Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Death March 2014

Cathy and I have a long-standing, and unfortunate, tradition stretching back to 2006, of going on accidental death marches while on vacation. It started in San Francisco in 2006 when we (and by which, I mean me) were hiking all over San Francisco and refusing to get a taxi. This included an unfortunate jaunt through the Tenderloin, one of the rougher parts of San Francisco.

Later Death Marches include ones in Rome and Vatican City in 2008, Sydney in 2009, and Copenhagen in 2012. Oh, and Nuuk, Greenland in 2012. That was a bad year for death marches, apparently. There have probably been others, I'm just blanking on them.

The game plan for July 17 was pretty simple. We were going to get up, go to Volcano National Park and spend the day hiking around, checking out lava tubes, steam vents, petrogyphs and other fun odds and ends. However, when we got to the park it was pouring rain. It's been pouring rain pretty much since we arrive in Hawaii. There's been some kind of tropical storm lingering near the Big Island since we got here. Locals keep telling us that it should blow over the next day. They've been telling us that for about four days now. Hadn't happened yet.

So we were faced with trudging through the park in the pouring rain - an unappealing thought - or plowing on down the road and hope for better weather. The volcano and Mauna Loa act as big rain shadows. Once you get to the west of them, it tends to be dryer and sunnier. After days of rain, we caved in and headed south and west.

So plan B was a pair of beaches. The appropriately named Black Sand Beach (Punalu'u) and Green Sand Beach (Mahana). Black Sand Beach was kind of fun. The weather was still dicey, but it was nice to walk on a black volcanic sand beach. Plus, there were green sea turtles, which was a bonus. I'm sure I must have read about them at some point, but I'd forgotten. So there they were, with a special area made of loose rock, and with a worn sign cautioning that this was a sea turtle resting areas. There were five of them, just chilling on the beach, catching their breath.

So, black sand beach and sea turtles. Plan B was working out fine. Next up was finding the Green Sand Beach.

Death Marches often begin when you become determined to find something and then, when common sense says give up, you can't because you've come too far. Death March Copenhagen began when we went looking for the Little Mermaid Statue. Death March Vatican City began when looking for a museum. Death March Nuuk was looking for a store.

Green Sand Beach is not easily found using road signs, which is odd because Hawaii is normally pretty good at that. There's exactly one sign on Route 11. It simply says "South Point". No other detail about what lies that way. I believe locals kind of prefer that area remain somewhat shelted from the tourist hordes. We did, quite by accident, manage to find the most southerly point in the United States while looking for the beach, though. It's a line of cliffs at the southern point of the island. You could even jump off the cliff into the water, if you felt so inclined. I did not. But fortunately there were 20-year-old males wanting to show off for their bikini clad girlfriends, so I got some nice pics of them nearly killing themselves. Splendid stuff.

Eventually, we found a sign pointing in the right direction. Once we got to the badly decaying parking lot, we were asked if we wanted to be guided in. With senses finally tuned over the years of people trying to scam us, we waved them off, saying we could walk it easily.

Yeah. No. Not quite so much.

First, it seems it's a three mile walk each way to get to the beach. And the way there is no easy thing. It's a series of randomly diverging paths created by various golf cart/SUV/pick-up drivers over the years. So you're never 100% of where you're going. You just assume the people walking in front of you know what they're doing. Just as I'm sure the people behind us were working on the same assumption.

Next up, the rain that we were fleeing from Volcano found us. Coupled with high winds (all the trees are beant westward) made for a fun walk. A sensible person would have went "fuck this" and turned around. But we had come too far, so we needed to make it to the magical Green Sand Beach.

So the Death March was on. Did I mention that we didn't take any water because we thought it was a short jaunt. And, because of the spontaneous nature of our decision earlier in the day, we didn't bring along any swimsuits, beach towels or....oooops....sunscreen? A good Death March involves heady dollops of stupidity.

About an hour later, we finally made it to the beach.

The thing about the Death March is that it will, sometimes, reward you. The Little Mermaid statue was worth it. The Vatican Museum was worth it (never did find that store in Nuuk). Green Sand Beach was worth it. You have to naviagate down a cliff of black volcanic rock, but once there, you're sheltered from the worst of the wind. The sand is green and has a sparkle to it. The cliff sides surrounding the beach are surreal. The waves come crashing in. Not high enough to surf, but big enough to jump into and have them sweep you back onto the green sand. And after we were there for about 15 minutes, the rain broke and the sun came back out.

We read later that it is one of only four beaches in the world with green sand. And that, my friends, is a worth a little Death Marching,

Now if only we had remembered to pack the sunscreen before heading off. Ow.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Big Island improvise...

From the start, this trip was designed to be more...relaxing. It meant that we were trying not to pack every day with as much activity as possible. We had a short list of things we wanted to do. I had two, Cathy had two.

Me: Go to the Mauna Lea observatory. Do a doors-off helicopter tour of a volcano.
Cathy: Night snorkeling with manta rays. Beaches.

Everything else was variable. If we saw something cool, we'd do it. Other than that, we'd take it easy.

Day one was something like that. The east coast of the Big Island has been hit with a lot of rain recently, courtesy of a tropical depression that won't go away. The east coast is always the rainy side, but even by their standards, Hilo was getting a lot wetter than normal. So after taking care of some errands as we settled in, we asked a few people what to do, given that staying in Hilo in the pouring rain didn't sound like fun.

Their suggestions - Hit Akaka Falls, which is about 10 miles north of Hilo, and swing by the botanical gardens. Which is just what we did. And it was just what the doctor ordered for a first day in Hawaii when we were still half out of our minds with jetlag. The falls are in the vicinity of 400 feet tall, so they're fairly impressive. And the admission is $1 per person. So there's nothing wrong with that.
The botanical gardens were a bit more expensive, but they were fine. A lot of interesting plants and the story behind these gardens - a married couple bought the land, cleaned it up and transformed it - is pretty interesting. The one thing I did wonder about is the Hawaiians are very sensitive about invasive species. You see it a lot as you travel the island. How they're trying to remove some plants that are causing damage to native species.

Those botanical gardens had a lot of non-native plants. I'm curious how locals feel about the place.

Day 2 only had one goal - the Mauna Lea Observatory. I loved astronomy when I was a kid. Alas, I'd already resigned myself to not seeing the actual telescopes. They rest at the top of the mountain, which is 14,000 feet. They strongly recommend not doing it anything other than a guided tour or a 4x4 because of road conditions and how steep the drive is. I didn't feel like blowing $400 on a guided tour and we couldn't afford a 4x4 for the entire time we're on the Big Island. Plus, with Cathy's asthma I  thought it would be a risk going that high up.

But getting to the visitor's center at 10,000 feet, and checking out the stars from telescopes set up at the center still sounded like lots of fun.

However, we had rain in Hilo again. So we decided to get to the observatory, normally a 45 minute drive, the long way round. We headed north again, this time to Honoka'a and then to the Waipi'o Valley lookout. It was a nice, scenic drive, had a great lunch at Gramma's Kitchen in Honoka'a and the lookout was fine, although the view is a little restrictive. Most of the land is the valley is privately owned and they apparently don't take kindly to tourists.

From there we looped around the north of the island, exiting rainforest and into cattle pastures in the blink of an eye. And then we began the climb to the observatory. Where it was foggy. And the people at the center were blunt in their assessment - don't get your hopes up.

(They also related with somewhat...enthusastic...glee stories about what happens when you take inappropriate vehicles to the summit and then come down. Stories of break failing and people diving out of cars screaming. They might have been exaggerating. Then again, maybe they weren't. Either way, we weren't driving to the top.)

Honestly, we might have left. It was around 3:30, the weather looked bad and the chances of a cool sunset or stars were slim. So while I was moping around the gift shop and trying to procastinate on making a decision, Cathy started chatting with a couple of Aussie women also lingering about, hoping for the best.

I have the bad habit of procastinating. Sometimes it pays off. Nat and Sarah were a blast. Both were funny, well-travelled (teachers, of course) and massive geeks. We basically killed a few hours talking about Dr. Who, Firefly, Veronica Mars, Divergent and other geek topics.

We were enjoying it so much we almost missed the fact that the clouds had broken up and there was a sunset about to happen. A quick scramble up a hill (always fun at 10,000 feet) and we got a great sunset. It even stayed clear long enough to see Mars through a telescope. Then the clouds came back. And sadly, they were leaving the next day, beginning their trip back to Adelaide.

Not perfect, but hey, sometimes the fun is in the unexpected. I might, someday, have just had another memory of "oh yeah, that time I went to an observatory." Now I have that and a few hours of laughing and geeking out with Aussie women near the top of Hawaii. And that works just fine with me...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Getting to Hawaii....

I'm going to try and write a bit more about this trip as it's happening. I didn't write much about Vegas, simply because it was such a flat out time that it was almost impossible to find an hour to sit down, compose your thoughts and write about it.

But I'm hoping Hawaii will give us a little more freedom. We decided that this trip, rather than plan everything to minute detail, we're going to be a little bit more relaxed. Yes, there are things we want to do. However, if we decided to do a helicopter tour of Volcano National Park, we have a few different days we can do it. 

Relaxation is the key. However, before you relax in Hawaii you have to go through the stress of actually getting here.

Honestly, it was probably a moderate in the TFTS (Totally Fucked-up Travel Scale). The first snag was discovering our hotel in Ottawa, Southways, no longer allowed you to store luggage there. When you come down out of the north you often leave pieces of luggage at a hotel and pick them up later. In our case, we brought down a pair of coolers. When I'm coming back in a few weeks times, I could grab the coolers, head out to Costco, stock up on chicken, meats, etc and then take it back up north.

But Southways changed their policy since we booked the rooms. That, combined with it being late at night, their wifi crashing and other crap meant we bascially abandoned the coolers at the hotel. I'll have to buy new ones in a few weeks. So that was frustrating. We won't be going back there again, obviously.

Travel joy number 2 was showing up at the airport. The flight, via United, was Ottawa-Chicago-Honalulu-Hilo. We show up at 4 am for the 6 am flight, however, they have no pilots. Also, they thoughtfully rebooked us for the next day without telling us. After a small meltdown, that was adjusted to Ottawa-Toronto-Los Angeles-Hilo, with some of it now via Air Canada.

You know, say what you will about Air Canada, and I have, at least its international flights are good. We didn't have any problems with Air Canada. Yes, the new international baggage screening in Toronto is a gong show, but that's not their fault. The flight from Toronto to LA was smooth and incident free.

Next problem - LAX. I've read it was a terrible airport, but I didn't grasp the full majesty of how awful it was. For Cathy, her most hated airport has long been Newark. LAX just beat it out. Any other airport if you land at a terminal and have to go to another one, there's a walkway, or train or something. But no. We had to leave security, ask three people where the bus was to transfer us (unbelievably bad signage), spend 20 minutes in traffic to arrive at the next terminal and have to go through security again.

Except there was only one metal detector. So it took another 30 minutes to get through that with the line actually stretching out a door and out on to an overpass. Oh, and I got selected for extra special security screening so myself and the TSA agent became...intimate. He's taking me out to dinner next time I go through LA.

That was followed by six hours in the terminal. Also, our flight was late leaving because the pilot's chair went missing. Seriously.

We travelled American Airlines over Easter and it was bad and United now, and it was bad (seats were awful, pay for food, pay for entertainment, missing pilots, missing chairs)...

I understand complaining about travel can be boring. Everyone has their horror stories. But I seem to recall a lot more times where travel at airports was nice and boring. The drama was minimized. Now it seems like the occasions where nothing goes wrong are the pleasent surprises rather than the norm.

Next up, first days in Hilo....

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Running and Solstice...

So it seems the people have spoken. I'm not as obsessed with blog traffic as I was back in 2009, when this blog was at its prime. But I'm still curious as to what people like to read.

So, for example, I did a blog about geek movies of 2014. So far, 40 people have clicked on the link to read it. More might have, but direct links to it are 40. Which is not impressive. It's one of the least read blog posts I've done so far this year. Which is a pity, in a way. I'd been considering writing more geek related things. I have a bunch of graphic novels I'd like to review, for example. But there appears to be minimal interest.

However, my little Commission of Government rant, that has 214 so far, and rising. Plus it's easily the most praised thing I've done in awhile. An awful lot of smart and politically astute people whose opinion I respect a lot - Sara Rich Dorman, Craig Westcott, Barbara Dean-Simmons and Ed Hollett - have said some very kind words.

I look at it and all I can see are the typos. It's the problem when you feel ranty and hit 'post' before doing a couple of hard edits.

Politics has been a source of frustration for me. I love it, I have an opinion on it, but I feel very...restrained, in what I can say. Federal politics is right out due to work restrictions (well, common sense). Nunavut is too damn small for me to go off on the territorial government or any of the Inuit orgs. And I always thought I was too far removed to really do a proper and insightful commentary on Newfoundland politics.

But maybe I still have some juice. That makes me oddly depressed. It means that despite having not lived in the province for nearly nine years, the same old bullshit is ongoing, which means I have no problem following what's going on. Nearly a decade removed, nothing has changed. How sad is that?

On a personal note, I engaged in the middle age masochism of doing a road race today.  I used to mock those people. Now, it seems, I seem to be becoming those people. Although given how I feel tonight, it's doubtful I'll be doing sprints tomorrow.

A little history. My dad got into running big time in his 40s. I suspect there was no correlation at all between being newly divorced and having extra time on his hands and deciding that after spending all day delivering mail, that running 10-15 km was a good idea. His high water mark was probably running the Telly 10 on his 50th birthday and finishing 25th over all. Not bad considering something like 1,000 people run in that race.

There are not many opportunities to run in Iqaluit. Most of the year it's too cold or slippery except for all but the truly committed (and I mean that in all senses of the word). When it warms up enough, then the mosquitoes will normally feast on your flesh while you run.

But there was a 10k run in town today and, despite having never run that distance before, I'd give it a shot. After all, I spend at least 30 minutes on an elliptical on the four days a week I'm at the gym. I can do 10 km easy, right?

Sometimes I'm just clever enough to get myself involved in some really stupid things.

So yeah, did the road race today. Knew I was in trouble pretty early when my right achilles started acting up. Half way though I couldn't feel my left foot anymore. And the sado-masochists who designed the race route decided that the last 2.5 km should be uphill and into the prevailing wind. So that was fun.

But I finished with a time of 1:05:20 which everyone tells me is pretty good for a first race. Or at least they're being kind and lying to me. And it's only cost me my ability to walk normally. I usually take Boo for a walk in the evening and carry a walking stick. The stick is normally for defence to deal with any aggressive strays we might encounter. This evening I had to use it to, you know, walk.

Every now and then I think, "Hey, maybe I should try a marathon some day." Today was a useful reminder to not be quite that stupid any time soon...

Today is Summer Solstice, mean it's the longest day of the year. That means sunset is 11:01 pm and it rises again at 2:11 am. It doesn't get dark at the time of the year.

I always get marginally depressed on this day. Don't get me wrong, all the daylight can be a pain the in ass if you don't take the proper precautions. People get binky with sleep deprivation. That's why we "declare night" around 9 pm and close the curtains. We have some pretty heavy duty blackout curtains in the bedroom, so we have no weird daylight coming in.

Still, we've been building to this day for six months. It feels like your fleeing the dark and the cold and rushing toward some sunlight and warmth. And yes, we still have a couple of months of long days and temperatures spiking maybe as high as 15C or so (I'll still bet money we get snow in July this year. We've currently gone 22 consecutive months with at least some snow falling).

But yeah, now we're sliding back towards the cold and dark again. And that brings me down a bit. But in the meantime, a few pictures of what it was like around 10 pm tonight. And yes, that is still quite a bit of ice in the bay. The floe edge is not supposed to be too far away, but even with that ice being awfully thin, there were still people out on it on the ski-doos today. Crazy people, but I guess they know what they're doing.

Last Five
1. Dirty pool - Spirit of the West*
2. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner - Warren Zevon
3. Katherine kiss me - Franz Ferdinand
4. Gleaming auction - Snow Patrol
5.  Unkind - Sloan

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bring back Commission of Government

I was chatting with a good friend of mine last night and we were, like most Newfoundlanders, making fun of the Tories. In case you missed it, this is the reason why you should make fun of the provincial Tories. Really, everyone should make fun of them. Just when I thought it would be almost impossible to see anything stupider than what the NDP did last fall, with a piece of self-sabotage that Aaron Sorkin would have rejected as being dramatically implausible and stupid, the Tories manage to find a way to up it.

But then she said something interesting. As a joke she said "Maybe we should go back to Commission of Government."

And I thought, "Well, it couldn't be any worse, could it?"

For those not aware of Newfoundland political history, a very brief primer. For the most part, we've really sucked at democracy. We've tended to elect crooks, idiots, egomaniacs or all of the above. My forefathers did such a good job of electing these people that they drove the country right into the ground shortly after the Great Depression hit. Out of desperation, they turned to England and said, essentially "Hey, we're done. We're bankrupt. You want to take a shot and running this place for awhile."

And England did. Welcome to one of the few places in history where the people willingly gave up their democratic rights to rule from abroad because we sucked at it so badly.

(If you have a Newfoundland history degree, I know this is a simplified version of events. Roll with it.)

After World War II, things were in better shape. The place was no longer bankrupt and, frankly, England had better things to do than to keep ruling us. So three options were presented in a referendum: Continue with Commission of Government, Independence, or Joining Canada. Commission of Government got almost no support on the first ballot, so they went to a second one, and the results, they say, are history.

(Unless you're a conspiracy theorist, in which case Canada and England rigged the election.)

Every Newfoundland history book I've ever read, or was taught, basically blew off the idea of Commission of Government. "Well, obviously nobody wanted to continue with that..."

Yes, because all it did was bring stability back to a place that was a gong show. If memory serves, there was actually a budget surplus when that cued up.

So to hell with it, let's bring it back. Essentially there's only one part in Newfoundland and Labrador anyway. The NDP are back into joke mode. Do not be at all surprised if they lose every seat in the next election. They deserve to. The NDP right now...you know how maybe you were dating someone and there was always this person pining for you, but you never gave them the time of day, because you kept lusting after the same chick/dude. But after getting burned so many times, and they're just so ernest that you go "what the hell, let's date them for a bit. Could be fun." And you do.

Then you find out they're batshit crazy and you run away as quickly as you can. Welcome to the Newfoundland and Labrador New Democratic Party and their last two years.

Least you think this means I love the Liberals or the Tories...I'm not sure if you've noticed, but they're the same damn party. There was a story that came out of the Liberal convention last weekend about all the people wanting to run for the Liberals in the next election. Same thing happened when Danny Williams took over back in 2003. Or Brian Tobin in '96. Etc, etc...Not because people suddenly became Conservative, or suddenly became Liberal, it's because people like winners. And right now, Red looks like a winner. In 2003, Blue looked like a winner.

Allow me to gaze into my crystal ball and tell you the next 12 years. Dwight Ball and Red wins the election. He'll win reelection around 2019 and will step down about two years into that term. Then Red will elect a new leader, who will start to make a hash of things, but will still win reelection in 2013. But shortly after that, people will get tired of the colour Red. Blue will have elected a new cult of personality who passes as a leader. People will start leaving Red and wanting to run for Blue, because Blue is awesome and Red has always kind of sucked.

And so the cycle continues. If the parties merged and renamed themselves the Reddish-Blue Liberal Conservatives, no one would know the difference. I assure you, there would be few policy fights. The Conservatives aren't true fiscal and social conservatives any more than the Liberals are economically and socially liberal.

So here's my plan. We have a referendum and get rid of democratically elected governments in Newfoundland because they're mostly idiots anyway (If Steve Kent becomes the province's next premier, emigrate as soon as possible. Seriously). I will be forming the Mad Bomber Party. I will then ask the Queen to appoint my party as the one in charge. This will consist of me and about 20 of my close friends from my time at MUN and a few other helpful lunatics. We get appointed for eight years and then we're done. Don't like us and what we're doing, you won't have to wait long. Really don't like us? Well, they had ways of dealing with unpopular governments in Newfoundland in the 1930s. It involved setting the legislature on fire. And really, would anyone mourn if Confederation Building burned to the ground? It's an ugly ass building.

How would we govern? Before we took over we'd spend a year travelling around Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Whatever the hell they're doing over there, we'll try and duplicate it here. I understand they're not perfect countries and they have their problems, but whatever their problems, they don't appear to be governed by complete idiots. Can the same be said of Newfoundland? So let's try and figure out their culture and try and duplicate it here. Because it's not just a change of politics that's needed...it's a change in mindset. A change in culture. An overhaul is needed, folks. Drastic times call for drastic measures.

Because if you think things suck now, wait 25 years when the oil is gone, or people don't need it anymore, and we will have no oil, no fish and no money in the bank. You will need to create new words to describe how brutal that's going to be.

And my friends and I? We're all fairly smart. We're writers, journalists, lawyers, philosophers, teachers and tech people. We've run businesses. We're engineers. We care about the place, wouldn't mind it being fixed and have about zero tolerance for political bullshit. We're not set in the same old, same old bullshit that seems to be business as usual in the province's political class. We'd like to come in, be compassionate, fair, fix the place up, get it running ok, and then move along. Eight and Done. Appoint a new group after that or go back to democracy. You choose.

So there you go, a Baltic-inspired Commission of Government run Newfoundland and Labrador. Insane, you say. Sure. Then again, you saw what happened yesterday. Is my idea really any more ludicrous?

Last Five
1. Here comes the night time II - Arcade Fire
2. Prophets - A.C. Newman*
3. Dancing in the dark - Bruce Springsteen
4. Daniel (live) - Elton John
5. Refugee (live) - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Friday, June 13, 2014

Sealift and dumpcano

1. So I did this odd thing the other day where I wrote for another blog. Yes, you might accurately point out I'm barely writing for this one. However, it was a nice confluence of events that lead it to happen.

Finding True North has been kicking around for awhile now, although I haven't added it my blogroll because I am a lazy bastard, apparently. Anubha and Sara both run the blog and it's a lot of fun. They have a lot of energy, which goes a long way when doing these things (I think I exhausted mine around 2009) and the manage to find new ways to keep writing about Iqaluit fresh and interesting.

That's the thing about northern blogs...they always start out well, but they invariably putter off and die. People run out of things to write about. And mostly they're for friends and family to try and explain what you're experiencing without writing the same email 30 times. The difference here is, again, the energy, but both of them approach Nunavut blogging with a genuine curiosity and wanting to share what Iqaluit is like with a broader audience. They have almost a travel writer mentality about the whole thing, which is a good approach to take, I think.

Anyway, there was some chatter on local Twitter about things to write about and someone suggested that there should be a piece on the sealift. And for whatever reason, I jumped in and said, "sure, I'll write it." Which they gleefully accepted.

The surprising thing to me is not that I volunteered, but how quickly the piece came together. Seriously, first draft took about 30 minutes. Some tweaking after that and then Anubha asking for a few other things. It's not a bad little blog post and I think somewhat useful if you were thinking of doing a sealift. Of course, I can see at least two things I forgot to mention; boxing stuff yourself while at TSC and sharing a sealift with friends if you don't have a big order. Also pretty sure I didn't specify NEAS sealift, as NSSI does one as well, and that's who we normally ship with.

But I've learned not to fight with editors...;)

2. So our local city council has finally decided that maybe their master plan of waiting out the dump fire, locally dubbed #dumpcano, might not be the best long term strategy, especially since it could end up burning the rest of the summer.

I think the tipping point might have came this week, when temperatures began to creep up a bit. It hit 8C at one point this week. Those of you down south are probably going "ooooo, 8C". All I can tell you is if the sun is shining and there is no wind, 8C has some pop. Next week it's forecast to go up to 12C or so.

Why is that a tipping point? Because when the wind has been pushing the smoke into town, one of the things officials have been telling people is to stay in doors, keep their windows closed and turn off any air exchangers. Except, most houses in Iqaluit are built really tight and heavily insulated. It doesn't take much for them to become ovens. I've opened windows when it's been below 0C.

So telling people to stay inside and away from the smoke, in houses that will quickly spike past 30C (remember, people up here are not used to that level of heat. Many Inuit complain when it gets above 10C) is not a long-term viable strategy.

I'm not sure how they're going to put it out, but I'm assuming there are people somewhere in Canada that have experience dealing with these things that they can draw on. It also does call for a little more urgency in developing a proper waste management strategy for the city. The dump catching on fire every year loses some of it's appeal after awhile.

Plan A was to drown it. Plan B was to wait it out. Kind of curious to see what Plan C will be...

On the upside, at least I got a t-shirt out of it.

Outcrop (a design and production company) in town got the bright idea of making some t-shirts on the Dumpcano and selling them for $30 each. $10 of that goes to the Iqaluit Fire Department. They got them on Thursday and I think they're just about sold out. So I now own a fun little thing of a sucky little event for a good cause. I will wear it with dubious pride.

3. We're getting closer to the ice being gone, but not quite there yet. However even if the ice disappears in the next week I see that both NEAS and NSSI are saying their boats won't be in until July 11 at the earliest. Annoying. I'd like my stuff sooner than that.

Last Five
1. Living in colour - Frightened Rabbit
2. Nothing in my way - Keane
3. Shadows (live) - Gordon Lightfoot
4. Have love will travel (live) - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
5. Via Dolorosa - Matthew Good

Monday, June 09, 2014

Geek movies of 2014

We’ve had three super-hero movies so far this year. As I am somewhat a geek, a quick rundown on how they were:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – I was never the biggest fan of the first Cap movie, The First Avenger. I thought once he became Cap the movie got pointedly less interesting. I loathed the musical number and thought more time should have been spent showing how he was a legend during the war. And Bucky’s death wasn’t well done.
But I heard rumbling in the geek community that The Winter Solider was going to be something special. And they were right. It’s up there with the first Iron Man and Avengers for Marvel Studio movies.
Very loosely based on the Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting storyline, it features Captain dealing with spies, conspiracies and the costs of freedom. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Cap in the comics. He tends to be handled badly more often than not. But the run with Brubaker as writer (and a series of top notch artists) got to the very heart of what makes him work – that he’s a deeply principled and ethical man who often struggles trying to make those beliefs work in a world that doesn’t always share them.
He believes in the American Dream, even when so many seem to have forgotten it. The fact that he’s a pain in the ass to people who use patriotism as a scoundrel’s defence his part of his appeal.
And that’s what we have in The Winter Soldier. Cap standing up to those who believing they’re being patriotic, but are just committing crimes with the flag as a defence. In some ways, this is Marvel's The Dark Knight. Of all the Marvel movies so far only Iron Man really comes as close to having some darker and more serious themes.
But let’s not get too deep here. Yes, there’s a story here about privacy violations and sacrificing freedom for security that’s timely. But that would get boring quickly. It’s also a great action movie, with a good sense of humour and a spectacular supporting cast.
It works not because of any slavish devotion to a particular comic book storyline (I love The Winter Soldier story arc in the comics, but if you’re expected it up on the big screen, you’ll be disappointed). But they do get to the heart of what makes the character work and the themes the comic book writers were working with and putting it on the big screen. Which is why it works.

Amazing Spider-Man 2, on the other hand…
Look, this is a mess. If there was ever a franchise that you would have thought would have learned lessons about streamlining a story and not having too many villains, it would have been Spider-Man, given what a mess Sam Raimi’s third movie was. And yet, here we go again.
There are too many villains – Rhino (admittedly a small part), Electro, and Goblin. There are too many plots – will Peter and Gwen stay get back together despite his promise to her dying father, will she go to Oxford, what’s going on with Electro, what’s going on with Harry Osborne, what’s the secret of Peter’s parents.
Only the plots with Peter and Gwen are remotely interesting. Jamie Foxx is terrible as Electro. Just twitchy over-acting all over the place. The dude playing Goblin is just meh with the worse hair you will see in any movie this year. The plot with Peter’s parents (well, father. His mom might as well not be in the movie) literally goes nowhere. If it was cut, you would not have missed it, at all.
And really, when you have two leads with as much frightening natural chemistry as Garfield and Stone why are you not putting them on the screen as much as humanly possible? The best scenes in the movie are the two of them – her trying to get out of OsCorp Building and Peter distracting security with a bit straight out of Buster Keaton, and Gwen saving the day and reminding Peter that she is, in fact, a lot smarter than he is.
Stuff like that makes having to deal with the rest of the movie so bloody frustrating.
But here’s the really frustrating thing…geeks and movie people have a hard time realizing that what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. A lot of The Winter Soldier comic story, which features the Red Skull, cosmic cubes, a power mad Russian general, would not work on the screen. But they realized it and took the heart of the story, and tweaked it into a story that would work.
I heard that the studio routinely has Marvel comic writers come out to retreats to take a look at the scripts and solicit their opinion. It works.
But this…this feels like it was reviewed by marketers and consultants. I wonder if they had a single Spider-Man writer, like Brian Michael Bendis of Dan Slott, offer their opinions. And then there’s the big story twist…


…that Gwen Stacy dies in Spider-Man’s battle with the Green Goblin. It has to be in the movie because it’s a critical part of Spider-Man lore and I’m sure the marketers thought the geeks would be pissed off.
It’s a terrible Spider-Man story. It really is. It was shocking in the early 70s, but that doesn’t make it good. Stan Lee hated it and thought the writer made a mistake. They basically killed off Gwen because Peter Parker was doing ok at the time – job, university, friends, hot girlfriend – so he needed to suffer and get some character development. So let’s off the girlfriend.
You can almost forgive it given the time it was written, which was the early 70s. Killing a girlfriend to make the male lead suffer and have some character growth…well, what was wrong with that? Today, the writers would be pounced on. They have a term for it in comics…fridging. It comes from an awful Green Lantern story where a villain breaks into a new Green Lantern’s home, kills his girlfriend and stuffs her in the refrigerator.
But in those comics they had years of taking Peter Parker and, yes, making him suffer, but also making his life a bit easier. This was a shot to knock him back. In the comics, over a 10-year period, there is a degree of twisted logic in killing Gwen.
In the space of two movies, Peter Parker’s parents abandon him, are killed (maybe. No bodies = no death) and then he finds out they might have been traitors. His selfish behavior gets his Uncle Ben killed. He indirectly gets Gwen’s father killed during a super-hero fight. So I think Peter was doing good for character defining moments and making sure he has to struggle.
Killing Gwen was stupid in the comics (interestingly, Bendis brought back Gwen in the Ultimate Spider-Man series, where she’s a fantastic character) and really, really stupid in the movie.
I tend to buy comic book movies on blu-ray as a matter of course. I doubt I will buy this one. As frustrating as Man of Steel was, this one is worse. It’s just a mess…

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Speaking of beloved comic book storylines…this one ranks second in X-Men lore only to the Dark Phoenix Saga (both by Chris Claremont and John Byrne). A story featuring Kitty Pride sent back in time from a disastrous future where mutants are hunted and imprisoned by Sentinels to stop the one event that lead to the creation of that future.
Given how it feels like every third movie, and every second comic book, features time travel, it doesn’t seem like much. But in 1982, when the comic came out, it blew minds. The image of Wolverine and Kitty Pryde in front of a wall with posters featuring X-Men who were either dead, captured or still wanted is iconic and been duplicated in dozens of covers since then.
It is a beloved story story (amazingly, only two issues. These days it would be a 12-part storyline with 30 crossover books). So trying to replicate on the big screen is going to push some geek buttons. Thankfully, it works. If The Winter Soldier was trying to aim for a 70s conspiracy thriller vibe, and if the Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a marketing exercise trying to sell toys and launch new movies for Sony to play with, the DofP (I'm not tying that out 20 more times) is, oddly, the most purely straight super hero of the bunch.
Wolverine has to travel back in time to 1973 to prevent a dystopian future where mutants are all but destroyed by mutant hunting Sentinels. Specifically, he needs to stop Mystique from murdering Boliver Trask, the Sentinel program creator, an act that leads to the Sentinel program being kicked into overdrive.
Look, it has the usual X-Men tropes about the majority fearing the minority (in the 60s it was blacks, but it's also been for immigrants, gays, and other groups). But there's a hell of a lot of fun in there. The "Time in a Bottle" scene with Quicksilver in the Pentagon is not only the best two minutes in any X-Men movie, it might be the best two minutes of any movie you'll see this year. It's that much fun. It also has a ton of fun little Easter eggs buried in the movie for comic book geeks (my favourite was Quicksilver casually mentioning a guy his mom used to date).
It also does the time honoured comic book tradition of retcon/rebooting. If you basically think there has been only one good X-Men/Wolverine movie in the past 10 years (First Class) and that X-Men continuity is a mess (it is) then this manages to the neat trick of fixing all of that and relaunching the franchise. If you hated X-Men: The Last Stand and think Brett Ratner is the anti-Christ, then you're really going to love this movie.
On top of that, it has parts or cameos by pretty much everyone who has ever been in the X-Men movies, great action sequences and good acting. Really, if the X-Men movies have been fortunate in anything, it's that they've managed to get some of the very best actors in the business to come in their playground.
There are still a few more comic book movies coming out this year. There's Guardians of the Galaxy (no clue), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (bad feeling), Transformers (almost certainly awful) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (bad feeling), but it's going to be hard to top DofP and The Winter Soldier. Which is fine. I just hope they're not as bad as the last Spider-Man.
Last Five
1. Hitsville, U.K. - The Clash
2. Laurel - Goldfrapp
3. Don't know nothing - Maroon 5
4. Goddess on the prairie - Hot Hot Heat
5. Tower of song (live) - Leonard Cohen*