Reviews

A Week at the Street Show

I apologize for the lack of an update last week. My time was being filtered in all sorts of different directions. Particularly new for me was my volunteer work at our local theatre festival: The Fringe.

Running on its 34th year with the Mary Poppins-esque theme of SupercaliFringelistic, the Fringe is an ode to theatre both on stage and in the streets. Venues host shows ranging from local to global, and street performers come from all over to perform for thousands for a period of ten days.

I only took in two shows this year—which I will talk about next week—but I saw a lot of street performers from my post. I worked with the Community Engagement team, helping Fringe sponsors and getting people to sign up for the Fringe Fanclub newsletter and our big draw. I spent about four hours every day for a week inside the gazebo that was facing the big outdoor stage, where some of the better street shows get to perform.

Here were a few of my favourites:

Eden—A stunt performer working with ladders and whips. I can attest from personal experience that whips are not easy to use without hurting yourself—though, in my case, it was a cheap Halloween whip and my sister was the one wielding it, but her thigh severely regretted it—but this guy makes it look easy. In addition to demonstrating his skills cracking two whips at the same time in rapid succession, a major portion of his show had him aiming at spaghetti, which he would hold behind his back, between his legs, or on top of his head.

Every street performer I saw had a comedic aspect to the show, and Eden was no different. His humour was far more adult than the other performers, and did consist of a lot of Asian jokes (He’s Chinese-Canadian) that were often so bad you had to laugh. Admittedly, his humour doesn’t make him the best performer for your kids to see if you’re worried about them actually understanding those kinds of jokes.

Though, he did give me one of the best lines I’ve ever heard.

“Sir, can you please not laugh while I’m trying to be sexy?”

The Flying Dutchmen—A combination juggling and unicycle act. Upwards of five flaming torches were a staple in their act. They demonstrated their juggling with some flaming torch warm-ups and juggling around a volunteer and knocking a cigarette out of their mouth—no flaming torches here, of course, just regular juggling pins. Their entire performance built up to a tandem juggling trick involving two tall unicycles and fire.

The Dutchmen had a “Smart Guy, Dumb Guy” routine, which was funny, and certainly more child friendly than a performer like Eden. Only a couple jokes would go over a kid’s head, but mostly because it might be a pun as opposed to anything dirty. These two were a treat to watch.

Victor Rubilar—If I had to pick who I thought the funniest performer was, it’s this guy. All the way from Barcelona (though he claimed to be from Argentina), his act was entirely based around his soccer prowess, and the stereotype of the Latin Lover. A holder of five World Records, Rubilar’s act consisted of various tricks involving some of the most neon soccer balls I’d ever seen. Spinning tricks, kick tricks, juggling upwards of five soccer balls at a time, these were the staples of his act.

But between his warm-ups and his grand finale, he proudly demonstrated his dance prowess. He selected a woman from the audience—always one with a boyfriend or husband accompanying them—and brought them on stage. He had this elaborate story he’d crafted for this volunteer, whom he called Maria, about their whirlwind romance back in Argentina. This was followed by a minute-long dance montage that encompassed several songs and several genres, all performed seamlessly, to demonstrate Rubilar’s skills at seduction and rising to a climax involving a bikini tan line.

Trust me, it’s hilarious when you see it.

The Street Circus—If I had to pick the best act overall, I would vote these guys. A husband and wife duo, the Street Circus was an acrobatic show with stunts that could have put the performers straight into Cirque de Soleil. Their jokes were mostly family friendly and their warm-ups simple tricks that I’d seen performed before by other performers, it was the their solo acts that impressed me the most. The wife—Kim—was a contortionist who performed an extended acrobatic, contortion, hula hoop dance to “You Spin Me Right Round,” starting with one, going steadily to four, and ending in a dramatic twirls of forty-two hula hoops. Her husband—Dan—was up next, performing in a giant ring of steel called the cyr wheel. This was where the show took the Cirque turn, with beautiful instrumental music and a hypnotic amount of grace on Dan’s part as he spun within, creating acrobatic poses as he kept the wheel’s momentum.

The rest of their act showcased the acrobatic skills they had learned to do together. Their finale was admittedly not my favourite part of the show, though it was an impressive combination of three different circus acts. I really loved their solo performances the most.

Dan & Kim were by far the best street act I saw this year. I hope to see them again next year.

And with any luck, I’ll have the same great seats.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

I love Marvel movies. While I’ve never been a big reader of comic books—so much continuity and interconnecting plotlines over years and years is a little daunting—it’s not hard to convince me to see a superhero movie. This week, let’s talk Avengers: Age of Ultron

Image belongs to Marvel and Disney

Image belongs to Marvel and Disney

Coming off of the other movies in the Marvel cinematic universe, Age of Ultron begins with the Avengers assaulting a Hydra base. Their target? Loki’s scepter. Successful in their mission, the group returns to the Avengers HQ, where Tony Stark (Ironman played by Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk played by Mark Ruffalo) begin their study of the weapon before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) can return it to Asgard. They discover that there seems to be a consciousness of sorts within the scepter. Going off on a vision given to him by the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff played by Elizabeth Olsen) back at the Hydra base where earth is invaded and the other Avengers are dead, Stark convinces Banner to help him configure the consciousness into a robotic body. This being will then multiply itself to create a “robotic shield” against alien invaders, leaving humans as the greatest threat to the planet. Banner eventually agrees and he, Stark, and the program J.A.R.V.I.S, get to work.

Things seem unsuccessful until the end of a party the Avengers hold to celebrate their victory. Ultron is born, he’s multiplying, and his idea of protecting earth involves nothing but pure destruction.

Visually beautiful and action-packed, Age of Ultron is a lot of fun. For me, a lot of charm in the Marvel movies comes from the comedy. Between moral dilemmas and amazing action sequences, this movie still knows how to make you laugh in ways that make all its characters seem very human.

There are a few points I would really like to discuss. From here come spoilers. You’ve been warned.

I’ll get the first issue out of the way. There’s been a bit of flak for this movie regarding the portrayal of a romance between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson). The big problem with this romance for me—besides the fact that I assumed she and Hawkeye (Clint Barton played by Jeremy Renner) totally had a thing going—was that it came out of nowhere. Hulk hasn’t had any stand-alone movie, Natasha doesn’t mention him once in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the whole thing feels rushed. It’s almost like there’s a movie missing where they decided they might’ve had feelings for each other.

If I would have to pick the one thing that kind of bothered me about Age of Ultron, I would have to say the sheer amount of characters they were bringing in. We have Pietro and Wanda Maxixoff (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch), who were introduced in the stinger of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, properly shown in this movie. Due to Fox owning the rights to X-Men, they have a bit of a different backstory, being enhanced humans made by Hydra rather than being mutants. They start the movie allied with Hydra, and then Ultron, only to defect to the Avengers when they realize that Ultron’s idea of protecting humanity involves destroying it.

Also introduced is The Vision. Made from the synthetic android body Ultron was crafting for himself and combined with J.A.R.V.I.S and the Infinity Stone (specifically the Mind Stone) set in Loki’s scepter, The Vision serves as a foil to Ultron. Unlike Ultron, he believes in protecting human life, and is even worthy of lifting Thor’s Hammer.

The most you can say about these characters is that they’re kind of cool.

Age of Ultron brought in a lot of characters, from the new team members to the squeezed in cameos. It can get a little overwhelming at times, and makes it hard to decide whom to root for. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are familiar to me because I used to watch X-men cartoons when I was a kid, but The Vision is a character I’d never even heard of. Truthfully, being crammed in such a massive cast really limited my ability to really like them. I thought The Vision was cool, and while I was sad when Pietro died, I should really have been bawling for

Wanda’s loss. The massive cast of characters to care about made it hard to care for the Avengers themselves. I feel the studio is relying a lot of appeasing people who’ve read the comics, and are assuming that the audience knows what’s going on at all times because they’ve got great trivia knowledge.

Now, before I tell you what I think was the best part of the movie, I want to point out what bothered me the most. At the end of the movie, four new members are inducted into the Avengers: War Machine, The Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon. The Falcon, Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie), was one of the major characters in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and one of my favorites. He makes a guest appearance at the party in Avenger HQ near the beginning of the movie, and then appears in the one scene at the end. This bothers me because unlike War Machine—also present at the party—he did not appear in the climax. Basically, I wanted to see Falcon fighting alongside the Avengers and I was disappointed that he wasn’t.

But if you want to ask me what the best part of Age of Ultron was I would have to say…Ultron.

Specifically, James Spader’s performance.

This movie was part of our Mother’s Day jaunt, and when Ultron made his first extremely creepy appearance in the broken body of a Stark robot, my mom leaned over and whispered, “They sure knew who to pick to give long speeches.”

Now, I’m mostly familiar with James Spader through Boston Legal and a few episodes of The Blacklist. The thing I love about this guy is his voice. The first time you hear him speak, his mild voice catches you off-guard. You sit there thinking, That’s it? That’s the voice the villain has? Yet as you keep listening, his inflections and attitude come through and you start to feel uneasy. The longer you listen, the more you realize that James Spader is not a man to be fucked with.

And it works great for Ultron. Between Spader’s voice and the wonderful, emotive—yes, Ultron’s robotic body emotes to near-human levels while still managing to seem strange—character design, Ultron comes off as humorous and straight-forward in his thinking, but complex and frightening at the same time. He makes a great villain and is wholly entertaining and intimidating.

If you haven’t seen it already, I’d recommend checking out Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s a fun jaunt, despite its flaws, and offers a lot of hints at what’s to come in the next installments of Marvel’s cinematic universe.

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My Final Fringe Days

The Fringe has come and gone, taking its actors and props and carnival fare with it. Last week, I reviewed the first play I saw at this year’s festivities. Now, I will talk of three others, though it’s a bit late for anyone to see them.

  • Grace in Exile—How in the hell was this rated PG?

Grace in Exile was the story of a girl—the titular Grace—who joins the circus to escape from her abusive preacher father. During her stay, her experiences and time spent with Madame Rose the fortune-teller change her as she begins to see that the circus isn’t the magical place she thought it was.

            The play featured a combination of traditional acting and Japanese Butoh to tell not only Grace’s story, but some of Rose’s as well. The acting was excellent, and the choreography was very clear when it came to the play’s Butoh segments. It wasn’t hard to figure out what kind of struggles the dances were trying to convey. The acting was also excellent.

            However, the subject matter was another story. Though having received a PG rating, I would not have taken a kid to see it. Hell, I wouldn’t have taken some older people to see it. The subject matter was very uncomfortable most of the time. One scene will forever be burned into my mind. Two clowns, accompanied by jaunty carnival music, make balloon flowers and fill a wine bottle with castor oil. Then they cheerfully go to visit one of the carnival’s stars, who has fallen pregnant. Gifting her with the flowers, they attempt to give her the bottle as well, which she refuses. The music then stops…as they proceed to force the castor oil down her throat to induce a miscarriage. Then the music starts up and they shake hands like a comedy duo while she choking and sobbing on the ground.

            Holy. Fuck.  

            Overall, I felt the play was too short for the subject it was trying to convey. At about an hour long, I think the play could have easily been twice that. It would have felt less rush, and the ending might not have been so unsatisfying for me.

  • A Series of Grisly Murders at the Lonsdale Record Shop—Murder, Mayhem, and Not-Great-Comedy.

The last play I saw this year was one of murder and music. Mr. Lonsdale owns the titular record shop, while in the meantime he tries to create the next musical sensation. It’s during one of his nightly experimentations that he accidently discovers a combination of notes that kills anyone who hears them (he is unaffected due to an incident that took some of his hearing). Though his first uses of the note are accidental, he begins to use them for more nefarious purposes, goaded on by a love-stricken employee.

            The play had an interesting plot and was well-paced, but I didn’t get a good sense of atmosphere from it. It was supposed to take place during the 1920s, but almost none of the dialogue made me feel like I’d been transported back in time. There were plenty of jokes, and the audience laughed quite a bit, but I didn’t find much to chuckle at. Most of the characters were extremely unlikeable, particularly Lonsdale. The actors in this production weren’t the consummate professionals of the other shows I saw, but they weren’t half bad.

            The play itself was a little slow, at least until the zombies showed up. However, unlike Grace in Exile, Lonsdale’s ending left me far more satisfied.

  • Mr & Mrs. Alexander: Sideshows and Psychics—Tied for my Best in Show.

I literally cannot choose between this play and Dirk Darrow for my favourite production this year. Mr. & Mrs. Alexander was, primarily, a magic show, detailing the last performance of the titular magician couple’s career. We learn how they met, and are treated to magic, mind-reading, and wit galore, before a big twist ending.

            The play was largely entertaining. The Alexanders were presented as grand folk of the theatre. Their exuberance was intoxicating, and their wit sharp. Little glimpses of them as a couple (Particularly the bit where Mrs. Alexander is trying to bend a fork with her mind, at her husband’s assistance and doesn’t take it seriously…at first) are both sweet and funny. There was wonderful chemistry between the characters. The show required audience participation, which included a delightful couple who couldn’t remember if they’d been married for 29 years or 30, and a woman so eager to participate, that she was willing to get a little too close to the Alexanders’ hand-shattering possum trap.

            Though there wasn’t much for plot, the show managed to pull off a grand twist at the end. The final show for the Alexanders was due to the impending arrival of a child. Yet, at the very end, Mr. Alexander steals a valuable necklace from an official’s wife and makes off with it after his wife gets her hand caught by the possum trap. Abandoned by her husband, people rally to donate to Mrs. Alexander and her unborn child. A few weeks later, Mrs. Alexander and a hearty, Victorian-era sum of $2000 vanishes.

            Years later, in another place, Mr. & Mrs. Montgomery prepare for their final show…

            There was some great talent at the Fringe this year. I’m hoping next year will be just as grand.

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Fringe Reviews: Dirk Darrow

Fringe has started up in Edmonton, so these next two weeks will be short reviews of the plays I saw while I was there. First up: 2 Ruby Knockers, 1 Jaded Dick: A Dirk Darrow Investigation.

            I saw the first Dirk Darrow play about two years ago. For those unaware, the play is a one-man parody of film noir following one of Darrow’s improve-littered investigations. This year, Darrow was working to solve the case of a massive bank heist, all while trying to figure out what connection the mysterious and beautiful Ruby “Knockers” has to it all.

            In addition to mystery and comedy, there’s a bit of magic as well. Darrow’s got a few clever card tricks and sleight of hand up his sleeve that’s sure to some applause. Some tricks start early, leading to pay offs near the end that will leave you asking “When did he do that?”

            The real treat comes with the comedy, however. While the play is littered with clever jokes and jokes that are so bad you’ll laugh anyway, the real gold is in the improv. Experience will vary between audiences, depending on how stage-shy the unexpected volunteer might be. I was lucky to witness one unintentional smartass and one gentleman who was more than happy to take on the role of the beautiful Ruby. Together, their antics even managed to trip up the actor once, leaving both Darrow and the audience in hysterics.     

            If I had to say anything negative about the play, it’s that I felt like it went by too fast. But maybe that was because I was having so much fun.

            If you’re out Fringing this week, check out Dirk Darrow before he’s back on the case.

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Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon UK

 

“Hey, so I found this book you might like. It’s called Throne of the Crescent Moon. It’s a fantasy book, but it takes place in an Islamic-Middle Eastern society. Also, one chick can turn into a lion and it’s pretty awesome.”

            This is more or less what I told a Muslim friend of mine after I’d finished reading the first book of Saladin Ahmed’s Crescent Moon Kingdoms series. However, I think it’s a good reason for non-Muslims to read it as well.

            I picked the book up on a whim because the front cover was cool looking, and the blurb on the back promised an interesting story. I’m also a sucker for Arabian Nights-style stories, which may be largely because Disney’s Aladdin was my favourite movie as a kid.

            But I digress.

            The book takes place in the city of Dhamsawaat, where ghul-hunter Doctor Adoulla Makhslood finds that he’s getting too old to face the dangers of his job. However, there is no rest for him, as a recent ghul attack thrusts him and his partner, Raseed bas Raseed, into further dangers. Matters become more pressing as Adoulla and Raseed, along with Dawoud and Litaz—old friends of Adoulla’s, a magus and an alkhemist, respectfully—and Zamia Banu Laith Badawi—an Angel-touched girl who transforms into a lioness—must face an evil sorcerer who could cause the Kingdoms to descend into chaos. And all of this is going smack in the middle of political strife as the mysterious Falcon Prince seeks to overthrow the corrupt Khalif.

            It’s a fantastic world of swords and sorcery, and the characters are really the heart of the whole thing. Adoulla is a ridiculous old man, often blatantly rude, but don’t let that make you think he’s not a total badass. The man smites foul beasts for a living in the name of God. His dervish sidekick Raseed is a powerful ally, especially armed with his forked sword, but he struggles with his desire to do good by his order. Zamia, though seeking vengeance for her murdered band, is equally as complex. And she turns into a lion. Which is awesome.

            The other characters are wonderfully imagined as well. Dawoud, though burdened by his magic, is a strong ally and trustworthy friend. His wife Litaz may not have magic, but she’s clever and skilled in her own right. The Falcon Prince is charming rogue. The villains are mysterious and intimidating. Even the side characters have distinct things about them that make you want to know more.

            Throne of the Crescent Moon has a lot of great qualities to it. Equal parts drama, action, and comedy drive the story forward. The characters are wonderfully complex. Though Ahmed plays the “love at first sight” card (I won’t tell you on whom), the budding romance is actually very sweet and entertaining. The world is interesting and it begs more expansion. Anyone who has done research on the Middle East will see a lot of cultural aspects cleverly realized, especially in regards to religion and mythology.

            Throne of the Crescent Moon has garnered quite a bit of attention based on the fact that it’s not set in a counter-part to medieval Europe, like so many fantasies are. I think this is a good thing for it. I know there are some who feel different, but I’m personally way more interested in the Golden Age of Arabia than the Dark Ages. Plus, you can only read so many medieval fantasies before you want some variety.

            “But wait!” you might cry. “If this book takes place in a fictional Islamic country, don’t they talk about God a lot?”

            Well, yes. And the thing about any story where God is frequently discussed is that it runs the risk of getting preachy. It takes a good author to avoid that, and Saladin Ahmed does it well. Religion is heavily integrated into this world, but it comes off very naturally. Even when characters are quoting the “Heavenly Chapters,” the dialogue doesn’t seem stilted or preachy. A scripture quote comes across more like a comforting platitude you might hear after having a bad day.

            And Adoulla usually interrupts a few of them anyway.

            Aside from this, you might need to look up what a dervish actually is.

            The only real issue I have with Ahmed’s writing is that he can be rather repetitive at times. This is more noticeable at the beginning of the book and wanes as the story continues. I believe he mentions Adoulla’s spotless, moonlight white kaftan several times in a single chapter and some of Raseed and Zamia’s thoughts do tend to play on repeat. It doesn’t take away from the story at all, but it was one thing I noticed.

            I truly recommend this book to any lover of fantasy. Go and pick it up.

            And then sit with me in frustration as we wait for the sequel to be released.    

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Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 1

I don’t read a lot of comic books, at least not mainstream ones. I’ve got maybe one volume of Gail Simone’s recent Batgirl run, and that’s it for Marvel or DC. Any comics I do read are collected in volume format, and have nothing to do with super heroes.

I’m here to talk to you about one of those comics. It’s called Rat Queens.

Cover of Rat Queens Issue 5

Cover of Rat Queens Issue 5

Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and illustrated by Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens is about your near-typical fantasy RPG group—consisting of a dwarf warrior, elf mage, human cleric, and smidgen (Halfling) thief—with the twist being that the entire group is made up of women. The story follows Hannah (elf), Dee (human), Violet (dwarf), and Betty (smidgen) as they do everything from starting bar brawls to slaying trolls, to out-classing assassins.

While I’m not intimately involved in comic book culture, I know that it’s not an easy place for women. Sexism is abound with unimagined ladies who are killed off to cause man-pain, and women are drawn without the figure necessary for housing vital organs and apparently have snakes for spines. The lack of diversity and development for female characters is a serious issue with female fans. It’s to the point where DC has put out a slew of Superman and Batman movies, but Wonder Woman has been stuck in development hell for years because the idea of a super hero movie with a female lead was deemed “too confusing.”

There’s nothing confusing about Rat Queens.

When Wiebe created these characters, he set out to make women that people could relate to, or recognize as a friend, family member, or lover. His goal was to create realistic women, and I think he succeeded. These ladies are vulgar and badass, but they’ve got kind, sensitive sides, and struggles that are only hinted at so far. Dee the Cleric, a class that relies of divine magic, seriously questions her religion; Violet has struggles with her family; Hannah, easily the most vulgar of the group, has a soft-side that comes out in her relationship with the guard captain Sawyer Silver; Betty has relationship troubles (largely thanks to Hannah). They’ve got very real lives outside of their day-jobs as battle-maidens-for-hire, and the friendship they share is genuine. I would totally hang out with any of these women (and sometimes I get the impression that I have) even at the risk of horrible mutilation via orcs.

And they’re backed up by an equally interesting and hilarious cast. Outside of the ladies, we’ve got Tizzie, another elf mage who has an intense rivalry with Hannah; Braga, a half-orc woman and all around badass whose part of Tizzie’s group; Old Lady Bernadette (who’s only thirty-nine); The Four Daves, another group of adventurers similar to our heroines but made up of four guys named Dave; and fucking Gary.

And that’s just a few. There’s promises of more in future issues.

Upchurch’s art is fantastic. The characters are wonderfully expressive and all of them are identifiable at a glance. The women actually look like women, and if they’re being twisted into uncomfortable positions, it’s because some monster is trying to rip them apart. Rather than make fun of the typical skimpy female armor, the characters all have proper outfits: Violet wears metal armor, Betty wears loose clothes to allow for maximum range of movement, Hannah and Dee both wear cloth armor, with Hannah’s being more elfish while Dee has a cool tribal voodoo look going on. The cast showcases a variety of body-types (rare stuff with female comic book characters), species, and ethnicities. The world is well-imagined despite not going far out of the city of Palisade, and has a lot of room for expansion.

Rat Queens also has a lot of offer in the way of comedy. From the main group’s antics, to the vulgarity, to the good natured jabs at fantasy MMORPGs, there’s a lot of laughs to be had. Readers may get a sudden laugh at unexpected gore or an accurately placed curse.

Rat Queens has a lot to offer in the way of character, comedy, and adventure.  The first volume started and ended with a bang, and now I’m hungry for volume two. Whether you’re a guy who enjoys fantasy, a girl who wants to see more strong female leads, or someone off the binary who just loves a good story, I recommend seeing what the Rat Queens have to offer.

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