Sunday, September 30, 2018

More Like It, But Not Yet Enough - Iron Fist Season 2, Reviewed

A quick recap then: no one liked season 1 of Iron Fist.

The show was not without its moments, but they were few and far between, and almost none of them related to the titular character or his spectacular background (i.e. raised in a Shaolin-style monastery in an extra-dimensional city, and trained in martial arts until he can best the mighty dragon Shou-Lao and take his power to become...the Immortal Iron Fist!).

The biggest problem with season 1 were the fights. There weren't enough of them, they didn't look very awesome, and the least convincing combatant was the star, Finn Jones. His character, Danny Rand, was also not written to be particularly likable, despite this being, you know, his show.

Enter season two earlier this month, with a new showrunner, improved fights, and a stated intentionality to lean into the things in the comics that made the character great. Your first clue that they have been listening to the clamour of the fans is that in the opening scene, Danny sidesteps an armored truck being rob by Chinatown gangsters, and straight-up punches the engine block out of it with his fist "like unto a thing of iron!"

For the record, I'm still a little choked they have yet to say this out loud on the show, but this single display convinced me that this Raven Metzner guy has a far better sense of what the character should be about. He spins up a story about triads warring in New York's Chinatown, and of machinations by both Danny's half-brother Davos (Steel Serpent in the comics), and his childhood friend Joy Meachum. Joy's brother Ward, one of the highlights of season 1, is back as well, and even though his story runs largely parallel to the main one until way in the latter half, it's still enjoyable.

Best of all, they compressed season 2 to a lean 10 episodes, something all the Netflix shows should consider. Not one of these shows so far has needed 13 episodes to get its business done, and they have all suffered for it (with the possible exception of Jessica Jones). The fight scenes have improved significantly, and there are even a couple of scenes with Danny appearing in a mask, although it is no where close to as cool as his comic version (and to be fair, they work that one into a flashback pretty well too). The fights still don't approach the magnificence of what we've seen in Daredevil thus far, but that is a pretty high bar to clear - I'm just happy they are narrowing the gap.

In addition to a proper maks showing up a couple of times this season, they also do a fairly decent adaptation of the Crane Sisters, which I am hoping will lead to appearances by characters like Dog Brother #1, Bride of Nine Spiders, and Fat Cobra.

The female supporting characters though, are the highlights for this season. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henswick) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) kick gratuitous amounts of ass with grace and humor, and display tremendous chemistry while doing it. At this point, I would love Marvel to re-title Luke Cage as Heroes For Hire, teaming Danny with his comics bestie Power Man, and then use the vacant Iron Fist slot for a Daughters of the Dragon series pairing Colleen and Misty up as private investigators, something they teased in an offhand conversation this season. C'mon, Knightwing Restorations has a nice ring to it, right?

I also can't say enough good things about Alice Eve and her take on established Daredevil foil Typhoid Mary. Playing her as one side of a person with dissociative identity disorder was an interesting way to make her a bit more accessible, and you are never quite sure if she is the villain, a heavy, an anti-hero or something in between.

I can' help but wonder if I would enjoy Iron Fist more if it was broadcast on network television. like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is. AoS is a show which has improved tremendously the last couple of seasons, and has maintained a level of wonder and comics-inspired fun while not succumbing to trite silliness. The Netflix stable has a constant evocation of grimdark, in keeping with their roots on the Marvel Knights mature readers imprint, I suppose.

For all that though, much of this season is also evocative of Big Trouble in Little China, and the final episode gives hints to the larger Iron Fist mythos established by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction on their groundbreaking comics run... ohmigod, a decade ago now? Ugh.

The redemption of Danny Rand (and the Iron Fist show) continues apace, and this season and its disregard for the status quo has left me in a state of heightened anticipation for the next one, which is honestly more than I could have hoped for. A nice recovery, to be sure!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Frankentrailer's Final Trip

A late-season excursion to Jasper turned out to be one trip too many for our 1974 Sportcraft tent trailer. Salvaged from a Lethbridge backyard, structurally reinforced and rewired by Audrey's brother Garrett, then cleaned, patched and waterproofed by our household, Frankentrailer's voyage came to an end in the Wapiti campground, although we still managed to get him home.

Almost a year after Glory and I had enjoyed a successful and frigid expedition to Jasper, we decided to try it again, booking a campsite in mid-August, with Audrey joining us this time. As temperatures plummeted leading up to Friday's departure, we became apprehensive and fearful. But our resolve remained, and so we struck out westward right after work on the last day of summer.

So of course, it would snow.

It had snowed in Edmonton that morning too, to be fair, but it had stopped around noon, and the forecast for Jasper had actually been warmer (5 degrees instead of 2!). Rain in Edson turned to sleet in Hinton and to snow shortly after that.

We arrived at the campsite a little after ten, muscling the trailer into position (because I still have no skill for backing it up), then reversing the Flex so we could see by its headlights. As I cranked the jack, snow falling all around us, the posts slowly emerged from their housing in the trailer, crawling inexorably skyward with each turn of the handle. It's never been easy going (I'm actually the only one in the household capable of elevating the roof), but this time it felt even more arduous. The resistance increased as we neared the top, and I mentioned it just before there was a sharp TWANG followed by a thud as the portside supports gave out completely and the roof on the left side of the trailer collapsed.

There were many exclamatory shouts, some cursing, and then some frantic brainstorming as to how to proceed. When pushing the roof up on the lowered corners had no effect, and reversing the jack handle and cranking anti-clockwise did nothing to lower the other side, we decided, screw it, nothing to lose, and tried cranking it back up again. This actually put a handful of inches back into play, before stopping and then collapsing again.

So there we were: staring at an uninhabitable tent trailer that we were also unable to repack and drive away in, as summer snowflakes continued to dampen everything.

My exhaustion at this point was such that I thought our best strategy would be to improvise a shelter inside the dilapidated trailer, plug in the space heater and my CPAP machine for a night's sleep and then sort things out in the morning. I suggested as much but it was clear that no one else thought very highly of that plan.

So instead we lifted up the corners enough to pull back the extension ends, which allowed us to crawl into the trailer and lift it with our backs so that there was enough clearance to flip the sink/stove over and use that to prop up the roof. "We'll laugh about this one day," Glory assured us.

Pulling the benches open to see the cables themselves, there didn't appear to be anything we could do with the post that refused to lower. Looking at the jack assembly however, was a revelation. Dangling from one of the cables was some sort of housing with protruding bolts that had obviously broken loose from somewhere out of sight. Another bolt, completely sheared in mid-shank, was found in the vicinity as well. It was quite clear that the gearing and cables were no longer going to be a factor in either raising the trailer. But what about lowering it so we could at least leave?

Returning to the right rear post housing, I was able to move the cable sleeve a little bit with an ungloved finger, the incremental movements accompanied by a slightly satisfying clicking noise. Once outside, this enabled us to lower the stubborn posts in a combination of frantic reverse-cranking and straight-up beat-down on the corners of the trailer.

The roof stopped cooperating about 4 inches from the body of the trailer, so we took a break to warm up. It was already after midnight, and he prospect of navigating home with this derelict behind me in a snowstorm as part of a four-hour drive did nothing for my sense of well-being. So I got on my phone and managed to find and book a hotel room that night for a reasonable price, in Jasper.

Jasper, Alabama.

After calling the desk and speaking to Chrissie and getting her assurance that we wouldn't be charged as a no-show, I got us into the EconoLodge in Hinton, equidistant to Jasper in relation to the Miette Hot Springs. I was determined to salvage something positive from this shattered junket!

It took us almost another hour to secure the roof so it was safe to travel, then hook up Frankentrailer and make our way to Hinton. The roads, only slightly slick three hours before, had become slushy and treacherous as Jasper was inundated with heavy snowfall (I saw the Environment Canada advisory once we got to the hotel). Visibility was terrible, and from time to time the wheels took on a mind of their own as the Slurpee-like roads played hobb with my piloting.

It was just before 2:00 am when we pulled up to the EconoLodge. Glory took a shower to warm up while I pushed the trailer in to an out of the way parking lot. Soon enough we were all secure in bed, though my sleep was fitful as the stress of the drive (and manually maneuvering Frankentrailer) refused to drain from my shoulders and back.

The next day, we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast, then headed off to Miette to experience a well-deserved and relaxing soak in one of our favourite spots in the mountains. At last, I could feel movement return to my shoulders and my toes slowly unclenching.

Even though the snow had knocked out some of the power lines to the pool, leaving it a little cooler than usual, there was no denying how much it beautified the landscape we drove through on our way out.

Once home, Fenya and Austin helped us push Frankentrailer's remains back onto the patio and to unload the Flex. As we recounted the story of his final trip, I could feel Glory's prediction coming true. Now that we had successfully returned home, the stress and uncertainty had been replaced by laughter at the absurdity of it all.

Frankentrailer's reputation as the unlikely salvage project that became the hub of a number of great weekends a a couple of stellar vacations in Radium and Drumheller has clearly resonated with many people, a couple of whom commented "RIP Frankentrailer" as the story unfolded on my Instagram account. As frustrating as he may have been to deal with at times, I too will miss Frankentrailer (especially all the stickers we'd affixed to him over the years!). He took our camping trips up off the ground, sheltered us from the wind and rain, and even had a working fridge which insured cold beers on the hottest of days. But after 40 years, it is fair to say that the old Sportcraft has had its day.

You will be missed, faithful old steed!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Cinematic Sloppy Joe - The Predator, Reviewed

Seeing the original Predator in theatres three decades ago (ugh), I don't think any of us were expecting too much. Schwarzenegger's last big hit was The Terminator from three years prior, and Commando, his 1985 military adventure, was the kind of cheesy, catchphrase-laden, muscleman machinegun movie that we all like to make fun of now. Maybe having low expectations was part of the original Predator's success; in addition to the great action we were hoping for, we got treated to memorable characters, quirky dialogue, and some neat cinematic tricks that held off on revealing the title creature until the very end of the film. Plus a brilliant score by Alan Silvestri.

I am a big fan of Shane Black, the director and co-writer of The Predator, but his cinematic style is so pronounced now that his movies are almost becoming their own genre, complete with checklist:

  • Quirky, dangerous characters? Check
  • Maritally estranged main character? Check
  • Ruthless but intelligent and funny villain? Check
  • Smarter-than-average kid who becomes essential to the plot? Check
  • Whip-smart dialogue peppered with creative profanity? Check
  • Takes place during a festive holiday? Check (except it's Hallowe'en instead of Christmas - who even are you , Shane?!)

So the short of it is this:you aren't going to see anything really new in The Predator, despite Black & (Fred) Dekker's attempts to broaden the scope of the franchise a bit with the idea that the namesake species has been improving itself with DNA from its prey. In the end, though, it is still a hapless group of humans with access to serious ordnance trying to fight something way out of their league.

An you know what? That's okay.

The film is a bit jumbled in places, which is surprising considering that Black's Iron Man 3 handled its story and action so deftly, but in the end, this is probably the strongest of the Predator sequels to date, although that might be damning with faint praise. And unlike the original, there is no big action star to hang this movie on, making its impressive genre ensemble cast a critical element.

For your leading man you have the heavy from Logan (Boyd Holbrook) as Quinn McKenna, Army Ranger sniper and covert soldier, who has the misfortune of encountering the title character while on a mission in Mexico. Stateside, he is quickly sequestered and questioned, then thrown in with Group 2 (as in group therapy), which includes 2004 Punisher (Thomas Jane), the guy from Moonlight (Trevante Rhodes), half of Key and Peele (Keegan Michael Key), and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Group 2 is a group of emotionally disturbed veterans Holbrook is thrown in with to discredit his alien story, but before you can say "ragtag band of misfits", they find themselves knee deep in battle with an extraterrestrial hunter as well as their own government as it tries to keep things quiet.

Then you have Psylocke from the X-Men (Olivia Munn) and Killmonger's dad from Black Panther (Sterling K. Brown) as an evolutionary biologist who wants to study the alien and the government acquisitions agent who wants whatever he can get out of it to round things out.

Is Brown's callous agent going to end up face-to-face with Holbrook's autistic son, whose savant-like abilities help him to understand the alien tech better than others? Of course he will! In a weird kind of sentimentality, Black loves to put smart kids in bad situations alongside evil people. He may do this in order to justify terrible things happening to them later on, but as a parent I still find the scenes disturbing and engaging.

I don't want to spoil the story, but there is an even bigger Predator in the mix eventually, as well as perhaps the ugliest alien hunting dogs seen to date. There are a number of great callbacks to the previous films in the dialogue and some of the gags (McKenna says "Get to the choppers!" before sprinting towards a cluster of motorcycles, which was very well received in my theater), and even an appearance by Jake Busey, whose father Gary was in Predator 2.

Black also went hard R on this film, letting him drop f-bombs with calculated rapidity, and a level of gore that makes the rampages feel far more consequential, especially in a sterile, white, lab environment.

Most importantly though, Black & Dekker keep the story moving along with almost no prompting or prodding from stupid people. No one leaves a critical door unlocked, no one skips off on guard duty to get high, and people who have an opportunity to leave the fight make a darn strong case that, hey, maybe that is something they oughta do. And at 1:47, they don't waste any time heading down any subplot rabbit holes they don't need.

I hope that the controversy over Black's knowingly hiring a a registered sex offender isn't the reason for The Predator's relatively soft $24M opening weekend, but it probably played a role. For my part, I appreciated his sincerity and apology once Olivia Munn and others showed him the details of the case (although I also hope he personally apologizes to her for putting her in that position) revealing how he had been misled, and I am grateful that the studio decided to excise that scene from the movie.

If you liked the original movie, and would like more of the same, but different, and with more laughs, go check out The Predator. It's cinematic comfort food that is messy as all get out, but tasty and filling as well. It fits into a funny, gory, sci-fi niche that feels a little out of step with the times these days, bu the five of us who saw it yesterday had a great time at it. Go see it as a favour to me, as I am eagerly anticipating Black's venture into pulp territory with Dwayne Johnson in Doc Savage!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Chasing "The Wild Geese"


Following the end of the Willamite War (also known as the Jacobite War),  Irish soldiers who had supported Catholic King James against Protestant William of Orange were banished from Ireland, becoming mercenaries on the European continent and elsewhere. This exile was sometimes called the Flight of the Wild Geese, and there are reports that at leats one mercenary company referred to themselves as such.

British mercenary "Mad" Mike Hoare commands the mercenary unit 5 Commando ANC (Armée Nationale Congolaise) during the Congo crisis of that decade and adopts the wild goose as their insignia.

Rhodesian novelist Daniel Carney, inspired by tales of Hoare's African adventures and intrigued by rumours of a mysterious plane carrying a "dying African president" landing in his homeland, writes "The Thin White Line", but is unable to get it published.

1977 (i)
During a chance meeting with film producer Euan Lloyd, Carney sells the film rights to his novel,  on the condition it be published. Lloyd agrees, changing the name of both the film and novel to "The Wild Geese". He eventually casts Richard Burton, Sir Richard Harris, Sir Roger Moore and Hardy Kruger as his four principals and arranges filming to take place in South Africa. ("eventually", because Michael Caine and others would not work on the film as it was to be filmed in South Africa during apartheid.)

1977 (ii)
During production, expatriate British actor Ian Yule is hired in South Africa. In addition to having legitimate military experience with the Paras and SAS (!), Yule turns out to actually have been a mercenary in Africa. He arranges to introduce the filmmakers to his former employer, "Mad" Mike Hoare, who is brought onto the production crew as a technical consultant.

1978 (i)
Shortly prior to release, the American distributor of the film, Allied Artists, went bankrupt, leading to limited screenings across the U.S. Despite this, it does well enough overseas to become the 14th highest grossing movie of the year.

1978 (ii)
My father takes the family to the movies at the Odeon Twin Theatre on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton. My mother and sister go on to see Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in "The Wiz", while Dad takes me, at 11 years old, to see a war movie about mercenaries in Africa called "The Wild Geese". I enjoy myself tremendously, despite not really knowing what a mercenary was.

Rhodesia, the final destination of The Wild Geese in the movie, ceases to exist, becoming Zimbabwe.

"Mad" Mike Hoare is captured and imprisoned after attempting to lead a coup d'état in the Seychelles.

It strikes me that Glory might really enjoy this film, so I made arrangements to screen it for her, myself and Audrey last night.

There really is no reason for me to be as fond of this movie as I am. In fact, there are a lot of reasons not to. There are only three women with speaking parts in the movie (with less than ten lines between them), the homosexual medical orderly is so stereotypical he wouldn't be out of place in a Carry On film, and the idea of a largely white group of mercenaries interfering in the politics of a black-ruled African nation is more than a bit distasteful. And it was made in South Africa during apartheid!


Despite 2/3 of those women being wives or girlfriends to mercenary characters, they are in no way typical or simply cutouts; their parts are small without being trivial or incidental.

Arthur Witty, the orderly played by Kenneth Griffith, is treated with equality and respect by his comrades (and no small amount of teasing). He is the first gay character I can recall seeing in film (even though at 11, this entire notion may have eluded me in a similar fashion to mercenaries), and he's certainly the first with any positive portrayal.

The white foreigners interfering in an independent African nation is a bit trickier, and almost prevented actor Paul Chani from joining the cast. But the sub-plot of acceptance told between the South African mercenary Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger) and President Limbani (Winston Ntshona) was inspirational to him, so he agreed to play Sgt. Jesse Blake.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: We whites have carried you people on our backs ever since we came to this country.
Julius Limbani: It's the other way around now, is it?
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Is it? You need me to save your miserable black life now, don't you?
Julius Limbani: I do. And then you may need me to save yours. We need each other, white man. And that's the way it should be. We've got the whole world using us now. Setting group against group, destroying Africa. Our new freedom is just a new label for their brand of slavery. And a final blood bath is coming. First between black and white, and then between black and black when you whites have left Africa for good.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Man, we've built your countries, and now you're kicking us out or almost all of them! You're living on foreign aid, robbing your own people blind, crying about outside oppression while you kill each other in great big bleeding batches. Once you have something better to offer, then you can come talk to us in the white south.
Julius Limbani: We both have something better to offer. Listen to me, because the white south is next unless you learn.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Oh, bullshit! We whites were born here. We're just as African as you are. And don't make a mistake, we're going to stay.
Julius Limbani: I'm glad to hear that. Then you better join us, and help us sort out our future.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: Join you?
Julius Limbani: We have to learn to care for each other, or there will be nothing left of our Africa but a burnt-out battlefield.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: You have a point there. But do you have an answer?
Julius Limbani: I have the will to look for one. We have to forgive you for the past, and you have to forgive us for the present. If we have no future together, white man, then we have no future. That's what I believe in, and that's what I'm willing to die for.
Lt. Pieter Coetze: You're beginning to sound good to me. Maybe we need you. Maybe you're just the man.
(Fun fact: four decades later, Paul Chani's most prominent role is T'Chaka, father of T'Challa, Marvel's Black Panther!)

It's actually astonishing that the South African Film Commission, still under and a part of apartheid, was so intent on casting so many black actors from South Africa. In fact, the film was in violation of the law by having the same quarters for black and white cast members, but they completed their filming undisturbed.

For a fairly bloody action movie that perhaps glorifies soldiers for hire, there are a surprising number of great messages about inclusion and equality to be found in The Wild Geese. Honestly though, the sly and wry humor that runs throughout the film is its greatest appeal to me. Burton's sarcastic Col. Faulkner, Harris' sophisticated Rafer Janders and Moore's charming but deadly Shawn Fynn make for some wonderful scenes with cracking dialogue. Moore, in fact, asked to have fewer lines in his scenes with the other two, for fear of being shown up.

Knowing that Burton and Harris were legendary hellraisers, it is astonishing to discover that they were both dry for the duration of filming. Moore, on the other hand was spotted on the front lawn of his apartment one morning, clad only in his underwear, and running a garden hose over his head after on particularly ambitious night.

More shocking still, however, is the knowledge that Moore and Burton were only a couple of years  apart in age during filming; Burton 51 and Moore celebrating his 50th birthday on-set. Burton's hard living had caught up to him by this point, and he was plagued by back pain during filming. 1n 1981, he was hospitalized for liver and kidney troubles, and it was discovered that his spinal column was encrusted in crystallized alcohol.

The Wild Geese really is one for the books: no contrived love story (although some scenes were filmed), no American actors (although Burt Lancaster had been approached and O.J. Simpson suggested by the American backers), and a complex, politically savvy story might have been enough to keep it from succeeding stateside even if the distributor hadn't folded.

Fans of action movies or good dialogue that deftly weave idealism and cynicism together, or those who enjoy atypical settings and characters would do well to check it out. Should you find yourself with a couple of hours to spare where there is decent wifi, I believe you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.

Four decades later, I still remember my first experience with it, and I am happy to report that Glory enjoyed it too.

Monday, September 3, 2018

See Change

Of all the holidays, none seems as focused on transition as Labour Day does. The most significant change is the return to school, and for three quarters of my household there will be a direct impact.

But in addition to changes in our daily routine, the air is cooling, the leaves have begun changing on our street, and the apples from our tree have already been harvested. (Audrey has turned them into an astonishing forty pounds of apple butter, in fact.)

Life changes loom as well: my sister and her husband have sold their Canadian home, maintaining the single residence in Houston required for his work. We've drawn together to move my mother into a tidy ground floor apartment which she seems quite taken with, or will be, once she gets everything where it belongs.

This weekend we finally re-shingled our roof, a long overdue chore that, although expensive, does provide a bit more peace of mind. Similar to the furnace though, such a large purchase makes you want to show it off to people, but I can barely rouse interest in my new roof covering, so it is quite unreasonable to expect others to do so.

Glory starts the eleventh grade this year, shortening the countdown to Audrey and I becoming empty nesters, at least potentially. Or perhaps not - Glory is among the first to remind us that the average age of  a person moving out on their own in Edmonton is around 28 now.

Fenya's current plan is to remain with us until she is finished school, which is grand, but this summer it hardly felt like she was here at all. The month in China took a big bit out of the summer schedule for her, and once she returned, she began her volunteer training for UAlberta's Peer Support Centre (40 hours over two weeks!), plus working her job, plus trying to touch base with her friends before the end of summer. And of her course, her boyfriend.

Yes, she's been seeing Austin for a year now, so they had a number of observances this past weekend. Earlier this summer though, she had agreed to sing in church this weekend, with Austin accompanying her on guitar. This not only gave us a chance to see her (and more importantly, hear her, since it has been a while), but gave the extended family and friends a reason to come out as well. The long weekend services are not tremendously well -attended, generally speaking, but we accounted for 14 seats of the congregation this past Sunday.

The song they had selected was a song called "I Can Only Imagine", by a Christian rock group called MercyMe. The lyricist had written it after the loss of his father, imagining what it would be like to encounter him again in a heavenly state, under the eyes of his Creator.

United Church theology doesn't talk a lot about the hereafter, which is how I prefer it, actually, but it certainly felt heavenly to heard the words and music.

[Here's a link in case the embedded video doesn't work.]

I won't lie - it can be kind of tough learning to share your firstborn daughter with the world in general, and with a boy in particular. But in truth, I'm glad Fenya's first boyfriend is someone who appreciates her tremendously, doesn't take himself too seriously, and shares her love of music.

Change is relentless. Not that long ago we were sweltering in 30 degree heat, and here we are already talking about when to put winter tires on the vehicles. Tara and Jerry won't be back from Texas now until Christmas. Glory's schedule sees her dancing four to five nights a week until the Oireachtas in November and the Western Canadian Championships. How sappy is it to miss your kids sometimes, even though they are still under your roof? (Sigh.)

With all this looming, I was grateful that Tara and Jerry and Jason and Mum could come over after church for lunch so we could all tell Fenya and Austin how much we appreciated their singing, and just enjoy being a family together.

Because no matter what shape it takes or wherever everyone ends up, that is one thing that won't change.