Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Farewell to The Shield (No spoilers)

For me the most significant television event of 2008 was the final season of The Shield. For seven years viewers were challenged to explore their own values as characters did or suffered horrible things. A show where the perpetrators of bad things could suffer the consequences at any time, be it the same episode, later in the season, or even seasons later. A show were the line between the good guys and the bad guys was often blurred to the point of near non-existence.

This article is not meant to be a primer for people who haven't seen the show, though for those who haven't, it's about a corrupt cop who leads an almost equally corrupt strike team that ruthlessly maintains order in an especially volatile area of Los Angeles. Again, this is not a primer. I could go on about the incredible performances of Michael Chiklis (Vic), Walton Goggins (Shane), CCH Pounder (Claudette), Jay Karnes (Dutch), and so many others (it was rare for even a guest actor to drop the ball) but I've decided I'd rather this article be about how the show (and its characters) made me feel instead.

I will however say that the friendship between Dutch and Claudette was perhaps the best portrayal of a completely platonic friendship between two people of the opposite sex I've ever seen in TV and movies. With all the stunts pulled by the Strike Team this important aspect of the show is easy to overlook, but it was a key component of the show.

One of the amazing things about the show was its ability, no matter what the strength of the season opener was, to gain considerable momentum as the series progresses, as characters start making decisions that will impact the people around them later on. Vic and Shane in particular often came up with ideas that destroyed lives (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) with the less corrupt cops often suspecting things were rotten but never actually being able to prove their suspicions. It wasn't that the other cops were inept; it was that the Strike Team was quite good at covering their tracks. Ironically this was their Achilles heel as they sometimes became overconfident and did stuff that they could not entirely contain. Further momentum, to a lesser degree was gained by the usually unrelated cases of the other cops, with Dutch's cerebral way of capturing crooks standing in stark contrast to Vic's more streetwise approach.

What's great is that every major character had a good and a dark side. The Strike Team survived as long as they did despite their corruption because they were equally effective when used for good; Vic in particular was someone you could route for in one scene and hate in the same episode without seeming like it was two characters, which Kenneth Johnson's Lemonhead's Hell was that he was too loyal, to the point where he did stuff he himself found morale reprehensible. Acevada (played by Beneito Martinez) struggled between his morality and his political ambitions. Claudette's emotions and stubborness would sometimes deep six her good intentions. Dutch's insecurities and his sometimes overly methodical way of doing things made him an effective cop but he could be hard for his fellow cops to be around. Julien (Michael jace) was an earnest cop who faced struggles being true to himself when his own religious beliefs worked against him. Danny (Catherine Dent) tended to be overly hard on everyone, including herself. Corinne (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) was a nurse who struggled to get out of the shadows of a man who used headgames to make her to stuff she regretted. Etc. There were a few great celebrity actors who had a lot of impact on the show, and each of them added a little something to the show, but my favourite characters were the the ones that were in place in the first season. This is no dispect to other actors who did fine work; it was just that the first season case really captured lightning in a bottle.

The show also excelled in making its area of LA a character. This was important because a lot of shocking things happened on the show, but they never seemed gratuitous. Despite the fact that you often couldn't believe that they did that, it made sense in the context of the show, and usually (not always but usually) the more shocking the event, the greater the reprecussions later on.

The Shield was not cancelled. It chose a season to exit on and made its bows then. I find myself wanting more and hope that there will be some sort of special later on. At the same time though it's truly exciting to watch a series last seven seasons without the seams showing. There will be no dropping the show from my list of favourites because the final seasons diluted the show as a whole, no thinking that I'm still enjoying this but hope it ends before too much longer. The show started out great and ended great. It may be over but the characters have earned a permanent spot in TV history. I regret not being able to spend even more time with them, but I'm glad I got to spend the time I did with them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Beacon Hill Birds - Winter Discovery

In contrast to my last blog post, this one's going to be really brief.

I was taking photos today, the second day of the first Victoria BC snowfall of the Winter 2008/09 season, and decided to visit Beacon Hill Park, theorizing corrently that the snow would be less cleared away there than in the more populated areas. Beacon Hill Park, for those of you who haven't been there, has a fairly large artificial lake, which was partly frozen, partly not when I visited today.

Which brings me to the topic at hand: The birds I saw there today were ducks and seagulls. While there were a few exceptions either way (and some birds were on land), most of the seagulls preferred to be on the ice rather than in the water, while most of the ducks preferred to be in the water rather than on the ice. It's probably not the biggest discovery of the 21st century, but it was an interesting phenomenom to witness and made for some great shots. And it gave me an insight on ducks vs. seagulls that I didn't have before today. And the exceptions were comforting because I like to believe that in most animal species, there's some rebel that wants to do his or her own thing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

16 Memorable Moments (or Sets of Moments) at View Towers

I'm feeling pretty nostalgic today so I'm foregoing my usual "no personal stuff" rule for once to describe 16 memorable moments of living in View Towers for over 13 years (in brainstorming order):

  1. During the early years, there was a roach problem, and at least one of the roaches made it into my VCR. As the roach passed near the lighted areas such as the clock, its "outline" (the natural lines on its body) lighted up a nice yellow. Sometime after the roach incidents I rented Joe's Apartment for catharsis.
  2. My neighbour directly to the left of me (currently, as I type this) who often goes on rants of how you're all going to hell, and telling someone to shut up; sometimes his rants are given a extra oomph by his pounding on something
  3. The first major fire (after a lengthy period of false alarms) which wiped out a lot of the hallway to the 12 floor and even damaged the elevator (the woman responsible left her door open upon leaving the apartment, permitting the flames to spread). The flames went up I think three stories and a bit to the left. Despite this many people were content to remain in the building and watch, including one guy whose balcony was being licking by the flames (I think he eventually got around to leaving).
  4. Related to the above, the fire hoses turned out to have a lot of holes in them. Consequently after the above incident the fire hoses were removed "for our safety"
  5. The neighbours directly above me were always being noisy, usually fighting and bouncing things around (though once it was, er, a possible attempt to procreate). One night I found myself wishing that they'd finally do something to get kicked out (not knowing that they had already been given notice). The next morning at 4:15 I heard a lot of crashing, far worse than usual. I phoned security but no answer. I went to the bathroom as I debated whether to call security or the police, but then the fire alarm went off. They had burnt down their apartment, thus solving the noise problem nicely (except for the occasional repair sounds). Very minimal water damage to my place, happily
  6. I also had a rat problem very briefly. Once I had a friend over (who later moved into the building) when a rat in the kitchen deicded to play peek-a-boo. i'd see it briefly and try to point it out to my friend but as he turned his head the rat would disappear. My friend never did see it during the peek-a-boo situation
  7. Another time I saw an incredible amount of ants in my kitchen. Out of desperation I put a bunch of salt on the floor. That proved to be the only time I ever saw the ants
  8. The same friend from #6 and I got in the elevator (again, prior to his moving in). Two people got in the elevator and started fighting in front of the elevator buttons. i managed to hit the button for the floor directly above mine. When the doors opened, they continue fighting, but they were polite enough to shift slightly so my friend and I could leave the elevator
  9. This one's actually a series of events. Every so often what I call "The View Towers Express" happens, where stuff gets tossed off the balcony. Chairs, a TV, a bikini, a radio, and a sofa are among the stuff that has landed down below
  10. Another catch all: many times I've found myself roped into conversations with people who were drunk or otherwise intoxicated while waiting for the elevators. Most of these I'm amused by this and have responded politely, but if you'll permit a moment of seriousness among an otherwise funny blog post, one time a woman got in after a fight and had taken quite the beating. Sad, but as memorable as the more funny moments
  11. Another catch-all: yellow puddles are not unknown to stay in the stairwells for days on end
  12. The time that the sauna/hot tub was said to be closed due to "vandalism/moronism" according to a sign. Unfortunately they're closed for repairs most of the year, in part due to people using the hot tub as a free laundry machine
  13. It used to be the washers and dryers were on every second floor (one set of each per floor) with the coin-op areas usually ripped open (there is now a central laundry area which is keycard operated). Because the washing load took longer than the drier, people routinely would switch floors to dry their clothes, which in turn meant that other people would also need to shift their floors for drying. I once did this myself because it was pretty standard procedure and had to endure a pretty long lecture from one guy (who I suspect later removed my clothes before the cycle was finished so he could use the dryer)
  14. Likewise in the new laundry area it's common practice if all the dryers are full to remove the clothes from a dryer whose cycle is finished (this has happened to me more than once and it doesn't bother me because no one can know how long they'll have to wait). Once I did this to someone else and she showed up and freaked out
  15. For quite a few weeks this year, spray paint on one of the exits greeted vacating people with "F--- you"
  16. I'll end this on a happy note. View Towers used to have a free satellite which picked up TV land, so I was able to watch a lot of retro shows from my childhood (e.g. Star Trek: The Animated Series and the animated Fonz and the Happy Days Gang), plus some I passed over such as Hill Street Blues. The downside was the reception often suck. When the satellite finally had to be taken down, the rent actually got lowered.
I originally was going to do 10, but 13 years is a long time to be living in a strange place, so you all got a bonus.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas Movies for the Holidays

TIMMY: Gosh Uncle Insanity, I really want to see a good Christmas movie this year, but I can't possibly watch the same sentimental crap every year. I mean, I'm only seven but I already know the words to Frost, Grinch, and Christmas Carol by heart.

UNCLE INSANITY: Well, Timmy. It just so happens you've come to the right place. Here are my picks of ten decent Christmas movies, in alphabetical order.

  1. Bad Santa: A drubnken department store Santa/thief finds redemption when he begins to care for a young boy. Difference between him and Scrooge is, he's still recognizable as the same person afterwards despite having changed for the better
  2. Batman Returns: a flawed movie to be sure, but it's a movie set around Christmas that has Christopher Walken in it, as well as Michelle Pfeiffer in a sexy catsuit. You could do far worse for Christmas movies
  3. Christmas Evil: Timmy, you must have noticed even at your young age the out of control capitalism in the stores this year. Well, things weren't a lot better in the 1970s, and in this movie a worker at a toy company decides to do something about it.
  4. Dead End: I'm going to put myself in the naughty list by repeating one of my Halloween choices. A family is heading to a Christmas dinner when the driver (the father) decides to take a short cut. Things don't go all that swell after that.
  5. Die Hard: Timmy, here you get to see action hero John McClane for the first time, dealing with a hostage situation in a building on Christmas Eve. If you really love McClane, he deals with another hostage situation, this time on a plane in another Christmas eve in Die Hard II, but the first Die Hard is the best of the two Christmas-based ones.
  6. Eyes Wide Shut: a man embarks on a surreal journey during Christmas as he deals with his feelings towards his wife. Timmy, you might cry a little because it was Stanley Kubrick's last film. I recommend watching the special edition because you get to choose between the version that was released theatrically with digital images added to one scene to obscure the pee-pee areas and the uncensored version.
  7. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: a death is investigated around Christmas in a village in this film based on a true story
  8. The Nightmare Before Christmas: another repeat from my Halloween list, as Halloween ghouls take over Christmas
  9. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: Timmy, as you get older, you're going to appreciate unintentionally funny movies more and more. This pablum geared towards folks your age is a good place to start, with Martians kidnapping Santa. Santa saves the day with the help of some good Martians including a laughing idiot. And there's a catchy obnoxious theme song too!
  10. Trading Places: Once upon a time, Timmy, Eddie Murphy was actually funny. In this movie, set during the Christmas season, he plays a poor man who trades places with a rich man played my Dan Aykroyd.
TIMMY: Gosh, Uncle Insanity, that's a swell list. Thank you from saving me from the usual crap. can you think of any other movies?
UNCLE INSANITY: That's a very good question too, Timmy. Let me think of that some more. But in the meantime, this should get you start.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review: Punisher War Zone

Punisher War Zone is the goriest movie ever made based on a Marvel character, and boy is it a lot of fun.

This third attempt to launch a Punisher movie franchise is by fast the best effort to date. Both of the previous Punisher movies had their moments, but this is the one where a lot of things really came together.

The filmmakers were wise in what they took from various eras. From the Punisher's early years (1970s) we get Jigsaw. Part of his origin here swipes a scene from Batman (1989) but that's forgivable because the rest of the origin is so visceral. From the 1990s we get Microchip. Perhaps not the best effective use of that character, but the movie juggles a lot of characters, mainly cannon fodder, er, bad guys. From the 2000s, we get Garth Ennis' Lt. Soap character, the comic relief, but wisely not quite as silly as in Garth Ennis' comics. And Bradstreet Hotel is undoubtedly a nod to the cover artist during the early 2000s, Tim Bradstreet.

The Punisher himself is well portrayed by Ray Stevenson, a paradox of deadened yet angry at the same time. When he accidentally kills an innocent early on in the movie he is quite shakened without but Stevenson wisely understates the Punisher's emotions rather than going for melodrama.

The movie is not without its flaws: some bits with Jigsaw move a little too close to Jack Nicholson territory, and there's at least one key scene where the Punisher casually wanders into a spot where people should be waiting for him. But the film is so entertaining with its over thee top violence that it's a lot of fun.

Which brings me to my most important point. As previously noted, the film is quite gory. People familiar with the writer-artist team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon on Preacher and Punisher should be able to visualize what they're in for in this movie. The violence is delightfully nasty and over the top, well earning its 18A rating (the equivalent of a US R, which it undoubtedly also received). There is no sex and not that much swearing that I can recall (though there is some), but for the violence alone, please leave your children at home. For that matter, if there's any risk of you vomiting during a movie, leave yourself at home; this is not the action movie for you. The movie is very gratuitous in its kills, arguably cheerfully so. This works well in the Punisher's universe (it's chilling how nonchalant the Punisher is in his kills) but they make sense in his world, and the audience is definitely meant to have fun with the kills. In fact the most tasteful kills are the ones you aren't meant to enjoy. But again, if you're not twisted enough to enjoy some creatively nasty kills, this movie isn't for you.

I on the other hand do enjoy a well-orchestrated bad guy kill so between that and and Roy Stevenson's performance, I give this film a solid recommendation. But don't say I didn't warn you about the violence.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace has a lot of the elements that comprise a great James Bond film: lots of action, beautiful women, beautiful locations, good one-liners. One area that it falls down a bit on a bit is the lack of gadgets. In fact it's M, not Bond who gets the best toy, a fancy computer. However, they rebooted the franchise with the previous movie, Casino Royale, so I imagine they'll get to the gadgets in the meantime.

One thing I do like about the new Bond is its stronger sense of internal continuity. You can probably enjoy most of the film without seeing Casino Royale, but there are certainly bits you'll enjoy more if you've seen that film (a character from the previous film is mentioned a fair bit). There's also a cute allusion to one of the most famous scenes in Goldfinger (since it's a reboot Bond doesn't comment on the parallels directly, but it's undoubtedly intentional). And there is a nice revenge subplot with Bond's most important allies.

In Casino Royale I thought Daniel Craig struggled a bit with Bond's more human side, but here I thought he handled that side of Bond better.

One nitpick I do have is that, even though the series has always played a bit fast and loose with the laws of physics, Bond should have at least been limping at one point (in the real world there would have been broken bones or death, but in Bond's universe, limping would suffice).

Overall though I thought it was a fun action movie. Now bring on the gadgets!