The Earth seen from Apollo 17.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Director:  M. Night Shyamalan

Starring:  Will Smith, Jaiden Smith

Studio:  Columbia Pictures

Rated:  PG

Length: 100 minutes

Somewhere in the far-flung future, Ranger Col. Cypher Reige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (played by Smith’s real life son, Jaiden), struggle to survive on a hostile, alien planet.  The only survivors after their military transport crashed after encountering a freak asteroid storm, their hopeS for survival rest in Kitai successfully retrieving an emergency beacon to may day for help, guided from the wreckage by his crippled father.  Between Kitai and the life saving beacon is over a hundred kilometres of deadly wilderness, filled with giant, alien predators, poisonous parasites, and, just for fun, a living nightmare engineered for the sole purpose of hunting and killing human beings.  The planet the two desperate souls find themselves trying to survive?  Earth.

From director M. Night Shyamalan (yes, that M. Night Shyamalan), After Earth is another big budget science fiction tale that tells a story of humanity after they’ve abandoned their home planet.  This particular yarn takes place a thousand years after the human race has migrated from a failing planet, seeking refuge on a distant world named Nova Prime.  Once there though, they discover they aren’t the only ones interested in this new world, and an alien race unleashes the Ursa, a race of genetically engineered monsters who hunt humans by scenting the pheromones released when they’re afraid (as well as other fluids you’d lose control of when being chased by a hungry reptile-bug the size of a semi-truck, I’m guessing).  The Rangers, an elite military unit who lead the migration from Earth, discover a tactic called Ghosting, where they can arrest the biological process of fear, thereby becoming invisible to the nightmarish Ursa.  One ghosting Ranger of particular legend is Cypher Reige.

The movie opens with Cypher’s son, Kitai, failing to advance from Cadet to Ranger despite outstanding physical prowess and excellent classroom test scores.  This news comes the day Col. Cypher is returning home, presumably from some military campaign, and we quickly learn that the good colonel’s relationship with his son is strained and the only way he can relate to his troubled offspring is the same way he relates to the troops under his command.  As the movie progresses, we learn there’s a lot more baggage weighing the two down since Kitai’s older sister  Senshi was killed by an Ursa while protecting Kitai.  In an attempt to try to improve their already shaky relationship, Cypher takes Kitai on a training mission (with a captive Ursa as part of the cargo) until they run smack dab into a nasty asteroid storm with their name on it.  And the only place they can find to set down is the quarantined planet Earth, where as Cypher tells his terrified son, everything has evolved to kill humans.  And remember that pesky Ursa?  Well, it turns out it survived the crash as well.

After Earth boasts excellent special effects and a lot of time and energy went into imagining how human culture might have evolved a thousand years in the future on another planet.  Actors even deliver their dialogue in unique accents.  The Smiths deliver what’s required of them with convincing sincerity, and you have to think that they’re able to tap into their real life relationship to help project their on-screen one, both the tenderness and the tension.  And while Aidan is still living in his father’s shadow performance wise, you can see that he has a lot of the same potential.  Even the little humour between the two seems more genuine.

The problem with After Earth isn’t that it’s a bad movie-it isn’t-its just that isn’t memorable.  It isn’t the first movie to deal with humanity after Earth has been abandoned.  It isn’t even the first one this year (Tom Cruise’s Oblivion flirted with that concept more than a little), so we’ve seen this story before, but After Earth doesn’t put too much of a fresh twist on it.  And I would have liked to see a little more back story on Humanity’s flight to Nova Prime.  Did we flee Mother Earth because her resources were exhausted and she was left a black, desolate wasteland as one early scene implies?  If so, Mother Nature made a pretty sweet comeback in a thousand years, refilling her oceans and repopulating the planet with giant trees, eagles and leeches with poisonous bites (I’m pretty sure that took millions of years before the human race destroyed everything).  And if that’s the case, what do we make of Cypher’s warning to Kitai, that everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans?  If Mother Nature did turn on people (and honestly, who could blame her at this point), I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little flashback into that.  And what of these mysterious aliens that bread the Ursa to exterminate humanity?  Don’t they deserve more than just two sentences during a monologue in the entire movie?

I’m a big fan of Shyamalan’s early work.  I consider The Sixth Sense one of the best crafted pieces of entertainment in the modern blockbuster age.  I liked Unbreakable and I enjoyed Signs despite the religious overtones.  The Village ranks as my second favourite Shyamalan movie (behind only Sense) and I even liked Lady in the Water, despite the butt kicking it took from the media (despite my affection for it, I completely understood and appreciated the criticism it took).  Up until 2008’s The Happening, I considered Shaymalan one of Hollywood’s finest storytellers, and I could forgive his obsession with plot twists reserved for the end of his movies, but Happening was an unmitigated disaster and I don’t even want to talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender (and my contempt for Airbender pales in comparison to fans of the original cartoon series, they wanted Shaymalan’s head-the movie was so poorly received and failed so miserably at the box office that Disney quickly scrapped plans to launch a new film franchise).  So I was pleased to see that while After Earth isn’t up to par with Shaymalan’s work before Lady, it’s definitely superior to Happening and Airbender (though those two pieces of cinematic excrement don’t exactly set the bar high).  My biggest complaint about After Earth is that it didn’t make much of an effort to explore the scope of its own potential.  There was probably a lot of interesting things hiding in that unexplored space.  But After Earth is still mildly entertaining and will probably appeal to die-hard science fiction fans (although they’ll also most likely be its biggest critics).  But despite it’s shortcomings, the one thing of hope I took away was that it might be the first step to redemption for someone who I used to consider a master storyteller before he fell from grace.

Shayne Kempton

NOT EXACTLY OUT OF THIS WORLD

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Canadian television journalist Mike Duffy of CTV.

Canadian television journalist Mike Duffy of CTV. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

FOR YEARS, STEPHEN HARPER’S CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT HAS DISMISSED JOURNALISTS, BUT TWO FORMER ONES ARE DOING MORE DAMAGE TO HIM THEN ANY ACTIVE ONES EVER COULD.  THE KICKER?  THEY’RE ON HIS SIDE.

Back in 2006, Stephen Harper lead the Conservative party to the first of three electoral victories in Canada, winning minority governments in 2006 and 2008 before finally winning his coveted majority in 2011.  When Harper defeated Paul Martin in ’06, he promised a government of accountability and transparency, one where the scandals and accusations that soured so many Canadians on the Liberals who had governed since 1993 wouldn’t happen.  He made plenty of other promises as well (a reduced G.S.T., a renewed military culture, fiscal prudence, etc.) but that was the big one, the one that earned Harper and his Conservatives their first-and most important-victory.  But the actions of two former journalists are now threatening to demolish the carefully polished Conservative brand of public trust and responsibility.  The two in question, however, aren’t investigative journalists or pundits looking to dig up deep dark secrets to generate scandalous controversy.  No, rather, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, once respected veterans of the Canadian news business, are causing more damage to the Conservative government with their actions as Conservative Senators then they ever could have as journalists.

Make no mistake, this is not the first chink in the Conservative armour as defenders of truth and responsibility. The reason Canadians went to the polls in 2011 was because the Harper Government was found in contempt of Parliament, the first of any democratic government in the history of the British Commonwealth, for deliberately withholding information from Parliament.  Not that it mattered much; six weeks later the Conservatives were elected a third straight time, this time winning the majority they had always hungered for, handing the Liberal party its worst ever national defeat and driving then Liberal leader Michael Ignattieff back to his teaching job at Harvard.  Odds are if Harper knew that being found in contempt would have gotten him his majority, they would have lied to Parliament years earlier.

But the current crisis they find themselves trying to quash threatens to damage the Conservatives, and Harper himself, unlike anything before.  In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week or so, here’s a warp speed recap-a handful of Senators have grabbed headlines in the past few months for some interesting expense claims.  Senators and MPs alike are allowed to claim reasonable living expenses as part of the execution of their duties, and receive partial or full reimbursement.  And while it’s normal to think that plenty of politicians from all parties take advantage of this system and make a couple of extra bucks on top of their generous salaries, this group has been using the Canadian Treasury like a golden piggy bank.  Former Liberal Senator Marc Harb has put Canadian taxpayers on the hook for over fifty thousand dollars while former Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau has asked John and Jane Q Canadian to hand over forty-eight thousand dollars (Brazeau has also made a few headlines recently for getting arrested for domestic violence).  Both Senators recently resigned their seats in their respective caucuses, and now sit as independents.  Both have also vowed to fight official demands that they repay the fraudulent claims in full after independent audits found them in violation of Senate rules (although the same auditors stated that the rules governing claims for living expenses were a more than a touch fuzzy). But the worst of the bunch has got to be Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, a pair who really should have known better.

Duffy has claimed over ninety-one grand in expenses, and trying to sort out the stories, excuses and outright fabrications he’s used to defend such ridiculous claims would drive Nancy Drew to drink.  He complied with the order to pay his claims back, but after he secured a bank loan to repay his debt, he was cut a cheque by Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff (no word on what happened to the loan). Wallin is currently under investigation for claims exceeding three hundred thousand.  Yep, you read that right.  A big three with five zeros behind it.  Then a decimal point and two more zeros.  Both Duffy and Wallin have resigned their position within the Conservative caucus as well, sitting as independents until their respective audits/investigations are completed (much like Patrick Brazeau, although Brazeau’s public arrests will probably keep him from returning any time soon).  In reality, while the official stories are that they didn’t want to be distractions to the government, their resignations were most likely orders from the Prime Minister’s Office itself.

But you have to ask yourself, how did these two not know better?  Between the two of them, they have close to a century of journalistic experience.  For twenty years, Duffy could be found grilling politicians every Sunday on various CTV political shows, and he earned enough respect in Ottawa’s political landscape that his Senate appointment in 2009 was seen as a huge coup by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (Duffy was a fundraising machine and attracted more than his fair share of votes in 2011).  Wallin became the first woman to host Prime Time News in 1992 after a career that had seen her work at the Toronto Star, fill the position of CTV’s Ottawa Bureau chief as well anchor Canada AM.  She also has 14 honourary doctorates, a spot in the Canadian Broadcasting Hall of Fame, is a member of the Order of Canada and is even an honourary Colonel in the Canadian Air Force.  So, the question is, if these two had still been high-profile members of the national media, would hey have failed to notice a story like this?  Would they not have sunk their teeth into it like a pit bull on a mailman and held on until it was bled dry?  So how did they not know there was going to be about seventeen hundred mega tonnes of toxic political fallout  when this story eventually broke?

     This scandal has taken on a life of its own.  Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s aforementioned Chief of Staff, was forced to resign over the ninety thousand dollar cheque he cut Duffy.  And that’s a scandal all on its own.  By all accounts, Wright is considered as smart as he is shrewd, and everyone who knows him professionally has asked the same question-what on earth was the man thinking?  And secondly, is it possible that no one in the PMO, or even the Prime Minister himself, knew about his spontaneous generosity?  And how does Stephen Harper look after he publicly defended Wright and all of his embattled Senators now that they’re either unemployed or have been exiled from the ranks of the Conservative party?  NDP leader Thomas Mulclair has demanded an RCMP investigation (good luck Tom) and newly elected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has seized on the issue, allowing it to paint Harper and his government as scam artists and con men.  Furthering the government’s headaches are new allegations that the final audit into Mike Duffy’s fraudulent claims was censored by the government to remove any trace of wrongdoing.  Facepalm anyone?

     Stephen Harper rode a blue wave of change into power seven years ago because of a scandal that he was able to exploit enough to damage not only his opponent, but his opponent’s brand.  And once he had cracked the Liberals veneer, he chipped away at it methodically until he was able to break it almost beyond repair.  And while this particular scandal lacks the size of the Sponsorship one that ultimately proved the downfall of the Liberals, it has almost as much meat, it paints Harper and his government as hypocrites and has provided the opposition (including a re-energized Liberal party) ammunition to assault the very foundation of the national Conservative party and everything they’re supposed to stand for.

     The Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with most of the Canadian media.  When they haven’t been able to manage the media, they have ignored or ridiculed it.  Insiders have often maintained that part of the logic behind the Conservatives’ suspicion of journalists is that they could damage the government if allowed too close.  The ultimate irony here is the scandal that former journalists-and now former Conservatives-Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin find themselves at the heart of, could help defeat the Harper government (or not, time will have to tell).  Apparently, journalists are only powerful enough to hurt a Conservative Prime Minister when they’re on his team.

Shayne Kempton

    WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

IMG_0247A HEARTFELT APOLOGY TO THE OTTAWA SENATORS

     Let me begin by saying I like the Ottawa Senators.  I really do.  I am-and remain-an Edmonton Oilers fan, which is why when I moved to the Nation’s Capital I promised myself I’d resist the urge to make any sort of emotional investment in the Senators.  You see, at the time the Sens were coming off their second season since rejoining the NHL as an expansion team and were the joke of the professional sports world.  Seriously.   Not only had they finished last both years (by a country mile), but had captured records for sheer awfulness. They finished dead last their third season as well.  And they’re fourth for those of you keeping score at home.  My point is, when I decided to uproot myself and make Ottawa my home, the Sens weren’t just bad, they were historically bad.  Adding insult to injury was the fact that they were still sharing a building with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s (the Civic Centre, capacity 10 585), and would continue to do so until early 1996.  And the Oilers at the time, weren’t far behind in the punchline category.  In fact, one team the Senators usually had some sort of chance against in those dark, early years, were the Edmonton Oilers.  When pondering whether or not I should follow the Sens, as an established Oilers fan, did I really want to do that to myself?  I mean let’s face it, if I was going to split my loyalties, why follow the biggest punching bag in all of professional hockey when I was already following one of the worst?  Why not follow Detroit or Pittsburgh or the Montreal Canadiens, who claimed much of Ottawa’s relatively virgin fan base  (while Toronto claimed much of the rest)?

But the truth is, the Senators grew on me.  And why not?  There were plenty of similarities between the two teams back then, aside from their dismal records.  Both were small market Canadian teams trying to compete against much richer squads in the days before the salary cap, when the Canadian Loonie could buy you an American nickel.  Both had a handful of shiny young players they were pinning their future hopes on-Ottawa boasted talented superstar centre Alexei Yashin, Alexandre “the Second Coming of Mario Lemieux” Daigle and the highly touted Radek Bonk while Edmonton’s prayers included names like Doug Weight and Jason Arnott.  Ironically, both teams ended their losing ways at the same time, the Senators making the playoffs for the first time in 1997 while the Oilers ended a five year playoff drought that same year.  Both teams flirted with relocation (the Sens sinking as low as bankruptcy before being rescued by billionaire Eugene Melnyk) and both teams flirted with greatness, with Edmonton making an improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006 and the Ottawa Senators doing so in 2007.

So yes, I like the Ottawa Senators.  I like to see them do well.  Make no mistake, when they play Edmonton my ultimate loyalty remains with the Oilers (but cheering for an Edmonton win in overtime allows the Oilers to claim a rare victory while it allows the Senators to steal a point in what has become a claustrophobic Eastern Conference), but I have watched the Senators grow and have taken pride in their achievements and shared their sorrow during their defeats.  I was happy for them when they made the playoffs for the first time in 1997.  I swore at the TV whenever Alexei Yashin decided to wage another contractual temper tantrum and I cheered for them in 2003 when they advanced to the Final Four and again in 2007 when they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.  I despised Dany Heatley as much as any Sens fan when he turned his back on the franchise that had welcomed him after his life and career became a literal train wreck in Atlanta (even more so when he snubbed the Oilers repeated attempts to trade for him) and I felt the swelling bitterness when Ottawa was driven from the post season by the hated Toronto Maple Leafs not once, not twice, not even thrice but four god forsaken times.  Living in the Ottawa during all of those ups and down probably had a thing or two to do with my growing affection for the team as well, but as an Oilers fan, I became enamoured with underdogs.  And whether it was luck or design, the Sens have been underdogs more often than not.

But being a fan has never completely blinded me to reality.  OK, well, it has on occasion, but we’re talking less than 50/50 here.  After all, I AM an OILERS fan.  Delusion is part of the package.  It’s how we cope.  But it also equips you with more than enough pragmatism to look at a situation subjectively and size it up.  It’s either “we’ve got a real shot here,” or “yeah, we’re totally boned.”  I’m sure you get the picture.   And last winter, I took a look at Ottawa and figured they were destined to miss the playoffs (if there’s one thing an Oilers fan is an expert at, it’s failure and post season futility).

I don’t think I was too out of line.  Ottawa qualified for the 2012 playoffs by capturing the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and they had the fewest points of any team that made the post season that spring.  And that modest level of success exceeded most people’s expectations for Ottawa that year (the Sens missed the playoffs in 2011, and most predictions for the 2011-12 season leaned towards them missing the post-season again and participating in the Nail Yakupov sweepstakes).  And some of the teams that trailed Ottawa by a handful of points in the East made some significant gains last summer.  Carolina, who finished ten points behind the Senators, added top six forwards Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin.  Steve Yzerman, whose Tampa Bay Lightning trailed Ottawa by 8 points come season’s end, added free agent blue liners Matt Carle and Sami Salo to his weak defense corps and bolstered his struggling goaltending staff by acquiring (then) highly sought after netminder Anders Lindback.  But the team I felt represented the biggest threat to the Sens playoff presence was the Buffalo Sabres, who despite losing over 300 man games to injury and enduring a sub par year from franchise goalie Ryan Miller, finished a mere three points beneath the Sens.  And none of that takes into account the Toronto Maple Leafs inevitable (some might say overdue) improvement from a basement team to a playoff one, or the remarkable turnaround  of the Montreal Canadiens, jumping from dead last in the Eastern Conference to second place.  What was Ottawa’s big move?  Trading Nick Foligno to Columbus for defenseman Marc Methot.  In fact, the only team I considered in more jeopardy of losing their playoff berth was the New Jersey Devils (well, I swung an even .500 on that one).

And all my crystal ball gazing came before the Senators avalanche of injuries.

Defenceman Jared Cowen underwent season ending surgery in November to repair a hip he injured playing for the AHL Binghamton Senators during the early days of the NHL lockout (though he made a surprising comeback at the end of April).  Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson returned to the lineup during the first round matchup against Montreal after missing over two months with a sliced Achilles tendon after a run in with a reckless Matt Cooke in February (Karlsson wasn’t expected back until next October).  Jason Spezza was on the shelf between January and mid May with a herniated disc and Craig Anderson, easily the team’s MVP this season (whose absence from this year’s Vezina nominees has raised a few eyebrows) and sniper Milan Michalek have missed considerable chunks of time.  Taking all that into account, would any sane man have bet on the Senators playoff chances?  In fact, I know a lot of Senator fans who thought they’d be in the hunt for the first overall pick after the injuries started piling up (could you imagine adding Seth Jones to a blue line that already included Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and potentially Codi Ceci?).  And I did go so far as to bet a co-worker lunch that the Sens would fail to qualify for the post season.  Don’t worry Matt, I haven’t forgotten, although if you insist on McDonald’s I reserve the right to yak on your Senators jersey.

So here’s my apology Senators, because the one thing I should have learned about this team from the time I decided to begin cheering for the rare win while they were still playing on OHL ice, to this year’s Cinderella bouncing of the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, is to never count this team out when the odds are against them.  Make no mistake, there have been plenty of times this team has choked.  There were years when they skated into the playoffs as the favourite to win the Cup, years where they had dominated the regular season, only to crumble under the pressure.  But when they’ve been counted out before a single regular season game has been played, or before a single skate blade touched playoff ice, that’s when they’re dangerous.  That’s when they’re most effective.  Especially this year, when catastrophic injuries forced them to play playoff hockey all season long.  And while things may not look so good for them against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins right now, the fact that they managed to make it this far, often with a roster that resembled an AHL team more than an NHL one, is no small victory in itself.  So sorry Sens, in the future, I hope I’ll know better.  You earned this.

Go Sens Go.

Shayne Kempton

A HEARTFELT APOLOGY TO THE OTTAWA SENATORS

NO FRESH TREK

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS IS AN EXCELLENT BLEND OF SCIENCE FICTION AND ACTION FLICK, BUT USES AN OLD STORY INSTEAD OF ANYTHING NEW

Director:  J.J. Abrams

Studio:  Paramount Pictures

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberpatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Peter Weller and Bruce Greenwood.

Rated: PG

Length: 132 minutes

When Paramount Studios rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009 with the simply titled Star Trek, it was to free the science fiction franchise from over half a century of storytelling baggage.  Between William Shatner adventures as Captain James Tyberius Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the classic Trek series on CBS back in the sixties, until the last episode of the prequel series Enterprise starring Scot Bakula as Captain Johnathan Archer aired in 2005, Gene Roddenbery’s “wagon train to the stars” built a massive mythology that spanned ten motion pictures, five TV shows (combining for 28 seasons), and countless novels, comic books and fan conventions over five plus decades.  And while Star Trek has often been referred to as a billion dollar franchise, the problem this presented Paramount (and more importantly, the writers hired to tell stories), was that Trek’s mythos had become a veritable kraken that strangled any new ideas before they could be told.  Enter director J.J. Abrams and his time travelling relaunch in 2009, a movie that allowed stories to be told with the classic characters in their prime, unencumbered by the claustrophobic Trek dogma.

It’s a little disappointing then to see them retreat to a classic Trek story that’s already been used in both the original series and a previous movie instead of exploring that newfound freedom.

At the risk of leaking spoilers, the primary villain of Into Darkness is a genetically enhanced war criminal exiled from Earth three centuries, he and his genocidal followers cryogenically frozen while their ship wanders the stars.  Played efficiently by Benedict Cumberpatch, this new Khan begins a one man wave of terror against both Starfleet and the Federation, prompting the powers that be to send the Enterprise after him.  But Captain Kirk and the crew soon find themselves caught in a web of intrigue, half truths and misdirection.

Abrams applies a handful of new twists to the Khan tale and he injects plenty of emotional turmoil into the story.  While everyone is quick to recognize James Kirk’s (Chris Pine) potential, the womanizing captain drives his superiors crazy.  And driving Kirk crazy is his first officer and best friend Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose obsession with logic is a perfect compliment to Kirk’s instinctive first style of command even while the two grate on each other.  Abrams also ratchets up the romantic tension between Spock and the passionate and strong willed Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and he expands the character of Scotty (played brilliantly by Simon Pegg), allowing plenty of humanity and laughs in the middle of the crazy technology and action.

And speaking of the action, the scenes in Into Darkness are by far the best any Trek movie has seen.  Abrams uses all the FX technology at his disposal to give this chapter the epic feel that many Star Trek fans have craved but have never really gotten.  The fist fights in this one definitely take a back seat to the duelling starships.  And there’s plenty of duelling starships.

Into Darkness has a number of other things going for it.  The movie goes deeper into the relatively young relationship between Kirk and Spock, it gives more screen time to Dr. “Bones” McCoy (played with the perfect amount of sandpaper by Karl Urban) and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura isn’t your father’s Uhura (the Enterprise’s communications officer is quite at home among the movie’s top characters and she’s no damsel in distress) It also gives Spoke an opportunity to go a little cowboy himself, a refreshing change on his sometime sombre demeanour.  But my big disappointment with Into Darkness remains that they recycled an old story and an old villain after spending so much time and effort to free the franchise from the past, to give it some creative carte blanche.

Don’t get me wrong; if you’re a Star Trek fan, an action movie fan or an action fan, go see Into Darkness.  See it in IMAX or 3D (or both) if you can to fully appreciate the brilliant effects and action scenes.  It’s definitely worth the price of admission to se it on the big screen while you can.  Just don’t expect a new story.

Shayne Kempton

NO FRESH TREK STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS IS

RIGHT OF CENTRE

     RIGHT OF CENTRE

     Recently, some far right Conservative Christian websites and pundits have been bashing NBA centre Jake Collins, who became the first openly gay athlete in a major North American sports league last month when he said the words “I’m an NBA Centre.  I’m black.  And I’m gay.”  Now bashing an openly gay man, especially a celebrity, is nothing new for this crowd, and from everything I’ve read about Collins, the 12 year NBA veteran and journeyman is a consummate professional and more than smart enough to expect that the second he stepped foot out of the closet he was going to be square in the crosshairs of such people.  And having spent countless hours in locker rooms at every level of his amateur and professional career, he’s heard the worst kind of things people can and will say about gays.

     But there’s a bit of a different breed of bashing I’ve seen creeping around the edges of the usual lunatic fringe.  Some pundits have compared Collins favourable treatment by the media at large to the coverage NFL quarterback Tim Tebow got in 2011, when he exploded onto the media’s radar as the apparent saviour of the Denver Broncos.  Tebow (drafted by Denver in the first round of the 2010 NFL entry draft) replaced Broncos starting quarterback Kyle Orton early in the season, made a habit out of winning seemingly lost games in the dying minutes (if not seconds) of regulation, and not only led Denver to their first AFC West title but also their first playoff victory in six years.  But his on-field success was only a part of the formula for Tebow’s instant notoriety.  Tebow made a very obvious display of his Christian faith at every opportunity, praying on field and often striking a biblical pose when a play went right (the pose became known as “Tebowing”).  Tebow’s mixture of faith and game success earned him plenty of fame, not all of it nice.  And therein lies the complaint of many of these pundits, that the media was deliberately unfair to Tebow because he was a proud Christian while they have essentially given Collins a free pass and labelled him a hero because he’s gay.

     Before I go any further, I have a confession to make; I know little about football and even less about the NFL.  But I was fascinated by the debate that raged around Tebow every Sunday and always checked in on a number of online threads, from political message boards to sports ones, that sprang up after every game.  And inevitably the conversation degenerated into name calling and malice, often sooner rather than later.  But the storm swirling around Tebow blew over as suddenly as it came; Denver was eliminated (quite easily) by the New England Patriots and Tebow hasn’t seen any NFL action since (he was traded to the New York Jets in the off-season and didn’t play a single game last season; the Jets have since cut Tebow and many observers think his next stop could be the CFL).  Tebow had successfully become a media afterthought until some of these “pundits” essentially nailed a cross to his back and claimed that he had been crucified by the media because of his faith while they praised a “pervert” like Jason Collins and painted him a hero (check out the following link for one such example http://cryandhowl.com/2013/04/30/contrast-jason-collins-and-tim-tebow/).

     It also deserves to be said that there are millions of honest, genuine Christians who have nothing against homosexuals or the LGBT community at large, and have often argued in favour of equality.  And it’s not them I’m aiming this little trip to the top of my soap box at.  But here’s a message to the Far Right Christian Conservatives who are wiping their feet on Jason Collins, and the rest of the LGBT community, while polishing Tebow’s memory at the same time-the Christian Right brand has taken a nasty beating the past few years, and you’ve invited each and every blow.

     Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to paint every Christian Conservative with the same brush either, but when your side of the argument remains silent while groups like the Westboro Baptist Church make plenty of noise at funerals, insulting the memories of soldiers and children and bombing victims, you’re going to get some bad press.  When you let the likes of Mike Huckabee go on national television after dozens of parents have lost their children in a massacre days before Christmas and imply that God allowed it to happen because you took prayer out of public schools, you’re going to upset some people.  When your organizations are the biggest supporters behind movements to deny gays and homosexuals equal rights, you’re going to get yourself crossed off some Christmas card lists.   And remind me, outside of the retirement of one Pope and the antics of the new one, what’s the biggest reason the Roman Catholic Church makes headlines these days?

     And here’s a quick memo fellas, attitudes towards homosexuality have seen a dramatic shift over the past fifteen to twenty years.  President Barrack Obama has openly supported equal marriage rights for gays and homosexuals since first being elected in 2008, Rhode Island became the tenth state in the United States to recognize same-sex marriage and in many other western (including Canada) and european countries, same-sex marriage has been a fact of life for years.  And speaking of the U.S., one of the slowest moving countries in the western world when it comes to human rights and recognizing equality, 58% of its citizens support equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.  That number swells to over 80% for people 30 years old and younger.  And it is often the Christian Right trying to fight this tide of change, stomping their feet and screaming that they’re the victims while hypocritically trying to insure that one group of human beings don’t have the same rights as everyone else.  That isn’t going to win you any new converts either.

     So at the end of the day, was Tebow handled unfairly because he dropped to one knee and saluted the Almighty every time he completed a pass (which actually wasn’t very often), essentially turning the football field into a church?  Maybe, but given the overbearing, bigoted actions of the Christian Right, he had it coming.  And don’t take yourself too seriously boys, the orgy of media love for Jason Collins has just about run its course; headlines about his public declaration of his homosexuality are already being replaced by ones about what really matters in professional sports; the playoffs, trade rumours and which coach is on the firing block next.  But the next time you plan on painting yourselves a victim, ask yourself this question; when was the last time someone in North America was driven to suicide because of bullying or was beaten up in the street or had their home vandalized all because they were Christian?  Then ask yourself how many times that happened because someone was gay.

Shayne Kempton

If Iron Man 3 is the last time we get to see Robert Downey Jr. don the armour in his own title, it was a loud, visually impressive and decent good bye.

Following last year’s blockbuster Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3 (directed by Shane Black) picks up on Tony Stark and company’s current adventures.  Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony’s former assistant and current love interest, remains CEO of Stark Industries.  Happy Hogan (John Favreau) has gone from having the most pointless job in the world as Tony’s bodyguard to the head of Stark’s corporate security and Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) continues to collect a paycheque signed by Uncle Sam, only now as the United States very own hero, the Iron Patriot, instead of the government’s liaison to Tony Stark (apparently, focus groups informed the administration that the name War Machine didn’t exactly sell the idea of fresh apple pie, the Constitution and the Fourth of July all that well).  Tony, meanwhile, chills at home in his super workshop tucked nicely beneath his mansion on a cliff, whiling away the hours building new and improved suits of Iron Man armour.  And Tony has lots of hours to fill since he hasn’t been sleeping all that much since he and his fellow Avengers fought off an alien invasion over New York City.  When he does sleep, he’s troubled by nightmares that fill his days with doubt and uncertainty and the occasional freak out.  And just to toss an extra monkey wrench into the works, a new terrorist called the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) emerges, hijacking America’s airwaves, lecturing the United States and threatening its leaders by name.  Fancying himself a teacher, the Mandarin likes to add an extra exclamation mark to each lesson, setting off bombs that incinerate everything within their reach, reducing people to little more than shadows of ash.  The Mandarin moves like a ghost, silent, invisible and impossible to track, moving closer and closer with every attack.  And speaking of ghosts, one from both Tony and Pepper’s past reappears, the charismatic and brilliant Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the mind behind Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M. for short).  Pretty soon, Tony looks like he’s wishing he was back up to his eyeballs in alien invaders and rogue gods.

As far as action flicks go, Iron Man 3 delivers plenty of deafening, eyeball busting explosions and the climactic battle scene will leave plenty of action fans and comic book ones alike giggling in their seats.  The visuals are bold and seamlessly sewn into the action (the end credits dedicated to computer animators was almost as log as the film itself) but Iron Man could take some flak from comic purists over the Mandarin.  Originally a powerful, ancient sorcerer with ruthless ambition (a villainous genre counterbalance to Iron Man’s super technology archetype), Kingsley’s Mandarin is a political storm front, relying on modern weapons, internet propaganda and devoted followers to carry out his plans.  But what’s refreshing about Iron Man 3 is that it spends a good chunk testing Stark’s resourcefulness and courage, measuring the qualities that truly make a hero, finding out how much man is beneath the iron.  Tony’s reckless, playboy past haunts him plenty and things between him and the Mandarin become personal fast.  Before he knows it, everything Tony holds dear is threatened and he finds himself among those running for their lives while he tries to unwrap the mystery behind the Mandarin and deal with his personal drama all at the same time.  His occasional reference to his past misdeeds is a nice reminder of what he used to be and how far he’s come.

Kingsley does a great job of chewing up more than a few scenes as the Mandarin (in all his incarnations) and Pearce plays Killian to almost perfection (Aldrich reminds us of the popular, good looking kids in high school-we always liked to talk to them and felt special when they looked our way but we never entirely trusted them).  Paltrow plays Potts with her signature blend of smarts and sex appeal with plenty of Pepper’s occasional naivety thrown in for good measure.  Paltrow has pushed Potts beyond the mere damsel in distress and when she takes a turn or two as hero this time out, the audience is pretty comfortable with it.  But the real star of this movie (outside of the special effects), is undoubtedly Downey.

Downey’s mastery of quips and sarcastic one-liners made Tony Stark a character that people wanted to like even before he donned the armour.  He brings the appropriate amount of charm, empathy and overconfidence necessary for audiences to buy the character.  Downey’s Stark is far more relatable than a Bruce Wayne or a Clark Kent or a Steve Rogers. Downey was arguably the best performance in The Avengers last summer, snapping off one liners just before taking a shot from a thunder god to the head.  And that poses a problem for Marvel and parent company Disney.

Iron Man 3 seems to wrap up Tony Stark’s career as Iron Man, at least for solo movies.  Given how much box office gravy the movie raked in internationally prior to it’s north American release, it seems difficult to believe that all studios involved wouldn’t want to do a fourth instalment.  But Downey’s contract to play Tony Stark ends with Iron Man 3’s credits, and as of this writing Marvel/Disney hasn’t gotten his name on a contract to appear in Avengers 2 (currently slated for a May release in 2015). It’s pretty tough to imagine anyone other than Tony Stark wearing the armour and impossible to imagine anyone other than Downey bringing Stark to life.  Still, the probable financial success of Iron Man 3 combined with the box office expectations of The Avengers 2 means Disney should have no problem offering Downey a small fortune to keep us loving Stark for a few more years as long as they can find stories to keep him entertained.

Shayne Kempton

 Three Times the Iron