Monday, November 27, 2017

To Bolder Go... - Star Trek: Discovery vs. The Orville

Star Trek: Discovery has polarized many fans of the enduring franchise, marking its return to episodic television (after an unfortunate but much-needed 12-year hiatus) with extremely mixed reactions.

Discovery marks a number of firsts for Trek being the first to step away from network or syndication standards in favour of a more 'premium cable' model, along the lines of Netflix or HBO. It is also available to far fewer viewers in the U.S. where it can only be seen on CBS' All Access streaming service.

This has allowed them to orient their material to a more mature audience, introducing the first same-sex couple in a Trek series, and dropping the first f-bombs in franchise history. Discovery is also the first series where the ship's commander is not the focus of the program.

Set ten years before the familiar voyages of the Enterprise, it also dabbles in a fair amount of revisionism, tinkering with the canonical timeline in a way seemingly designed to tweak long-time fans. Why have we never heard of Discovery's experimental drive prior to this? Where did the captain get the tribble he keeps in his quarters? Why do the Klingons look so different from any of the previous iterations? Why are we seeing cybernetic or robotic characters on starship bridges, when the android character Data was such a big deal on Next Generation almost a century later? How come we never knew that Mr. Spock had an adopted sister, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin)?

Burnham's famous sibling is not even the most interesting thing about her character. The first two episodes of Discovery exist primarily as her backstory, or perhaps origin, as her rash actions help catapult the Federation into war against the Klingons, and effectively ends her Starfleet career.

A seemingly chance encounter brings her under the dominion of the Discovery's captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs, best known as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films). Here is another crewmember haunted by their past, and although not quite as driven, Lorca shares more traits with Captain Ahab than most of his crew would probably be comfortable with.

Having effectively done away with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's oft-misunderstood admonition against interpersonal conflict has opened up a lot of fertile ground for storytelling, but also takes Discovery a step further away from what we have come to associate with Star Trek. As a result, a number of would-be fans are not watching the show, and some of them are even pointing their attentions to an unlikely competitor: quasi-spoof The Orville, starring and helmed by, of all people, the creator of Family Guy, Seth McFarlane.

The Orville is set in a carefully crafted analogue to the Star Trek universe, but instead of following the steadfast crew of a legendary ship, it centers around a significantly lower tier ship and the quirky misfits that keep her flying.

A lot of archetypes and stereotypes from previous incarnations of Trek are present, from the robotic crewman Isaac who hails from a synthetic society, to the alien Bortus, the stoic and taciturn second officer whose species have only a single gender. A waif-like but super-strong security chief, a couple of wise-cracking helmsmen and a captain and first officer who were once married to each other (Seth McFarlane and Adrienne Palicki) rounds things out.

The bridge layout, colour coded uniforms and presence of a Planetary Union instead of a Federation make the homage even more obvious, but the bickering, job dissatisfaction and knowing winks and nods thrown to long-established tropes put a fresh spin on things.

Although The Orville is funny in an earthy, prime-time Fox sort of fashion, I was astonished to see how much seriousness existed in the stories themselves. Like the original series, they make effective use of taking existing trends or problems and extrapolating them to the Nth degree, such as a planet where social media has replaced the justice system, and an undercover crewman risks reprogramming after being caught on video dancing inappropriately with a statue. Or the ethical debate that ensues when Bortus and his partner ask to have their child's sex reassigned after being born female, something considered a rare birth defect on their homeworld.

Given the maturing of our collective tastes in science fiction, it becomes difficult to take established Trek concepts like universal translators or such a casual approach to first contact scenarios seriously, but within the framework of a lightweight adventure/comedy they become a lot easier to swallow, as the whole affair is taken much less seriously. As Mystery Science Theatre 3000 used to remind us, "it's just a show, I really should relax."

Most surprising of all is how seriously Seth McFarlane takes his role as starship commander Ed Mercer, and how effective he is at it. Despite having limited his career by showing up to work hungover on many occasions after discovering his wife's infidelity, Mercer is not portrayed as a buffoon, but as a flawed officer who still cares about his crew and doing the right thing. That he does so in between dick jokes and offhand workplace humor is just incidental, and last night I watched him give a firm but supportive pep-talk worthy of Kirk or Picard to a troubled crew member with nary a chuckle or smirk in sight.

In the commentary on science-fiction sites like io9, many Star Trek fans have said that the dark tone and moral ambiguity of Discovery (and for some, what they feel is a lack of respect for prior canon) have driven them to the whimsical idealism and visual familiarity of The Orville, which I can completely understand.

On the other hand though. I have really enjoyed the first half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. The production values are amazing, even if so much of the technology transcends even what we saw on Next Gen and I too am curious how they intend to reconcile the historical inconsistencies. I appreciate how they have loosened the leash on opposing views between the crew but have maintained respect in their interactions (for the most part). As much as I would love to see a post-Deep Space 9 series taking the franchise into the future where it belongs, I am forced to admit that witnessing the earlier days of the Federation makes for compelling viewing.

And despite the overtures to a more mature audience (and perhaps more cynical as a result), the idealism at Trek's heart can still be found there; you just have to look a little harder in some instances.

So which one is truer to Trek, in spirit if nothing else? That is difficult to say, and in the end, perhaps completely unnecessary. There is no question that Star Trek: Discovery is a darker and more mature take on the franchise, with conspiracies, politics, hidden agendas, and all the less-than-ideal products of the human heart (and alien as well). Open defiance of orders? Vulcan terrorists? Roguish, hapless Harry Mudd capable of cold-blooded murder?

It's a lot to take in, and a considerable change-up from what me are used to. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Discovery still feels more like the original series than anything that came afterwards, at least to me. The newness of everything, the uncertainty, stands in stark contrast to the safe familiarity of the Federation by Next Generation, where many of the Enterprise-D's missions consisted of hosting or conveying important characters or plot devices, like a combination space-going convention centre and taxi service.

In the meantime, The Orville cloaks a great heart built on an unmistakable love of Star Trek within a shell of quick gags and reference humor. I've loved sci-fi comedy since Red Dwarf, and while The Orville is neither as clever nor as subversive as it was, it is enjoyable and accessible. For a comedy, they do action pretty well, with fights featuring characters thrown every whichaway. They have only minimal amounts of continuity to speak of, making it far more accessible than Discovery as well.

I just figured out what it reminds me of: the classic Trek episode "The Enemy Within". You know this one: a transporter accident ends up splitting Kirk into two selves, one compassionate and selfless, the other more instinctive, impetuous, and violent. (You may remember it as the episode featuring the adorable unicorn space dogs that befall the same fate as Kirk.)

As a child, I remember wondering how Kirk was going to defeat his 'evil'self, until Spock explains that the captain needs that hardness, that edge, the ability to make tough calls and hard decisions; his noble and savage selves would need to be reintegrated. This was heady stuff for eight-year old me, and was my first introduction to the world as being a place of not just black and white, but also shades of grey.

Perhaps these two programs reflect two different aspects of the same beloved universe: one exploring the darkness, the other gravitating towards a lighter and more nostalgic tone?

There can't possibly be any intentionality or grand design between two wholly different networks developing two unrelated and competing shows at the same time.  Still though, the simple fact that a darker, more 'adult' version of official Star Trek product was released at almost exactly the same time as a goofy, humor/adventure derivative of it is a pretty astonishing coincidence.

In the end, I don't think anyone can really tell you which show is 'better', and I'm certainly not going to try. I will tell you that, in their own ways, they are both brave television and reflect a dedication to the different ideals presented by Star Trek, and there is no reason a person cannot enjoy both of them, as I am. It's nice to be given a choice, don't you think?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Center Mass, But No Ten-Ring - Marvel's The Punisher, Reviewed

Marvel's popular vigilante character, The Punisher, is problematic no matter what media he is depicted in.

Originating as a one-off Spider-Man villain in 1974, ex-Marine Frank Castle rolled through the Marvel Universe conducting a one-man war on crime and occasionally running afoul of heroes like Captain America. Bits of his backstory were slowly teased out, revealing that he had lost his wife and children  after they had the bad fortune to stumble onto a mob hit. Declaring war on crime, the mob initially but more comprehensively later on, he brought lethality to a medium that had previously left criminals trussed up for the police, or perhaps suspended by webbing from a lamppost.

The Punisher provided a great foil for traditional heroes with a traditional morality, and nowhere was this better highlighted than in his appearances in the classic run on Daredevil written by Frank Miller and drawn by Klaus Janson back in the early 80s.

Daredevil (and attorney alter-ego Matt Murdock) sees Castle as a hypocritical and amoral murderer, no better than the criminals he preys upon. The Punisher meanwhile mocks DD as an ineffective liberal, too soft to do what is needed to really stop crime. Their physical and philosophical feud made a real impression on me as a teenager buying his entertainment off the spinner rack.

Later on, when I was getting my comics at a specialty shop in Edmonton (Starbase 12, actually), things changed when the Punisher got his own title with a limited series from Steve Grant and Mike Zeck. Grant supplied a great modern crime story and all the trappings to make Frank Castle a bit more sympathetic, explaining how some of his more irrational behavior (shooting at jaywalkers and such, for example), was the result of his being poisoned during one of his periods in prison. Zeck supplied some brilliantly painted covers, and it was not too long after this that The Punisher got his own ongoing series, written by Mike Baron.

Baron is also no stranger to vigilantism and philosophy, having dabbled extensively both in his sci-fi comic Nexus, but the real fights took place in the letters column every month. For every person who suggested an established villain or hero from Marvel's extensive pantheon for Castle to butt heads with, another fan would eschew all fantasy in favour of just watching him gun down drug dealers issue after issue.

To his credit, Baron walked that tightrope pretty well for over 60 issues, and I read and enjoyed almost all of them, but the real question remained: was the Punisher a hero, an anti-hero, a villain, or something else entirely?

Successive writers and artists have tackled the question in many ways, Garth Ennis having had the most prolific turn at the wheel, but whose well-known distaste for superheroes had the Punisher getting the better of anyone in tights who came after him, including Spider-Man and Wolverine. The latter of these he ran over with a steamroller, knowing it wouldn't kill but would remove him from the fight fairly authoritatively. As comics became more and more adult, the crimes depicted in them got progressively darker and more disturbing, and Castle's punishments got more graphic and outlandish as well.

Seeming to live in his own comics universe by this point, and garnering attention with dramatically shadowed and realistic cover art from Tim Bradstreet, The Punisher became more and more popular as did his skull logo. Military personnel drew it on vehicles and helmets, some units even adopted it into their morale patches. Astonishingly, a Kentucky police station actually put it on the hood of their police cruisers until public outcry forced its removal.

I bring all of this up simply to give some context to what has gone on with character prior to the arrival of Marvel's The Punisher on Netflix last week, and to explain where I think the tv characterization has missed the mark.

Jon Bernthal's tortured portrayal of a broken man dealing with tremendous trauma and loss rings just as true here as it did in the second season of Daredevil, and he is unquestionably the best thing in it. In the comics, Frank Castle may have anger issues, but Bernthal's rage-filled revenant is an anger issue. Where the comics depict a coldly calculating and dispassionate warrior, the small-screen version is a long fuse leading to an enormous keg of screaming, grunting, bestial avatism. It's alternately compelling and horrifying to witness, but an effective choice for television.

Less effective in my eyes is the fact that this Castle's vendetta is a personal one. In the comics, the senseless and random deaths of his family drives him to declare war on all crime, but here he is directly avenging the deliberate murder of his family to prevent him blowing the whistle on a conspiracy. Although this makes his motivation more understandable and the character a bit more relatable, it limits the future storytelling possibilities. Frankly, making his goal of immediate revenge more rational almost undermines the character by making him indistinguishable from a host of other vengeance-driven characters. (And for the record: no, I didn't like it when Tim Burton set it up so that the Joker killed Bruce Wayne's parents either, or when those South Africans admitted to killing Rigg's wife in Lethal Weapon 2.)

For another thing, the Netflix Punisher has absolutely no connective tissue to the other Netflix Marvel shows or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I get that Chris Evans is not going to drop by to throw hands with Jon Bernthal (although I'd love to see it!) and that we don't need to see Jessica Jones poking her nose in unnecessarily, but there isn't even an attempt to show the Punisher as existing in a world different from ours. There is no Stark Industries tech seen during the scenes in Afghanistan, no sign of the damage from the Battle of New York or even a mention of the destruction of the Midland Circle building from The Defenders. Even a "get a load of  this guy-thinks he's Thor..." when Castle prepares to defend himself (gruesomely) with a sledgehammer would've been a nice touch.

To me at least,  a big part of what makes the Punisher the Punisher is the fact that he lives in a universe where lots of folks on both sides of the law have extraordinary abilities. Having to deal with super-strong, bulletproof, or flying adversaries through a combination of intelligence, cunning, skills, equipment and nearly Batman-levels of planning helped Frank Castle to stand apart from a whole array of similar characters in other media (I'm looking at you, Don Pendleton's Executioner (and also a little bit at Charles Bronson in Death Wish)). Without this, there is almost nothing to distinguish the Punisher from almost any other vigilante character, outside of a flamboyant mode of dress based on an overarching cranial anatomical theme.

And even the costume gets short shrift in the Netflix, version, with the classic look only appearing in two episodes out of 13.  To be fair, it's not like Charlie Cox slides into his red suit for every episode of Daredevil , but between this and the fact that the showrunners made a big point about the fact that there would be no links to events from The Defenders, and no fantastic elements, I'm a bit disappointed. We've come so far in letting comic book characters in movies and tv look and act like their funnybook counterparts, it's a bit of a letdown not carrying on through The Punisher.

Honestly, if there is one character who could benefit from being portrayed as living in a world other than our own, it is Frank Castle. In the comics, The Punisher has gone up against powered armor, mutants, witchcraft, ninjas, vampires, Doctor Doom and the Kingpin. Facing him off against former servicemen who are now amoral mercenaries if not outright terrorists, bankrolled by corrupt officials in the public service, is just a little too close to 'the world outside my window' than I would care to admit. And this is to say nothing of how to sympathetically portray a troubled individual who uses guns to solve the vast majority of his problems  less than a month after yet another mass shooting has taken place. Realism could end up being the boat anchor that most limits the Punisher in future outings.

And speaking of realism, the show's one capitulation to the fantastic seems to be the sheer amount of damage that Frank Castle is capable of enduring. Seeing the effects of Bernthal being shot, stabbed, blown up, beat up, and tortured made me think they should have named his character The Punished instead.

All of this probably makes it sound like I didn't enjoy anything about Netflix's iteration of The Punisher, and that is not precisely true. It is a gripping tale of vengeful justice with a great actor in the lead role, despite the departures it takes from the source material.

The best thing it has going for it outside of its lead is a great cast of tremendously interesting supporting characters.  Some of these are former war buddies of Frank's, from Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for other vets in a church basement, to Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who now heads up a private military corporation. Billy also runs tactical training exercises, which is how he encounters Agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah) of Homeland Security, who is fervently searching out clues for an unsolved murder she left behind in Afghanistan which eventually leads her to you-know who.

The most intriguing character, however, is Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). In the comics, Linus Lieberman is a hacker and engineer known as Microchip who serves as Alfred to Castle's Batman. His Netflix analog is a principled whistleblower who ran afoul of the same conspiracy by leaking footage of the murder to Madani, and sees Frank Castle as a means of achieving his goals. Complicating matters is the fact that he has allowed everyone to believe the conspirators killed him a year ago, including his wife and children. His only contact with them is through the surveillance cameras he has surreptitiously installed in their home, seeing their challenges and heartbreak but unable to do anything about it.

Although their relationship starts out adversarial, Micro and Castle share this fascinating dynamic of two men separated from their loved ones, but are differentiated in that one of them is ostensibly working towards a happy ending that the other can never have. When Micro has to watch someone as dangerous as Frank Castle interact with his daughter and young son, his envy and discomfort is palpable, a real credit to the actor.

As an action series with a tightly wrapped story, The Punisher has a lot going for it, and most of this is due to its willingness to focus on the characters around him. In a lot of ways it is a series about trauma and the ways that people deal with it, like the troubled young veteran in Curtis's support group who is finding it difficult to fit in. This makes a lot of sense dramatically; after all, you know they are unlikely to kill a cash cow like The Punisher, but what about the young co-worker from the construction site? In the very first episode he tries to reach out to an incognito Castle who is struggling to leave violence behind him, but after being rebuffed, he gets coerced into pulling a robbery.

Despite the fact that it didn't feel very much like The Punisher to me (and there are no doubt a ton of dudes from those old letters pages who will disagree with me), it was a decent watch and I will be likely to check in for the inevitable second season. Here's my wish list for that endeavour:
  • Start the war - and reveal what compels Frank Castle to pursue criminals now that his family's murder has been avenged. Not revenge again though; this time, it's impersonal.
  • Make mine Marvel - remind us that this story takes place in the same world as Iron Men and thunder gods. Take your cues from Spider-Man Homecoming (but maybe not the tone).
  • Embrace the fantastic - Baron's run had some wonderful notions that were unrealistic but accessible, like the yakuza trained accountants who kept all the Kingpin's financial records in their heads. Normal sucks; why would you want to be that?
  • Anthology format - do you really need to build to a confrontation with a big bad? Or could you have a set of mini-arcs like last season's Agents of SHIELD, and go from investigating a militia, to infiltrating an outlaw biker gang, to taking down their cartel drug suppliers in South America? 13 episodes is as much screen time as four movies...
  • Leverage the Netflix Universe - as long as Kevin Feige is intent on keeping the MCU and Netflix in separate sandboxes (which makes sense in terms of tone if nothing else; could you imagine Tom Holland's Spider-Man vs. Bernthal's Punisher? Ugh...), then make use of what you have access to. If Daredevil doesn't come after Castle now that he is back killing people in job lots, there's going to be some explanations needed. Set up an arc with Alfre Woodard's Black Mariah from Luke Cage, or Vincent D'Onofrio's brilliant Kingpin, with a possible resolution in a second season of The Defenders.

The Punisher can be an intriguing character (even though Joss Whedon hates him!), and I hope that future seasons take a step back towards the comics that spawned him, but they haven't lost any real ground here and have a great lead in Jon Bernthal. They are close in some ways, but definitely off the mark in others - I'm definitely intrigued enough for another (9mm) round.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Motivations, Not Origins - Justice League, Reviewed

Justice League, the long-awaited, somewhat dreaded cinematic interpretation of DC Comics premiere super-team, features some divergent takes on some of the characters it introduces, most notably Aquaman and The Flash. Aquaman is no longer a clean-cut square in orange and green fish-scale tights, but a long-haired and rebellious loner, at home neither on the surface nor under the sea, but oozing personal confidence and no small degree of sex appeal. Flash is not a fully matured man of science, but an Asbergerian teen dealing with both physical and social awkwardness as he comes to grips with his own considerable abilities, literally tripping up when he can least afford it. In some ways, the Flash's progression can perhaps be seen as a reflection of these first stumbling steps of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Time-Warner's answer to the far more successful and satisfying Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Everyone, is entitled to some missteps. Also, every studio, every creator, every manager of character-based intellectual property. Justice League, though flawed, corny, and in most ways inferior to what we are now accustomed to seeing from their competition, is an entertaining film that gives some long-established and much-beloved characters a chance to plant their feet and regain their balance after staggering out of the gate with an initial slate that was weaker than anticipated.

This is by no means intended as a slight against Wonder Woman, as either character that was the best of of Batman Vs. Superman, or the movie that successfully defibrillated the DCEU. Justice League makes great use of the momentum and positive energy built up by WW and builds upon it with a team motif.

In fact, one of my favourite things about JL is that an opening scene makes the Amazons of Themiscyra look even more badass than they did in their initial appearance in Wonder Woman. There is a genuine sense of risk, sacrifice, dedication and most of all, teamwork, as Queen Hippolyta leads her sisterhood in a knock-down, drag-out game of keepaway. It is a desperate struggle to keep one of three matter-transforming alien supercomputers known as maguffins - I mean, Motherboxes - out of the hands of Steppenwolf, the leader of an invading army of parademons, and say what you will about director Zack Snyder, but the man knows how to direct an action sequence.

Due to a family tragedy, Snyder was unable to complete the filming, and new DCEU colleague Joss Whedon (on deck to write and direct the upcoming Batgirl movie) was called in to finish the job. Whedon also wrote some new material for the film, earning himself a a screenplay credit, and, I suspect, humanizing the characters somewhat. I'm not sure we will ever know, however, as he is a good team player, and no one else is willing to go on record yet as saying, “This here was Snyder’s bit,” or “That part was all Whedon.” For my money though, Whedon’s thumbprints show up in the fractious formation of the team, the snippy comments and whimsical asides, but also in the reverence for the lives of innocents, something a lot of viewers (myself included) felt was missing from both Man of Steel and BvS.

For all the improvements though, Justice League still wears its flaws way out on its skintight sleeves where everyone can see them. As beloved as these characters are, you are never allowed to forget that their owners are in fact corporate, profit-driven entities, not artists. Nowhere is this made more evident to me than in the brutalist approach to product placement for Mercedes-Benz, highlighted by a pre-movie advertisement featuring the principal characters, just in case you miss the cars in the film itself.

And there is no chance of that: Bruce Wayne's roadster, a sleek silver coupe that is at least as distinctive as Bruce Wayne’s other ride, lingers lovingly in the viewfinder, the three-pointed star logo forming the focal point of the shot in a way that the bat-symbol worn by Ben Affleck can only hope to match. And while it makes perfect sense for a billionaire to drive such an ostentatious ride, seeing Gal Gadot step out of a Mercedes sedan as Wonder Woman’s alter ego felt far too opportunistic, at least to me.

At a crisp running time of two hours, there isn't a lot of time to introduce and develop three new characters (Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg), so some of that has to lay by the wayside. But fear not! They are each getting their own spin-off films, something which does not arise from intriguing heroes presented on screen that the audience is clamouring for more of, but is instead mandated by corporate fiat. The major beats are all touched upon though, as different as they are from their origins in the comics.

The weakest link is probably Cyborg, the only character in the batch whose origin I read off the spinner racks as an adolescent (1980, Teen Titans Vol. 1, #1), and he serves as both expositional reference and a Swiss Army knife for the plot. Commandeer a one-of-a-kind vehicle? You got it. Physically Interface with Kryptonian technology in two fewer attempts than it takes most of us to correctly insert a USB plug? No sweat!

On the plus side though, updating his origin to incorporate the Motherbox is a smart play, and adds a degree of discomfort that the body-horror of a full-body prosthetic just doesn't carry like it once did. Instead, Cyborg complains of having a language in his head that he does not speak (creepy!), and which undermines the confidence of his teammates.

From a nerd's point of view, there are a few points to discuss as well: I took a personal dislike to the more armoured appearance of The Flash, especially around the neck. And how is that supposed to get crammed into a ring for a future movie for heaven's sake? The tv series with Grant Gustin wins this one. And Aquaman's pentadent really does look more like a hayfork than a symbol of office. Also, I know Bruce Wayne likes to get his hands dirty and invents a lot of his own tech, but the idea of his wrenching up a transport vehicle the size of a C5 Galaxy is a bit much, even for me.

Bear in mind there are ten credited writers on this movie, bringing to mind the old jape of defining a camel as ‘a horse designed by committee’.Story-wise, there really isn't all that much to Justice League, and Steppenwolf is neither a sympathetic or particularly intriguing villain despite being portrayed in motion capture by Ciaran Hinds of HBO’s Rome and Game of Thrones. But does any of that really matter?

Justice League, in both the comics and the movies, is about teamwork, as it should be. It is about strength through diversity. It reinforces that one person, even Superman, cannot do it all, and that maybe the best man for a job is a woman. It blends together both legendary superheroes with somewhat lesser known (Cyborg) or less popular (Aquaman) ones. It mixes established Holllywod actors (Affleck) and more recent discoveries (Gadot) with relative unknowns (Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller).

If not for the overarching corporate need for a larger mythology and ongoing narrative to drive sequels and spin-offs, a Justice League story mightn't require much of a plot, or any villain at all, frankly. Is it so hard to imagine a story about a group of disparate but gifted people coming together to overcome a natural disaster? Isn't the meat of such a tale to be found in the interactions between the principals and not in the blows and banter shared with their adversaries?

In short order, what I appreciated most about Justice League is:
  • These beloved characters felt like they were properly treated, some for the very first time (yes, even sexy hipster Aquaman who causes my wife to sigh audibly).
  • Every one of them gets an opportunity to look cool.
  • Almost every one of them gets to be vulnerable too (the Mark of Whedon? Possibly.).
  • The focus is on saving the innocent, not just beating up bad guys.
  • When the bad guys do get beat up, it looks great, as do most of the action sequences.
  • They don't make too big a deal of the fact that Steppenwolf, hardly a legendary villain from the comics, has a far more frightening boss who we can be assured we will meet in a future installment.
  • Where many comic adaptations muse about how to become more 'grounded' or 'accessible', Justice League leans into the larger-then-life aspects of its source material, resulting in perhaps the comic-bookiest of comic book movies to date.
  • Best of all, despite the fact that the spin-offs and sequels are a mathematical surety at this point, I felt like I was watching a complete movie, and not just a trailer for the next installment (I'm looking at you, Batman v. Superman)

At this point, I would normally attempt to assess how much relevance or appeal Justice League might have for the non-nerdy audience, many of whom will be encountering some of the League’s charter members for the very first time, but you know what? The ‘Trinity’ of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is so beloved and well-established in popular culture that almost everyone has a longing for and a vested interest in their positive portrayal.

Like this film’s iteration of The Flash, the DCEU has taken its share of slips, stumbles and downright falls in its early days, from an overbearing and unnecessarily dark tone to some brutal mischaracterizations. With Justice League, the rehabilitation of this universe which began with Wonder Woman continues apace, and like Superman’s chest symbol, the hope continues to endure.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Day to Remember

We strive to go out every year for our Remembrance Day observances, and we also try to vary the experience. This year we attended a shorter, indoor service, but it was still memorable.

For no real reason, this year we decided to go to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum, at the Prince of Wales Armories. Despite driving past it a number of times while the girls attended Victoria School next door, I had never crossed the threshold until this past Saturday.

It's a gorgeous building which I wish we'd had more time to explore, especially the museum. We did get a few minutes to check out one of the galleries before we were all summoned to the lectern at one corner for the brief ceremony.

We went to the Butterdome one year and heard the Lt. Gov., we could have gone to City Hal and heard an address from the mayor or the garrison commander, but this year we were at a tiny museum with 50-60 people and no speakers we knew or recognized. We weren't familiar with the Legion officer who officiated, nor the lady who sang the national anthem, and that was just fine. The address, though brief, was heartfelt and earnest, but seeing the museum exhibits from the First World War made the whole experience that much more memorable.

The day before, Audrey and I had read an account in the Edmonton Journal of the life of Cecil Kinross, a Victoria Cross winner from Lougheed Alberta who had fought with the 49th Battalion of the 'Loyal Eddies'. It's a tale of high highs and low lows, like so many. Kinross had single-handedly charged over open ground a German machine gun nest at Passchendaele, killing six enemy combatants. He destroyed the gun and kept fighting until his wounds made continuing impossible, earning Britain's highest award for military valour as a result.

Later on, a British soldier recognized his face in a London pub and drew back Kinross's greatcoat, revealing the bronze decoration. The Canadian found his money was suddenly no longer accepted at the establishment.

But the one surety of war is that it consumes, ofttimes condemning those it does not outright destroy, and like so many, Kinross was a troubled man after the war. He eventually was forced to sell his farm and moved into a small hotel in town, becoming a familiar patron at the tavern. The quiet man would become argumentative and demonstrative when drunk, one winter going so far as to remove his shirt and dive into the river one winter. It's not as tragic a tale as many, but still a bitter end for a man who displayed such heroism, and from fairly close to home.

So I was astonished to see the miniature versions of his decorations, including his VC, on display at the museum.

The medals were in a case close to a poster another 49er had carried all the way back from Belgium after the war.

The poster announces the liberation of the city of Mons, Belgium; a liberation later credited to the American army.

After 4 years of occupation, the city returned to a semblance of normalcy and long term prosperity, even after being heavily bombed in the war that followed the War to End All Wars. Still, one has to assume that things could never be precisely the same afterwards, like Kinross. War consumes.

The debate about how to honour the sacrifices of those who served without seeming to glorify war. is unlikely to subside anytime soon, but perhaps one way to avoid jingoism and dangerous brands of nationalism is to focus on the cost of our wars, and not just in lives lost, but those tragically reshaped by maimings or PTSD, or a simple inability to relate to people outside the battlefield.

When the Remembrance service was complete and the crowd began to disperse, I made a point of walking past a young family: a couple in their 20s, with a boy no more than five or six, and a young girl under three. The children had a hard time remaining patient, the girl in particular; after all, she was far too young to understand either the occasion or the somber mood, and only knew that two minutes is an impossible time to remain still, let alone silent. 

On my way past, I caught the dad's attention, and the mum looked up too as I said, "Listen, at this age it is so tempting to just let them sleep in, but I'm really glad you made the effort  to come today, and I'm really glad you brought them."

They beamed at me thankfully, but it's true; it is important we remember, publicly, and that we demonstrate our commitment to these observances to those too young yet to understand them.

It is unlikely we will ever run out of wars, police actions or peacekeeping missions to sacrifice Canadians to in our ironic pursuit of a more stable world filled with lasting peace, but still - lest we forget.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Return to the Orbital Shipyards

It will probably not come as a surprise to many who know me that I have a relatively astonishing number of miniatures about the house, both painted and less-than-painted. Last winter I resolved to take some action about the unpainted ones and obtained a full new set of paints. But then spring came, and things got busy and my epic procrastination skills kicked into high gear and besides that, Fallout 4 wasn't going to play itself now, was it?

But a couple of things happened as the autumn approached: the first was a fortuitous trade between myself and our old mate (and oft-published RPG author!) Colin as he passed through on his way to Cold Lake in the September. He had been given a number of model starships by Mongoose Publishing in exchange for additional work he had done, and which he had confessed were never going to be painted. He generously accepted a trade of my copy of Tannhauser, a wonderful game that ranks among the best looking I've ever bought, but which hasn't seen play in perhaps 5 years.

The second was the cooling of the weather, when a middle-aged man thinks of hobbying. These two items prompted a revisiting of the game A Call to Arms: Star Fleet Battles, and I called Admiral Earl to arrange our first proper 1000 point game. Prior to this we had played group games at G&G and a couple of 2-on-2 matchups, but in truth, the game is made for fleet engagements. Earl expressed some concern at his inability to multitask, but like a game fish, he rose to the challenge and picked up the proffered gauntlet. Early in October we gathered with 5 ships apiece, including a dreadnought on each side, to do battle around a nameless planet and its nearby asteroid belt.

The dreadnoughts USS Endeavour and IKV Sword of Kahless square off.
It took us a while to get set-up, and a little longer to re-familiarize ourselves with the rules, but in the end we were far more conversant with them than when we started, and we had a great time to boot.

Admiral Woods lines up a shot on my flagship.

My Klingons drove his Federation lapdogs from the quadrant without the loss of a single ship (but that is certain to come back and bite me in the hinder, especially since we found out afterwards that the rule which made his DN so difficult to use effectively has been removed from the game!) but to his credit, Earl did not let that stop him from accepting my offer of a rematch, this time in an even larger engagement -1500 points. I gave him a half-dozen Federation craft from the windfall I had received from Colin and we agreed to meet in a months' time.

And so it was, at last, time to paint once more.

It's all coming back to me now...I used to do this!

I elected to start small in a fairly literal sense, beginning with the shuttlecraft which we had just begun using in the game. Armed with a small container of antimatter and remotely piloted from a launching ship, these suicide shuttle can be a weapon of last resort, but they can also be used to move crew or cargo between ships, or serve as objective markers. They have very little detail to speak of, thankfully, but are mercilessly tiny, each one sitting on a base slightly smaller than a dime.

Space taxis galore! Not exciting, but useful.

I have a couple of Enterprise-style heavy cruisers on hand already and intend to have a small Federation fleet at some point, so I did two of them in Galileo-ish livery and the other five as Klingons. That should be more than enough for the nonce.

Moving on to capital ships was a harder choice in some ways; unlike the Federation designs, which move the nacelles and secondary hulls around willy-nilly to add some variety to their silhouettes, the Klingons are essentially all variations on the classic D7 battlecruiser design. Since this is one of the best-looking spaceship design ever as far as I am concerned, this isn't too much of a problem, but it can make differentiating between friendly ships a bit of a tactical challenge.

In the end I elected to use the rules for scout ships, which would mean using two different D5 variants, but giving me a good excuse to vary up their colour schemes a little bit. I overbuilt as well, giving me some assembled and primed ships ready to work on whenever the mood should strike me.
One set basecoated, the next ready for priming.
It felt good to get out the files and clippers and superglue again after a long absence. The D5S and D5WD went together like a charm, the 'wings' holding the nacelles almost clicking into place. I don't know how their construction differs from the other cruisers I built, but the subsequent wings felt like trying to glue together two pieces of paper...edge to edge. In the end, an excessive amount of glue and a few squirts of cyanoacrylate accellerant to hold it place won the day. They may not be pretty but at least they should hold together, as the Klingon engineers like to say. At least the tiny frigates were single piece castings!

Sadly, this construction spree has meant the end of my last bottle of Dark Angel Green spray paint, something not available in Canada now for over a decade. Ah well, at least these final six ships will be up and running a little faster because of it.

Like most armchair admirals, I like a relatively high degree of uniformity amongst the vessels in my command, for esthetic as well as practical reasons. I kept the green basecoat from the rest of Task Force Karn'j, but painted the striated panels on the wings purple instead of blue to make the scout ships stand out, as they have slightly different rules.

The escort frigates Katar and Kukri
At the risk of making them less imposing to the point of cuteness, I also went a couple of shades lighter on the smallest ships, the E4 frigates.

The D5S Scout cruiser is a slightly smaller version of the ubiquitous D7, but in all honesty I quite like the look of the D5WD Drone Cruiser with its third nacelle.

The D5S scout cruiser Revenant and D5WD new drone cruiser T'khondroga

I'm also unsure about the glossy varnish I used this time around, and may end up dusting them with dullcote in order to make them less shiny. What I am sure about, however, is that I am glad to have them done, and cannot wait to get them on the tabletop! The two cruisers and one of the Frigates gives me the needed 500 points, and I have enough primed now to take me all the way up to 2000 (at some point).

It feels great to have finished a painting project for the first time in a long time, despite how punishing it was to my eyes sometimes. (I'm squinting at you, tiny shuttlecraft!)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Peak Pop Culture - Thor: Ragnarok, Reviewed

I pity the person whose first exposure to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Taika Waititi's Thor:Ragnarok; there is a real risk of someone looking at, oh. let's say, next year's Infinity War and asking, "Hey, were did all the colour go? And the dialogue? And why does it sound like everyone is just saying lines?" Some directors refresh a franchise by perhaps moving the goalposts, but Waititi has redefined the sport.

Coming from a series of low-budget New Zealand comedies like the brilliant What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi probably seemed like a risky choice for a multi-million dollar event move like the third installment of Thor. But where someone like Kenneth Branagh sought to reframe Thor as a Shakespearean family drama with larger-than-life characters and fantastic settings, Waititi instead displays an uncanny knack for seeing ways in which the intrinsic weirdness of being a mythologically-inspired space-Viking (or flat-dwelling vampire) could play out amongst real human interactions.

And he does all of this while bringing together a number of Abramsverse Star Trek alumni (Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch) and a couple of big names from Lord of the Rings (Cate Blanchett and Karl Urban (again). Between this and a sprinkling of excellent cameos on top of the obligatory Stan Lee, and you have a movie which is at once hilariously self aware and completely indifferent to itself.

Thor quickly moves to resolve Loki's usurping of Odin's throne from the end of The Dark World, but this turn of events unleashes their sister Hela, the Goddess of Death, portrayed by the ever-amazing Cate Blanchett with equal parts lethality and sultriness. A battle on the Bifrost leaves Thor stranded on an alien planet surrounded by wormholes, centered on a gladiatorial arena and overseen by the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum in what may be his Goldblummiest role to date. Valkyrie, a fellow Asgardian captures Thor for the Grandmaster, and the God of Thunder is sent to the arena.

It is in this arena that Thor encounters his fellow Avenger the Hulk, as well as Korg, a Kronan with a rock-like hide who provides equal parts comic relief and exposition. All Thor must do to triumph is survive a fight against one of the strongest creatures in the universe, win over two people who hate him, escape servitude and figure out how to get off of a hostile planet and return to battle Hela, who grows stronger the longer she remains in Asgard.

Did I like everything about Thor:Ragnarok? Yeah, well, nah, as Korg might say. Some long-established characters are dispensed with fairly early on in an almost cavalier fashion, which I found regrettable, and the absence of Natalie Portman's character Jane Foster is barely addressed at all. This is offset to some degree though, by some excellent fanservice for those who enjoy either comics or Norse mythology.

As you may have heard, the movie is a laugh riot, working just as well as a comedy as it does as an action adventure. Improvisation was encouraged on the set, resulting in dialogue that feels loose, easy and very natural, and which also gave us more scenes with Korg, played by Waititi himself and based on the massive but delicately-voiced Polynesian bouncers of his homeland. In terms of tone, Ragnarok takes its queues less from Shakespeare or the eddas and sagas, and more from films like Midnight Run and Big Trouble in Little China.

Hemsworth has demonstrated tremendous comedic potential before but here is finally given the chance to really make us laugh, but never at the expense of the integrity of the character. Also, he put on 20 pounds of muscle for the movie and looks absolutely enormous in some of the shots.

Ragnarok has a lot of fun pointing out the innate silliness of the tropes of comic books and comic book movies, but its all done with a clear love for the genre, and the pokes are balanced out with a handful of strategically placed smaller moments the emphasize the intrinsic humanity of these god-like beings.

The best example of this is probably the interaction between Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, which for me, is one of the most realistic depictions of siblings onscreen since Simon and Simon. There is also a greater range of emotions for Hiddleston to play with, rounding out Loki's naturally conniving nature with a couple moments of genuine surprise and some fairly touching scenes as a son and a sibling.

Cate Blanchett is a better villain than we have come to expect from the MCU, and hopefully this will see them turning the corner and moving away from two-dimensional, unrelatable baddies. A decade-and-a-half since playing Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, Blanchett's Hela has a lot going for her: the woman scorned, the overlooked sibling, and conquest-hungry would-be ruler. No one has told her that she is pushing 50 either, because she carries herself with all the intensity of that elf-queen while still holding her own end in several knock-down drag out fights in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Best of all, she tempers it with a veneer of modernity, sass, and dark humor.

The best thing about Ragnarok for me though, is just how bold it looks. The colour palette is vivid and inventive, and every setting from the fire giants' land of Muspelheim to a fight inside the Bifrost to the streets around the arena of Sakaar is dialled up to 11. Instead of the uniform, practical and humanocentric armour and costumes that have begun to look ubiquitous in modern sci-fi and fantasy films, the helmets, outfits and protective gear of the denizens of Sakaar look like they came from an actual comic book, probably drawn by Jack Kirby or maybe Steve Rude. The filmmakers appear to be less worried about how practical these outfits are and more concerned about how they look, and what they tell the audience about who is wearing them. And it's about time! The psychedelic colours, asymmetric spaceship engines, and unwieldy weapons are all a breath of fresh air.

A strong 80s vibe permeates Ragnarok as well, from the heroic fanfares in the  synth-heavy soundtrack to the Nagel t-shirt that features prominently for a while.It also marks the rare and effective use of LEd Zeppelin on not just one, but two occasions, which is clearly cause for rejoicing.

In addition to looking and sounding bold, Waititi also uses Ragnarok in a bold manner, one intent on  upsetting the status quo, in clear violation of the age-old comics and franchise mandate of "when you are done with the toys, put them back the way you found them". Eric Pearson, who wrote a number of the beloved Marvel One-Shot shorts, has crafted a screenplay that cleverly addresses mysteries from past movies while careening along on a madcap road-movie/buddy picture of Olymp- sorry, Asgardian proportions, but takes Thor's story in some bold new directions. Many of these angles have been explored in the comics, but some seem entirely new, and for a character who has often struggled in terms of his won definition, this is by no means a bad thing.

Unlike the last installment, Thor: Ragnarok will undoubtedly many viewers wondering what's next for the God of Thunder (and many of his new companions), and thankfully, as I write this, Infinity War is only (checks watch) 181 days away.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Glass of Gravitas - Tasting The 50 Year Glenlivet

I regret that I lack both the sophisticated whisky palate and sufficient articulation to accurately convey the sensation of tasting an extraordinarily rare scotch that costs $26,000 a bottle.

But I will do my best to share the experience itself at least, as it was singular (as one might expect).

Like most people, I get a ton of promotional emails, probably in the neighbourhood of a dozen or so a day. I don't know why I noticed  one from Wine & Beyond on Oct. 6, but it had "Win a Chance to Taste the 50 Year Glenlivet" right in the subject line. Intrigued, I checked it out decided to complete an entry form.

In addition to the standard name, email, and assurance you are of legal drinking age, there was a text box where they asked you to explain why you were entering the contest. I said in all earnestness that my tastes tend more towards beer than spirits, but I do have an appreciation for history and craftsmanship, and the idea of tasting something as old as myself (having turned 50 earlier in the year) was intriguing.

On the 23rd, I was delighted to receive an email informing me that I was a semi-finalist. The drawing of the final 8 would take place at a scotch tasting that Friday with up to 24 other people, which the email assured me meant my odds of winning were at least 1 in 4 (although my math had it at a slightly more generous 1 in 3).

On Friday night I was warmly welcomed by Mike Moorhouse, the Field Marketing Manager for Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd, who market and distribute a number of brands in Canada. Mike offered a fan of randomly numbered tickets, and I drew number 15. He put the smaller portion of the ticket into a box, and invited me to help myself to the charcuterie, which was delicious.

Soon enough all the respondents had gathered, and there were only 11 in total; 9 men and two women. Most of the men appeared to be over 50 like myself, but there were a couple of fellows in their thirties, and I don't think either lady was over 40. Most importantly though, my odds had increased considerably - now only three attendees would go away disappointed.

The Glenlivet's Western Canadian Brand Ambassador, Keith Trusler, guided us through an introductory talk about The Glenlivet, Scotland's oldest licensed distillery. Despite his possessing an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of scotch and dealing with rare and exotic beverages on a daily basis, his manner was easygoing and genuine, without a hint of pretension. He reminded me of Island Mike a little bit, only perhaps just a little more Tony Stark-looking.

Keith took us through 4 exquisite whiskys from The Glenlivet, named after the valley or glen through which flows the river Livet. We tried their Founder's Reserve (a non-age statement whisky), the 15-year-old, the 18-year-old, and lastly, their single cask. The placemat listed some of the details and tasting notes for each one, but Keith made a point of saying not to conflate age or price with taste, especially with taste being so subjective and particular. He also encouraged us to add some water to the stronger ones (the single cask was over 60% ABV), saying there are many in Scotland who like their whisky at about 20%. All the whiskys were delightful, but the 15-year-old was probably my favourite.

When the last drink was sampled, it was time for the draw. At $1000 per ounce, Mike and Keith were not permitted to fudge the drawing and give everyone a taste, so everyone paid rapt attention as the box was shaken.

I'd had a great time, and steeled myself for the possibility that I might be one of the three disappointed souls, but my ticket was the 7th one drawn!

Tonight I returned and joined a slightly smaller group, all of whom were in good spirits (you should excuse the expression). Keith had already unlocked and opened the handmade wooden cabinet each bottle of the Winchester is shipped in. So much more than a simple 'box', this container is like unto the Ark of the Covenant, wherein the receptacle is a true reflection of the glory of the contents.

The bottle itself is also unique and handblown, topped with a heavy stopper centered around a smoky piece of Scottish quartz sometimes called a whisky stone. When the wooden cabinet doors are opened, the bottle is gently moved out of the shadows of the box.

Despite the considerable amount of anticipation, everyone was in awe of the presentation, snapping pictures of the the bottle and the box it came in. I was no exception - after all, in all likelihood, I was never going to taste anything this rare or expensive in my lifetime, so I wanted to be sure to document as much of it as I could! I 'm certain everyone else felt the same.

Even without tasting or smelling the contents though, Keith's explanation had made it clear just how exceptional the liquid really was. Consider the following:

This whisky was laid down in 1964, only a year after the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, and the same year that the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.

Since the time when the master distiller supervised the filling of two 500 liter casks made of American oak, the Vietnam and Korean Wars were fought, the Soviet Union fell, and a man walked on the moon.

Given how long it takes to become a master distiller like Bill Smith Grant, no one who lays down a cask for 50 years can expect to drink the finished product. Grant was no exception, dying in 1975 at the age of 79, a decorated veteran of the first World War. In a way, every glass is a legacy.

Perhaps most telling in this tale of rarity though, is what's known as "the angel's share". No matter how well sealed the barrels and how climate controlled the environment, there will always be some degree of evaporation, perhaps 2-3% per year. After half a century, almost 90 percent of the distillate has vanished into thin air. The space that could have produced thousands of bottle of 21-year-old scotch (at upwards of $250 a bottle) will instead yield only a hundred bottles of the 50-year-old.

Once everyone had arrived, we filled our plates with shrimp and cheese, and sat down for another tasting, again working our way up through progressively older scotches, heightening our palates and building our already considerable expectancy.

This time Keith toured us through the 12-year-old (the bread-and-butter of the distillery!), the Nadurra Oloroso (nadurra is Gaelic for 'natural', reflecting the unfiltered and undiluted character of this whisky), and the 21-year-old (now the second-oldest scotch I have ever tasted).

We took our sweet time (as one should), and one of the other attendees brought along some extra-dark chocolate which he shared with the group. Keith suggested the Nadurra as a good pairing, and it truly tasted like Christmas in my mouth for a moment: spicy, fruity, aromatic, offset and smoothed out by the bitter and rich chocolate.

At last it was time to taste the Winchester itself.

No one in the room, not even Keith, had tried it, or anything remotely like it, before. As we all took deep sniffs from the Glencairn-style glasses, someone suggested taking turns, but Keith was opposed to the notion, again keeping the momentousness in check. "Look, at the end of the day, it is still a scotch; be careful not to overthink it, and just enjoy it," he instructed so after a group toast and clinking the glass of the gent seated next to me, we took our first sips.

I took about half of the glass, perhaps a 1/4 ounce, into my mouth, chewing gently. It was sharp, but not hot like a lot of aged single malts I'd tried. The initial flavour was one of sweetness and fruit, followed by a toffee-like swell and a strong, deep finish where the oak made itself known. Again, it is hard to describe and I lack the tools, but the impression I took away was one of a sumo kimono: silky smooth, but big, bold, and strong.

When Keith asked everyone what they were getting from their glass, I uncharacteristically ventured a guess, saying it reminded me of a spiced pear. He stuck his nose into the glass, and took another small sip. "Like a dessert thing? Like a poached pear sort of thing?" I nodded while he gave it some though, eventually saying, "Yeah, I can totally see that."

We took each other's pictures while drinking it, and the chocolate-bringer actually streamed his sipping on Facebook Live. Keith checked his own social media feed and chuckled at all the envy and cursing his post was generating. Clearly, everyone in attendance understood how phenomenally lucky and privileged they were to participate in this event.

With our glasses now empty, Keith reminded us that the experience was not over. "If you smell your glass now," he said, "the alcohol is mostly gone, so what you are smelling now is the wood. It's like sticking your head int he empty cask after holding this spirit for 50 years."

I dipped my nose in a took a whiff, and whether it was the power of suggestion or not, the oakiness was almost palpable, and minutes later when I tried again, it was even more prominent, almost reminiscent of lumber.

No one was in a hurry to leave, and Keith generously provided another sample of the Nadurra, which was more enjoyable when cut with a few drops of water, as he had mentioned. Conversation persisted for a while, but once the last glasses were emptied, people began to gather their coats. The Winchester was packed up in preparation for a trip to Calgary for a similar event, after which it will reside in the tasting bar, where intrepid souls can sample it at $500 per half-ounce.

I had said prior to the event that even if I found myself in a position where I could buy a bottle in the future (say, having won the lottery or some such), I didn't think I would. Now I'm not so sure, and it is less the taste of the whisky and more the sense of rarity and legacy and history that fills each glass which I find compelling.

We all thanked Mike and Keith for a wonderful evening, made our way from the tasting room. On the way out of the liquor store, I ended up shaking hands with three former strangers, with whom I'd had the privilege of sharing a truly unique experience. I'm tremendously grateful to Wine & Beyond, as well as The Glenlivet and Corby Spirits and Wines for making it happen, and for Mike and Keith for making it as memorable and enjoyable as it was.