Friday, January 8, 2021

2020 Review 4/4: Television

I don't often have much to say about television on this blog. I think in the last decade or more I haven't taken much interest in television series. It's especially hard to sustain interest in programs when, as is often the case now, entire seasons drop on a single day, leaving no room for anticipation or speculation about the future. With that in mind, here are a few shows I genuinely enjoyed:

The Mandalorian seems to be most people's reason for subscribing to Disney+ and, indeed, it's a fine program. I do find it could use a lot more variety in the sort of stories it tells, but it sustains my interest. The casting on the show is neat, as they keep casting actors who haven't been big names for years but are very welcome to see again. It's the only thing Star Wars seems to be doing well.

I had heard Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was about the worst super-hero television program on the air, so it was a surprise to discover it was actually very good - easily the best live action Marvel series I've seen. It was uneven, especially at the start and during its 6th year, but overall I'm glad I finally watched it - it's nowhere near as numbing as trying to watch the latter-day Netflix shows.

At the same time I tried Agent Carter which was good; I found the second season instantly forgettable but the first year was pretty strong.

Finally, I dug into all the Ken Burns documentaries I hadn't seen, the biggest of which was Jazz. Being mostly unaware of the history of jazz music I really learned a lot from the film and came away with a number of songs and short films I looked up on my own.

In all, I found plenty of entertainment in 2020 despite circumstances and I'm sure I'll find a lot to enjoy in 2021.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

2020 Review 3/4: Comics

Since leaving Marvel Comics I haven't been as devoted to following comics as I once was, but I certainly still read quite a few books.

My interest in Christopher Priest's work has of late brought to (of all things) Vampirella and Sacred Six. They're both interesting because of the style Priest uses to tell a story. He's certainly still very much wedded to non-linear storytelling!

Usagi Yojimbo continues to be a fine book, as expected. This last year included a storyline where Usagi returned to his home village which led to some fine reunions with long-absent characters and revisiting much of the series' lore.

I got into Garth Ennis' war comics in a bit way during 2020. I read his recent graphic novel Stringbags which motivated me to go back and read all of his Battlefields, Sara and World of Tanks comics. I appreciate how his stories depict the best and the worst aspects of human nature.

Although I don't read much from super hero comics these days, I did finally read Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and instantly recognized why that series is being talked up as one of Marvel's finest, and why Ewing has won so much praise in the last few years. It's frequently a disgusting horror comic but Ewing's ability to ground his ideas in established continuity while coming up with new takes on Hulk lore is very impressive, as is Joe Bennett's art, which goes to places I didn't know he could handle. I also enjoyed Mark Waid's Black Widow, whose espionage focus was a little different from his usual hangouts; and Waid's Dr. Strange, which brought back my old favourite Dr. Druid!

I spent a lot of time in 2020 going over the works of Rick Geary, particularly his Treasury of Victorian Murder and other historical books. His ability to dispassionately recount the events of famous crimes is very engrossing. I hope there are more works like these from him to come.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics by Tom Scioli was a terrific biography of Kirby and long-since due. I read Angola Janga primarily out of interest in Angola - which the story doesn't really relate to, but I'll cover it in an upcoming review. And I read the first volume of the Lady Snowblood manga, which is a stylish crime series.

Other great books I read included Walter Simonson's Ragnarok, the continued work of Larry Hama on G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and an excellent biography of Rod Serling titled Twilight Man.

Tomorrow: television!

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

2020 Review 2/4: Books

I read very heavily throughout 2020; the pandemic caused various libraries to expand their digital offerings, so access to interesting books has never been easier! Of all that I read, I can divide into four basic categories: fiction, Africa, Christian, and everything else.

FICTION: I read two interesting thrillers by Eric Ambler: The Light of Day and Dark Frontier. Dark Frontier was an earlier book and something of a satire which made it a bit of fun, while The Light of Day was a neat crime story where a driver gets blackmailed into working with criminals, then blackmailed by the other side to spy on his comrades. Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich is a great suspense novel about a man who committed a robbery but repented, only to return to the crime scene and find the victim has been murdered during the interval; his only hope is to find the killer before the body is found. The Bride Wore Black is another great Woolrich novel, this one concerning a woman with a carefully-plotted scheme to murder the men who wronged her and get away with it. The Princess Bride by William Goldman had long been a film I loved but I finally delved into the novel and enjoyed it a lot, it's very warm and funny much like the film. The pandemic inspired me to read Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, which is an extremely well-crafted thriller. I read up on a number of Halo novels, the best of which were Halo: First Strike & Halo: Ghosts of Onyx by Eric S. Nylund and Halo: Contact Harvest and Shadow of Intent by Joseph Staten; I've been a Halo fan for so long, I'm amazed that the books keep bringing up new ideas I hadn't considered and offer information which casts the events of the games in a different light. I read The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle despite my general disinterest in H. P. Lovecraft, but as LaValle had crafted a meta-commentary on Lovecraft in this book it was a welcome and (I think) long-since necessary examination of how he wrote about black people.

AFRICA: No One Can Stop the Rain by Karin Moorhouse was a memoir by two doctors who served in Angola during the civil war; obviously, with my own interest in Angola, I found a lot of familiar moments in the book and I appreciated their particular outsiders' perspective on the nation and its people. African Perspectives on Colonialism by A. Adu Boahen had a great look at colonialism from the perspective of African authors, a perspective the other books I read on colonialism had lacked. Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley was concerned mostly with Portugal's activities in India but it also relates their early history in Africa and explains why their empire had the oddly uneven distribution that it did. The Fear by Peter Godwin was a memoir about the author's view of Mugabe's Zimbabwe in what ultimately has proven to be the decline of Mugabe's reign. The Lost Cities of Africa by Basil Davidson is a pretty forward-looking book for 1959 as the author attempted to vouch for Africa's rich pre-colonial history. An African Slaving Port and the Atlantic World by Mariana Candido is a history of the slaving industry in Angola's port Benguela. Despite my interest in Angola I frequently found it to be dry and heavy on statistics, but there were interesting historical snippets explaining how deep the slave trade ran in Angola. The Looting Machine by Tom Burgis is a tough look at how capitalism is depleting Africa's resources with little in return; it's one I'm going to recommend. I read The Lion of Judah in the New World by Theodore M. Vestal for a grounding on US attitudes towards Ethiopia's Haile Selassie to help me with an essay I'm planning - as I'd hoped, the book made good points on Selassie's appeal in the USA. The Decolonization of Africa by David Birmingham was a strong book on the end of colonialism, although it spoke more in generalities than specifics.

CHRISTIAN: Letters Never Sent by Ruth van Reken was a series of letters written by a missionary woman across her life - lettters expressing all the things she felt growing up but couldn't express. As I'm going into missions I felt it was important to hear about the kinds of challenges she faced. Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill is a memoir of the author's experiences as a celibate Christian gay man; homosexuality is a thorny issue in the church but this book takes a sort of centrist view which is definitely different. The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer is a fine meditative book on awareness of God in day-to-day living.

EVERYTHING ELSE: Reinventing Hollywood by David Bordwell had an interesting perspective on the challenging storytelling methods used in 1940s Hollywood films. The Phantom Unmasked by Kevin Patrick made a strong case for the Phantom as the first true super hero and had a strong case for why he's been denied that honour. Writing with Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa looked at Hitchcock's relationship with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. It was a strong examination of Hitchcock's strengths and failings and what made Hayes such a good collaborator for him. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury is a series of short essays on writing which Bradbury composed across decades of his life. At his best, Bradbury is very inspirational and his guidelines have helped inspire me for years. Inside Benchley was the last of Robert Benchley's humour books which I had to read and I had a lot of laughs getting through the book. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is the book the musical Hamilton is based on and as I've never really been taught much about US history it was particularly good to get a grounding in events I only vaguely understood. Recent current events led me to Umberto Eco's Five Moral Pieces, mostly to read his essay on fascism which explained the concept more fulsomely than anything else I've read. The Complete War of the Worlds by Alex Lubertozzi is primarily a history of Orson Welles' radio adapation of H. G. Wells' story, but it contained a terrific history of both works. Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic by Hilton Tims is a fine biography of the author, a little light on what made him a great author but shed a lot of light to me on how his life inspired his works.

Tomorrow: Comics!

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

2020 Review 1/4: Films

As usual I'm going to look back on the films, books, comics and television programs I most enjoyed in the last year. In the midst of all the terrible things in the world today a little bit of positive thought can't hurt. I let my streaming video apps lapse in 2019, thinking I'd be overseas for most of 2020. Still, thanks to streaming video at my work, through my public library's Kanopy account and a friend's gift of Disney+ I still saw quite a lot of movies.

1917 was the only movie I watched in the cinema during 2020. The attempt to create a 'single take' film is artificial, but adds to the film's suspense and sense of unease. It's in the Hitchcock tradition (ala Rope) and I quite enjoyed it.

Kanopy has a heavy emphasis on world cinema; some great international films I saw were Beauty and the Beast, the great French adaptation of the fairy tale; O Heroi, an Angolan film about a one-legged veteran and an orphan boy both trying to find a place in post-war Angola; The Loyal 47 Ronin, a great version of the Japanese historical incident; and A Separation, an Iranian film with a surprisingly compelling interpersonal conflict that kept me enthralled.

As a fan of classic cinema there aren't many great films left for me to see, but in 2020 I found a few notable ones: Intruder in the Dust, a surprisingly frank look at racism for 1949; Pygmalion, the fine 1938 adaptation of the play; and True Confession, a great screwball comedy which did a lot to help me glean why Carole Lombard was such a great comedienne.

I saw a number of great documentaries during 2020: I Am Not Your Negro on the life of James Baldwin; The Great Buster on the life of Buster Keaton; Hearts and Minds about the USA's pull out of Vietnam; A Time for Burning, a phenomenal picture about racial tension in Nebraska and the church's inability to confront the problem; Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann on the life of the great film composer; and Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.

Some other strong films I saw were To Build a Fire, an adaptation of Jack London's story; the Disney sequels Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2; Mr. Holland's Opus; Reginald Hudlin's bio-pic Marshall, which I sought out after Chadwick Boseman's death; the political film Game Change; and Hamilton (which I'll review on its own soon).

Tomorrow: Books

Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas 2020

If I had any predictions about Christmas 2020 a year ago, about the only one I would have made would be that I would be in Angola, serving part of my one-year term as an associate missionary.

Obviously, that didn't happen.

In all my ears I've always been with either my parents or my brother at Christmas. I expected I wouldn't be there in 2020, but only because of my commitment to Angola -- I couldn't have predicted how this year would unfold.

I value that people have expressed concerns at how my year has been going -- after all, I live alone, I'm cut off from most of the people I normally interact with and I'm not in Angola. And yet I'm geniunely doing well in all of this. I accept that all of this is just temporary. I am going to Angola, eventually. I am going to be reunited with my friends and family.

I've decided to be intentional about battling loneliness during the holidays. Not only through internet video chats with friends and family but through activities. Heck, just by deciding that I'm going to cook the sort of meals my Mom traditionally serves during the holidays (instead of my usual 5-minute meals) I've been keeping myself occupied.

It's not the same, celebrating Christmas alone. There's no schedule -- I could watch the church service at any time, eat my meals at any time, open gifts at any time, get out of bed at any time. It's not how I would ever choose to spend the holiday.

But things aren't all bad. I hope you're managing in whatever circumstances you find yourself in during these holidays. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent meditation: Hope

A brief meditation on hope which I delivered this morning at my church

During these last eight months I’ve spent some time thinking about hope. Maybe this is a difficult time to be hopeful. Our days are growing shorter and darker and we know the darkest days yet to come. And although Calgary has its share of warm Chinook winds, it’s cold today and we know it will get colder. And although there is promising news about vaccines to combat COVID, we know it will be several more months before we see real change.

As I prepared this meditation I looked up famous quotations about hope and I was surprised to discover they weren’t all inspirational. Some famous sayings about hope were written by cynics, by people who did not believe in hope. I don’t know how a human being can survive without hope. When you’re hopeless, every day must be dark, every environment cold and every illness incurable.

But we come from a tradition steeped in hope. The prophets of the Old Testament lived in times of weak or corrupt leaders, civilization on the verge of collapse and worst of all, people turning their hearts from God. But the prophets boldly foretold the coming of a Messiah who would make things right. This hope was carried from prophet to prophet like a relay race until finally John the Baptist saw the beginning of Christ’s mission on Earth. Those prophets put their hope in God and God never fails.

And we today are not unlike the people awaiting their Messiah, for we are anticipating when Christ will come again. So I have hope. I hope that darkness will pass into light, cold thaw into warmth, sickness will yield to healing and hearts reconciled to God.

No shadow comes without the light making a way; no raging storm can ever defy one word of faith; my heart remains sure in the wind sure in the waves.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Today at Sequart: new Christopher Priest essay!

My newest Sequart essay "Panther's Priest" can now be read online. This is a retrospective of Christopher Priest's career up to when he became author of the Black Panther. I wrote this principally to put his career into perspective so as to better judge how his past writing experiences influenced where he took the Black Panther. I hope you enjoy it!