Friday, February 27, 2009

Jerk Jerk Bang Bang

In my brain, Wanted was inspired when some film executives got together one night and had a few beers. During a lull in conversation, one of them said “I bet we could convince the basement-dweller demographic that anything is cool if we market it enough.” It would have inspired no small amount of chatter as the idea escalated more and more.

“Give it a bunch of flash-cuts!”

“Blood and gore! Basement dwellers love that!”

“Give him a hot girlfriend!”

“Make her a total bitch!

"...who doesn't deserve him!”

“Big-name actors!”

“Sexy ones!”

“Angelina Jolie!” (NB: Jolie lost such an enormous amount of weight for this film that I couldn’t even admire her curvy figure; in its place was the figure of an anorexic junkie, which was not helped by her heavy tattoos and disproportionately large lips.)

One of the executives woke up the next day, a bit dry and with a twinge of a headache, and reminisced on what they’d talked about. “Crazy,” he muttered “but it just might work.”

And somehow it did. Somehow, a movie that has gunfights with bullets crashing into each other not once, not twice, but four times has made a ton of money. Somehow, a movie that has at least two car chases concluding with perfectly-timed flips over obstacles has garnered almost wholehearted support from critics.

Seriously.

The critics astounded me the most, because I find them to be a rather elitist, negative bunch – however did they give this a pass? A movie that involves the hero, Wesley, shooting an enemy in the face, then plunging his gun into his now-unseeing eye, then dispatching the next few enemies through the gory chunks of blood and brain matter?

I don’t expect a great deal from movies. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I love fun, popcorn action flicks like Armageddon and Independence Day. I’m also a fan of similarly unrealistic romantic comedies like Must Love Dogs and essentially the entire Judd Apatow collection, so I think I can safely say that this is not the blog of a snob.

Having established that, watching Wanted was a masochistic experience that failed to even clear my low bar of taste. Like Twilight, it is so absurd that on paper it looks like a parody. On the silver screen, though, it clearly is not. It doesn’t even laugh at itself like the greats of its genre with amusing scenes, lines, or characters. There’s no kooky side characters, a la Armageddon, and there’s not a shred of the classic wise guy/straight man comedy that was so enjoyable in Independence Day.

Nope, Wanted is straight up and down like six-o’clock, and expects its viewers to take it as seriously as it takes itself. That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with adjusting reality here and there to suit a work of fiction. This isn’t a matter of adjusting and fine-tuning, though – in this film, reality is dramatically smashed,in hyperfast motion, into meaty chunks, then shattered in hyposlow motion into a semblance of its former self that all the Krazy Glue in the world couldn’t fix.

It’s a classic subgenre – the superhero flick. Wesley is nerdy and anxious, with a dead-end job, a smarmy best friend, and a pain-in-the ass girlfriend (who is having regular conjugal visits with the smarmy friend). In a nutshell, his life is far from enviable.

Far from enviable, that is, until one day when he finds that he is destined to do far more: join a secret guild of killers called (even though it employs at least one woman) The Fraternity.

I could literally write thousands of words about his Fraternal Exploits, which include shooting the wings off flies, curving bullets with his “instincts,” and killing someone in New York with a rifle fired from New Jersey, but I think the absurdity is better exemplified by addressing the nature of the organization itself. A group of heavily-armed, tough-as-nails men and women are given the solemn duty of “keeping balance” in the universe by killing those that fate itself has deemed unacceptable.

Okay. Bit preposterous, but we’ve all seen worse, right? I’m all for a bit of magical realism in my movies.

The ludicrousness, which previously trickled into the plot, positively thundered in a tidal wave with Fate’s chosen mode of communication. No crystal ball, no magic phone, nothing like that. The Fraternity is told who to kill through - naturally - a loom. Suddenly, the fibre bonanza I live in takes on a whole new meaning. Perhaps my mother’s seemingly harmless hobby is more sinister? Perhaps the loom that I thought just took up space in my parents lounge has an agenda I never suspected?

Upon his induction into the Fraternity, Wes undergoes a dramatic training program. But it’s not like any training I’ve ever seen or heard about. It is very light on actually teaching him anything, and very heavy on merely kicking the shit out of him. Somehow, a few weeks of this unlocks his innate ability to slow down time and make bullets curve. And don’t worry about his well-being, either – the brutal shit-kickings aren’t such a big deal because The Fraternity has a steady supply of a wax/water mixture that, if you immerse yourself in it, all your wounds are healed.

Seriously.

Like my hypothetical executives said, this movie was marketed to the basement-dweller crowd. The geek of geeks, who lives on World of Warcraft, who dreams of the day that he will realize his destiny and become an assassin for the forces of justice. Well, I’ve got a word of advice for him, a valuable, valuable lesson: recession or no, the Army’s always hiring. Your bullets won’t curve, but you’ll never take orders from a machine originally designed for rug-making, or any other textile for that matter. But if you’re not prepared to do that, turn this gore-porn, gun-porn, death-fest off and go read a book (not a gun magazine) or climb a tree (not a clock tower).

Friday, February 20, 2009

An Evening with the POTUS

Around the world, we have been bombarded with presidential news for two years. Even with the end of the election, the stories persist, as the media seem to have collectively forgotten how to report on anything else.

But through it all, something important has been neglected. We’ve been barraged with issue ads, attack ads, polling data, policy outlines, and personal narratives, but nobody has asked the really tough question. Which candidate would be the best to hang out with? Who would I rather have a beer or five with, have a meal with, or go to a game with?

I like Barack Obama (and if I didn’t I would lie, such is level of passion he inspires), but I don’t think he’d be that fun to hang out with. He seems so tortured, new-age, and academic. The meal would be at a vegetarian place that specializes in arugula and wheatgrass smoothies, after that hours would be spent going to bar after bar, looking for one that serves low-carb beer to maintain his distinctive slim, trim figure. After a few of those he would become very introspective, pausing for absurd amounts of time between sentences to gather his thoughts.

As he drank more and more low-carbs, he would begin relating every conversation to his mixed-race heritage and the identity problems it presents before becoming incoherent by eleven or so (as arugula and physical fitness create less-than-optimal alcohol tolerance). After seeing him speak, it would be hard not to be disappointed by this performance.

Maybe his VP would be better, but Joe Biden’s had not one but two brain aneurysms. A big night out could trigger another one, and that would be a major buzzkill.

John McCain is somewhere around a thousand years old, which puts him in the same situation as Biden. What’s more, he’s notorious for having a volatile temper. The last thing I want to do is back him up as he fearlessly squares off against some punter who stepped on his shoe or spilt some drink on him. I’m even less inclined to give him CPR when he learns the hard way that he can’t take a hit like he could in the late 60s.

Sarah Palin? Please. I have no idea what kind of common ground I could find with an SUV-driving soccer mum who ended up in government. The only reason I would possibly spend an evening with her is on the off-chance that its conclusion would see me twisting between the sheets with this veritable VPILF.

But even if that unlikely scenario were to occur, it would very quickly be destroyed by the entrance of flannel-wearing, oil-drilling, dog-racing, salmon-fishing testosterone-pumping Northern Man that is Todd Palin. He’d throw his burly frame right through the door without even bothering to check if it’s locked and proceed to kick seven kinds of shit out of me, Alaska-style. So there’s really no good that can come from a night with Palin

It’s the sad truth: 2008 produced no leaders worth hanging out with. Bummer.

So we’re going to have to look backward. The obvious candidate for a fun time is Bill Clinton, that affable, cheery, charismatic man. I’m sure he’d give you the perfect mix of good times and interesting conversation – for maybe two hours. After that, he’d catch the eye of a waitress, barmaid, or other nearby attractive woman, and from that moment on you’d find yourself alone while he sauntered over and chatted her up. Somehow, I don’t think he’s the type to introduce you to her friend, either.

The answer to the question I posed was fairly obvious from the get-go, but perhaps not everyone puts quite as much thought into this as I do. So I’ll spell it out: George Herbert Walker Bush. Commander in Chief for eight years, partier for fifty. Even if he’s a slow learner – which his eight years strongly suggest he is – fifty years is long enough to learn how to do something right. This is a man whose entire life of eating, drinking, and allegedly snorting coke has been completely overshadowed by his successful foray into politics, and I for one think this is a crying shame.

Imagine it! The night would start during a hot summer’s day, where you and your new friend would take in a Rangers game. Even though he doesn’t own the team anymore, I imagine the fact that he was once both owner of the team and President of the country would entitle you to all kinds of excellent perks. I would expect nothing less than a private box, with all the beers and snacks you can handle.

After that, with a slight buzz on, you’d pile into a private car, which would take you to Downtown Dallas (GWB learned his lesson about drink-driving in the late 70s, and besides he has the Secret Service at his beck and call from now on. May as well take advantage of it). Once you arrive in town, you’d be dropped in front of the best, most exclusive steakhouse in Texas, where the ex-President (naturally) is best friends with all of the staff and half of the clientele. As you wash down your perfectly cooked, deliciously marinated, Texas-sized steak, George would make you roar with laughter as he relates stories from his hell-raising, high-flying time in the Texas Air National Guard.

Dinner over, off you’d go, to some of Dallas’s most high-flying bars, with light piano music and leather seats, where everyone knows GWB from his time as an oilman. He’d introduce you to the whole gang with some well-placed clever anecdote, and before long, as the whiskey and conversation flow into one another, you’d feel like you’re amongst old friends.

The night’s not over. Fun as it’s been, you’ve been around other guys all night – isn’t that a little gay? Never fear; as always, Dubya has your back. By 3am it’s last call, but that’s okay because you’ve had enough of this sausage sizzle. It’s time to pile everyone into the limo and head off to the best strip club in town. George is faithful to his wife, as all good Christian men are, but he’s still a man; he loves a good titty bar.

At 6am, you’ll finally emerge, blinking in the sun. You won’t feel great, but George, somehow bright-eyed even at this absurd hour, slaps you on the back and tells you some coffee and grease will fix you right up. Unable to speak anymore, you nod your head in assent, and he takes you to a cheap yet delicious diner that has strong coffee with unlimited refills and the biggest breakfast known to man. As you start to feel better, you and George discuss the previous night, laughing in much more subdued tones as you relate stories the other missed.

Sated and tired, he escorts you to the car. With a warm, double-handed handshake, he tells you to call him the next time you’re in town. And as you board the family-owned private jet, you know that he meant it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Live With My Moms

Adults who live at home can be neatly divided into two groups: the passing through and the set up. Members of each group are very proud of their memberhship; they can’t wait to explain why they’re spending a brief stint living at home (with an eyeroll) or explain just how incredible living at home is, and how they wouldn’t have it any other way (with a grin and a couple thumbs up).


I am firmly in the first camp. This attitude is nurtured by my parents, who I am sure live in constant fear that I will wake up one morning, refreshed in my warm room on a cold night, and cross into the the other category. To this end, I am also sure they stay up late every night, huddled over a whiteboard, plotting ways to ensure this never happens.


Although there is a guestroom, I have been assigned to a room labeled by my father as “the adult child returning home” room, although this is a purpose it has evolved into over the years. It was originally built in a section of the attic as a room for my then ten-year-old brother. There is no door, just a set of stairs that leads directly into a single room with bright colours and walls that connect the ceiling and floor at a forty-five degree angle, as opposed to the standard ninety. It’s the ultimate tree fort, and a child’s dream room.


It’s an adult’s nightmare. The only spot in this room that I can fully stand is in the dead centre, where the two walls converge to create a triangle. Everywhere else, I must crouch. The only place I can put the bed is tucked into one of the angles of the triangle; the effect, combined with the waist-high wall that protects me from rolling out of bed and down the stairs, is truly coffin-esque. The pint-sized dimensions and bright colours make me feel like I have, through some kind of horrible bureaucratic mistake, been committed to a mental ward for children.


As my brother grew, he arrived at similar conclusions, and shifted into the room I vacated when I moved out three years ago. This left my parents with every middle-aged couple’s dream: a spare room. The possibilities were endless! It could be a weight room, a storage room – anything!


Its fate was unexpected, unless you’re familiar with my family’s particular brand of kookiness. It became a fibre studio. My mother is passionate about all things fibre. Knitting, spinning, weaving – she loves them all, and the house is positively brimming with accessories to match this love. So the spare room became the place for all these things. The bookshelf is full of brightly-coloured yarn, all organized very specifically according to brightness, shade, hue, and weight. If I were to take it upon myself to rearrange these, it would likely be the last thing I ever do – such is the level of devotion.


On top of the bookshelf is some strange spider-like contraption that looks like could either be a fibre artifact or a Spanish Inquisition artifact; the jury is still out, but either way it's terrifying.

As for the more dull colours, my (single) bed is surrounded by more yarn, in darker and earthier tones, also organized by colour. I have tried to put a glass of water by my bed before and found that this was not an option available to me; there is not enough of a flat surface to safely do so.


At the foot of my bed, there are two things: one, a pile of secondhand fibre reference books, musty-smelling and full of information that I do not understand. Next to the pile, though, is the coup-de-grace: a spinning wheel. The industrial revolution, it seems, has not yet arrived at my parents’ house, and even though there is enough yarn to keep an army warm and snug, my mother still insists on making – and dying – her own from pure wool. While I admire her commitment to fibre, I am also very confused by it.


But I have to thank them. I never want to be the guy who spends a significant portion of his adulthood as a man-child, living at home like he did when he was eleven. Sure, that lifestyle works for some, but it’s not for me. I am glad my parents not only share this value with me, but they will never let me forget it. You get what you pay for in this world, and my house is no exception: zero rent gets you the creepy room. Them’s the rules.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Heroic Bureaucrat

Fiction makes me feel about one inch tall. Bruce Willis’s Armageddon hero bravely giving his life for his planet actually brought a tear to my eye not long ago. Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore rallying the troops on the dawn of the decisive battle in Independence Day made me swell with pride as he thundered that “we will not go quietly into the night.” These are some seriously inspiring guys.
It’s also a little disheartening. Fiction or no, heroes and heroines are fantastic role models. But they’re fictional.They don't - and can't - exist or be taken seriously in the real world; for evidence of this, look no further than the US, where, in 2003, then-President George Bush tried to emulate Whitmore's flight suit and roguish personality. The results were not positive.

Where, I ask, are their non-fiction equivalents? I’m not asking for a carbon copy. Just someone who follows in the footsteps of the fictional.

There’s good news. I’ve found a hero in the vein of these. He comes with a reality check, as he doesn’t fly fighter jets or set off nuclear bombs in asteroids; by contrast, he’s a civil servant. But that is irrelevant. Courage, moral strength, and integrity are values to be celebrated and striven towards regardless of venue.

I’m referring to Richard Thomson. Readers can be forgiven for not being familiar with him, especially those from outside Dunedin. He’s the chairman of the District Health Board, a job that, while difficult, does not generally lend itself to heroism. Usually, it’s a fairly invisible position, the type upon which the spotlight is only shown when something bad happens. “Child breaks arm; given prompt care” and events of its ilk are not usually headline-worthy.

This steady, invisible positivity recently veered sharply towards its converse when an IT consultant’s lavish lifestyle was brought to Thomson’s attention. Being an attentive leader, he investigated and found that the consultant in question had been embezzling public funds from the hospital for years, to the tune of a whopping $17 million. Thomson alerted the authorities and the thieves now await sentencing.

None of this behaviour is particularly heroic. What is heroic is what happened afterwards. As with most scandals involving public service and its requisite money, a scapegoat was demanded. In truly medieval fashion, the people demanded appeasement with, if not someone’s head, then at least his or her career. In keeping with this time-honoured tradition, newly-elected Health Minister Tony Ryall asked Thomson for his resignation. He would quietly leave his job, someone would take his place, and the whole matter could be put to rest.

Thomson said no.

Thomson said, publicly, that if Ryall wanted him out of his job, he was more than welcome to fire him. Short of that, he would not be going anywhere.

It’s the proverbial calling of the bluff. He demanded that Ryall show his hand, list his reasons, and highlighted what everyone knows but has yet to articulate: Ryall has no reasons. The fraud that went on was unfortunate and shameful. However, it was in place before Thomson’s tenure. His only crime was to investigate it, a conscientious act that nobody should lose their job over.

The moral courage is tremendous. How tempting it must be to simply offer his letter of resignation and fade away. Given his experience, I’m sure he could find another job, but considering his background as a successful businessman, I’m not sure if he would have to.

But that isn’t the point. The point is that he refuses to be scapegoated for something that was not his fault. He refuses to discourage transparency by accepting blame when all he did was bring a crime to light. He refuses to be the simple, one-dimensional “bad guy” because the true institutional dysfunction that allowed this fraud is far more complicated. But most importantly, he refuses the temptation of popularity, disregards that which is expected, and firmly chooses the harder road. He doesn’t do this out of any kind of self-hating masochism, but because it is right. And that ability, the ability to do the right thing even though a thousand voices say it is wrong – that is the mark of a true, real-life, modern-day hero.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Improving the Journey

If I’ve learned anything in my time, it’s that walking sucks. Walking really sucks. Mostly, it’s time-consuming. I could roughly tally up how much time I’ve spent pounding the pavement over the past several years, but I know that the resulting spreadsheet would send me into, if not a state of deep depression, then at least an uncomfortable malaise.

Walking isn’t unpleasant so much as it’s just excruciatingly boring. It’s not painful at all, which is part of the problem. If you finished a walking journey with sore legs, rasping breath, and sweat-drenched clothes, you would at least feel like you’d done something, and your endorphins would be released. But that doesn’t happen. Walking is the epitome of mild exercise; I will never understand the middle aged women I see walking around my Dunedin suburb every evening, often in pairs but sometimes, when their walking partner is unavailable, with a reluctant husband. But each to their own, I suppose. They probably don’t understand why I spend weekend afternoons telling the internet my thoughts on life, so we’re even.

Driving isn’t that great either. For one, it’s expensive. Very expensive. Where walking robbed you of chunks of your time, driving will steadily siphon away your money. If you, like me, decide to budget by investing in a car that’s older than you, then in addition to appeasing your vehicle's constant thirst for petroleum, you'll also be stuck with endless unexpected repair costs that won’t siphon money so much as suction it. Even my parents’ car, which is a relatively sprightly decade old, requires pricey maintenance on a fairly regular basis. Warrants, registrations, insurance…the list of hidden costs goes on and on, and soon enough the money you worked so hard for is mostly going towards getting you to and from work in the first place. Hardly ideal.

So what to do? Getting from here to there is a huge part of your life; you need something cheap, enjoyable, and quick. You need the low cost of walking combined with the speed of driving. You don’t want to deal with parking, but you don’t want to budget half an hour of travel time for everywhere you go. Where, you ask me, is this happy medium? Surely nothing so perfect could exist.

Well it does. Perfect is not an adjective I throw around a lot, but the bike has earned it. Everyone rode bikes when they were kids, tearing around, exploring, racing, and playing. I was well-known in my neighbourhood for having a pink girl’s bike; when confronted, which was often, I would insist that it wasn’t pink, it was light red, at which point my accusors would move on to the flowers printed on myhandlebars. Superficial trappings notwithstanding, though, I had a bike: the whole neighbourhood was my oyster.

Fifteen years later, I rediscovered the magic, and wondered what had inspired me to shrug it off for so long. Now, the most arduous distances are proverbial pieces of cake. What once took me twenty minutes now takes me five; travel time is a thing of the past. I can take meandering routes, blasting down side streets with impunity, exploring previously uncharted areas of Dunedin in a third of the time it would have taken me to walk. I can leave for work ten minutes before I’m due to be there, when previously I had to allocate half an hour, sometimes in the rain with holes in my shoes. Again: not ideal.

Of course, as with all things that are seemingly perfect, there are some downsides I would be criminal to not mention. First and foremost, especially in mountainous Dunedin, are hills. They are every biker’s worst nightmare, and can be combated in two ways. One: tough them out until your new habit makes you fit enough to handle them. This is a great option if you have drive, ambition, and an enormous tolerance for pain.

I don’t know about you, but that isn’t me. So here's your second option: stairs. When you go up hills, adjust your route so that you have to go up the maximum amount of outdoor concrete staircases, a ubiquitous sight in Dunedin, and hopefully present elsewhere too. At each staircase, hop off and walk your bike up; if you are seen by anyone, you will be spared the shame of being outed as unfit, because you’re walking up stairs. Lance Armstrong would have to do the same: riding is a physical impossibility! It’s the perfect way to ascend a hill while avoiding the shameful experience of walking a bike alongside traffic, which is sure to contain at least one van full of schoolkids who want nothing more than to mercilessly mock people like you.

And crashes. Dear me, there is serious potential for crashing on a bike. This may apply to me more than to most because my coordination is more ape than it is human, but I have experienced some truly hellish crashes. I’ve pressed the front brakes at high speeds without the balance of the rear brakes; the consequences were predictably dire. I’ve lost control going down hills at high speeds, once crashing into a grassy embankment, and once, rather spectacularly, into a fence that was high enough to stop my bike in its tracks, but not high enough to stop me from continuing on at the same velocity, flying over the fence and down the hill behind it, like a latter-day, clumsy superman. Luckily, through some miracle, I was okay, save a bit of embarrassment, and I brushed myself off, untangled my bike from the chain-link, and carried on.

So get a bike. Buy one secondhand, buy one new; go to the dump and shell out a dollar for a fixer-upper. If you're lucky enough to have friends or family with unused bikes, liberate theirs. I promise you, you won't be dissapointed. But please, wear a helmet.

You're welcome.