Monday, July 31, 2017

My Life As A Squirtgun Assassin Pt. 2 - Agent of K.A.O.S.

(Click here for Pt.1 - Hitman High)

It is with a strange balance of both shame and pride I relate to you the pinnacle of my experiences as an imaginary button man during my years at Camrose Lutheran College (later the Augustana Faculty of the University of Alberta):

On a cool, dark evening, I sat crouched in the shadows beneath a wooden footbridge, like the troll of myth. My face concealed by a black balaclava, a toy crossbow in my hands, eagerly awaiting the chance to shoot a good friend in the back as he made his way to choir practice. Alas, it was not to be, but, thankfully another target of opportunity chanced across my path later on...

Looking back, it seems strange that it took me until my third year at CLC to unleash The Assassination Game/Killer upon my classmates. My love of games had prompted me to DM a Friday night D&D game with friends attending U of A in Edmonton, and some of them traveled to Camrose the following year for a Traveller 2300 campaign I'd run. We'd played Battletech and Twilight 2000 and Talisman and all manner of tabletop diversions, but it wasn't until third year that somehow the idea of a campus-wide game if Killer was introduced. And once introduced, it took hold like a virus, and became an inevitability.

My co-conspirators were heavily involved with the Residence Life program, and I was the Student Association president that year, so it behooved us to have the clearest of operating instructions for all players, so as not to either become tiresome or perceived as a threat. Calling ourselves the Kamrose Kampus K.A.O.S Klub (Killing As Organized Sport), a manifesto was published, and all players agreed to abide by a code of conduct outlined therein.

Safety and sportsmanship were stressed throughout, clear rules of engagement were outlined and every scenario had a detailed set of operating parameters and observed demilitarized zones, including the library and campus chapel ("Holy ground, Highlander!"). Respect for non-players was likewise paramount, as it was only that their sufferance we could indulge our predatory proclivities, contrived and fictional as they were.

Given that some of the players were roommates or shared a bathroom, we made the residences themselves off-limits as well as rooms where a class was in session, but

We used a badge press to make K.A.O.S. buttons for players, allowing disinterested third parties to give us a wide berth, but strangely, they only seemed to attract people, curious to see what might happen. Since they unknowingly made it considerably more difficult for unmasked competitors to get the drop on us, their presence was not only tolerated, but generally welcomed. Until, you know, it was time to 'go to work'.

Our first outing was a dozen upperclassmen playing an "every man for himself" scenario, just to get everyone's feet wet and comfortable with the idea. It wasn't completely anarchic, as the witness rule made it important to catch your target away from prying eyes. Start time was 1800 on Friday, and the game was scheduled to wind up by noon Sunday.

Almost everyone got capped that first night, and I think we were down to a sole survivor by suppertime the next day.

More scenarios were concocted, and make-believe killers feigned their deaths outside their dormitory rooms, killed by contact poison on their doorknobs, or in the cafeteria after tasting the Tic Tacs surreptitiously slipped into their coffee in lieu of cyanide.

Running back to my residence across the ravine with a pump-action water-shotgun in my hands, I saw my canmate/opponent Jon leave the building but double back upon seeing me. I trotted around to the rear entrance, but hesitated upon coming up  to the l-shaped windbreak made of cinderblocks that obscured the back door. I wouldn't put it past Jon to have popped out the back door and hide around the corner to dry gulch me; hell it was what I would have done. The wall stood about seven foot high on my side, so I saw no way to turn the tables without exposing myself.until I spotted a yellow milk crate tucked up against the side of Solheim itself.

Without breaking stride, I kicked the crate over to the corner of the windbreak, where it obliging rolled into an inverted position. I stepped onto the crate, got my elbow over the wall, pointed the shotgun straight down into the corner and pulled the trigger. Jon's sputtering squawk told me I had hit the mark.

Strolling around the corner, I found him frustratedly wiping water off his forehead, grinning nonetheless. "How did you know?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Lucky guess, I suppose."

By that fall, we felt we had enough of a handle on things to allow freshmen to join in, with mixed results. Most of them grasped the core concepts right away, but I remember one hapless girl in the cafeteria, her hand shaking with nerves as she menacingly pointed a banana at a player seated at my table and loudly declared, "BANG! I got you!"

Several bemused heads turned to view her. One head shook in sad disbelief. "You missed."

Confusion washed across her features, bewildered as she actually held the banana up in front of her face, as if she was checking the sights. I resisted the urge to tell her I had snuck into her room and filled it with blanks.

"There is nothing wrong with your banana," I assured her. "The problem is that you aren't actually allowed to shoot a person in front of three or more people, as clearly stated in both the rulebook and the manifesto. And there are, I dunno..." I took in the lunchtime crowd with my gaze. "..what, 70, 80 people in here?"

Her eyes widened as realization slowly set in.

"If you had worn a mask, you might have gotten away with it, but anyone wearing a mask is fair game for every other player, same as anyone, you know, publicly brandishing a deadly piece of fruit, for instance."

I can't remember who shot her; it might have been me.

But the high water mark was clearly that time under the bridge. I can't remember if we were playing a team scenario or the classic Circle of Death, wherein each player has a single target, and when they eliminate him or her, they take on their victim's target, and so on, until there are only two assassins chasing each other, and finally a sole survivor emerges.

Either way, I was once again gunning for my can-mate, Jon. I want to say that we had mutually declared the shared hallway outside our doors a safe zone, so as not to be gunned down while unlocking our door or some such.

Jon had mentioned singing as part of an event in town, and needing to wear either his choir tux or his suit, so at some point I knew he would need to cross the ravine in order to get to his car in the far parking lot. I didn't know precisely when it would be, but it was already getting fairly dark when I crawled under the steps of the infamous Ole's Crossing, an aged wooden structure with tiered steps at the residence end. This picture shows the view looking across at the big building that housed the gym and cafeteria and Founders Hall, to the left.

I peered out at it from the basement lounge of Solheim, my dorm and the closest one to the bridge, biding my time. Once the combination of darkness and southbound traffic were like Baby Bear's porridge, I grabbed the nylon bag with my gear from behind the sofa and made a break for it.

Running down the grassy slope beside the giant steps, I scuttled underneath and scrambled back uphill a ways until I was peering between the second and third steps before the rise, looking out at about waste level of anyone walking towards the residences.

I was wearing a pair of black jeans and a dark green and black sweater, as well as a black down vest, albeit covered with USCM patches from the movie Aliens. From the nylon bag I pulled a toy crossbow made of plastic, and which shot 8 or 9 inch-long sucker darts with sufficient force and accuracy that they would stick to the screen of the small television in my room, affording me some excellent target practice. The bow portion was white unfortunately, but I had done my best to cover this with a black Magic Marker.

Lastly, I withdrew a black tuque which could be pulled down into a balaclava. There was every likelihood someone could notice me down here, and on the off chance my discoverer was another K.A.O.S. player and not travelling alone, I wanted to make sure I still had a chance to engage them. Besides, it felt warm, looked cool, and concealed my pasty face far better than the shadows did on their own.

And so I say down to wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

It was cool outside and the ground was a bit moist, so after a while my bottom became a bit numb. I shifted position routinely, wishing I had brought a blanker or something to sit on.

On the plus side though, two dozen people had walked past my position in both directions, and no one had spotted me at all. At least, no one had said anything, or drawn a bead on me or anything. Being an incorrigible prankster, there were times when it took all my self control to keep myself from grabbing the ankle of someone I knew, or yelling "Boo!" at a classmate, but somehow I managed to keep my eyes on my prize. And eventually I was rewarded for my patience, but not in any useful fashion.

As I pondered how late Jon's call time must be, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye, perhaps 50-60 yards down the ravine from me. I turned to look, and sure enough, it was Jon, wearing his grubbies, a suit bag over his shoulder, resolutely making his way through the waist high grass, shrubbery and underbrush, as well as a small stream, then clambering up the steep side of the ravine by the auxiliary building.

There was absolutely no chance of my catching him; he was halfway across the ravine before I even saw him. Intercepting him might be possible, but there was no way to do so in a way that caught him unawares, my preferred method of engagement even then.

I shook my head, disappointed at my lost opportunity but feeling profound respect towards a worthy adversary. I don't think Jon knew I was under the bridge - I'd have been an easy catch if he had - but he recognized the bridge as an ideal spot for some manner of ambush and circumvented it brilliantly.

What to do now though? Was it worth waiting for him to return? Would he once again avoid the bridge? If he didn't, would I still be able to feel my bottom when he returned in an hour or two?

As they say though; God never closes a door without opening a window (although it is highly unlikely that he gives any consideration at all to the plans of even imaginary assassins). And someone was stepping through my window unaware of my presence in the room.

Walking across the bridge was another player: Brian, who we called Vlad because of his nocturnal schedule and pale complexion. It was cool enough by this point that he had the collar of his leather jacket up, but not quite cold enough to justify the checked scarf he had up over his nose, not bright enough to explain the sunglasses he was wearing.

Now, like I say, I can't remember what scenario we were playing, but by appearing in a public while wearing a mask, Vlad had left himself open to attack his target regardless of how many witnesses might be about, but he had also painted a bullseye on himself for every other player in the game.

Vlad walked with purpose; he was not strolling across that bridge. I frantically cocked my crossbow, loaded the sucker dart and took a bead on his belt buckle. I immediately regretted not sitting a bit higher up, knowing that the bolt would drop significantly in the intervening distance, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

When he got about 15 feet away, I held by breath and pulled the trigger.

The 'twang' of the twiney string was incredibly loud to my ears,l but Vlad's first clue that he had been engaged was when he saw the bright yellow bolt sail at him from between the steps he was preparing to climb... as it swooshed about two feet to his right, because I hadn't compensated for the breeze blowing down the ravine.

Vlad froze. Even if he hadn't been masked, I couldn't see his face from my vantage point, but he very quickly put things together and bounded up the steps. He passed over my head as I swore and fumbled with another bolt while trying to cock the bowstring. I fell onto my back and rolled down the hill away from my original position, and astonishingly, it seemed to help.

A high-caliber water pistol in his fist, Vlad scrambled down the hill in a crouch. He crabwalked under the overhang of the bridge, and seeing my nylon bag standing where I had been, opened fire on it, his left leg stretched out down the hill to steady himself.

By this time I had managed to reload. I sat up, took aim at his center mass, and pulled the trigger. I was rewarded with a grunt of discomfort as my quarrel hit him square between the legs. He put up his gun, and after we made sure that none of his fire had tagged me, only my bag, we shook hands and called it a night.

I don't remember how that campaign ended, but the exhilaration of my encounter under the bridge trumped any other result, and soon became the stuff of legend around the campus. By the time I graduated, I'm sure the tale involved me waiting for two days without food in a homemade ghillie suit with a compound crossbow outfitted with blunted tips. Still, it is gratifying to know that, until it got pulled down a few years ago and replaced with an earthen walkway close to where Jon had made his clandestine crossing, that there was a population at Camrose who looked at Ole's Crossing and saw a battlefield where others saw only stairs.

We disbanded K.A.O.S. the next semester, after a team game went haywire in the freshmen residence and turned one of the stairwells into a combination warzone and food fight arena. It was the sad end to a fun time that would be difficult (and probably irresponsible) to replicate now.

I still have my button though, just in case.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Does Captain Marvel's Setting Mean The Title of Avengers 4 is [SPOILER]?

Buckle in everybody, I've overridden the cultural safety parameters and depowered the geekiness inhibitors, and there is just no telling how far down the nerd-hole I'm gonna go with this one. (#nerdiestpostever)

I should begin by saying this will be of lasting consequence to almost no-one, but I have to get this theory off my chest, and that's one of the main reasons I keep a blog in the first place. Having said that though, there is a remote possibility that my fevered guesswork may overlap with the future unfolding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I guess I should say that there may be spoilers ahead. (Certainly the people behind the MCU seem to think so!)

- - - - - - - - - H E R E   B E    S P O I L E R S  ( M A Y B E ) - - - - - - - - - - -

Still here? Good stuff!

At Comic-Con this weekend Marvel broke two very interesting pieces of news about 2019's Captain Marvel movie, featuring Brie Larson as the titular Carol Danvers. The first was that it would set in the 1990s, and the second is that she would be facing off against an established alien race from the comics: the Skrulls.

Calling the Skrull 'established' is almost understating it; these shapeshifters first appeared in the second issue of the Fantastic Four back in 1962. They have pervaded the comics ever since, and helped usher in the spacefaring or 'Cosmic' side of the Marvel Universe. They really came to the fore during an early '70s Avengers arc known as 'The Kree-Skrull War' pitting the deceptive infiltrators and saboteurs against the rival, militaristic species responsible for creating The Inhumans on Earth (and who are getting their won TV show this fall).

Because of their linkages to the Fantastic Four, many assumed that the Skrull would never appear in the MCU, as 20th Century Fox owned the rights to them, but it turns out they have arranged to 'share' the property with Marvel Studios, in a similar manner to how Quicksilver appeared in both the X-Men movies and Avengers: Age of Ultron. They are great villains with a ton of dramatic potential, and since Captain Marvel's origin has strong ties to the Kree in the comics, having the Skrull feature in her movie makes a lot of sense, while also rounding out the increasingly important Cosmic side of the MCU.

Setting it in the '90s though - that is baffling, at least to me.

As someone who lived through it, I have a hard time seeing the distinction of that time, let alone the storytelling appeal. With the exception of grunge music and the Gulf Wars, there is not a lot that defines the decade stylistically. I mean, it is not as though The Big Lebowski looks like a period movie, even though it (mostly) is one, right?

When MTV asked Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige about this choice, his answer was not only ambiguous, but intentionally cryptic as this excerpt from Screen Rant shows:

MTV: So… time period. When was that hit upon? Was that an early part of the development process, that this would seem like a good idea?
Feige: Uh… yes. Yeah. Early, early days.
MTV: Why?
Feige: Uh, well, there is an unexplored period of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we wanted to showcase, and… almost anything else is a spoiler…
MTV: Okay.
Feige: …other than to say, the 90s would be a fun period to make a superhero movie in.

Now, that's interesting. Not the part about the '90s being a fun period, that's a bunch of squid ink. Making a period film makes everything more difficult, from costuming to having appropriate cars in every single street scene, and you wouldn't do it without a solid reason. When they moved Wonder Woman's origin story from the Second World War to the First, the writers, directors, and producers all had a good, sound rationale as to why it made sense.

Feige could have said it was important for Danvers' story to take place before the internet was a big thing, or that her movie origin is tied to being a pilot in Desert Storm, but he does not. All he says is: 1) they knew early on they wanted to, 2) it fills in a gap in the history of the MCU (similar to the Cold War flashbacks in Ant-Man), and 3) anything else is a spoiler.

That is to say, 'There is a compelling reason, but I can't tell you what it is yet.'


Now, put a pin in that for just a moment, and let's take a look at The Avengers side of this equation.

Back in 2014, Marvel Studios announced a two-part sequel to Age of Ultron called Infinity War, Parts 1 & 2, scheduled for release in 2018 and 2019. Given the substantial amount of lead-up and anticipation for this (i.e. a villain teased as far back as the post-credits stinger for the first Avengers back in 2012 and an astonishing twelve films in between), it made sense to follow the lead of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises and split the capping story into two parts and filming them concurrently. After all, this magnum opus would draw upon 18 other films and is rumoured to have a staggering 67 characters in it!

But then things changed.

Joss Whedon, who had guided the MCU through its fledgling stage and first two Avengers said he'd had enough, and announced he was not renewing his contract with Marvel. Anthony and Joe Russo, fresh from the acclaimed reception for their first Marvel project, Captain America: Winter Soldier, stepped into Whedon's shoes and announced in 2015 that the 4th Avengers movie would not be the second part of the Infinity War saga. They would actually be wholly separate and self-contained stories, filmed back-to-back and not concurrently as had been planned. The third Avengers movie would simply be called Avengers: Infinity War. The 4th title was not announced at that time.

Or the following year.

Just three months ago, the Russos said that the reason they were not yet revealing the title was because the name of the film was in itself a spoiler.

If you are still reading this, I will assume you are at least as curious as I am.

The internet immediately went rampant with speculation. Could the title reflect the fate of a major character in Infinity War, like "The Search for Steve Rogers", or "Revenge for Iron Man"? After all, the actors who play those particular characters are either approaching or have passed the end of their initial contracts, and the studio may want them to pass the torch on to a successor as they have in the comics. Besides, no one wants to see them in the role past their best-by date (cough - Diamonds Are Forever - cough), right?

All right, back to Captain Marvel; what do we know? We know her movie comes out in March of 2019, almost a year after Infinity War, and a mere two months before Avengers 4. We know part of it will take place in space, and that they are setting her up to be the most powerful character in the MCU, even more so than Thor. Oh, and we now know that Samuel L. Jackson will appear as a younger, two-eyed Nicholas J. Fury, which is probably the best way to link it to the pre-existing universe.

We know it is set in the 1990s, but it seems pretty unlikely they will age Brie Larson twenty-odd years before she shows up in the continuity of the current films. There are tons of ways around that besides freezing her like Captain America though, they just have to pick one and hey, presto- 'let's do the Time Warp agaaaaaiin..."

And we know the Skrull are the villains, which is great from a dramatic perspective because their shapeshifting ability means that one of their favourite tactics is abducting or killing someone and replacing them with a nearly indistinguishable duplicate.

Okay, sidebar - in fact, there was a major comics cross-over event featuring the Skrull back in 2008 that was reminiscent of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was called Secret Invasion, and it was revealed that the Skrull had replaced many well-established Marvel characters over the years, including Elektra, Black Bolt, and Henry Pym (Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Yellowjacket, et al), and not making it terribly clear exactly when they had been replaced.

It was an intriguingly subversive idea, introducing a degree of paranoia and suspicion to the Marvel Universe reminiscent of John Carpenter's The Thing, or the Red Scare of the 1950s which inspired it and Body Snatchers.

In true comics fashion, most, if not all, of these characters have subsequently been returned to some approximation of their status quo, but at the time, this storyline was a major assault on convention. Secret Invasion was never considered to be in-play for the MCU though, because they were hands-off so that Fox could do something probably terrible with them in a Fantastic Four threeboot. Now that the MCU can use the Skrull, they still couldn't really do Secret Invasion without basically doing a hand-wavey retcon and saying "Oh, yeah, shapeshifting aliens have been on Earth since before the formative days of the MCU", especially after establishing that the Chitauri invasion from The Avengers was a planetary game-changer.

Unless they introduced them in a movie set, say, twenty-odd years ago.

In case you aren't seeing it yet, here is my bold prediction, which will probably be debunked or otherwise discredited inside of 72 hours: the title of the 4th Avengers movie will be Avengers: Secret Invasion.

During Infinity War, which the Russos have stressed 'will have stakes', implying death or other far-reaching consequences for some characters, I further predict that someone fairly major will die or switch sides. Maybe even both! And maybe even more than one. They will eventually be revealed to be a Skrull, either in Avengers 4 or even in Infinity War itself, perhaps in the post-credit sequence. Heck, maybe Nick Fury himself is a Skrull, replaced way back when! Either way, the Skrull would go a long way to explaining his trust issues, come to think of it.

Captain Marvel, who owes her powers to the Kree, will begin her movie on Earth in the 1990s before being drawn into deep, deep space to battle the Skrull. Her debut movie will end with her on the far side of our neck of the galaxy, maybe twenty light-years away, beginning a voyage which will take over twenty years to complete, but with very little elapsed time and no visible aging on her part. This will be accomplished either by relativistic time-dilation incurred by Col. Danvers flying home under her own power at close to the speed of light (which, sidebar: wow), or by space-time complications encountered while navigating an Einstein-Rosen bridge or wormhole.

How? It doesn't matter, and I don't actually understand this kind of stuff; I'm a liberal arts grad. Look, it's comics, no one wants to actually do the math, all right? Just trust me on this. Maybe it's neither of those things, but if you think for even one minute that they are going to make-up Brie Larson so she looks like she is pushing 50 when she comes in to bail out the Avengers in their 4th movie, you need to lay off the pipe, son.

Most importantly, setting the movie in the 1990s gives those fiendish Skrull two decades to get their ducks in a row. Who knows what machinations they can put into effect in that time?

Now, to be fair, there are lots of other spoilery titles and storylines that could prompt the Russos to keep a lid on the title for Avengers 4, but Secret Invasion makes a compelling amount of sense, at least to me, in light of the information we have so far. And to be clear, I am completely okay with being proven wrong on this one, whenever they get around to revealing the actual title, whenever that ends up being.

Last August, Joe Russo said that the reveal would not be 'for quite some time', which makes me wonder: if I do happen to be right, when would they announce the title?  Before Infinity War comes out? Shortly after it hits theaters and a sufficient number of fans have a chance to learn that, my gosh, the Skrull have been among us for years? How does Marvel maintain the secret with so many people and so much money involved? (The combined budget for the two Avengers movies is estimated to be over one billion (with a b) dollars.)

Furthermore - whoa, this nerd-hole is pretty deep, and it is time to head back for the surface. Tell you what though, as long as I am down here anyways, let me make one more prediction: Steve Rogers will be the one to die in Infinity War. He's the nicest guy in the MCU, it already happened in the comics, and Sebastian Stan, the actor who plays his likely successor, Bucky Barnes, took a 7-picture deal when he signed on to Winter Soldier, but is currently (and literally) cooling his heels in a Wakandan deep-freeze.

There. At least I know when that prognostication will be proven or disproven: May 4, 2018. See you there, True Believers!

Friday, July 21, 2017

War Movie or Not? - Dunkirk, Reviewed

If you ask anyone with even a passing interest in history, they are likely to have an opinion as to the turning point of WWII; the single event which, had it turned out another way, might have affected the outcome of the entire affair. Key among these are likely to be the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the Americans into the war; Operation Barbarossa, wherein Hitler opened a second front and engaged the implacable Russians; and Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings on D-Day.

But before any of these, in June of 1940, was the evacuation of Dunkirk. 400,000 British troops fleeing France, surrounded by Nazis on three sides, and trapped by the sea on a fourth. Capture of the British Expeditionary Force seemed inevitable, and it was hoped that perhaps 30,000 men could be rescued, men needed to protect England from the inevitable German invasion across the English Channel. The invasion was to be called Operation Sea Lion, and the only thing that prevented it was the Miracle at Dunkirk.

Had things gone another way, it is easy to speculate how the dominoes fall; Operation Sea Lion replaces the Battle of Britain, England falls, and the Reich takes the world's biggest navy and a huge production centre out of the war, making Fortress Europe unassailable. Would the U.S. even enter the war if not provoked? It is truly chilling to consider.

Christopher Nolan feels this miracle is the seminal hinge-point of the 20th century, but you almost wouldn't know it from his movie, Dunkirk. It is another brilliant piece of work from a master filmmaker, but in many ways, it is barely a war movie, so unconventionally does he handle every aspect.

First of all, the focus is extremely personal, The only map you see in the entire film is the leaflet dropped by the Germans advising the BEF to surrender. There are no shots of Churchill, no generals moving model ships on a giant table, no drama in Parliament or any ministries. The entirety of the story plays out through the eyes of the handful of sailors, soldiers and pilots we follow over a brisk 106 minutes (Nolan's shortest feature), and the consequences are told on their faces.

Conversely though, you never once see the face of the enemy. Oh, they make their presence known, for certain, with crackling sniper fire and shrieking Stuka dive bombers, but the opposition is abstracted, making Dunkirk less of a war movie, and far more of a film about escape, both literal and figurative. In many ways, time is a far bigger enemy than the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, which is probably why a ticking watch plays such a prominent role in Hans Zimmer's haunting score for the movie. (In fact, one of Chris Nolan's pocket watches provided the sound after Zimmer requested it from him.)

Lastly, it is a uniquely structured, non-linear movie due to the contradictory timescales of the stories, depending on whether you examine Dunkirk from the sea, land, or air, as the director explains:
"For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film."
Because of this, and the fact that you see the same events multiple times and from different perspectives over the course of the film, there are those who will say that Dunkirk is like a second World War Pulp Fiction, but I don't feel that's quite right; I think Nolan has done something astonishing with this movie, and I believe he has made the cinematic equivalent of Picasso's Guernica; a fractured but comprehensive look at an intrinsically chaotic event, shown from multiple perspectives.

Most war movies, especially WWII movies, center on the notion of 'what price victory?' Sure we can win, but what was the cost? Because Dunkirk is centered around a defeat that, militarily at least, can only be described as a failure, that angle doesn't really work, and so the theme of escape comes into play repeatedly: escape from a beach filled with now-helpless soldiers periodically bombed by planes, escape from snipers in an unfamiliar city, escape from the sea itself as water floods into a sinking vessel. Nolan handles this kind of suspense better than anyone since Hitchcock, and I cannot tell you how many times I caught myself holding my breath.

Given the stellar quality of the cast (Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy), it may come as a surprise to some that Dunkirk, despite the intimacy of its story, is far more a director's film than an actor's. There is very little dialogue, and poor Tom Hardy in particular spends a good amount of his screentime trying to emote effectively while wearing the mask and goggles of a Spitfire pilot, and doing remarkably well, considering!

The performances are solid, though, despite the lack of speeches or grandstanding, or excerpts you look at and think "that's the clip they will show at the Oscars when listing the nominees". Mark Rylance in particular stands out, with his quiet but conflicted surety as a pleasure craft captain brought in to help with the evacuation along with hundreds of other civilian ships, most of which we don't see until the final minutes of the movie. His conviction to do what's right, even in the face of opposition from Cillian Murphy's shell-shocked rescuee, wrestles with his responsibilities to his son and the young hand who has come along to help. Rylance needs no extra dialogue or exposition to bring this nuance into play; he should probably get an Oscar nomination for each eye.

Best of all though, Nolan is a man who really knows his way around a viewfinder, and in this second collaboration with his Interstellar D.P. Hoyte Van Hoytema, he really gets a chance to show off. Using a limited palette of blues, greys and browns, often synced to the sea, air and land of his three concurrent and intermittent stories, he runs the gamut from long, lingering reaction close-ups to sprawling vistas filled with hundreds of extras.

And even better, he is an old school filmmaker in many ways, eschewing digital moviemaking for shooting on 70mm and IMAX stock, and using real ships and real aircraft to make all those elements fell far more real and visceral than even the most photo-realistic simulation ever could. After the film, Fenya confessed how nervous the creaking, fragile-sounding Spitfire scenes made her feel. No Top Gunnery in these dogfights, just the frustrating and unnerving feeling of slow, hard-gee turns followed by quick course changes, and the almost languid way a Bf. 109 drifts into the sights of the premier British fighter plane.

Dunkirk is a real-feeling film about a real war, and a real event in that war that gets terribly short shrift in both educational curricula and popular culture. Whether or not it is a great 'war film' I will leave up to you, although I will certainly not contest anyone who makes the assertion. There is no question in my mind that Christopher Nolan has made a great motion picture that reflects true craftsmanship in the way it mixes spectacle with emotion. He has somehow put together a summer blockbuster that not only deserves every dollar and accolade it receives, but also advances the art of filmmaking; in many ways, a second miracle of Dunkirk.

And as to history, well, let's not forget that we are not so far removed from this amazing event. When Audrey and I took a tour of the Thames River in London in 2005, our guide pointed out a ship moored up with a small distinctive flag fluttering off its stern. He explained that flag was a Dunkirk Jack, meaning that very vessel, an unassuming cabin cruiser, had participated in the evacuation, something he clearly took a lot of pride in.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fallout 4 - Survivalist Simulator or Character Revealer?

Despite my initial qualms, I have been enjoying Fallout 4 on my PS4 a great deal - probably too much, truth be told, if my ongoing state of sleep deprivation is any indication. What I am not liking is the growing evidence that I may not be as good or 'nice' a person as I think myself to be.

I'd heard lots of good things about the series and have a couple of close friends who are die-hard fans. The post-nuclear war setting has had a fantastically detailed retro-future glaze applied to it, making the world of the late 2200s, (200 years A.B.) look as though civilization peaked in the 1950s. The art design is brilliantly comprehensive, complete with tubed, b&w television sets, ads for fallout shelters, Studebaker-inspired cars and tanks. and a perky mascot called Vault Boy who is probably first cousin to a similarly named burger mascot.

Despite this though, a massive, open-world game where you alternate moving stories forward by undertaking various quests and missions with foraging to gain supplies and experience just didn't have a lot of appeal to me. I generally prefer my games to be more cinematically paced, such as in my current overall favourite, The Last of Us.

But when Jim gave me the game for my birthday, he said to give it a shot, and  not to really assess it until I had a few hours of it under my belt.

Sure enough, early into the game I discover that my character has a base with a number of crafting stations, for building structures, weapons, armour, food and various chemical compounds. Each item you build has a recipe of sorts, requiring various items you hope to come across on your travels.

So much work! Instead of the Resident Evil-style upgrade system that makes your pistol a little bit better with each piece you add or replace on it through the game, suddenly you a half dozen modification slots with a half dozen options apiece, each of which require different components (adhesives, aluminum, gears, screws, steel, etc.) and potentially some sort of skill or perk you choose as you level up, such as Gun Nut, Science! or Armourer. Not much fun, but then again, I've never seen the appeal of Sudoku either.

Well, that was then. Now I'm the one playing this silly game until all hours, and the excitement I feel at besting a sturdy foe or level boss is nowhere close to what I experience afterwards when I stumble across an old typewriter or package of duct tape (gasp!).

Two things happened early on in the game that have significantly shaped my Fallout 4 experience. After starting out with an assortment of shoddy looking improvised 'pipe' guns, I stumbled across a more powerful .308 caliber handgun, with a suppressor, or silencer, attached.

My former favourite game is Metal Gear Solid, a game where stealth is as much a component as combat, and I don't know how much imprinting that mid-90s experience had on me, but if there is a stealth option in any of the games I play, odds are that is the route I am going to take.

The cover and screenshots of Fallout 4 make heavy use of the powered armour in the game, something else I am a huge fan of in many, many iterations (Starship Troopers, Battletech, Iron Man, 40K Space Marines, et al), but I quickly found that stealthily moving into position and silently popping my would-be combatants unaware, from the shadows, was immensely satisfying, and usually far less risky.

Soon I had enough skills and supplies to convert this rifle-chambered handgun into a proper longarm, outfitting it with a simple scope. Now I could skulk around the perimeter, taking a silenced headshot from under cover, then either moving away or to another equidistant position. Sometimes it might take several such shots, especially on larger opponents, like the 7-foot tall Supermutants. It was not a very time-efficient way to get things done, but prevented me from being overwhelmed, and besides, I hardly ever had to use any of my resources for healing.

Then, as I leveled up, I discovered I had access to way more of the perks on the chart than I had thought, and began looking at the various skills offered from the perspective of someone who thinks of a face-to-face, mano-a-mano throwdown as the pinnacle of foolishness.

I had put a lot of points into my character's Agility stat initially, which had left me a little short in other areas, but did allow me to take the Ninja perk, applying a multiplier to any sneak attacks I pulled off while hidden.

And at this point, my days of fighting fair were well and truly done.

Radstags, mutated, two-headed ruminant, are good eatin' in the game, but would often take 2-3 hits to bring down before my ninjafication, but now, a single headshot from half a football field away would drop the beast, accompanied by the satisfying cash register 'ka-ching!' sound that signified the racking up of experience points.

Even Supermutants could be felled with a single shot in many circumstances, and I spent the better part of two hours circling a camp full of them in a satellite dish array. Methodically picking off their sentries, tower guards and especially the savage Mutant Hounds that had thwarted my previous attempts at a direct assault. They would beeline for my position, homing in on either the suppressed sound or perhaps my scent, but by prioritizing them as targets, I could do my rest of my grisly work in a far more orderly and less risky fashion, only having to sprin away from a potential counterattack on one occasion.

At my next leveling up, however, I stumbled across a perk I had previously viewed and discounted: Mr. Sandman.

Now, despite reserving a lot of my perimeter breaches for the deadiest dead of night, I have not come across a lot of sleeping opponents to this point, and when I have, well, it just makes it easier to line the crosshairs up on them at close range, unless they are restless sleepers. But since by this point my go-to weapons were all suppressed anyhow (my TelCo long distance rifle ('The next best thing to being there,' or perhaps 'Reach out and touch someone'), a .38 submachine gun , and a 10mm machine pistol), well, it just seemed foolish and borderline ungrateful not to go Sandman.

Thus you find me perhaps mid-game: a full time, bona fide, dyed in the wool dry-gulcher. Having almost completely eschewed the powered armour brawler angle, my character Gideon now spends 80% of his time in the crouched position, approaching conflict zones from oblique angles, with maximum cover and multiple exfiltration routes, sometimes salting potential approaches with mines and then making myself fully visible after dispatching the tower guards in order to prompt pursuit. (Finding and retrieving deployed mines is a dodgy and dangerous business; far easier to just set them off at that point.) I endure numerous taunts from Raiders and other assorted dirtbags about what a 'coward' I am for hiding, and how ambushing isn't very 'brave'.

I'm not about to take character cues from a bunch of gits wearing gimp masks and who decorate their premises with human remains, but the option to 'Sandman Kill' appears even when I approach dozing allies. I arrive in the dead of night to let them know I have driven off the pack of Feral Ghouls that were harassing them, or the Raiders who had been making off with their livestock, and as I look at the option to snuff out their virtual life with a single button push, I can't help but think: my Fallout self is not a very good person. At least I haven't started thinking about all the potential experience points I am leaving on the table... yet.

When special forces recruiters look for snipers, there are two potential syndromes they try to detect and screen out of the program. The first is 'Texas Tower' syndrome, a giddy-feeling of nearly god-like power that comes with sniping targets undetected from an elevated position. The second is Munich Massacre syndrome, named after the German police who had Black September terrorists in their sights for days, watching them go about their daily business long enough to humanize them and develop empathy for them, and ultimately, leaving them unable to pull the trigger when the time came.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies a somewhat grey and apparently rather rare mindset, especially when coupled with the specific skills and attributes required to be a world-class sniper.

Thankfully, the world of Fallout 4 is a bit more black and white than that, and my targets rarely laugh, socialize, or go to the bathroom. Some of them do sleep,l however, and it is only a matter of time before this wasteland survival game becomes a de facto murder simulator, and I can't help but be a bit curious about how that goes.

In the end, the game is probably not telling me that I am a ticking bomb of sociopathy waiting to go off, or a potential thrill-killer temporarily sated by the interaction of video games. I am notoriously risk-averse in real life as well as in games, so my aversion to direct conflict is consistently reflected.

Besides, I probably come off comparatively well inside the game, especially given my eagerness to  take on pretty much every hard luck job that comes across my path. Apparently my Fallout-self and I share an inability to say no to such requests.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Friendly, Neighbourhood - Spider-Man: Homecoming, Reviewed

(Spoiler-free, as always!)

Spider-Man Homecoming is not only the best Spider-Man movie to date, besting not only the tepid Andrew Garfield iterations but also the mostly beloved (2/3) Tobey Maguire films that really kicked off the modern superhero film, but may also be the best film yet to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. See it, and see it soon.

It's tough to compare the MCU to anything else in cinema; the closest comparison is probably James Bond, and by the time it reached 16 films there were a couple of missteps in the batch (your mileage may vary, but for me we are talking about Moonraker, Octopussy, and Diamonds are Forever). Kevin Feige has kept Marvel on track by recognizing what makes each character great, and not being afraid to tinker with established formulae, even switching up genres from time to time.

Tentpole rookie Jon Watts (Cop Car, The Onion News Network) has concocted a brilliant summer beverage that is equal parts Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and... John Hughes. This unconventional combination lets him play with themes of high school angst, coming of age, the outsider's perspective, and of course, heroism.

Homecoming is as much a Peter Parker movie as it is a Spider-Man movie, in the same brilliant way that Iron Man is as much about Tony Stark as his armoured alter-ego. And as we saw in Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker is one great kid, and Tom Holland brings his likeability across in the most effortless fashion since Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly. Smart, funny, humble, but tormented too; ike any 15 year old, he struggles with becoming a man, impatiently awaiting the day he gets called back to assist the legendary heroes of the Avengers, and making do after school by nabbing bicycle thieves and the like. Despite living in the tough borough of Queens, he does what he can to keep his neighbourhood, well, friendly.

Spider-Man has, without a doubt, the best origin story in comics, but we are all familiar with it, so the filmmakers wisely chose to give us a break from it. The ghost of Uncle Ben still looms large in the story though, as young Peter Parker's commitment to responsibility is always given priority, especially to his Aunt May, now played with considerably less frailty by the excellent Marisa Tomei.

Aided by his best friend (and eventual confidante) Ned (Jacob Batalon) who reminds me a lot of Miles Morales' (the other Spider-Man - look, it's a long story) best chum Ganke, Peter navigates all the normal challenges of high school - prepping for college, bullying, talking to girls - all while guarding his secret identity and abilities. Eventually he is compelled to prove himself to his mentor Tony Stark by single-handedly unraveling a network of arms dealers re-purposing salvaged and stolen alien tech from the first Avengers movie.

They are led by Adrian Toomes, the best Marvel villain since Loki, played with equal parts blue collar approachability and intensity by Michael Keaton. Unlike many of the baddies who preceded him, Toomes neither wants to take over nor destroy the world, he just wants to get paid in order to provide for his family. That he does this with a robotic winged suit makes him no less compelling, and the fact that he is never audibly referred to as the Vulture makes him a no less brilliant adaptation of a classic Spidey villain.

In fact, we may just have to give this one the prize for best reiteration of a goofy-looking vintage design ever. They don't even look a lot alike aside from the hints of green and the fuzzy collar, but the beak-like mask, tiny glowing green optics and menacing but inimitably practical clawed feet round out the look exquisitely.

Beyond the look, the idea of a supervillain motivated by what he feels is his own victimization by the rich and powerful of the world (and not without some degree of justification, it must be said) adds a fascinating element of class struggle to the inevitable good/.evil interplay of a traditional comic book movie.

The story is tight, the characterizations solid, the portrayals fantastically nuanced with no cardboard cutouts whatsover. The action sequences are handled really well, with the best rendering of 'whatever-a-Spider-can' we've seen. The humour is almost ever present but never oppressive, and NEVER at the expense of the character; you can visualize every joke inside a word balloon without difficulty. Even you are unfamiliar with the character (Welcome to Earth, by the way!), there is enough solid movie-making at play to satiate anyone who enjoys  big fun at the movies.

But beyond that, there a moral core that is so important to not only the character, but the MCU in general. Homecoming probably has the lowest body count of any Marvel movie in terms of on-screen death. The smaller scale of the story also means we don't have to watch skyscrapers topple into each other for a change, which is absolutely fine by me.

For a movie to have an understated philosophical compass like this but still recognize the unfettered joy of being a hero, webslinging one's way around the Big Apple, and balancing it with the guilt of lying to one's family and friends about it makes Homecoming the best movie by 8 writers I've ever seen.

My second favourite thing about the movie though, is how effortlessly it slots itself into the existing Marvel universe. In addition to the established history of the MCU there are new comic callouts, like the addition of Damage Control, a company dedicated to cleaning up the aftermath of superhero battles which has had its own comic series. One of Toomes' henchmen calls himself the Shocker, and only upon this reveal did I notice he was wearing a quilted jacket inspired by his comic namesake.

The intermittent appearances of Tony Stark, doggedly trying to be a role model and mentor (despite having less integral responsibility than his young protege) are the strongest link to what has gone before, but Captain America even makes a couple of brief cameos in the form of educational videos screened by a jaded phys ed teacher who declaims them by saying "I think this guy is like a war criminal now or whatever, but I have to show the video...".

Jon Favreau's portrayal of a beleaguered  and put-upon Happy Hogan is also a welcome callback to the film and director that launched the MCU. His unwilling appearance in the home movie Peter makes during Civil War is one of the best things in the picture. (You can see this fantastic movie within a movie here, and there are no spoilers unless you haven't seen Civil War yet.)

Perhaps most telling of all: anyone can bury their hero under a ton of rubble, but doing so in a way that so clearly references a classic Spider-Man moment from the comics (which has been homaged numerous times in the funnybooks) shows the depths of both the knowledge and respect Watts has for the character. Other easter eggs abound, such as Peter's high school principal being a likely grandson of one of the Howling Commandos from WWII. Oh, and my new favourite end credits scene, finally displacing the shawarma outing from The Avengers.

The only thing I might have changed, had anyone asked me, would have been to make Aunt May a little less sturdy and independent. In the comics, there is a mutual interdependency between them that I find endearing. May is constantly worrying about her nephew, but most of the decisions Peter makes are for her well being. Rather than making her elderly and frail (seriously, what would the age gap have been between May and Peter's dad? Like, 20, 30 years?), I think it would have been intriguing to have May struggling with a social anxiety disorder, or perhaps dealing with depression brought on by the tragic loss of Ben Parker. I mean, who is to say she isn't, and not to make her helpless, but to underpin Peter's feelings of responsibility to her. But that is a nit I barely feel compelled to pick, and Marisa Tomei has always been a treat to watch onscreen (or even just get inappropriately referenced by Tony Stark).

Sony Pictures made an incredibly smart move handing the reins to one of the most popular comic characters of all time back to the people that clearly care the most about him. I cannot wait for the next film in this series, and I'm immensely grateful that Spider-Man will be swinging into Infinity War next May, and that Marvel's Phase Three is not hanging by a thread, but swinging gracefully even as it expands by leaps and bounds.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Comin' In From Above - Baby Driver, Reviewed

Two years ago, George Miller made Fury Road, and showed us that a movie can spend most of its running time in chase scenes and still make a brilliant, emotionally affecting motion picture. Now Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim) has made Baby Driver and demonstrated that you can do the same thing with a story built around a reluctant getaway driver. And made it as a genre-mashing musical-romantic-action-heist movie,

In some ways, Baby Driver gets off to a shaky start, dropping us into the first bank job right away. While the eponymous Baby (Ansel Elgort) jams with his earbuds in (his means of combating tinnitus from a childhood accident), his passengers strap up and stride through the doors, stepping in time to the music like a perverse music video. When they come racing back, we are treated to some phenomenal stunt driving, with Wrights assurances that no CGI or green screen was used, only practical stunts. As baby puts the stolen Subaru through its paces though, with all the attendant roaring of engine and screeching of tires you can't help but wonder how he intends to get away. And here's a tip: maybe you would blend into a crowd more if you didn't dress so much like Han Solo?

See, in all the imaginary heists I've ever planned, anonymity is the key to success: a visually nondescript vehicle, perhaps with some extra guts under the hood, but designed to avoid attracting attention.

But what kind of fun would that be? And so, when a fortuitous situation allows Baby to execute a vehicular version of Three-Card Monte, it doesn't feel too far fetched. Likewise when he bops down the street to the coffee shop the next day, lyrics from Harlem Shuffle periodically appearing in graffiti on the walls behind him, in an unbroken shot that took over twenty takes.

Soon afterwards, we meet the mastermind behind the robberies, Doc, played with equal amounts friendliness and ruthlessness by Kevin Spacey. In short order, we discover Baby's indebtedness, as well as the deaf and wheelchair-bound foster father he is attending to, piling caregiver on top of a heap of other tropes, including Mickey Mousing, Indentured Servitude, and One Last Job. And we aren't even into the second act yet!

But that's okay, and I will tell you why: because after it sets the stage, Wright uses all the tools from all the genres at his disposal in a balanced fashion, never playing the grittiness of a classic crime pic at the expense of the magical realism of a musical, and vice versa. Wright ratchets up the dramatic and emotional tension throughout the film, teasing out bits of the backstory, throwing a couple of curve balls in and never making it really clear what the endgame can possibly be. Can we get a happy ending out of this? Mmmmmaybe, but how?!?

Doc changes up the crews for most of the jobs he plans, but Jamie Foxx stands out as Bats, a calculating yet unpredictable career criminal. Any heist film will have its fair share of planning scenes, where a lot of the tension can be allowed to leak away, but this is rarely the case when he and Kevin Spacey are on the screen together, verbally jousting for credibility in front of the others.

Cynical viewers are likely to be left cold by the retro appeal of the diner where Baby meets his love interest Debora, or the cheesiness of having five gunshots timed to the beat of the guitar riffs in Hocus Pocus by Focus, or even Baby's nickname, but it all worked for me. Music and fantasy play key roles in all Edgar Wright's movies, from Shaun of the Dead to this one, and he makes great, confident use of both of them throughout. (And before you ask: yes, of course I have already ordered the 2-disc soundtrack from Amazon.)

Pretty much all heist movies are fantasies; at least Baby Driver is honest about it. What's important though is that the motivations and reactions throughout the film never seem forced or contrived, and the resolutions always feel earned.

Look, I don't know if anyone will ever make a better robbery movie than Michael Mann's Heat anyways, so do yourself a favour and check out Baby Driver in the meantime. The performances, dialogue and dramatic tension measure up with that classic, but the driving and music and imagination are even better.