Sunday, April 29, 2018

Nerds of a Feather - Calgary Expo 2018

Less than 24 hours after watching Infinity Wars 1.7 times (long story), the girls and I were on the QEII highway on our way to attend the Calgary Expo.
Last year, Jim had told me that he would get all of us tickets for the Expo for my 50th birthday present. Somehow our schedules all coalesced  in such a way that we were all able to attend, and so we found ourselves barreling southwards -  a return after five years for Fenya and I, and a first-time for Glory.

The celebrity lineups were out of control when we arrived Saturday (there were at least 70 people waiting in line for comic artist Jim Lee when we got there), but I managed to get the legendary Neal Adams to autograph the poster I've had over the basement steps for a few years now.

As always there were tremendous costumes to be seen, but as usual, I hate to be intrusive and ask for a picture (which is dumb, the admiration is big part of why many people do cosplay). I made an exception for this superb rendition of the classic Spider-Man villain, Mysterio.

(The Spider-Man mask clutched in his hand is a nice detail, I thought.)

We didn't sit in for any panels this time around, and the photo ops felt pretty expensive this time around ($110 for Jeff Goldblum, $130 for Jason Momoa), so we spent pretty much all of Saturday checking out the artists, exhibitors and merchants in the large halls.

I somehow managed to hold myself to a single t-shirt, but all of us lost our minds a little bit when we found a great selection of patches at one of the larger tables.

Glory is clearly a chip off the old block with her Aliens collection (right), Fenya is assembling a very cool denim shirt festooned with all manner of nerdy insignia (bottom), and I finally got my hands on the set of Buckaroo Banzai patches I have been searching for for years (centre-ish), among others. Now, I have no idea what I will eventually affix them to, but since it took me nearly three decades to sort out the 2010: Odyssey 2 patches for my flight jacket and that turned out all right, I don't find myself in any sort of hurry.

I was disappointed to see that when I looked up a mysterious patch I saw on the display board, it turned out to be yet another Colonial Marines patch from Aliens! Ah, well, all the more reason to go back, I suppose.

Tchotchkes abound, and I am a sucker for them: I found a tiny dice tower with some rude advice on it, an Infinity Gauntlet mug, and a poster that speaks volumes of truth about the nature of resource-dependent boardgames.

Glory thought all night about an original art Alien sweatshirt she saw on Saturday, and when we returned on Sunday, she managed to get the very last one in her size. Fenya finally got her hands on the S.T.A.R. Labs sweatshirt she has coveted since the first season of The Flash.

It wasn't all impulse buying though, I will have you know. I somehow managed to resist purchasing a very nice looking replica of Dr. Strange's Eye of Agamotto and Jim was able to steel himself and not nab the $500 Great Mazinger model that hearkened back to the Shogun Warrior toys of his youth.

The deluxe passes Jim procured for us also entitled us to an enormous loot bag (seriously, the bag came with back pack straps instead of a handle) which contained a free Wolverine comic, a number of coupons, and a vintage-style Spider-Man lunchbox.

Jim is a great guy to attend such an event with; in addition to being an avid patron of the arts (he tends to get at least a couple of commissions or signed pieces per show, and is building quite a collection), he also will not hesitate to stop someone in a costume and tell them what a great job they did, or how fun he finds their costumes, or how he felt a spot-on Captain Marvel's swashbuckler boots and hairstyle completely nailed the look she was going for. Truly the world could use more Jim Ks, and the world of nerdy conventions could use even more.

The best part though, was spending a little quality nerdy-time with my girls. This extended to the car ride home, where I sat in the back seat without Audrey at the wheel for the first time ever, which felt like a bit of a milestone.

They'd had a wonderful time, so we talked about what we saw, and what we liked, and about going back next year (which might not include more autographs, but will very likely involve sitting in for more interviews and panels and the like).

The Calgary Expo has expanded significantly since Fenya and I went five years ago, going from 54,000 attendees to an anticipated 90,000. I've no idea how much bigger it might be the next time we go, but I find myself looking forward to it already.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War, Reviewed

Spoiler-free, or your money cheerfully refunded!

By now, you have probably already made up your mind about seeing Avengers: Infinity War, the nineteenth Marvel Studios film set in their Cinematic Universe. Since you are reading this, you are either 90% likely to see it, or you are my mum. (No worries, Mum! I should have a post with your granddaughters in it within the week.)

The purpose of this review is not to convince you whether or not you should see it, but to share my impressions of it without giving anything away, and perhaps give you some idea of what to expect.

Well, first of all, it's big. I mean, really big, and not just the 2.5 hour running time. It is epic in scope and scale, from the varied and often cosmic settings to the levels of world-shattering power displayed. It's a lot of movie, a veritable Ten Commandments of superhero flicks, and there are places where it feels overstuffed. I wouldn't mind seeing a directors' cut that tucked in maybe another 20 minutes.

But there are still a couple of quiet moments, which I appreciated, and the Russo brothers make great use of one of the greatest casts ever assembled for an action/adventure movie, both in quantity and quality.

Most (but notably: not all) of the MCU gets dragged down into a knock-down drag out with Thanos and his Black Order. Thanos, whose direct participation in the MCU has been negligible (with the exception of the first Guardians of the Galaxy). The Mad Titan wants to mount all six impossibly powerful infinity stones into a gauntlet, and if he does it, he intends to randomly wipe out half the life in the universe in a skewed effort to restore balance and preserve resources.

Despite how busy the film is, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have given Thanos enough scenes and dialogue that he is not simply a malevolent, scenery chewing force of nature. He is still monstrous, but strangely accessible, and almost sympathetic in a way that his comics iteration never has been. Josh Brolin's motion capture performance is magnificent and nuanced, perhaps providing some competition to Andy Serkis' Gollum for the first time in over a decade.

Don't hold your breath waiting for a scene like that great circle shot in the first Avengers movie - the story is just too big to keep them all contained in one place. While this does limit some of the combos you might have hoped to see, the Russos certainly make great use of the ones they have. Costumes, equipment, weapons and powers are all used to their maximum extent, but you are never sure if they will be enough to stop Thanos, or powerful Black Order members like Cull Obsidian or Proxima Midnight.

There is a ton of fan-service contained in the film: Thanos creatively disposes of two foes in a manner drawn straight from the Infinity Gauntlet comic book, and although they are never named, I am convinced that Dr. Strange brings the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak into play during the climax. The interactions between the Guardians and the other Avengers is not only entertaining to watch, but it successfully knits together the Cosmic and terrestrial sides of the MCU, opening the door up to even more stories and characters.

In terms of criticism, there is not much to offer. In all honestly, I liked Black Panther better, and consider it a better movie, too, but it is an unfair comparison. Black Panther didn't have 60+ 'main' characters to deal with, and had only limited ties to the rest of the MCU. Infinity War is the capstone (or at least part of the capstone) to a ten year shared universe project involving 18 other films. Complaining that there is just too much movie in here is akin to complaining that caramel is sweet.

The cool coin we got at the fan event tonight (eventually).
For a summer tentpole movie involving massive intellectual properties owned by some of the largest media consortiums and entertainment companies in the world, Infinity War is a bold, bold, film, willing to take risks and even willing to risk the goodwill of its fan base by moving away from the status quo. Comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back are inevitable, and there are certainly structural similarities there.

And in some places, it is legitimately heartbreaking to boot. (I didn't weep, and as many of you know, I am an easy target for that sort of thing, so I am almost a bit disappointed that I didn't. But it was a near thing, let me tell you.)

Let's take a moment and express some appreciation for the efforts that Marvel, and the directors and cast, have all put in to keeping the movie's surprises surprising. The hashtag #ThanosDemandsYourSilence is a good one, the PSA where the stars refuse to give anything up is hilarious, and the fact that the Russos went completely dark on social media yesterday shows me a loving commitment to letting this immense story unfold where it should: on the biggest screen you can manage. I also respect how the filmmakers subverted expectations by having at least one scene in the trailers that does NOT appear in the movie at all; bravo, sirs!

C'mon, if you have seen even half of these movies, you are going to want to check this one out. Go see it quickly, without spoilers and with an open mind. Untitled Avengers Movie won't be out until next May, and we will have plenty to talk about and speculate on until then.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

(Not the) Last Resort

As established, Audrey and I have no basis for comparison when it comes to resorts. I can tell you that while the combination of embargoes and hurricanes appears to have made maintaining a high standard of upkeep extremely challenging, our room was always clean and the staff always friendly.

I also appreciated the fact that our resort, ROC Arenas Doradas, was not very high density; it's a set of 11 two-story buildings with about 30 rooms in each.

With less than 350 rooms, they had the same footprint as a number of high-rise hotels in the area, one of which we saw under construction with 900+ rooms anticipated.

Being tourists meant that the omnipresent geckos were a feature, not a detriment.

Our residence wasn't fancy, but as soon as we stepped out of our room we were outdoors, less than a minute's walk from the pool.

The pool also features a nearby restaurant for casual dining, with only a moderate dress code:

We only visited the pool once, because I desperately needed to experience a swim-up bar, but we vastly preferred the beach. The beach bar, Los Pelicanos, was a little further away but the beach seats were quieter, prettier, and the salt water was far superior to the chlorinated variety.

We spent a couple of evenings at the lobby bar as well; it was the only spot on the property with wi-fi reception (1 peso/hr), but was also a nice space with interesting decor...

With interesting people dropping through from time to time.

The resort also offers a free shuttle to the nearby town of Varadero, but it was suggested to us that the 5 peso bus was a better arrangement, since it drives the length of the town and you can hop-on, hop off at will, which we did.

You get to see a bit more of the other resorts, and can even view some scenery without ever stepping off the bus, although some of it can be deceptive. For instance, this Spanish-looking tower and accompanying Quixote-esque sculpture... actually a modern construction built by a nearby restaurant in order to conceal an ugly water tower. Full marks for ingenuity!

Varadero itself feels like it was designed from the ground up for tourists, which is not far from the truth, since almost all the developments came when they opened the area up for tourism in the late 90s. In addition to the market stalls and eateries though, you still come across hints of authentic Cuban life and history.

If we were ever to return to Cuba, part of me would like to try a different resort, perhaps closer to Havana, where I would love to spend more time. On the other hand though, Roc Arenas Doradas is a known quantity now, with a lovely beach and extremely friendly staff, so I'd also be inclined to stay there again.

Hopefully it won't take another 25 years before the two of us return to Cuba, wherever we might end up staying!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Havana Good Time

We took a couple of bus trips into Varadero to see the sights and do some souvenir shopping, but our only other outing was a day tour of Havana.

Havana is about 90 minutes drive from Varadero, but took about 2 hours with all the resort stops to gather the other tourists. Our driver, Julio, regaled us with tales of Cuba's people and history for the entire ride, and we stopped at the midway point to marvel at Cuba's highest bridge (112 m) at Bacunayagua, and to enjoy a pina colada served in a fresh pineapple.

We spent more time in the parking lot than the souvenir stands there, admiring the classic cars that canny and imaginative Cuban mechanics still keep rolling nearly 60 years after the last shipment of American parts.

The Bacunayagua bridge was actually engineered by the French, but along the way, Julio pointed out a number of other infrastructure projects (power stations in particular) built during Cuba's close association with Russia, or "Mama Roo-see-ya" as he put it. Russian tourists still make a point of journeying to Cuba, and there were a few posters with Cyrillic lettering in our hotel. The lobby clock even featured Moscow alongside Madrid and Havana:

Once in Havana, we stopped to look over the city and see the enormous marble Jesus statue (3rd largest in the world, I believe) that stands over the harbour.

And a cruise ship that seemed to dwarf even the city itself...

We toured New Havana first, seeing the massive expansion of the early 20th century, and the Hotel Sevilla where Al Capone would stay while in Havana, taking the entire 6th floor for his retinue.

The opulence and craftsmanship of this period is astonishing, right down the the tilework in the lobby.

How incongruous then to see the Revolutionary Museum right across the street. We had no time to go in but through the window, we could see the now-legendary yacht, The Granma. This tiny cabin cruiser took the Castros, Che Gueverra and nearly 80 other rebels from Mexico to Cuba to begin the overthrow of Batista and is now practically enshrined. The tanks, missiles and planes (British Sea Furies, actually) from the Bay of Pigs invasion are also displayed.

Most of Cuba enjoys a - let's call it 'relaxed' attitude to upkeep, and it would be easy to describe a lot of the buildings we saw as shabby by Canadian standards. On the other hand, no one in Havana is likely to freeze to death in December, so some of that attitude is understandable, and of course, they are still cleaning up after Hurricane Irma just last year.

The contrast between these two perpendicular streets was so striking I felt I had to get a picture of them; one looking like a postcard, the other almost post-apocalyptic, separated by 90 degrees and almost as many feet.

Our last stop in New Havana was the Revolutionary Plaza, the immense square where Fidel Castro delivered so many speeches at the foot of the Jose Marti Memorial. One of them went for over 7 hours, we were told!

Directly opposite the memorial stands the Ministry of the Interior building with an enormous depiction of Che, still revered here in a way that would make Elvis jealous.

After the plaza it was time for lunch at La Pina de Plata, with time for a delicious daiquiri made at the same bar that made them for Hemingway. The daiquiri originated in Cuba, and is named after a beach and iron mine near Santiago de Cuba, so we felt kind of obligated to have one there (but I would have had more, given the time and opportunity).

Shortly after this, we stopped in at the Rome y Julieta cigar factory, which Julio assured us was the only way to get proper "Habanos" despite the nearly constant offerings from helpful folks on the street, trying to catch your ear with a conspiratorial whisper. This, we were told, was a good way to get a masterfully wrapped collection of banana leaves, if that happened to be your thing. We got a couple for gifts, and I held a Cohiba back for myself, on the odd chance I get brave enough to try it at some point.

After that, it was on to Old Havana, skipping the 19th century completely and seeing buildings that went back all the way to the 16th, and the original Spanish colonists.

The former governor's mansion is now a civic museum, and elegant building that had me thinking I had wandered into a bonus level for Uncharted or some such.

Just outside the museum, Julio showed us how the governor dealt with what he felt to be excessively noisy horse's hooves: a road cobbled with wood instead of stone, maybe the only one in the world.

Inside we barely had enough time to take in all the artifacts, from the two enormous marble bathtubs they brought over from Europe to the mahogany Jesus and other religious items from the original cathedral.

The cathedral stands empty in the old town square now. Castro himself was Catholic, but his insistence upon a firm division between church and state upset the diocese of the day and they left.

Our guide, like most modern Cubans, is a non-believer, but says there has been a bit of a resurgence due to two recent papal visits: Francis in 2015 and Benedict (who he jokingly referred to as "Ex-Benedict" due to his retirement) in 2012. John Paul II visited there in 1998 as well, the first since the revolution.

In addition to that though, there is also a new blossoming of Afro-Cuban religious beliefs, including Santeria. Two practitioners sat in the square as we finished our tour, reading palms, telling fortunes, offering a variety of intercessions.

Like most other things we saw in Havana, they mixed the old and the new adroitly.

If we should ever return to Cuba, I intend to spend much more time in Havana, having lost most of our free time frantically searching for a power adapter for my CPAP machine. It is a fascinating city with an intriguing history I would love to learn more about.

Plus, you know, daiquiris.