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An author who had won three Pulitzers, along with a Nobel Prize, died suddenly and was sent to Hell. Instead of being struck with whips or burned with brimstone, he was shown to a small white room with a desk and chair. There were notebooks of every description, all beautifully bound with the best paper, numerous fountain pens of all sizes, and inks of all colours. Here he was chained and told to write until all the books were filled. When he was finished, the notebooks were taken away and new blank ones were brought in.

If the above description does not sound like torture to you, you have never tried to write anything.

I have a sermon, an in-depth book review, a short story, and an upcoming essay for a poetry class this summer — all yet to be begun. Not to mention a novel that’s nagging for attention. The only way any of it will get done is if I sit at this desk at some point every single day and write. And it feels exactly like torture.

I want my writing to speak of the things of Heaven while I’m still here on Earth; so why does it feel so much like Hell?

(This review contains spoilers)

Everyone knows superheroes. They have an ethical code and boundaries they will not cross. They think of others before themselves. They have their flaws, but learn from their mistakes. Sometimes they lose their way, but they find the strength to rediscover their road. And they always save the day.

Logan, known as the Wolverine, is not a superhero.

He was born with extraordinary powers of recuperation, but they made him vulnerable to those who wanted to exploit them. He’s a Frankenstein monster created to be a weapon who then turned on his creator. When he walked onto movie screens in the summer of 2000 (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) we found him a hopeless wanderer, without a past and apparently without a future. But then he meets Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart), an eternal optimist who runs a school where even Logan can learn to accept community and find a purpose.

It’s been 17 years since X-Men sparked the craze for comic book movies. While the craze shows no signs of slowing down, Hugh Jackman has decided that it’s time to step down from the role that arguably started it all.

It seems only fitting that here, at the end, he’s back to where we first found him: a man just trying to survive without a community or a sense of purpose. But in a way he’s worse off than square one. Now he has a past, which showed him what having that community and purpose is like — and what it feels like to lose it. All he has left is Charles, aged and suffering from a neurodegenerative illness that causes psychic shockwaves fatal to anyone in the vicinity. Yet even half-senile and decrepit he still clings to hope that life will continue, that the world will be better, and that Logan is a good man. It’s 2029 and in a world where mutants are all but extinct they are still complements of each other; the hopeless wanderer and the eternal optimist.

Thrown into their lives is a girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who comes with a story about a place named Eden where the few mutants left can live in safety. Like Logan, she was made to be a weapon. Grown from his own genetic material, she also happens to be the closest thing he has to a daughter. What she didn’t inherit was his fatalism, and even with the enemy hot on their heels she’s determined to make it to Eden at all costs.

Hope is what propels the story forward. All three characters are burdened by a deep sense of guilt over their pasts; Logan and Laura are both hardened killers who want to be rid of the blood on their hands, and it becomes apparent that Charles was responsible for a deadly massacre through one of his psychic seizures. Eden, then, taken from the pages of a metafictional X-Men comic book, becomes more than just a destination. It comes to embody the desire for a better future, the longing for new life in the midst of death, and the faint hope that what we have done is not who we are. Because if our sins are not our identity, then there remains the possibility of forgiveness and redemption and the restoration of all that we have lost.

Which is probably why I found Charles’ death the hardest thing to watch. I nearly cried. A broken old man lying in bed, ashamed of his past unintentional crime, voices his own hope for forgiveness and peace. And just at this moment…he’s brutally murdered. It’s confusing and painful and we’re not sure just what’s happened at first. This has to be a dream. He’s having a nightmare and he’s going to wake up. The reality of it is almost too cruel to bear.

But of course it’s the other major death that most people are going to focus on.

It’s clear that the conflict being waged involves more than just the lives of our three heroes. It’s a fight for Logan’s soul as well. He chooses to worry about his own concerns before those of others. He fights against love and family and hope, dismissing them all as fabricated fiction, or at best a past that can’t be reclaimed. “We thought we were part of God’s plan,” he says. “Maybe we’re just God’s mistake.” But in the end his resistance breaks down when he realizes he will have to fight to protect Laura and the other children from the enemy that’s been chasing them — a fight that ultimately ends in his death. Hope comes with a cost.

Logan dies virtually in sight of the new world, with his daughter’s hand in his. And in that moment he is given the gift of a glimpse into what it means to love. “This is what it’s like,” he whispers. He’s always seen bad things happen to the people he loves, and now it’s the other way around. His sacrificial act, fighting to protect the future of mutants just as Charles taught him, enabling them to escape to the safety of Eden, is a bittersweet end to the many years he’s fought for his own survival. There’s a symmetry to it, but a tragic note as well. We want better for this man who so rarely realized how good he could be. We want him to have more than just a glimpse of peace.

He doesn’t have that, but thanks to him the children have a chance. Like a friend of mine said in his own review of the film: “Maybe it is more important to leave blessed people than to leave a legacy.”

Logan is a beautiful and touching story, as hard as it is to watch at times. For me this is the end of the series. I know there are more spinoffs and movies planned, but they seem like meaningless noise right now. Logan feels nothing like passing a torch; it’s an epilogue and elegy to a franchise that has always been a mainstay of the comic book summer blockbusters. It might point to those children who walk into the future, but it lingers by the side of Logan’s grave. An X literally marks the spot where the saga ends.

We couldn’t have asked for a more emotional conclusion.

 

In the buildup to the release of Logan, Hugh Jackman’s much-touted swan song as the Wolverine, I decided to rewatch the entire X-Men movie franchise. Reviewing it wasn’t part of the plan, but I found myself spontaneously writing one off-the-cuff for the first film. After that it only seemed fair to do the same for the others. Here they are collected in one place. Spoilers abound, if you need the warning.

 

X-Men: First Class (2011)
Prequels are tricky things. On the one hand they can be illuminating glimpses of beloved characters’ backgrounds that deepen our appreciation of what made them who they are. Or they can just as easily devolve into cheap fan service that in the process alienates those same fans from the franchise.

Coming off of a certain Wolverine movie that shall remain execrable and unnamed here, the Executives In Charge remarkably decided to stay on the prequel route and brought back Bryan Singer as producer to ensure the continued health of the X-universe. Who better to reinvigorate the series than the man who gave it birth?

Though he passed on the director’s chair, handing the honour to Matthew Vaughn, Singer’s influence is probably why First Class reminds me so much of the original film. Again a mutant organizes his posse to declare war on ordinary humankind; again Charles Xavier tries to bring a loner with a painful past into a community. That parallel is actually quite remarkable when you think about it.

Now on my third viewing, I noticed this time around how much of the story deals with shades of grey. How much really separates good from evil? A few lines of genetic code separates human from mutant. A swastika is easily reversed into the X of the opening title. America and Russia are portrayed as but two sides of the same coin. And it only takes a small nudge to push Erik over the thin line that separates him from Shaw.

There’s an elegant poetry in that scene, my favourite in the movie. Erik kills Shaw and because of Charles’ psychic link to Shaw, he feels the horrible pain. His long and agonizing scream is possibly more than just physical; it beautifully illustrates how, in that act of base revenge, Erik is hurting Charles as much as he’s hurting Shaw. The tragedy is that Erik becomes the very person he has spent his whole life abhorring. He becomes exactly like Shaw in goal and in method.

There are obviously other things going on, but that was the main thing that struck me on this viewing.

 

 

The Wolverine (2013)
The first positive thing to say about this first solo Woverine movie (no, that other one doesn’t count…no, it doesn’t…SHUT UP) is that it’s beautifully photographed. More than once we’re given some very compelling images to linger on, frames that could be taken out of some illustrated book…like a comic or something. And in every action sequence, there’s never any doubt as to who is where and what the fighters are doing despite how fast it’s all moving. Too many of these films use too many quick cuts to give a false impression of speed, only generating confusion. The Wolverine nicely avoids that trap.

It was nice to see Logan’s trademark gallows humour in full swing. Whether it’s a quirk of personality or a defense mechanism he uses to keep people at arm’s length I’m not really sure, but the character wouldn’t be the same without it.

However, as I reflect on this second viewing, I realize this isn’t the truly definitive exploration of Wolverine’s character that we could have. The arc he’s supposedly given seems a bit muddled, at least to me.

The weak spot is Mariko. Logan has no purpose or direction but has plenty of guilt; he meets and falls in love with Mariko which gives him purpose and ultimately allows him to let go of Jean and thus the guilt. The problem is I never really buy him falling in love with Mariko. It feels contrived and devoid of emotion. Indeed the scene where they suddenly decide to hop into bed comes virtually out of nowhere. In a film that actually passes the Bechdel test and also features a majority non-white cast, having the male lead sleep with the woman he’s reluctantly protecting feels like traditional Hollywood asserting itself. Ultimately, it hurts Wolverine’s character arc, and thus the movie as a whole.

This is one of those times when you can see what could’ve been but isn’t, and it’s a little disappointing. But the movie still manages to be entertaining overall.

 

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
For fans and critics alike, the bar for the franchise was pretty much set by X2 back in 2003. Eleven years later…the series more than meets its own standards.

I’m going to come out and say it: this is the equal of Bryan Singer’s previous contribution. It might even surpass it.

The usual superhero stakes are taken to extreme heights: it isn’t just the world or people’s lives but history itself that needs saving. A war spawned by hatred and fear must be stopped before it ever began, and that leads to the element where Days of Future Past truly succeeds. Because it’s the emotional stakes that are higher than they’ve ever been. There’s a saying that if you want peace you must prepare for war. This movie makes the case that in fact you have to stop war from ever being prepared.

For me there are two lynchpin scenes that really ground the story. The first is the beautifully realized moment when Charles meets Charles. James McAvoy proves he can hold his own with Patrick Stewart as the older man, trapped amidst the rubble of a ruined world, actually shines his hope into the younger version of himself. That Xavier can still choose hope even while Sentinels tear down everyone he cares about is powerful. Indeed I think it brings home the fact that it’s Xavier and his dream for a better future — for mutant and human alike — that really holds the whole series together; it’s inspiring and life-giving. And makes for a very moving dialogue between the same character.

The second scene is when the younger Charles, now inspired by that glimpse of a better future, shares his hope with Mystique while she has a gun trained on Trask. He shows her the truth of what she faces: a choice of futures. In the end, what stops the war and saves the world isn’t Logan and isn’t Charles. It’s Mystique and her choice to drop the gun. If you want peace, you must first win the battle over people’s hearts long before they decide to prepare for war. I think Jennifer Lawrence did a great job of selling that inner struggle even through the heavy prosthetics. Which is good because the whole story depends on it.

And of course it’s wonderful to hear John Ottman’s awesome theme again, to admire the intercutting between two climactic battles, and to be awed by the setpiece of Magneto’s prison break. But the emotional force of the characters is what really makes Days of Future Past such a worthy entry in the franchise.

 

 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
When En Sabah Nur (also called Apocalypse) first enters Storm’s living room in Cairo, there’s a clip from an old show playing on the TV. Being an incredible nerd for that show I immediately recognized it as a scene from the Star Trek episode “Who Mourns For Adonais?”. That episode tells of an all-powerful being who was once worshipped as a god and wants to be again. It’s an elegant allusion across geek culture that directly mirrors the scene playing out in Storm’s living room. It speaks to Bryan Singer’s keen eye for subtlety.

So it’s a shame the rest of the movie displays almost no subtlety whatsoever.

I wrote about the emotional force of Days of Future Past. Unfortunately it’s here replaced with brute force. For all his mutant strength and ambition, Apocalypse is a rather unmemorable bad guy. He only wants one thing — absolute naked power — and it’s something he already possesses in spades. So he doesn’t need a scheme or a plot or even other people’s help; if someone has something he doesn’t, he just beats it out of them.

The result is that our heroes have no recourse except to try to punch him. Over and over again. They can’t come up with any clever plan of their own to counter his because he has no clever plan. There’s no battle of wits, no contest of willpower, no moral dilemma or ethical quandary. Just a WWE championship match…and because we know who the heel is, we know who’s going to win before the opening titles roll. It makes for a somewhat dull and plodding film, where the attempts to bring some genuine character arcs end up getting lost.

And don’t get me started on the whole Stryker subplot. That just came out of nowhere and did nothing except give us a useless Wolverine cameo. How that was left in the script is beyond me.

Not that there’s nothing to like. Some very clever and even powerful dialogue comes to mind, including an awesome callback to the last lines of the very first film. But overall, this is the weakest entry since The Last Stand. Harsh judgment, I know. But that’s how I see it.

In the buildup to the release of Logan, Hugh Jackman’s much-touted swan song as the Wolverine, I decided to rewatch the entire X-Men movie franchise. Reviewing it wasn’t part of the plan, but I found myself spontaneously writing one off-the-cuff for the first film. After that it only seemed fair to do the same for the others. Here they are collected in one place. Spoilers abound, if you need the warning.

 

X-Men (2000)
I wasn’t into it when it first came out like everyone else was. Didn’t even see it in theatres. Of course I’ve come to appreciate it since and I even own the original trilogy on Blu-ray. On every rewatching, I’m always pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s a solidly good film. Expertly crafted and designed with all the right actors and a satisfying script. It’s no surprise that the movie spawned not only its own sequels, but the emergence of superheroes into everyday entertainment.

Key to that ripple effect was Hugh Jackman’s performance as Wolverine. I have a theory that every film franchise needs a “hook” character in order to survive at the box office; that’s really what draws people back. Wolverine is that character and I don’t think anyone would give me an argument!

We meet him through Rogue’s eyes, and the extended introduction tells us just enough to keep us intrigued. He’s clearly tough and macho, but also willing to help a stranger in need; he isn’t sentimental, but he is a good man. The now iconic piece of dialogue (“When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”) along with the rundown camper van manages to suggest his inner pain…but also increases the mystery. Who is this lone wolf that wanders the earth?

It turns out that even he doesn’t really know, and this search is what keeps him moving. And ultimately propels us into the sequel…

 
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Like most sequels, this one goes bigger. Unlike most sequels it isn’t with bigger effects and explosions. Instead it goes bigger with the characters and with the stakes.

Wolverine was undoubtedly the main focus of the first film, and while here his past is the narrative’s primary impetus, there’s a lot more going on. Apropos of the subtitle this is much more of an ensemble piece. Everyone (or almost everyone) has their own little subplot and backstory, sometimes more implied than explicit. And for the most part everyone has very personal motivations for what they do; especially Stryker.

Ultimately, the real villain of the piece is not so much a person as a concept: war against the “other”, against anyone you can make unhuman and different. Both Stryker and Magneto may commit terrible acts–but they do so out of fear of each other and pride in themselves, not true evil. In the end the world stands at a crossroads with the future uncertain. That’s brave territory for a superhero film to explore, and I like it a lot.

And it’s all about the details in this movie. The claw marks on a pillar as Logan walks into the lab where he was ‘made’; the attack on the White House, which is much more about editing and precise shots rather than effects; even Deathstrike’s demise strikes a note of sadness and she doesn’t even get a word of dialogue in the entire film. That’s just sheer craftsmanship. No wonder it’s considered the best of the franchise.

 

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
I normally try to find the good in things. That includes books, movies, and other entertainment. Usually the people who produce such things have good intentions and it’s possible for those good intentions to shine through even if the end product fails to satisfy.

This movie has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Everything that X2 was, The Last Stand is not. That film gave multiple characters their own little arcs while Wolverine’s story provided the narrative ‘glue’. Here it’s as if there are no characters, only plot devices. People don’t act consistently with how we’ve come to know them, they only act the way the plot needs them to act.

The chief victim of this character assassination is Jean Grey–ironically it happens just as she’s resurrected. While Dark Phoenix is supposed to be one of the greatest storylines in the comics, you’d never know it from this movie. She comes back from the dead as the Phoenix to…literally stand there. And kill a lot of people including Cyclops and Xavier. But mostly just to stand there doing nothing until it’s time for her to die, her minimal service to the plot having apparently been accomplished. Just what that was remains a mystery.

If the overall narrative fails to please, surely there might be at least a few brief moments, lines of dialogue perhaps, where those good intentions can shine? No. Every joke feels contrived and hokey. Every moment that should carry some weight only falls flat. And all of it is about as subtle as the Juggernaut ramming through walls.

The air’s been let out of the balloon on virtually every level. Such a waste.

Bibliotheca

Merry Christmas!

I haven’t posted nearly as much this year as I would have liked, and especially not since I promised more Star Trek-related thoughts (way back in September). Those are coming as soon as I have the time to sit down and compile lists and reviews of my favourite episodes.

But before then, I wanted to share about one of my Christmas presents this year. Well, I call it a present but of course I bought it for myself. Over two years ago. And I’ve been waiting for it to be finished ever since. Beginning life as a Kickstarter project which raised about a million dollars more than expected, then delayed by the desire to make the final product better, delivery finally came this month. My own package arrived on Friday and I’ve been salivating over it ever since.

It’s called Bibliotheca. Book designer Adam Lewis Greene conceived of the project as a response to what he, and many others, feel is an intimidating and unhelpful presentation of the Bible. Bibliotheca (named after the Latin word for “library”) is an edition of the Bible which removes chapters, verses, cross references, double columns, and all the usual apparatus we’re accustomed to seeing when we open a Biblical tome. Adam Greene chose the American Standard Version as a base text, planning to remove the old-fashioned thees and thous, then decided to split the Scriptural canon into separate volumes to eliminate the need for thin and transparent paper; he then designed the typefaces, page layout, and the cover concept. When Kickstarter furnished him with an incredibly robust financial backing, he was able to hire a team of scholars to produce a new revision of the ASV as well as professional proofreaders. It also meant the books could be manufactured in Europe by some of the finest bookbinders and paper mills in the world.

In the wake of Bibliotheca, other translations have appeared in their own versions of the same reader-friendly format. But after finally holding Bibliotheca in my hands, opening its pages, and poring over the words…I can safely say this is a landmark in the history of Bible publishing. Greene’s determination to see the project through is to be commended, and he deserves our profound thanks.

I made an unboxing video, recording my impressions and giving a “tour” of this new edition of the Bible. You can watch it here:

startrek50

September, 1996.

I was ten years old and channel surfing, or possibly I’d just finished a movie. But somehow I came across a certain program. There were people in uniforms of different colours and some very detailed prosthetics and a large alien monster. I tuned in about halfway through the show, but managed to figure out that the uniformed crew was stranded on a hostile planet after their enemies stole their spaceship. A very big and impressive spaceship.

I stayed around to see how it ends. Having recently discovered Star Wars, I was on the lookout for anything with spaceships and aliens in it. And this caught me at the right moment.

What I was watching was the third season premiere of a television show called Star Trek: Voyager. My first adventure to “the final frontier”.

As I watched, I was struck by how this starship (let’s get our terminology adjusted to the appropriate universe) was meant to be the crew’s home. It was a kind of world unto itself; a mobile world that visited others in a wide and wondrous galaxy; a world that seemed adventurous and thrilling and…cool. I wanted to have transporters and replicators and go to strange, new places. In the era of cheap home videos and syndicated reruns, it didn’t take long before I was semi-conversant in every aspect of Trek lore, though it would be awhile before I got to see every episode. The franchise was celebrating it’s thirtieth anniversary and there was a lot to catch up on.

Now it’s the fiftieth anniversary, and while things took a break for a few years, Star Trek has gradually reemerged with a modern aesthetic courtesy of J.J. Abrams. Soon a sixth series — Star Trek: Discovery — will enter the era of cheap digital streaming.

A lot of years have passed since I was ten, but I haven’t gotten any less of a geek. George Lucas’ space opera may have opened the gateway, but Star Trek introduced me to the vast possibilities of science fiction and only led to me both reading and watching more of it. The series is still dear to me. You never forget your first love.

So you can’t expect me to let a milestone like this pass unremarked, or uncelebrated. But as I came to write this post about why I love Star Trek, I made an unsettling discovery: I don’t know exactly why. Unlike many I’ve never connected with its secular humanist philosophy. Military dramas (and Starfleet can sometimes look very military, though it has a different purpose) often leave me cold. Is it really just the entertainment? The simple pleasure of cool ships, crazy aliens, and space battles? The obsessive delight in studying in-universe trivia? And is there anything wrong with that?

I’ve realized that exploring the answer to that question will take time…and more space than one blog post can provide. There’s a lot of Star Trek, after all, and it now spreads over five decades. At the beginning of this year I started the herculean but enjoyable task of watching everything there is, from the very first episode of the Original Series to the present.

So instead of one massive retrospective, I’ll slowly unfold my favourite episodes from each of the five currently-existing shows and numerous movies. Ten seems like a popular number to aim for in such lists, not to mention that it’s how old I was back on that September evening. That should give me ample room to discover just what motivates this passion for worlds that never existed and people that were never born. 50 years. 50 stories.

Since I’m still working my way through watching it all, I need a chance to actually see things again before writing about them. Don’t expect these lists to appear weekly or perhaps even regularly, but they will be done by the end of the year. Just in time for us all to launch on another interstellar adventure with some new friends on a new ship.

Here’s to another 50 years of boldly going where no one has gone before…

The best way of finding new books is to go browsing through shelves that are not yours; in the bookstore if you have some extra funds, the library if you don’t. Fortunately I found myself in the former position a few weeks ago and picked up two titles that have more in common than their covers might give away.

 

Woman With A Blue Pencil, Gordon McAlpine

Woman With A Blue PencilNot quite a mystery, not quite surrealism, but hard to describe except by giving it both those labels. Sam Sumida is a Japanese-American living in Los Angeles on the eve of World War II. His wife has been murdered and the police have given up the case. But in an instant, Sam’s world changes dramatically and it seems he’s never existed. The detective novel of which he was supposed to be the main character is being rewritten — and he’s been deleted by a New York editor who, as every author knows, is the ultimate femme fatale.

History is literature just like any other genre. And sometimes the term “marginalized people” has an appropriate sting to it when we talk about the past. McAlpine succeeds in giving each layer of storytelling its own unique voice, but not quite seamlessly. He uses the device of excerpts from longer texts, but doesn’t give the feeling of anything missing. The premise, however, is page-turning and compelling, so if you’re looking for something unique in a genre full of cliches be sure to give this a try.

 

Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

Lovecraft CountryI have to confess that I think I liked this novel better than the other. While also dealing with themes of marginalized minorities in American society, it more sharply draws us into a strange world, with parallels between a pseudo-Lovecraftian horror and Jim Crow segregation. Monsters are as likely to have sheriff’s badges as oozing tentacles. And while the villains may be an occult brotherhood, plenty of more ordinary evils get highlighted.

The main strength of the story is its wide cast of protagonists, all of whom prove sympathetic if complicated. The novel’s structure helps quite a bit since it turns out to be more a series of shorter tales that intertwine and ultimately collide at the climax. This gives each character a unique experience and point of view even without first person writing. I could point out some of the more creative moments of storytelling, but that would be giving away too many secrets. And like a haunted house, this is best experienced if you don’t know all the mysteries. I had never heard of Matt Ruff before but judging from the blurbs of some of his other novels, I’d be surprised if I didn’t pick up at least one of them before the year’s end.