Skip to content →

We Love the City Posts

The Road review

The Road movie posterYou know a movie’s not going to end well when a man shows his young son how to put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger.

But this is how things are in The Road. After an unspecified apocalypse, the sun doesn’t shine, crops and animals have died, and civilization has been replaced with thieves, killers, and cannibals. It’s a world where you make sure your gun has enough bullets left for you and the ones you love, because that’s surely one of the kinder fates available.

The Road is one of the bleakest movies you’re likely to see. There’s a pervasive sense of dread that hangs over everything, the knowledge that something bad could happen at any time. Anyone the man and his son meet on the road could be dangerous, any building they enter may not have an exit. When there’s a moment of peace or contentedness, it feels like the setup for something horrible, the calm before the cannibals.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The Road isn’t an action-overloaded, everyone running about in slow-mo while the apocalypse explodes in glorious CGI. It’s an intimate, often tender portrait of the end of the world. There’s action and suspense, but it’s secondary to the relationship between the Man (Viggo Mortenson) and his son (13 year-old  Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s a strong emotional core, giving the audience a reason to care as well as fuelling the already considerable suspense.

After all, there’s nothing in the film more horrifying than the prospect of something happening to the boy. The boy is the only reason for hope, for love. He’s possibly the only thing keeping the man human – at times, the man’s paranoia and hardness threaten to overwhelm his humanity, but the boy brings him back.

Mortenson is given the task of anchoring the film, a job that rests fairly well on his shoulders. He’s great at looking intense without being merely angry, at saying a lot without dialogue. There’s a softness under his tough exterior, a genuine love for the boy beneath his fierce desire to protect him. Smit-McPhee fits well, for the most part; with Mortenson doing most of the heavy emotional lifting, the boy’s role is often limited. One of his most important tasks is to merely be a child, albeit a child surrounded by death and destruction. It’s a nicely grounded performance, though there are some scenes towards the end where he can’t quite convey the emotionally gravity that is called for.

The rest of the cast is enough to make most directors drool: Charlize Theron as the man’s wife, Robert Duvall as a fellow traveller, Gerret Dillahunt as a roving scavenger, Michael K. Williams as a man with a knife. They’re small roles, with only Theron needing to make a serious emotional impact, but all are performed almost perfectly. You’re never quite sure what to make of most of the characters: Anyone the man and his son meet on the road could be harmless, helpful, or horrible. All of the performances are kept fairly subtle, so we can only see them through the paranoid and protective eyes of the man.

The main flaw of The Road is its episodic nature. The man and his son travel south, towards hopefully warmer climates. They encounter people, a place, or a thing. They deal with the situation, somehow, and then continue travelling until they encounter another set of people, places, and things. And repeat. They all work individually, but the pattern becomes repetitive towards the end of the film, with a general lack of forward momentum; most of the sequences could be rearranged without too much impact.

The structure inherited from a novel may be the film’s weakness, but the language of Cormac McCarthy’s novel – often conveyed almost verbatim in Mortenson’s monologues – becomes one of the greatest strengths. It’s beautiful, haunting prose, sparse, full of desperation and hope. “The boy is my warrant,” the man says early on, “if he is not the word of god, then god never spoke,” and it will stay with you for the rest of the film. Literary prose can often sound stilted or unnatural when spoken aloud, but McCarthy’s text, delivered by Mortenson’s weary voice, is cinematic gold.

My one major disappointment with the film may lie in the novel, too, though I haven’t yet read it so can’t be sure. (It’s sitting on my bedside table right now. Don’t hassle me.) The ending feels abrupt and sudden. There’s the emotional climax, and then things just wrap up a bit too quickly, as though the filmmakers suddenly ran out of time. (Though at 111 minutes, The Road isn’t particularly long.)

The Road reminds me more than a little of Last Night, another movie about the end of the world that was less about the disaster than the people. Last Night was much lighter – everything short of The Pianist is lighter than The Road – but it held the similar view that it doesn’t matter if the world is ending if you don’t care about the people in it. The Road has more to say about the end of the world itself, and has ample thrills and scares, but its always guided by the characters, real people forced to survive in a nightmare. It’s a haunting, intense, and disturbing film, full of horrible people driven to do terrible things, but you can’t help leaving the film feeling a little hopeful, and moved by the love, devotion, and sacrifice on display.

Comments closed

The Christmas Goat Returns!

I’ve yet to find a Christmas tradition more beautiful than the Gavle Goat.

Every year in Sweden, the city of Gavle erects a gigantic goat made of wood and/or straw. And almost every year, someone burns it down. (22 times since the first goat was built in 1966)

The history of the goat alone is a wonderful story; I particularly enjoy the years in which it was built, burned down,built again, and burned down yet again. Some awkward translation makes for even better reading when you get to the parts about molesting and impregnating the goats.

I love the fact that this cycle of vandalism and creativity has become a part of the town tradition. Everyone expects the goat to burn down. I suspect the town officials would rather it not – in 2007, they coated it with flame-retardent chemicals – but they seem to have a good sense of humour about it. How often do you read about “pyromaniac attacks” on a municipal website?

Take, for example, the Goat’s Blog. Yes, it’s a blog by a giant wooden goat, written entirely in the first person. And this year, brand new, the Goat has his own Twitter account.

And, as always, you can watch the live Goat Cam. There’s also a “Making of the Goat” video.

I could not make this stuff up if I tried. Not even Ebeneezer Scrooge could be a Christmas curmudgeon in the face of such wondrous tradition.

Comments closed

Crazy People are Awesome Sometimes

We live in an overly litigous society. There are far too many lawsuits and not enough personal responsibility, and too many people make too much money from it for things to change. Some days, you just want to go and join a commune in the jungle somewhere.

And then someone gets so extreme and insane that you want to form an internet fanclub and mail him your underwear.

This guy, for example: Erik Estavillo is suing the maker of World of Warcraft for sneaky and deceptive practices, and for generally infringing on his right to pursue happiness. The game costs too much money, it has annoying features that take too much time, and it contributes to his sense of alienation.

But wait, it gets better. Better, even, than the fact that he’s already tried to sue Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo for their alleged crimes against gamer humanity.

No, what truly makes this art – and is there a more 21st-century form of art in North America than the lawsuit? – is the celebrity portion of the lawsuit. Estavello wants to subpoena Martin Gore of Depeche Mode to testify as to the nature of alienation, “since he himself has been known to be sad, lonely, and alienated” in his songs.

Personally, I’d have subpoenaed Robert Smith. You could just play Disintegration for the court and totally win the case.

He also wants Winona Ryder as a witness, apparently because she really likes Catcher in the Rye. You’d think he could have worked Beetlejuice in there somehow, too.

Comments closed

Margaret Atwood pisses me off

In general terms, I like Margaret Atwood. She’s not my favourite author by any stretch – I’ve only ever finished one of her books, the wonderful Handmaid’s Tale – but I respect an author who’s diverse, seemingly willing to write whatever she feels like without being bound in by audience expectations. The fact she’s a successful Canadian author is a nice bonus. The Longpen may be kind of weird, and she’s a bit odd in general, but I can respect that.

But sometimes, it appears she’s kind of a dick.

Take, for example, this interview in the Globe and Mail about her new novel, The Year of the Flood. The article describes the novel thusly:

In the post-apocalyptic future Toby inhabits, maggots are both food and medicine. Indeed they are one of the few wholly benign creatures left in a world teeming with the misbegotten results of genetic tinkering – Day-Glo sheep, pigs with human brain power and dangerous “liobams” created by a literal-minded religious cult determined to make the lion lie down with the lamb.

Survival is no metaphor in The Year of the Flood. It is the immediate priority of all humanity – at least the fraction that survives the flood in question, called “waterless” by the fictional cultists who predicted it. Atwood describes the event as something like a worldwide outbreak of the Ebola-Marburg virus, producing “a hemorrhagic, dissolve-from-the-inside kind of fever.”

And yet, the Globe points out, Atwood insists it’s not a science fiction novel.

“Science fiction takes place “somewhere in space, far, far away in a distant galaxy,” she explains. … But “speculative fiction” of the sort she writes deals strictly with things people can experience on Earth “without being stoned,” she says. “It has to be based on real technology, real science, real possibility.”

Now, I can appreciate the desire of an author to avoid a genre label. Write the book you want to write, and let others decide in which category it belongs. And I suppose I can even understand wanting to avoid being stuck in a genre ghetto – science fiction books seldom win major awards or rack up the huge sales of a “literary” novel.

But this is just silly. I understand when someone says they don’t consider Star Wars to be “science fiction”, as there’s very little science in it. But Atwood seems to be going off in a completely different direction – unless there’s no basis for the existence of other planets in “science”? One wonders what Atwood might think of Alastair Reynolds, who writes stories about adventures in far-off outer space that nonetheless have a very strong basis in science thanks to a career spent working for the European Space Agency. Instead, her definition of science fiction as “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today” would seem to rule out any associations with the Reynolds or Iain M Banks of the world, and set her books on the shelf next to Terminator.

Now, I can get behind a label like “speculative fiction”, since it’s much broader and open to more diverse interpretations. But when you get right down to it, to “speculate” merely means to engage in thought or reflection, which would seem to cover a great deal of fiction.

Atwood clearly doesn’t want to be restrained by labels, but she’s labelling herself with her outright rejection of labels. It’s one thing to call your book what you like, but entirely another to reject others’ descriptions of it, particularly when those descriptions make rather a good deal of sense.

One Comment

Doctor Parnassus lives again!

At long last, it appears The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is close to getting a theatrical release. It’ll probably get more publicity as Heath Ledger’s final performance, and the casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell as his replacements, but jumps to the top of my must-see list – possibly behind Where The Wild Things Are – because it looks to be the first film in a long time to feature the full-on madness of Terry Gilliam.

Tideland was interesting – and one of the weirdest, most uncomfortable films I’ve ever sene – but it’s actually been 10 years since Gilliam totally set himself loose, on the beautifully demented Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Parnassus looks like a return to the good old days.

There doesn’t appear to be a North American distributor yet, but I assume it will happen eventually.

Comments closed

Sidewalk Cyclists are the new Swine Flu

Last week, a cyclist hit a pedestrian on a sidewalk in Scabrough, and the pedestrian died. It’s an incredibly stupid accident, and tragic that someone died, but is also the first incident of its kind to happen in some time, as far as I’m aware.

That hasn’t stopped the Sun’s Joe Warmington from getting hysterical about it.

A bit of background, in case you aren’t familiar with Toronto: Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is banned by municipal by-law. Unless, that is, your wheels are a certain size – a fairly sensible exemption to allow children to learn to ride on a sidewalk. Of course, it doesn’t specify anything about children, so it’s all about wheel size. In this case, a 15-year-old was riding a bike with wheels the appropriate size for a sidewalk, so no crime has been committed. Right?

This, understandably, gets Warmington’s goat. But it’s fair to note that no charges have been laid yet. It’s been less than a week since the accident took place – it’s not unusual for it to take much longer to sort out what charges should be applied.

Warmington, of course, has a solution:

Had that bike had a licensed adult on the pedals, perhaps dangerous driving charges could have been laid or even criminal negligence causing death.

Warmington doesn’t seem to understand that a license has very little to do with whether charges can be laid. Criminal Negligence, for example, has nothing to do with licenses, cars, or bicycles:

219. (1) Every one is criminally negligent who
(a) in doing anything, or
(b) in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do,
shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.

Speeding down a sidewalk on a bicycle and not taking more precautions to avoid hitting a pedestrian could certainly qualify.

Then again, the police don’t seem very keen on the whole “negligence” thing. Last year, a cyclist in Toronto was killed when a driver opened her door into his path. The charge? “Open Vehicle Door Improperly.” The punishment? $110.

When the question of a negligence charge was raised, a toronto police officer commented, “If she didn’t look, would that be negligence? It’s very hard to label that as negligent.”

In fact, no, it wouldn’t be hard to label that as negligence, since the Highway Traffic Act specifically states:

165. No person shall,
(a) open the door of a motor vehicle on a highway without first taking due precautions to ensure that his or her act will not interfere with the movement of or endanger any other person or vehicle;

Which sounds like a pretty clear case of “omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do”.

So rest assured, Joe: This has very little to do with licenses or wheel size. The Toronto Police just don’t seem interested in anything requiring creativity.

Of coure, it really could be just a simple, stupid, tragic accident. No one knows how fast the cyclist was going, or what steps he or the pedestrian took to avoid the collision. If the woman had collided with a jogger, or tripped over a 4-year-old’s tricycle, the same thing could have happened, though likely without quite this level hysteria.

He then goes on to demand an emergency city council meeting to deal with this epidemic of rampant hooliganism, and urges a coroner’s inquest. He’s dreaming on the first count, but is in luck on the second: There already was a coroner’s inquest into fatal cycling accidents! It happened more than ten years ago, and made many excellent recommendations.
Now, lest you worry that it’s a cyclist-coddling report, there are things like this:

That the Toronto Police Service, in partnership with the municipal Cycling Committee, expand targeted enforcement and education efforts towards specific behaviours (cyclists and drivers) which cause collisions, and use the media to raise awareness of these behaviours.

(emphasis mine)

I probably shouldn’t have to, but I feel I should re-state it anyway: This whole thing is a tragic mess, and the accident really shouldn’t have happened. But blowing it entirely out of proportion – and yes, I know it’s the Sun, I know it’s what they do – is simply bizarre. In 2005 (the last year for which I can find data), there were 684 fatal automobile collisions in Ontario, accounting for 766 deaths. Perhaps people could find better things to get hysterical about.

Comments closed

Kieron Gillen knows how to sell a comic

Talking about the upcoming S.W.O.R.D. series, he says,

“They’re less Men in Black, more Contact/Special Circumstances from Iain M Banks’ The Culture (on a budget).”

I’m not sure how much of Marvel’s target demographic know Iain Banks, but it’s good enough for me.

(Read Use of Weapons if you want to understand what he’s talking about. You’ll thank me later.)

Comments closed

Marvelman? Marvelous?

So Marvel has bought the rights to Marvelman.

That’s interesting news… but I’m not quite sure what it means just yet. The press release is fairly vague – they bought Marvelman from Mick Anglo. Joe Quesada drew a poster. Okay.

The ownership of the character is still pretty cloudy, but the press release only mentions Mick Anglo. It’s unclear if they just bought the trademark to the character, or the rights to all the stories.

And let’s face it, the only reasons anyone cares about Marvelman (or Miracleman – will they retitle those stories now that Marvel is unlikely to sue itself?) are Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Anyone can write their own Captain Marvel knockoff if they want.

So if Marvel has the rights to reprint the Moore/Gaiman stuff, that’s awesome. If Neil Gaiman wants to finish his story, that’s awesome. But if they just have the rights to publish a book called Marvelman, well, that’s not so impressive.

So hurrah for making a potentially very cool move, but boo for being vague about what you’re actually going to do with it.

Comments closed

Saying Goodbye

I gave up my cat yesterday.

The reasons aren’t really relevant at the moment, but suffice it to say that it had to be done. It moved, quietly and unexpectedly, from a possibility to a probability to a certainty. There was no small amount of denial on my part, accompanying honest and sincere attempts at prevention and amelioration. But when I finally realized I couldn’t keep Wesley, it hit me like a hammer.

(Presumably. I have no idea what getting hit by a hammer feels like, aside from a minor “ouch, I missed the nail” sort of way. It was much worse than that, with a much larger hammer.)

There was no way I’d ever consider taking him to the humane society, and I’d have been extremely reluctant to leave him with anyone I didn’t already know, or who at least came with a strong recommendation from a good friend. Thankfully, neither of these options was necessary, as my parents were willing to adopt Wesley.

They were more than willing. They were thrilled, as they love Wesley. They fuss over him whenever they come to visit, and on the few occasions I’ve taken him to visit them, he’s had a lot of fun with their three-year-old Siamese. (after some initial hissing and growling, of course; Satchel, the Siamese, enjoys sneaking up on Wesley from behind at every opportunity, which is a particularly unwelcome strategy when Wesley is trying to eat.)

It’s altogether a good situation for Wesley: A bigger house with a backyard (and accompanying birds and squirrels to stalk and/or be afraid of), another cat to play with and two loving “parents” to pamper him. It’s hard not to see that as an improvement over staying with me, where he’d have a smallish two-bedroom, several rooms of which he’d be shut out of, no access to outside, and just me to give him his daily rationing of affection.

It made the decision much easier. But it still felt like I was ripping out one of my internal organs. Worse than that, because I don’t have any particular sense of duty or responsibility to my kidney. (Though I am extremely squeamish where needles and scalpels are concerned.)

First, there’s the general principle: A pet is supposed to be forever. You make a commitment to look after it, not just when it’s convenient for you. So I feel like a failure on some level.

More importantly, it feels like I’m giving up a huge part of my life. For the past four years, no matter what happened – lousy jobs, dysfunctional relationships, good moods and bad moods – Wesley was there to meet me when I got home. Yes, it was largely because he wanted to be fed, but there was also some small amount of affection. He’d sit on the couch with me, claw at my chair when I spent too much time on the computer, and hop into bed with me at the end of the day. And in the morning, if I slept too late, he’d bite my face to let me know it was time to eat.

At the beginning, Wesley picked me out. When I went to the Toronto Humane Society in search of a cat – an exciting but saddening experience for any animal lover – he stood up against the bars of his cage when I walked by. Maybe he did that for everyone, but it didn’t matter. I walked around for a bit looking at other cats, but my decision had been made for me.
When I filled out paperwork, I received his medical records. He’d been found in rough shape, bad nutrition and hostile, and the notes suggested the possibility he’d have to be put down. Thankfully he didn’t, and after a visit with a foster family there was little sign of the vision problems or weak hind leg that were noted on the form. He was friendly and relaxed, the only sign of his time on the streets a slight notch in one ear.

When I brought him home, I expected him to run for cover as soon as I let him out of his box. But he took his time getting out, and proceeded to pace around my apartment for half an hour before finally finding a comfortable spot under my bed. He was a bit skittish if you stood right in front of him or snuck up on him, but settled in quite quickly.
Perhaps that’s the worst part of it: Wesley’s the most relaxed and easy-going cat I’ve ever known. He’s rarely made anything resembling an escape attempt, preferring to stay close to home; the closest he’s come is sneaking under the balcony divider and walking into my neighbour’s living room one summer evening, an event I’m fairly certain was mostly accidental.

Which makes it more likely that someone abandoned him. Someone couldn’t, or wouldn’t, look after him, and left him on the street, where he almost died.

Not that you’d ever know it if you met him. But that thought stays with me. And aside from the principles and the memories and friendship, perhaps that’s what makes giving him up so hard.

It’s not comparable, at all. I know that. Wesley is, if you’ll excuse an expression that makes it sound like he’s dead, in a better place. He was nervous at first, and a bit grumpy towards my parents’ other cats, but was settling in by the time I had to leave. Not that that made leaving any easier; I spent much of the day feeling miserable, depressed, and occasionally nauseous. I considered staying another day, but I knew I’d still feel same way the next day, or the next week.

And so I left, and didn’t feel too bad on the bus ride home.

I was just about feeling almost okay by the time I got home. Until I put my key in the lock, and realized there was no one waiting for me. No cat to feed, no litter to change, nothing to do at all but amuse myself. The silence and emptiness was striking, different from almost every day of the past four years.

I’m still getting used to it. It’ll take some time. One day, hopefully not too far, but without being disrespectfully soon, I’ll come home and not immediately notice what’s missing.

Settling In with Satchel


I Kill Giants review

You probably know the story.

A child retreats into a fantasy world, which may or may not be real, to escape the problems she is experiencing in the real world. In the end, she learns a valuable lesson and is better able to face her fears.

The first thing the concept of I Kill Giants reminds me of is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, a particularly demented escape-from-reality fantasy that’s not particularly good. There’s Pan’s Labyrinth, or even My Neighbour Totoro.

I Kill Giants has many familiar parts: A would-be friend who is initially rejected; a kind guidance counsellor who wants to help; a school bully; a big sister who’s trying to hold everything together. It definitely feels like something you’ve read or seen before.

So all that said, you might be expecting a fairly negative review.But as it turns out, I Kill Giants is one of the best comics I’ve read in a long time.

Why does it work? These stories are familiar because they resonate; everyone remembers being a child, and everyone has some fantasies about escaping real life for something better, happier, or more exciting. (See also Gilliam’s Brazil for one of the best examples.)

I Kill Giants, in particular, works because it’s honest, even if it’s honest about lies and fantasies. The protagonist, Barbara, is unvarnished: She’s rude, arrogant, dismissive of people who are trying to help her, and occasionally violent.In fact, it’s easy to interpret the early chapters as the story of a girl with serious mental health issues. If you’re the sort of person who needs a likeable, easily relatable character, this may not be for you.

But Barbara’s rough edges make the story’s eventual payoff far more rewarding: We grow to like her, even love her, because it’s not forced upon us. We learn about her gradually, and come to understand her view of the world. (For my part, I totally fell for her when she explains the origin of her hammer’s name.)

The other key to the book is the art of JM Ken Niimura, a relative newcomer to North American comics, and his work with writer Joe Kelly. Niimura’s a bit rough around the edges – action scenes don’t always come off as clearly as they could – but it frequently works to the story’s advantage. His sketchy, manga-influenced art captures the characters perfectly, particularly Barbara: As the story and her mood shift, Niimura’s art keeps up with it.

The mythical, monstrous, possibly imaginary giants are wonderfully realized as well: Vague and threatening, likely influenced by any number of sources without looking like any sort of monster in particular. His covers, too, are beautiful, though they aren’t reproduced in the trade.

And Kelly, for his part, is brave enough to let Niimura tell some of the most important parts of the story himself. Because Barbara’s problems are rarely on the surface, much of the story is left to the audience’s interpretation of events, which is chiefly influenced by Niimura’s visuals. Some of the final scenes in the book are largely wordless, and have some of the greatest impact you’ll find in a graphic novel.

I’ve stayed away from describing the plot, since I Kill Giants benefits, at least on a first reading, from the story’s ambiguity and mystery: Kelly & Niimura keep things vague enough to be mysterious, but not so obscure to be actively frustrating. (There’s one cop-out, with scratched out text in a speech balloon, but itworks quite well in the context of the story.) Truth be told, I had the impression the story was about something else entirely, given some preview art. It’s not really a mystery, and I’m not sure you could really “spoil” such a story, but it’s structured in an incredibly rewarding fashion: It works as well on subsequent reads as it did the first time around, but for different reasons.

I Kill Giants is contradictory is many ways: It’s a tried-and-true formula and concept, but executed in an unconventional fashion. Perhaps that’s why it works so well: It’s a story we all know, but presented in a way that still gives us something new.It’s predictable in its way, but also holds as much emotional impact as any comic I’ve read in a long time. A must-read.

(There’s an interview with Kelly and some preview art at CBR.)

Comments closed