that this movie is not for the faint of heart.

But Logan does have heart, and in abundance. After a typical family dinner that so many of us experience so often and take for granted, Xavier is profoundly moved. He tells Logan, "This is what life looks like. A house. A safe place. People who love each other. You should take a moment..."

I'm a fan of both the original character and his portrayal by Jackman, and sure, I like a lot of comic book movies, but this is the first time I've come away from one thinking, "we'd better see this one nominated for some Oscars." There is a great story here, well told, about the connections that make us human, that should resonate with most people, despite the sometimes intense violence and fantastic superhero trappings. Logan satisfies as both art and entertainment, and I honestly do not think that Academy nods for Picture, Directing, Screenplay and, yes, Acting for both Jackman and Stewart would not be out of line.

Because Jackman has said that this is his final outing as Wolverine, many, including myself, are referring to it as a swan song, but I wonder if shrike song might be more appropriate. Shrikes are beautiful birds with unsettling eating habits, in which they impale their prey of insects, small mammals and even lizards, on thorns, barbed wire and other spiky terrain. There are many such transfixative moments in Logan, both literal and figurative, but this movie makes its point not by saving the world, but showing desperate people trying to save themselves, and those they care about. And they don't always succeed.

There are some shocking moments which, if you have an appreciation for these characters, you owe it to yourself to be surprised by in the cinema, and to see a brilliant capstone to a 17 year portrayal of a pop culture icon which I'm certain will be unequalled for quite some time.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Happy Birthday Island Mike!

Island Mike turned 50 today, and it's a bit weird realizing I've been around for the majority of that demicentury.

We were acquaintances through the Leduc Jr. High School 'gifted' program (no, I'm not sure how I got in either), so I knew who he was when he ended up sitting next to me in Mr. Nosyk’s Social 20 class a few years later. I'm not entirely sure how we transitioned from acquaintance to friend because I wasn't paying close attention at the time. I remember when a girl asked him, his head buried in his arms on the desktop, for a thesaurus. Without looking up, a muffled voice intoned that they had all died millions of years ago. Not everyone laughed, but I did.

That may have been the time he hadn't gotten much sleep because he had started reading Lord of the Rings from cover to cover - again - on Friday, and insisted on finishing before Monday. Being fans got us talking about Middle Earth, and Dungeons & Dragons and the like, and somehow we ended up siting around the kitchen table of a mutual friend most Thursday nights, rolling polyhedrals, revising character sheets and devouring Bugles swathed in onion dip.

I introduced him to comics, most notably DC’s major revisionist event, Crisis On Infinite Earths, but also the excellent X-Men/Teen Titans crossover. He was astonished that publishers had killed off The Flash and Supergirl (among others!), that DC and Marvel could play nicely together, and that there was a swashbuckling, German-speaking Spider-Man type named Kurt Wagner he'd never heard of.

Pretty sure those were those adaptive lenses, not sunglasses.

By the time we were classmates in Mr. Montney’s EngIish 30, we were fast friends, despite running with different crowds most of the time, Mike possessing the envious ability to travel effortlessly between nerdy and cool circles by means of a mystical all-access laminate he won playing dice with Hermes - or maybe it was just more of that enviable confidence. Mr. Montney wasn't a bad teacher, but half of what we learned came from the pages of notes we passed, discussing history real and imagined, heroism, and lyrical greatness. He taught me to appreciate album liner notes and the blues roots of Led Zeppelin, and that anyone who hasn't read the appendices at the end of Return of the King doesn't really know how the story ends.

We played Battletech and Villains & Vigilantes through university, he at the UAlberta and me at Augustana in Camrose. To this day, names like Edward Saxon and John Paul Evermore have a place in my personal pantheon right next to Robin Hood and The Spirit. At a couple of sci-fi conventions in Calgary, he was my squadmate in the DeRangers and my bandmate and fellow roadie in the avant-garde alien rock combo Unpronounceable In English.

Three members of UIE still show up at G&G regularly!
The parallels in our lives are uncanny at times: we got married in the same year, were best man for each other, and moved Edmonton within a year of each other, he and his amazing wife Kelly to Arizona, Audrey and I to Toronto. We started our family shortly after they had their second child, and they moved to Vancouver and eventually Vancouver Island while we returned to Edmonton. We both loved Twin Peaks, and agree that Joe Versus The Volcano can be a useful litmus test in determining character and establishing social compatibility, despite scoring only 5.7 on IMDb.

While I've struggled to find my place in the working world at times, Mike has been determined to make his own way, displaying tremendous bravery in leaving behind a career in banking to pursue entrepreneurial ventures not just once, but twice! The first one ended amiably enough, but the second one took, and Object Raku Technology has to be coming up on its 20 year anniversary relatively quickly, I would think, even though it has evolved significantly over the years.

It's great to see Mike every year at Gaming & Guinness, and we still chat regularly over emails and via Skype from time to time, but I dearly miss the privileged access I had being in close proximity in Mr. Nosyk’s class, or eating fries and gravy at Kosmo’s after D&D. While the quantity may have been impacted, the quality of our conversations has never wavered, at least from my perspective.

Mike embodies all the qualities a man wants in his friends, or acquaintances for that matter. He's smarter than I am, but still values my counsel, which I deeply appreciate. (I'll never forget the time he called for help with the NY Times crossword, looking for a five letter word for ray, and how gobsmacked he was when I answered ‘skate’ without delay; lucky!) Conversely, he is always willing to give measured advice, and will call bullshit on you as required, with no hesitation, but ample compassion. Don't bother having a position you can't defend in his presence; he eats straw men for breakfast and knocking down unconsidered opinions for sport, but he is also willing to agree to disagree without animosity.

He works incredibly hard for his company, travelling, selling, supporting, but has always demonstrated that his family is his priority, backing it up with trips, family game nights, and stints as coach. He even stepped up his game so his wife could return to university and get a nursing degree once his intensely awesome offspring Mackenzie and Griffin were in high school.

Mike rocks the mic.
Inquisitive, funny, loyal, and gracious, he's a good guy to meet for a pint, but a better one to have in your corner. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if I woke up next to a dead body, with red all over my hands and no memory of how I got there, Mike would be the one whose doorstep I would turn up on (sorry, buddy!). And not only that, but I’d do whatever he figured was best, whether it was turning myself in or grabbing a shovel prior to fleeing the country.

Mike is one of a relatively tight circle of tremendously gifted individuals I feel privileged to call my friends, and at this point he is the friend I have known the longest; 70% of my life, in fact! And I am only 70 days behind him in rounding off that fifth decade. His close companionship, though physically distant, continues to be a constant source of joy for me, and one of the great blessings in my life.

Happiest of birthdays, my brother!

That look says it all, man.