Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League "Spoiler-Lite" Review


Was a really hectic day at work this past Friday, that I barely realized I was in the clinic past my clock-out time (and that was without any breaks at all). On my way home, about 5.20 pm, I just decided to check on the timings for Justice League, which my brother had assured me would start playing at the theaters as of Wednesday. Lo and behold, there was a 2D showing at 6.30pm at the Junction Cinemax. The way I figured it, even with the nasty Friday traffic on Ngong Road (Both ways!), I could still make the trip in about an hour, and, even with all eventualities, be able to watch the movie. I cut it pretty close, but I made it right on time.

So, pretty much taking its cue from Batman V Superman (BvS), this story plunges us into the DCEU's version of "The Death of Superman" storyline. The introductory sequence is very reminiscent of the title sequence from "Watchmen", serving as a sort of dirge that shows how the world has been shaped by the events of Superman's death; it has pretty much sapped most of humanity's hope, basically starting off some major doom and gloom as if a sort of doomsday clock has gone off; and, suddenly, something begins to feed off of that gloom: enter Steppenwolf and the parademons. Batman and Wonder woman are tasked with ushering in a new age of heroes by bringing together the other (until now) incognito and disparate superheroes to form a team.

I won't lie: I've been guarded about the hype surrounding this movie ever since the DCEU jumped off on Man of Steel and followed that up with Batman V Superman. Invariably, this discussion will involve a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) comparison, but with good reason. The animated division of DC has been very good at producing wonderful animated movies, some of which have already captured (very well) some of the classic stories that are just now being translated to the DCEU. You need look no further than "Superman: Doomsday", "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns", "Batman: Assault on Arkham" and "Justice League: War" for direct comparisons to Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, and even Justice League. Some might argue that in this regard, the animated movies have done a better job of telling the stories.

A lot is happening in this movie: there's the back story to the mother boxes, a war pitting many earthly forces against an unwelcome invader (who isn't entirely repulsed), and then we're also getting more fleshed out introductions to 3 of our heroes who only had the smallest of cameos in BvS.

  1. Aquaman, as shown from the trailers, has built up a following of sorts, and has indulged in heroics; he has the trident in his possession, and he interacts with Atlantis to some extent (at least they won't be going the "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis" way). 
  2. The Flash is in his pre-police force phase and is living off the grid. By all accounts, he has the suit, but he's still a nascent superhero whose greatest feats have consisted of pushing people out of the way, and gunning it. Suicide Squad had that segment where he encountered Capt. Boomerang; don't know if that's a DCEU continuity issue, or if the old Capt. isn't considered one of his greater rogue gallery entries - only time will tell.
  3. Cyborg is as fresh as they come. BvS gave us the impression that he'd already been formed prior to the Doomsday fight, but here he seems like a relatively recent creation. (I don't exactly know if it's a continuity error, but this time with his creation, there's a bit more of his human components than we glimpsed in his prior BvS creation). Wouldn't exactly qualify as an exact Justice League: War iteration, but he's pretty close. The artificial intelligence from the mother box continues to reshape him, and at times, neither he nor his teammates are fully convinced of which sides he's truly on. Seemed like they mixed in his character with quirks from Blue Beetle.

First off, let's start with the positives: Ben Affleck's Batman is still a joy to watch. He's a tad less jaded than he was in BvS and a bit more philanthropic. Though, this time around he's dealing with disposable parademons, so we don't know whether he's totally rid himself of the ruthless killer instinct he displayed in his previous incarnation towards humans. And now this is where I insert a SPOILER-LITE portion in this review: they have finally done Superman justice. You'd have to have been living under a rock or skipped all press related to this movie to think that Superman wouldn't be a part of the League. Anyway, for the first time in 3 movies, they've finally latched onto the things that humanize Superman; heck, he even gets away with making a joke or two. Gone is that depressed sullen character from MoS and BvS, and here we finally have a hero worth his title. But don't let that fool you, once he brings the godhood, he is bad-ass. His first interaction with the Justice League establishes that there really is none of them that is a match for him (which pretty much blows the BvS characterization out of the water). Overpowered he may be, but that is what Superman has always been.

Despite all the one-liners and seemingly one-dimensional character of Aquaman, I actually enjoyed his presence on the team. He has a gruff exterior and he pretty much tells it like it is. You feel like he profits the least from having a seat at the table with the League (a role which was usually reserved for Batman in the animated Justice League), but he sticks it out and comes through for the team.

I'm also happy about the course correction that the DCEU seems to be making. Trying to make all their movies with a paintbrush of seriousness that should ideally only be reserved for Batman has truly complicated things. For one thing, it has totally ruined Superman thus far. I mean, the space refugee, last of his kind shtick was really too much. He's humanoid looking enough and mostly benevolent that they should never have had to turn him into a depressed golem. This was probably because of the depressing influence of Jonathan and Martha Kent in the DCEU more than anything else.
I don't know if this was a Joss Whedon decision or if it came from Zack Snyder himself, but it was welcome to have the heroes joke around and smile. After one unfortunate thumping, hearing Batman complain about "something definitely being broken" was hilarious. The extreme end of this humour is brought on by Barry Allen (The Flash); because he's such a newbie, he comes off like a nervous wreck, and they use his discomfort to inject humour into a lot of his situations. Unfortunately, sometimes it lands, and other times it doesn't. Maybe once his rookie-ness wears off, we might get a more balanced representation. Lastly, thank God that Lex Luthor Jr. was only restricted to a post-credits scene; his wrongness for the role has never been in doubt, and for the love of life, I hope they never find an excuse to shoehorn him into any further league movies. Maybe they could find a way to resurrect his dad and kill Jr. off permanently

On the negative side, this movie feels like it would definitely have profited from been slightly longer. Between the past exploration of the war, and the introduction of some of the heroes, things feel a bit rushed. Going the "Age of Ultron" route of letting special characters develop organically within a movie that is already chock full of other pre-established characters and storylines is a recipe for disaster. I want to relate to them, get invested in them, but I feel like if the writers had decided to kill off these under-characterized heroes (a la Quicksilver), I'd shrug it off as nothing meaningful. I would definitely have cut out most of Lois Lane and Martha Kent's scenes in this movie, because, with few exceptions, none of them were pivotal to the story.

The movie also does get a bit CGI heavy in some instances. Don't get me wrong: the speed force is a beautifully rendered alternate reality of wonder, and a highlight of the film. Granted, the big baddie and his minions are CGI creations, and so is Cyborg, some real world environments could've helped out. I heard one critic praise the Themyscira war scene, but the CGI was a bit too jarring for my tastes. Steppenwolf and the parademons were rendered well, but Cyborg is 50/50. There's just something very uncanny valley about the way he looks while walking out of a plane, and when his head is viewed from the side in quick cuts. It's probably something they'll have to firm up before they decide to put him on screen again. As for Superman's upper lip and the CG-deleted 'stache...well, I actually didn't notice it in the movie, so that's that.


There's also one very glaring issue. (Spoiler Lite again!) The movie only seems to highlight the plight of one family in this far flung area where bizness is going down. Then by the time things are climaxing, the situation has changed. I mean, seriously, even Justice League: War did it better. All those parademon numbers needed to be repopulated, and sadly, that means a lot of humans ended up being carried off and converted. They could've actually shown us some of this stuff to up the stakes. Dunno if they felt the ratings would have been switched up if they showed us something that graphic, but it would've made the movie more satisfying.

In this case, I feel certain that a Director's cut would actually improve the movie (watched the BvS one - was still a disaster). Now that they've finally gotten the League out of the gate, they need to slow down and develop their iconic characters. They've got the time and a worthy stable of characters and storylines to keep us entertained for years to come.

I'm 50/50 on this movie, a bit confused about whether it did what it set out to do. I'll give it a B and maybe give it a second watch on another occasion.

God Bless.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok "Spoiler-Free" Review



So, Thor: Ragnarok basically showed up in theaters this Wednesday, and I've basically been waiting for a long time to watch this movie. This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's (MCU) second last single outing before we get into the massive team-up event of "Infinity War". Up to this point, the MCU now has 3 complete trilogies, which have yielded varying degrees of success. The hallmark has been the Captain America trilogy which went from strength to strength, first with a World War II period piece, then evolved into a beautiful spy thriller for its second outing, and came full circle with the mash-up that was "Civil War". Next up is the Iron Man trilogy; Iron Man is considered the starting point of the MCU, but his movies have had a strange trajectory with each entry being weaker than the last. With the completion of the Thor trilogy, we can take a look at the course these movies have taken.

Thor's characterization has been difficult to pin down. Asgard and all the realms associated with Thor's universe are what bridges the rest of the MCU with each other. How else could disparate properties like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and pretty much everything terrestrial in the MCU be brought together if not through Thor? The first movie was like a Shakespearean play: big hero who's heir to the throne does something unbecoming and ends up being stripped of his powers and summarily banished to earth; after learning some humility and showing some regard for human life, he gains back his powers and his place as the rightful heir. The second movie took a much darker path, digging further into the lore of Asgard and introducing an infinity stone in the form of the Aether; having Jane Foster play the unwitting host to the Aether was a move to introduce her to the Asgardians (one which probably wasn't appreciated too highly by the fans).  


As I've mentioned before, Thor has been hard to place in this MCU. They've gone with the "Ultimate" version of Thor's universe, therefore, rather than being magical god-like creatures, Asgardians are really just a technologically advanced race; but then again, Thor typifies a Tony Robbins' quote that I ran across a while back,
"It is not necessary to understand everything to be able to use everything"
Technologically advanced the Asgardians may be, but you get the feeling that Thor doesn't really understand how it all works (not the sharpest tool in the shed). At some point in this movie, Thor chides Hulk for being the dumbest avenger, but that might be a toss up between the two of them. In the past 2 movies, Thor barely fits in with the Midgardians (human folk), with the exception of the Avengers. He is a god among men, and out of place even when juxtaposed against the posse (Jane, Darcy and Erik) that is meant to humanize him.

So this movie takes a totally different route. It puts a spanner in the works, putting a stop to the increasingly serious tone between the first two movies; instead, this one serves up the laughs aplenty. Also, the human element is almost lacking from this movie; if Thor is a god, let's get to see what he's like among other gods (lesser or otherwise). Especially when it comes to the laughs, you'll pick the tonal shift very early. He's talking to a heavy-hitter, and the humour was a tad overpowering. This was the only part where it took me out of the moment, much in the same way I couldn't take Tony Stark's PTSD arc in Iron Man III serious.

Fortunately, the action kicked into top gear and the movie pulls you back in. Shortly after, we get to see how things are falling apart since Loki's being hiding under the guise of Odin. It's priceless to see Loki's death scene from Thor: The Dark World played to comedic effect with the most surprising of cameos (I seriously doubted my eyes the whole time I was watching the scene play out). It's a quick trip from there in search of Odin, which brings us to earth and a wonderful encounter between Dr. Strange and the Asgardians. It's hard to tell how much time passes in the MCU and where the movies fit into the timeline, but from the dexterity with which the good doctor handles the magical arts, you can tell that he's finally settled into his role as the sorcerer supreme. Handling the Asgardian presence on earth (particularly Loki's) as something of a nuisance, he reunites them with Odin to ensure the safety of earth.

The reunion is short-lived, but enough for Odin to let us know that something bad is coming; his foreboding is not limited to the event itself, but he lets us in on a dark secret that lets us know that he is in a way responsible for what's coming. The trailers and clips have given us a bit of exposition concerning the encounter between Thor, Loki and Hela, and how exactly they end up on Sakaar, and how they end up meeting the rest of The Revengers team members - Hulk and Valkyrie - but maybe not in the way you're expecting. In an era when poorly constructed trailers threaten to expose entire movie plots willy nilly, there's a surprising amount of randomness in which the story comes together. A traditional buddy cop movie (like happened in Iron Man III), this is not. However, dysfunctional or otherwise, this is the team that needs to get back to Asgard to deal with the big baddie.

I think this movie achieved what it's going for. It's a beautiful movie with vibrant colours and expansive worlds. More than that, it also expands the lore in a welcome direction. Multiple story arcs have been assembled to come up with this version of the story. There's a touch of the Ragnarok, Planet Hulk, and Gorr the Godbutcher storylines; probably more things in there too, but they are tastefully amalgamated. Thor, despite all the comedy, finally comes into his own. Despite feeling hapless for losing Mjolnir, he comes to embrace his role as the god of thunder, and all innate abilities and responsibilities therein. And if there's anything he learns quite well, it's that "Asgard is not a place, but its people".

Loki has also morphed into an entirely new character. When we first met him, he was finding himself in his role as the god of mischief; in The Avengers, he was pretty much an astringent villain; but here he still makes mistakes, but he's beginning to embrace himself as somewhat of an anti-hero.

Bruce Banner/Hulk does not feel like an afterthought either, and that's probably because The Planet Hulk storyline so organically implants his presence in this movie. It is a travesty that we haven't gotten a new Hulk movie to expand the character for this new universe (I refuse to count 2008's Incredible Hulk as having brought anything useful to the MCU). The Banner/Hulk relationship is more tenuous this time around, with Banner totally buried within their fractured psyche since he fled on the Quinjet at the end of Age of Ultron. As per the comic, Banner's presence made no sense on Sakaar because the world was too hostile to accommodate his puny physique; however, since they're shifting thing around for this adaptation, some exposition would be great for exploring this fractured psyche.

Cate Blanchett is a wonderful addition to the cast as the villainous Hela. She has a ravenous appetite for violence, but in her own way she reflects an individual who is looking for recognition in the only way she knows how. Her path partially mirrors that of Loki, someone on the outside looking in, hoping for acceptance and validation. Her exposition gives us a peek into a darker less benevolent Asgardian past, and I feel like she would be a welcome villain in future MCU installments. (Might even prove to be a worthy foe for the likes of Dr. Strange).

Tessa Thompson as wonderfully cast as Valkyrie, a seemingly incorrigible drunk with a traumatic past who is initially the bane of Thor's existence on Sakaar; but her bad habits aside, she steals every scene she's in, and her path towards redemption is worth the watch.
Even Jeff Goldblum is a welcome addition. Even his typical "mannerisms" only add more zest to the ridiculous entity that is the Grandmaster. He is wonderfully egotistical, and he infuriates Thor to no end with his frequent mispronunciation of "Asgard" or Thor's title.

The humour also melded well, despite the serious tone that "Ragnarok" is meant to imply. After a really rough bump at the start, I feel like it was the right tonal choice for this movie. This movie must be preparing us for the kind of loss that we're going to experience during the Infinity War because some people meet rather untimely ends in this movie. It just happens with a finality that'll shock you, and you barely even get a chance for it to sink in. I'm hoping that there's a chance for rebirth, like that shown in the comic, such that we will get a chance to meet some of these fallen heroes again. (One can only wish...)

It's been hard to put words to this review without giving spoilers, so perhaps I might just have to delve into spoiler territory with another review to further contextualize what I was unable to say. Suffice it to say, this was a great movie (A+), and a wonderfully good time. I might just be up for watching this again come next weekend; who knows, might even treat a friend to it (time will tell).

God Bless.

  

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Music of Pat Metheny - Minuano 6/8

Eventually, it had to happen. I had to dig up one track that is quintessentially a Pat Metheny Group number. This is typically the 2nd part of his famous "Metheny Medley" (Phase Dance - Minuano (6/8) - September 15th - First Circle...), and even continues to maintain that position in his newest Sessions rendition.

It certainly was a hard track to come by because this is one of those long form songs, which begins one way, and midway transforms into a whole other creation. I was lucky to run across it as a snippet from a fan's playlist on Pat Metheny Radio on the PMG website. (Un)fortunately, the snippet was from the second portion of the song past the 2:45 mark - similar to what he uses in his medley - thus, it is one that you're likely to miss unless you're patient enough.

Coming from the "Still Life (Talking)" album of 1987, this song reflects some of the group's earlier Brazilian influence from around the period; it also includes the incorporation of wordless vocals in its composition. The song starts off with an eerie portion of humming set against a nondescript instrumental background that steadily increases in complexity; there is an ebb-and-flow of the guitar, piano and other percussion elements as something buoying the humming, but not entirely sounding unified at first; this then builds up around the 2:45 mark, where we swing from the crescendo of the humming into a beautiful samba bass line.

From here, the guitar, piano and whistling spell out the Minuano melody, and in the next line the vocals reiterate the same phrasing. This is the preamble to Metheny's tasteful solo (more restrained in the album version, but a tad more explosive in varied live playings of this song). We then delve back into the minuano melody, which is used as a bridge to a delightful percussion breakdown: the Marimba stands front-and-centre with notable backing from castanets and the piano; for its second spin, the drums are brought in and the bass accent a few notes, and lastly, third time around, they are joined by Metheny's guitar which seems to resonate exactly with Steve Rodby's Bass playing. With the whole band back in play, Lyle Mays builds up the next bridge section to sound like a brass heavy affair, and then we find ourselves back in the Minuano melody proper till the song's conclusion.

Clocking in at a decent 9:28, this song is a masterpiece. It actually seems much shorter when you play it out, but it is immensely enjoyable through and through. Many versions of it abound, especially some live versions (We Live Here & Imaginary Day DVDs) where the intro session is cut out and they just get down to business. Also available is the Pat Metheny + Metropole Orchestra version adapted by Pat for a massive ensemble.

Whichever version you view, I hope it proves as much a feast for your senses as it has for mine over the years.

God Bless



Monday, October 23, 2017

Discipline

I have been mulling over this topic for a while, and now it's just something I have to get out there. However, for the sake of making a few things clear in this post, I need to juxtapose 2 memories (for the first time no less) to serve as a useful reference point.

The first memory is pulled from 'orientation week' at Daystar University in late 2001. Now, I've called upon that time period once before, but I think it is begging for a revisit. On one of the allotted days, the University Registrar - Mrs. Arao (my very own mother) - addressed us. Granted, she did address us on more than one occasion that week, I am reminded of the first speech that she prepared for us. I can't really remember the specifics, but I'll never forget the topic: Discipline. Discipline was supposed to make all the difference between how we utilized our time, all the resources our parents (guardians) had invested into our studies, etc to make our stay at Daystar, and our time beyond university fruitful. From what I know of my mother's professional demeanour, she's never been one to take an authoritarian stance; but students rued having to meet up with her in her office if it involved academic missteps. Turned out to be many a trepid time for a few students, but it was merely her enforcing her guiding principle of discipline, which, suffice it to say, if you didn't learn it at school, you'd eventually have to learn from the world.

The second memory comes to you courtesy of an annoyance that I'm sure many a Kenyan faced in the 90s: dealing with KPTC (Kenya Posts & Telecommunications Corporation). This was before the advent of mobile telephony, so the best way to stay connected was by having a landline. This came with a few problems, one of which was problematic connectivity, and even worse than that was that the billing proved to be a huge nightmare. I remember there being times when our phone would be out of service for huge swathes of time, yet come month's end we would receive an astronomical bill. I remember once going to their offices to protest an unjust bill, and all they could tell me was that the system recorded us as having used the specific amount of units, and there was no way to verify those units. My pleas that the phone had not been working for most of the month, and that barely anyone was in the house making calls to rack up such a high bill fell on deaf airs. In the end, they concluded that we just pay the bill or risk having our phone service terminated.

This whole year has been an irritating reminder of how bad politics is for the Kenyan psyche. Not that it's restricted to this year alone; rather, it has come to a head this year. Constant electioneering at the expense of development, and now, after a bungled election which has put us on the world map, there continue to be shenanigans aplenty that threaten to draw us towards a dangerous stalemate in the course of the week. In my experience, I believe that all Kenya's woes boil down to one thing: Discipline, or rather, lack of it.

There seems to be a rather prevalent rallying cry these days (not exactly sure when it became so fashionable), but if you live here, you've probably become accustomed to it by now:
"Accept and Move on!
As it has been used for the current political situation, people will tell you that it is to ensure the safety and integrity of our country; things may not be perfect, but we can eventually work on resolving them later.

On the surface, it might appear that it's a well meaning sentiment, but at its core it's just a call for Kenyans to settle down and accept the current mediocrity. If you pressed people further, they'd probably regale you with a sentiment along the lines of,

"Y'know, Kenya is a very stable place; things could always be worse...it's not like we're in Somalia or something of the sort!" 
First off, Kenya has enjoyed a favourable position for the longest time, but laxity and indiscipline could knock it off its high perch at any point if we're not careful. Next, I don't get why there's so much panic about our current situation. People are acting as if not having a president will doom us to extinction. Short of going to war, or some dastardly terrorist emergency that would require the imposition of Martial law, this country  and its people will live very peacefully. The inauguration of a prior president under the cover of dusk in 2007 is something that is still fresh in many of our minds. I didn't have the option to watch that particular inauguration because I was in China at the time, and I believe it also coincided with the "Media Blackout of 2007/08", but it is a very shameful part of our collective history.

I'm tired, as are many Kenyans, of the constant politicking that never really came to a close after the last election in 2013. I was hoping to have some semblance of peace, maybe even return to reading newspapers and watching News after the August 8th elections, but that was not to be. Our Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission (IEBC) presided over an election whose results it cannot defend, and which summarily ended up being annulled by the Supreme Court. I just wish the Supreme Court hadn't been hasty in deciding that we needed to have another election a mere 60 days after they tossed out the previous election's results because I am pretty sure that the IEBC has not resolved the issues that characterized the last fumble. I'm also pretty sure that a whole host of people are criminally liable for some things that went down, and now we're merrily sailing in the same boat with those very same individuals who have atoned for nothing.


People might suggest I am being outright political because of partisan issues, but that is far from the truth. I can't lie: the current administration has nothing to offer me (as a medical professional) as it has single-handedly bungled the handling of the medical crises that have befallen the country (which is a treatise for another day); other than that, their record on handling corruption is deplorable. But there's something more: like it or not, every one of us is a political being because we contribute a fair amount of our income to this country in form of our taxes. None of this is by choice (the money having already been taken right out of our cheques and factored into the goods we purchase), but it is a necessity we bear understanding that the money will be put towards doing something useful for our society; something, which, neither of us could achieve on our own. Therefore, to paraphrase the old saying,
"I pay taxes therefore I am political"
Politicians are probably the most selfish class of individual we have, but they are human beings after all. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that suggests we have to have good people/Christians/angels etc. in power so that we can have good governance; rather, I believe in a system of checks and balances that makes it so hard for people to act in their usual selfish ways, such that it actually forces them to be good. Lord knows here in Kenya we've done our fair share to put in these checks and balances: a new constitution, Devolution, and plethora upon plethora of commissions and bodies that are supposed to protect the common mwananchi. Best intentions notwithstanding, we really have very little to show for all these measures, and I'm including the recent decision from the Supreme Court as one of the saving graces.

What irks me the most is the amount of money that has been wasted. The IEBC went through a huge sum of money to guarantee us a credible election via high tech servers, tamper proof ballot papers, biometrics and top notch communication; to find ourselves befuddled by the end results really calls into question whether we wouldn't better off just using the old manual system. It was actually easier to rig the old system, but at least it saved us all an enormous expense. And to add insult to injury, the reconstituted IEBC stands accused of shenanigans the likes of which brought down its previous occupants: purchasing a whole bunch of satelite phones (none of which worked, and probably at rates more exorbitant than the basic market rate) and single tender sourcing.

The IEBC might look like a culprit, but it is not alone; our commissions and statutory bodies remain unable to shield us from Kenyans without any moral authority whatsoever to rule over us. Hate speech runs unabated, with serial offenders strutting across the land guilt-free, even when televised recordings of their utterances exist for all to see. The Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) sits impotent as the Members of Parliament (MPs) will most likely undo recommendations that the SRC put in place to harmonize runaway salaries and benefits, and tame the wage bill. I don't even have a clue who is supposed to represent the mwananchi when state machinery is blatantly used in campaigns

Like it or not, this indiscipline (fiscal or otherwise) is the cancer that eats away at the soul of the republic day after day. A mere fraction of the money whittled away by corruption could easily have addressed the medical crises, providing enough money to adequately compensate all medical staff cadres...even Teachers and the Police ; more money could be used to cushion the majority of our vulnerable population who are merely one medical emergency away from being rendered bankrupt. The same money could also be plowed into industries (novel, struggling or thriving) to guarantee that the youth of this country could be involved in some form of gainful employment. Our politicians seem overjoyed at being able to drum up massive crowds of people for mid-week rallies, but all I see is a ticking time bomb. The same people who have all that time to sit at rallies and soak up the "doctrine of the day" are for the most part impressionable and have nothing to lose. When all that desperate energy is whipped into a frenzy, we will all reap the whirlwind. With nothing to lose, they will turn on the very business folk, businesses, factories, etc. that are meant to help us put food on the table.

There are no easy fixes for the mess that we've gotten ourselves into, but there is a path back from the precipice: we have no choice but to become disciplined. I wish our leaders could be the ones to lead the way, but it seems like even in times of crises they still do not feel the need to make the hard decisions. Which pretty much just leaves it up to us, the common folk, to take up discipline as our mantra. It has to be something that we strive for and render unto our children, or those over whom we have influence. We need to make it something that can strongly be associated with being Kenyan as we oft romanticize "Bushido" with Japan or "Excellence" with German machinery. We have already tasted mediocrity in our past; it's finally time to embrace our greatness.

God Bless.

 





Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Music of Pat Metheny: Sueño con México (Orchestrion Edition)



Time to delve into another gem from the masterful Pat Metheny. This is from one of his solo albums (New Chautauqua) released in 1979, and as the story goes, the song was something he wrote up quite hurriedly as he became aware that he was one song short for the record. The original recording is an outstanding piece of work, wrapped around this beautiful weaving of music against a baseline arpeggio that is hypnotizing to say the least.

However, I will not be focusing on the original recording. In 2010, Metheny exposed the world to his idiosyncratic labour of love: Orchestrion. Sure, this was yet another of his solo albums, but one with a twist: he had the backing of a whole slew of musical instruments, specifically designed for the endeavour, that he was able to activate at will. He used this to good effect, and came up with 5 original compositions to showcase this project. However, after going on tour, he would dabble in some improv work using the orchestrion instruments, and he even gave some of his old tunes a fresh spin. This is of course what led to his spin-off album, The Orchestrion Project, which dropped in 2012. This album, inspired by his Orchestrion tour, was an expansion of his original orchestrion work featuring aforementioned new improv material and a few of his old hits.

And this is where we pick up things with his new rendition of Sueño con México. This rendition breathes a whole new life to the original (similar to what happened with The Way Up); the palette has been expanded greatly for this song. We end up going from the whimsy of a piece designed last minute in a Stuttgart hotel, to an even more tightly hemmed piece of music; whereas the original composition is a more nuanced quiet piece, this time around it's more full blown and expressive. The arpeggios underlying the song are more vibrant, and the extra percussion from cymbals, piano, bass, etc., used sparingly in bursts, amplifies the emotiveness of the piece.

Within this soundscape, Metheny still stands front and centre with his guitar and this time around he has a true semblance of a solo (which the original recording never really had). The solo has two distinct parts: at first he plays all his flourishes accompanied chiefly by the underlying arpeggio, and adds splashes of the orchestrion to accent his work; the second part is more subdued with just a bit more yearning conveyed by his guitar. Perhaps his finest moment comes in a roughly 1 minute stretch starting from the 6:40 mark; and within that stretch, 7:19 to 7:44 consists of some of the finest notes I've heard committed to music. So much elation, it just sounds like a stairway to Heaven. 

I enjoyed the original Sueño con México, but I adore the reinvented edition of the song, and I can truly call it one of my favourites. I love that he can still reinvent his classics anew, and use them to inspire a new generation. Thank God for such blessings. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Things That Medical School Won't Teach You (6) - Don't be afraid to diagnose death



It has been one of those trying weeks at the office. Lately it just feels like I'm stuck in a rut and the job isn't fulfilling. Even worse is the loss of patients; seems likes it's more traumatizing in these past few days. Despite working at a hospital, it's still easy to take it for granted that these vulnerable souls could just up and expire on you at a moment's notice. Makes you think twice about that expression "Sleep is the cousin of Death!"

With all the death we encounter, you'd think that there would be some special training to help us steel our nerves and encourage us despite the amount of loss we witness; training that would keep our minds at peace, so that we could be able to impart some form of closure and finality to the grieving relatives that we interact with on a regular basis. The answer to this is, of course, a big resounding NO!

I honestly can't recall any of my med school classes that evenly remotely mentioned the concept of death (beyond the usual sterile "cessation of all bodily functions" package). In fact, it's only been earlier this year in a Counselling CME (Continuous Medical Education) seminar when this issue was really broached for the first time. However, as in all things medically-related, we just have to make do with on-the-job training, usually carried out on your own. So next time you get a doctor with a questionable bedside manner delivering bad news to you, it might not entirely be his/her fault. Blame the profession.

I'm reminded of one experience that occurred during my internship while I was in the middle of my surgical rotation. On that particular day, I was manning my casualty post when an ambulance pulled up to the adjacent parking area. Convinced that an ambulance pulling up most likely signified either an Obstetric/Gynecology (Obs/Gyne) or Surgical emergency, I silently prayed that this was one for the Obs/Gyne team. (...and of course when I was in my Obs/Gyne rotation, I prayed the opposite prayer).
In a departure from the norm, the ambulance just sat there parked without anything apparently meaningful happening. I took a walk down to the Nurse-in-Charge's office so I could get some idea of what was going down. Turns out that the EMTs/Paramedics had ferried a victim (elderly adult male) of a road traffic accident that occurred in an adjacent county to our facility. This irked us to no end for a couple of reasons:

  1. There is a protocol in place to follow when referring/bringing patients to our facility, which usually involves communicating with the Nurse-in-charge so that proper preparations can be made. Many people tended to ignore this common courtesy.
  2. More often than not, some counties are particularly notorious for off-loading their workload by referring patients that they could satisfactorily deal with within their own county facilities.
  3. With the advent of devolution, multiple county heads had acquired ambulances at a rate incongruent to the money they had invested in medical facilities. What this meant was that (as mentioned above), it was easier to handle an emergency situation by just dumping a patient at another hospital's doorstep.
So what we had was an actual stalemate. The ambulance had ferried an accident victim who was in urgent need of an ICU, but all our ICU beds were occupied (which they would have found out if they had bothered to inquire first); they were, of course, unwilling to transport the patient to another hospital or return him back from whence he came; our Nurse-in-Charge was sticking to her guns, and as per protocol, was not going to take responsibility for the patient.

I figure the ambulance had been parked for 30 minutes while this whole scenario played out. Finally, I made the decision to examine the patient within the ambulance to find out exactly what we were dealing with. So I step into the ambulance and the patient is eerily quiet; all I get from him is seriously laboured breathing. He's neither responsive to my voice or painful stimuli of any sort, and his eyes are closed shut; once pried open, his pupils are slightly dilated and not responding to a light stimulus. On the plus side, he did have a steady pulse. Thus, on the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), this patient registers an all-time low of "3".


Now any medic knows that this patient's breathing is going to be the next thing to go; devoid of an ICU with ventilatory support when that happens, death will most definitely ensue.
I relayed my findings to the Nurse-in-Charge, and we shared an ominous silence between us. The patient had no relatives/guardians that could organize for him to be taken to another facility, so he was stuck either way. Seeing as we really had no good choices, we opted to keep him in our casualty area, providing supplemental oxygen and as much supportive management as we could muster under the circumstances.

He lasted a good 2 days in that state (longer than I had actually anticipated), but in the end he passed away.

Despite all my experiences with death, even I fail to see how I would prepare a lesson to adequately prepare fledgling colleagues for what awaits them in the field. Every death encountered is as diverse as every life lived. You will watch some lives snuffed out within the few minutes you encounter them, and yet with others it will be a "slow burn" where you will get to experience the patient's life and those of their relatives for a prolonged period. And in itself, this notion of time is certainly a fluid concept: you could live a lifetime in the few minutes that you spend trying to resuscitate a newborn child, or, as in my experience with Edna, the 5 hours you spend with a practical stranger.

In my experience, I have found that you shouldn't be afraid to diagnose death! I'm not talking about that morbid movie-type experience where a doctor says something along the lines of you having 6 months to live (nothing is ever really that clear-cut); rather, you need to develop an acumen for seeing it coming. After being around death for such a long time, you and your colleagues develop a knack for predicting it (especially the nurses); in my Paediatrics rotation, I discovered that mothers are very good at sensing minute changes in their children's state, so when a mother asks you to check up on her child, kindly do it.

Any well trained health worker knows that recognizing the GCS will steer you right (except maybe in the tricky case of career alcoholics!). Thus, as a matter of fact, impending death is easy to predict in most cases, but occasionally it just sneaks up on you; I've had cases where we've fought out the worst of the patients' battles, and just as it appeared they were on the road to recovery, the war ended. So, in essence, the work of medical staff truly is that arm-wrestling match immortalized in my intro illustration. And in the end, we always lose!(...it is appointed for all men to die once, and after that comes judgment...).

Morbid as that may sound, death is not always the grim experience we all imagine; if handled correctly, it can provide closure to those left behind, a culmination of a life well lived. Pair that with the belief that people have of the afterlife, and you end up understanding that death is not the "be all and end all" of everything; it's just a phase.

I remember that during my first few months in China, I struck up a friendship with a young practising doctor from Mauritius named Javed. In the course of mentoring me, he gave me one quote that's stuck with me till today:
We treat, but God provides the healing!
There's only so much that you can be expected to achieve by the instruments and measures of your time/era, and death is always an inevitability, so be humble in your practice. A 'God Complex' is a liability to any true health worker worth their salt; do not give people false hope, but neither should you aim to dash their hopes underfoot; always do your best for your patients, and rely on all members of your team to get you through all eventualities. None of us is perfect, but as I've mentioned before, working with this segment of society is a privilege (despite its taxing nature); therein lies a blessing and a daily perfecting grace.

God Bless

      

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Musical Journey from Dilla to Bacharach

J Dilla by Jed Cablao (Deviant Art)

I happened to be on Soundcloud the other day just randomly checking for music, and I came across one of DJ Jazzy Jeff's sets. I'm more familiar with his work as an actor on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air", but the originator of the Transformer scratch is an actual practising DJ. The set he was playing was a tribute to J Dilla; I believe "Dilla" or "Dillalude" was my original search parameter. The Dillalude was actually my introduction to musician Robert Glasper - accomplished pianist and J Dilla fanboy - who does an interesting interpretation of Common's "TheLonious" (another track produced by J. Dilla). I'm always searching for new interpretations of the Dillalude, in which Glasper manages to sneak in multiple of Dilla's productions.

Anyway, back to DJ Jazzy Jeff's "Dilla Tribute" set. It was touted as containing both his well known, lesser known and even unreleased tracks. Around the quarter mark, DJ Jazzy Jeff starts playing an obviously older track that had a haunting Oboe intro that segued into this rapid keyboard rhythm accompanied by light rapid fire drums. This gave way to the graceful female singer who sings a difficult quick tempo part; shortly after, the rest of the band joins in the singing of the chorus, adding great shades of harmony to the whole effort. And then, it happens: Jeff starts to fade out the track, and appears to be modulating the track as another male voice starts to drop the intro to a rap song. Then the heavy bassline drops and the rap song continues buoyed by the looped modulated chorus motif from the previous band.

With a bit of an assist from the Shazam app, I was able to swiftly pin down both tracks. "Knowing when to Leave" (from The Burt Bacharach Medley) by the Carpenters and "Yum Yum" by Slum Village. Great work by Dilla on the sampling job, but the final product seemed a bit raw because the bass guitar he added to the mix seems a tad overpowering. Also, the vocals seem a bit washed out (probably a recording issue). The Carpenters on the other hand are a whole other story. Karen's vocals are unmatched, and coincidentally she also plays the drums on the track. Richard is light, swift and enchanting on the keys. However, while Dilla samples their track, the Carpenters are actually covering someone else's music. Yep, Burt Bacharach & Hal David to be exact. When they originally made this track, they had frequent collaborator Dionne Warwick doing the singing.

From reading up on some of the comments about the Carpenters' video on Youtube, I found out that President Obama had a night of music at the White House which honoured Burt Bacharach (& Hal David posthumously) with the 2012 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Conveniently, the whole performance was on Youtube and was a star-studded affair in which various musicians (Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Arturo Sandoval, Sheryl Crow, Mike Meyers? et al) took turns in singing Bacharach/David hits. You have to witness how much virtuosity one person can plug into playing the harmonica when you get to experience Stevie Wonder's extended solo on "Alfie". However, my highlight from the whole event was Sheléa and Arturo Sandoval on "Anyone Who Had a Heart"

I'm surprised I'd never heard of this ballad before because it has done quite the rounds. Originally performed by frequent Bacharach/David alum Dionne Warwick, it has been covered by many an artist, with each artist making the song their own. No proof of this is more evident than in Luther Vandross' rendition of the ballad. To her credit, Sheléa also make this song her own. Her vocals stamp their authority on her beautiful piano playing; starting out as a mere whisper, her singing reaches a crescendo that has her sounding part Whitney Houston, part Tamia. She conveys the full range of emotion from pining to hurt to desperation, and she'll leave you engrossed. A sprinkling of Mr. Sandoval's horn brings the full melancholy into this song. The Bacharach/David team certainly deserved to be feted for just this gem alone.

It certainly proved to be quite the musical marathon in one short evening. It has definitely opened up a wide range of artists and genres for me to explore. Thankfully though, between Youtube and the rest of the net, I think I'll be up to the task.

As you embark on your musical journeys, may God speed you well.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

ELECTION DAY


Considering how much ambivalence I've encountered among my fellow Kenyans when I ask them about voting, I'm still pretty psyched. This happens to the first time I've actually been able to vote out of the 4 times that I've been eligible. Don't count it as a dereliction of civic duty on my part; I've just never been around for the previous elections. So I definitely didn't want to miss my chance. I even got my voter's card way before the deadline hit (a surprise for a typical procrastinator like myself). Wasn't too happy at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission's (IEBC) decision to ask people to report back to their voting stations for verification (as if I didn't provide all the necessary details first time around), but they saved face by making the verification an SMS/Online affair. Thanks to this, I even knew beforehand which line I would be in during the voting exercise: No. 11 at the PCEA Enchorro Emuny Primary School in Ngong!

So all I had to do was bide my time and prepare for the day at hand. So today I was up by 4.30 am, done with preparations and out of the house by 5.45 am. Fearing for the worst with regards to my car, I made arrangements to park it within a family friend's compound, which was a convenient 3 minute walk from the voting station. As I drove, it was quite the sight to behold: cars parked along the roadside in droves, and an amorphous massing of people at the school gate. The IEBC had assured people that it would really be an easy process whereby we would just walk in and we'd be shown into which lines we were supposed to queue, so I thought the process would be easy. I was wrong!

So, I walked into the school compound, under the cover of darkness, and just run into total pandemonium. Lines of people as far as the eye can see, and very little indication as to where I was supposed to go. Started to look for an official, but they were few and far-in-between. I had saved a PDF of my voter details, so I had it on my phone screen for easy reference. By the time I did find an official, he just pointed me off to some far off corner and went on his merry way. So, Plan B: walk up to people in lines and find out what specific line they were in. For reference, the IEBC chose the first letter of the first name appearing in your ID as the signifier for the line that you would queue in.

Casting my gaze further afield, I could just barely make out some numbers on classroom doors; so, I just had to look for the door labelled 11. Trust you me, this had already taken all of 15 minutes. But, it wasn't the end. Lines 11 - 13 were actually located on the upper level of the school building, with, up until that point, no obvious observable staircase leading to the polling stations. After asking around, finally settled into one line that I believed was a combination 11/12/13 line; I was relieved of this notion when one Administration Police Officer (AP) walked by, and told us that Line 11 was actually separate from 12/13, which saw me move ahead.

Once I was sure I was in the right line (knock on wood), I was sure that the only thing I'd have to endure was an appreciable wait....but there was more than that. First off, the upper level of that school building was the things that'd make an Emergency Preparedness Coordinator cringe: only one stairwell packed to the brim by the two lines of individuals ascending; a few stragglers milling through the middle, some genuinely geriatric, invalid or with child, and others lost or trying to skip the queue; and to cap it off, this was also the only exit for people who had cast their votes.

The permutations for all the things that could have gone disastrously wrong within that scenario are baffling. Having just completed some Life Support Training courses, I tried to imagine how that understaffed voting station would have dealt with someone suffering a fainting spell, heart attack, etc. My biggest gripe is with the building design specifically. Even on an ordinary school day, if a fire breaks out or a panic arises because of an "explosion", students will basically be trampled in a stampede through that one narrow stairwell. Sometimes we only ever survive because of God's grace because we fail to plan for the simplest eventualities; and as one of my Surgical Consultants (Dr. Oigara) always used to say,

Failing to plan is planning to fail      

Of course when you've been in a line for a prolonged period of time, the shady Kenyan characters start to crop up. I'm talking blatant line-cutters, ladies using the ruse of carrying the same child so that they can basically rock up to the line ahead of everyone else; and then they're those irritating characters in the back of the line who act like those ahead of them are slowing down the line, as if we ever had any possibility of influencing the events ahead of us. (these are probably the same impatient individuals who cause a fuss during traffic jams).

So it basically took me 3 hours and 50 minutes to complete this simple task. Mind you, many people tell me that conditions were better this time around. If I'm led to believe that the IEBC has actually learned from its mistakes and performed better this time around, then it would be something of a quantum leap to expect them to have a trouble free election anytime soon. I recognize that they have had some unique challenges this time around (being reconstituted afresh, having their IT Manager murdered, constant court challenges), but some logistical issues are not hard to solve.

First off, they've got to view the voters as mere monkeys, Sheep, or Children, if you please. We are basically showing up to an alien environment, and we are definitely bound to be confused. Their main function is to:

  1. get us in line
  2. get us into the voting booth to cast our votes
  3. get us out so we can go on our merry way without making a nuisance of ourselves
And for Heaven's sake, they need to have a dry-run before the election day so that they can test the system out. Hoping for things to fall into place without any practice when 1000+ sheeple rock up to the spot is impossible. Barring any technical difficulties from their biometric system, they could probably shave off at least one hour from everyone's wait time.

Anyway, the day's done and nothing unbecoming has happened. I'm hoping to just be able to sit things out at home, and hope all things turn out peacefully. At the end of the day, come what may, peace and a normal semblance of life is what we crave for. We can sort out the other political stuff later.

God Bless. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ngong: Is devolution helping?



If you know me well enough by now, you'd know that I am not a fan of devolution as it has taken place in Kenya over the last few years. The idea behind it was noble: development spread over the country, even to those hinterland areas that had been marginalized for the longest time. At its heart, the notion that you could provide a myriad of services to the people within their localities, such that they wouldn't be required to pass through Nairobi seemed like a win-win situation.

However, as with most things Kenyan, the concept is beautiful, but the implementation is a disaster. Too much political finagling has since saddled us with a heavy debt burden; we have too many counties, most of which exist to settle political points. Each of these units has too much political representation taking home massive salaries and delivering nothing in return. And finally, the counties merely devolved a problem that was faced by the central government: weak institutions and poor accountability for the manner in which money is spent. This has exacerbated the "leaky cauldron" syndrome, and thus the country as a whole is just hemorrhaging money that was meant to spur development.

Lest I be labelled as a person who's all about theories, I give you now the example of Ngong Town. Situated approximately 20 kilometres from the city centre, Ngong is one of those areas that seemed poised to take off as a part of "Greater Nairobi". Basically, as space and prices become more prohibitive in Nairobi, Ngong could very easily have morphed into an ideal suburb.

I've basically called Ngong my home since late 1989 when my parents moved us out here (despite much protestation). A staple of the town was its big market located right at its centre; on the periphery of the market was a Bus/Matatu stage/terminus where people could catch a bus onwards to Nairobi via Ngong Road or via Kiserian. I've been informed lately that the spot may actually all have been a terminus, and was encroached on by the market sellers (I still remain unconvinced).

Anyway, not much has gone on in terms of development at the market place for a long time; it remained the same village type installation with little in terms of improvement. When the devolution bug hit us, at least initially, nothing changed either. However, circa early this year, I noted that the market area had been cleared out. Unfortunately for most drivers, who already have a problem driving through that portion of Ngong Rd. surrounding the market, the market stalls ended up being uprooted and deposited on either side of the road's "pavement" area.




It was bad enough driving through before; now, it's a situation akin to driving through Kawangware. The obstacles are plenty: pedestrians, animals, motorcycles and matatus. You are literally moments away from knocking someone down or running into one accident or another; to add insult to injury, this is one of those areas where a rowdy crowd can mushroom at a moment's notice - especially the motorcycle fraternity - and you could be in for a very hefty "shakedown".

This is really a development failure. Granted, I hear people mention that there are plans to relocate the market, or perhaps even build a storeyed building where it will be housed; however, I feel like the market should have been the first priority in this case. As I drive past that parking lot, I see that some matatus have started using the parking areas; but, on the other hand, I still deal with the marked nuisance of the matatus that refuse to use the parking area and willing obstruct traffic along the road as they collect their customers. Apparently without the watchful eye of the law to steer them straight, it's just business as usual.

From a cost-benefit analysis, we would have received much bigger gains from upgrading the market first. Lord knows in this day and age of Cholera, we should prioritize measures that'll safeguard our food safety. I have hoped for the longest time that Kenya would adopt an organized "Farmers Market" model similar to what's done in the US and Europe. We need to prioritize this very basic concept, and try to add more value to this portion of the agricultural supply-demand chain. The matatu industry is a rogue that can only be tamed by concerted political effort (..but then, this is an election year, so no one in their right mind will be trying to needlessly unsettle this particularly big portion of the electorate). So, why spend money so frivolously?

I don't have photographic evidence here, but lately I've come across a board erected at the parking lot which proudly states that this is a World Bank-funded project. Seriously! How can free-thinking independent Kenyans not be ashamed at needing the World Bank to sponsor the construction of a mere parking lot? How can anyone excuse running up a debt (yes, this is indeed debt) for such a simple project? No doubt the project was inflated so that pockets ended up lined in the process, but seriously, this is why we can't have good things.   

Kenya looked at Devolution as a salve for the issue of  skewed development in the country; however, without applying any sort of Discipline to all these efforts, nothing meaningful will really be achieved. I'd dare say that Discipline pegged to our previous non-devolved administration would have brought the change we desire at a much faster rate (and it would have been cheaper too).

Unfortunately, short of a miracle, it seems we're doomed to ride this devolution train until we either get it right, or it bankrupts us enough to have to make a major change. Come what may, even for this realist, it pays to have faith at least once in a while. So my eyes are open, and in my heart I retain some hope that sober minds will eventually prevail and that we will mature as a country and as a people. We just have to.

God Bless

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Spider-Man Homecoming: Spoiler-Free Review



Seems like new movies are creeping up on me a mile a minute these days. Been meaning to watch a whole bunch, but I've just ended up being caught up in a lot of stuff. Just this past Thursday, while walking through Nakumatt Junction, I got wind of the fact that Spider-man: Homecoming was playing in the theaters; with my past luck with missing out on Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2, I figured I might as well quit procrastinating and just get over with watching the latest spidey installment.

Truth be told, I would really have loved to watch it at the Nairobi IMAX, but the IMAX has been disappointing me lately. They have perfected the art of unprofessionalism, harkening back more to their days as 20th Century Cinema than actual IMAX. So, until further notice, I will be giving them the widest of berths. I chose to go with the tried and trusted Century Cinemax at the Junction, beating out the characteristic Sunday afternoon Ngong Road traffic, and arriving with some time to spare.

Gotta say that the new Marvel Studios logo intro is astounding. Paired with that famous animated spidey theme set to great brass, you can't help but become nostalgic.

People have sworn that this is the spidey characterization that they've been waiting to see because apparently Tom Holland gives off that true vibe of spidey as a kid with high school struggles getting in the way of the superhero biz. It's not exactly something that I've fancied. In our first introduction to Spidey, we have him geeking out "taped-footage" style about his involvement in the events of Civil War. His frenetic energy came off as a bit irritating, more akin to TV's Ultimate Spider-man (a disgrace to previous animated forays) as opposed to more serious spidey affairs. I am glad to say that things were toned down, and that nervous fanboy energy dissipated very quickly.

I'm also glad that Tony Stark was used very sparingly in this movie. With all his appearances in the trailers, I had the gloomy impression that this movie might have played out like Iron Man 3.5 (in other words, atrocious!) But, as I've mentioned, he is only sprinkled in when he's really needed. They have of course gone with the Ultimate Spiderman type scenario where Spidey is being looked at as a possible fit for this iteration of the Avengers; and all this occurs under the tutelage of Tony Stark (and a much irritated Happy Hogan). Therefore, under the cover of a Stark Enterprises internship, spidey's basically looking for a chance to impress Tony and fast track his way into the Avengers; turns out that he's mostly ignored, and the friendly neighbourhood Spidey gig starts to bore him.

This is where the Vulture and his crew come in. The first 5 minutes of the movie is actually a quick intro to this crew (Adrian Toomes et. al). In another beautiful tying up of the MCU continuity, as occurred in Captain America: Civil War, we are introduced to the working stiffs whose job it is to clear up after the Avengers saved us from the initial otherworldly attack. In a stroke of bad luck, Damage Control (a Tony Stark/Federal Government outfit) pulls the kind of juris-my-diction move that basically takes the food off their table. Therefore, while sitting on a stash of uncatalogued alien-tech, and the skills to retrofit it for some nefarious applications, the crew basically puts together an operation that brings in the money on the black market, and puts the tech in the hands of lowly thugs. This thus becomes Spidey's make-or-break mission to prove that he's a worthy superhero whether he gets the backing or not.

I'm glad to say that you will walk into this movie very surprised; despite all the TV spots that were churned out, a lot of the story is still wrapped up tight such that you'd have to watch the movie to get any true sort of exposition. The movie actually did a lot with its 2 hr 13 min runtime: I was pleasantly surprised at how elaborately we get to follow Peter's progression, mix in a love interest, the Avengers' angle, and twists and turns with the villain. The superhero set pieces are also quite well done. Two standouts, without really giving anything away, are the Washington Monument rescue and the Ship Rescue. Seeing him attempt to hold that ship together echoed Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man 2 train scene; but, it also reminded me of Superman's airplane rescue from Superman Returns. I think those moments really grounded this Spider-Man, because even at these points that he's facing major insurmountable odd (stemming from his own weaknesses) he's still braving the odds to save the bystanders.  

Tom Holland is a great Spidey and a Peter Parker to boot. This is not the down-on-his-luck Spidey that we got from Tobey MaGuire, and neither is it the socially awkward ultra-jokesy Andrew Garfield iteration. We don't get a single mention about Uncle Ben this time around; rather, we only get to see Peter's interaction with his very young  (eye candy) Aunt May. Peter's life is mostly school and geeky shenanigans with his friend, Ned (who very early on learns Peter's secret). He is still amateurish as Spidey; his improved spider suit is a gift from Tony Stark, but it comes with a very elaborate leash which basically has him on "training wheels." This movie is interesting for examining one issue that is unique to our web-slinging hero and wasn't addressed in past versions: basically, how does he get around when you place him in an environment devoid of tall buildings to swing from? It is really hilarious to see how the dynamics turn out.

Marvel gets a bad wrap for having very weak villains. Apart from Loki (and maybe the Red Skull), most of their villains haven't exactly been memorable or insurmountable. Michael Keaton's "Vulture" is definitely a stellar addition. His motives are clear, and even when he's menacing he still retains a kind of likeability. Sure, he is a bad guy, and he does some unforgivable things, but unlike a Joker out for chaos, he's the kind of bad guy who is doing just enough that he gets to achieve his goal and avoids the heavy hit; essentially, staying under the radar. Marvel has finally gotten a villain right.
I have to mention that this movie has multiple villains, but they are really secondary characters; this safely keeps the attention on the Vulture, and prevents any Spider-man 3/Amazing Spider-man 2 missteps. I would absolutely be hyped for a Sinister 6 scenario if they can pay attention to these dynamics.

Ned (Jacob Batalon) was actually a good addition, providing the true support to Spidey's heroing. It could easily have been a cringe worthy gimmick that wrecked Homecoming, but it gives Peter a soundboard for some of his bad decisions, and a genius sidekick to help an amateur out. Jennifer Connelly as Karen, the AI in Spidey's suit, was yet another master stroke. Wonder if it's a coincidence that she's playing a role very similar to her husband's (Paul Bettany aka Jarvis aka Vision). She pokes as much fun at our hero's missteps as a sarcastic Jarvis did with Iron Man; was good to have that back-and-forth in this movie, especially as we get the exposition on how "extra" Tony went when upgrading the suit.

Zendaya's "Michelle" is just a counter-culture kid who is used to poke deadpan fun in various scenarios; but it seems her character was mostly hyped up, because Peter's love interest, Liz (Laura Harrier) has a more prominent role this time around. It remains to be seen what the MCU will do with Michelle's character in upcoming installments in light of the nickname she mentions towards the end of the movie.

I enjoyed the movie, and it flowed seamlessly from start to finish...with one exception. This movie comes after Civil War in the MCU canon, but there seems to be a slight discrepancy with regards to the Avengers' base of operations. This would lead me into spoiler territory, so it might be better for you to explore it yourself when you watch the movie. On another note, if you can watch this at a decent IMAX, I'd recommend that you see it there; if not, you might be better off watching it in 2-D. I really hope James Cameron's glassless 3D takes off, because I have never enjoyed the cumbersome experience of donning a pair of glasses just to watch a movie (totally intrusive).

All in all, I give this movie my highest seal of approval; give it a try and you won't regret it.

God Bless.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Music of Acoustic Alchemy: Red Dust & Spanish Lace

The music of Acoustic Alchemy takes me back to my Messiah College days. I discovered the group sometime in 2003 thanks to Launchcast, a great Yahoo! internet music service that is currently defunct. I run across the service during those late summer nights when I'd get off work and just spend my time online until the sun came up; it basically kept me going till I could eat breakfast, and then get some sleep.

Since my music preferences were mostly set for "Jazz" and "Easy Listening", Acoustic Alchemy eventually popped up one day...and I was hooked. I remember checking out their website, and they had this player which played the full tracks from (as far as I can remember it) two of their last albums: The Beautiful Game and Aart. Aart was my first purchase from them, and, consequently, the album I used to introduce my brothers to the group. It's notable for having one of my favourite Acoustic Alchemy songs - "Passion Play" - and in 2012, during my twin brother's wedding, the groomsmen marched in to the church to the tune of "The Velvet Swing".

Anyway, I continued to follow the group, and later that year they released "Radio Contact", which I also ended up purchasing, in addition to some of their back catalog. As luck would have it, they ended up coming to perform a concert in Pennsylvania (Reading, PA to be exact).  The concert venue was slightly more than an hour away from Messiah, but, luckily, my then-girlfriend (Heather) drove us down and we got to experience Acoustic Alchemy in all their glory. Back then they still had bassist Frank Felix in their lineup; and Eddie M. was the man on sax-duty that night (a role that had been filled by Jeff Kashiwa for the making of Aart). Otherwise, the core was the same: Greg Carmichael (strings), Miles Gilderdale (strings), Fred White (Keys) and Greg Grainger (drums).
Any of their concerts is basically a time for comedy. Anytime you have Miles ad-libbing on the mic, something funny is bound to happen. This concert bookmarks 2004 for me because I remember Miles and Frank poking fun at the whole Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake debacle during the Superbowl Halftime show.

The tracklist consisted of a diverse bunch of tracks, some from Aart, The Beautiful Game, and of course, Radio Contact. However, towards the end, Greg went into an extended flamenco guitar solo that had me hypnotized. The tune felt somewhat familiar, but I wasn't sure I had actually encountered it. He put on a wonderful show in that solo, with so many emotions explored in the fast/slow ebb and flow of his notes, taking you on along for the ride; and just when I thought he was done, he starts playing double-time, and then they ended up segueing from the guitar solo into a more rapid flamenco infused piece by the whole band; I use the word "infused" because it is flamenco-nuanced. Actually, one of the guitars (Greg's Nylon) starts out in flamenco, but eventually he ends up switching to his more traditional playing style, with the band providing some flamenco riffs here and there. This is actually one of those long-form songs (not typical of their style), which starts out one way and then totally morphs into something unexpectedly new.

I remember that at the end of the concert they asked us if we had any requests that they'd want us to play. It was a free-for-all, and people pretty much shouted their favourites. Wish I could have been more emphatic in asking for "Passion Play", but instead they went with a wonderful version of "Flamoco Loco" that included a solo by drummer Greg Grainger which delved into an interpolation of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" before finally climaxing as Flamoco Loco. (In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have asked for a song that needed a vocalist to hum along; but from a few videos on Youtube, I now see that they've decided to forgo the vocalist and still make an attempt to play it live).

In what must have seemed an injustice to me at that time, by the end of the concert they neglected to announce what the name of the flamenco song that they'd performed was; didn't even leave a hint in terms of which album it was from (and by this point in their careers, they were 13 albums deep). So I was left to track down things the old-fashioned way: listening to the CD track sampler on Amazon.com. Eventually, I found it: the title track from their very first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace. Listening to the track, even now, brings back that subtle memory of that wintry night in Reading, PA, and the effervescent joy of knowing that beyond the enchanting solo (which is half of the song's length) lies a veritable feast in terms of good music.

The whole album is a masterpiece (and I'll get down to some of the standout tracks in due time), but it is its final track which is a true showstopper.

God Bless





Saturday, July 1, 2017

Memories: One wintry night at Larsen...


The whole time I was a student at Messiah College, I also worked as a custodial assistant (read: janitor). I usually refer to this as my first true job because I didn't really do anything truly "professionally related" to my long and arduous field of study until I started my medical internship in 2014. I loved that I got to work with a lot of great people, that it gave me decent pocket money, and it gave me a sense of responsibility.

By the time my senior year rolled up, part of my duties included cleaning the (then) new building - Larsen Student Union. Each building I've had the experience of cleaning had its own character: Hoffman was old, and had squirrels in its roof, which ended up giving me the occasional "jump scare" on many a night; Boyer Hall was always well lit and had these big hallways; Larsen had a great open plan with a cafeteria with two levels of seating space, and some office space (can't forget the glass on the stair handrail that was impossible to keep clean).

But one thing about Larsen really unnerved me: on the upper seating level, they had these gnarly looking paintings that they had hung on the wall. Far be it from me to imply that the paintings were ugly or anything like that; rather, they were painted in a style slightly reminiscent of the Van Gogh self portrait I included up top. However, with the lights turned down low, those pictures made it seem like I was working under the watchful eye of Vigo the Carpathian (from Ghostbusters II); hence, here I was in another building that gave me "jump scares".

Vigo the Carpathian

One wintry night (prolly in 2004), I was doing my best to finish up cleaning in Larsen so that I could head on back to my apartment. Ironically, I was cleaning that upper seating level when I heard a loud bang that just made my knees turn into jelly. I scanned the "haunted wall" for any signs of dastardly poltergeist activity, but everything seemed to be in place. I can't lie: I did as superficial of a job as could be considered acceptable, and "got the hell out of dodge".

Making my way out of the exit towards Mellinger Apartments, I came face to face with the cause of the loud bang - a little bird plopped right outside the student union door. Putting 2 and 2 together, I concluded that the bird had probably flown into one of the clear glass windows and stunned itself. Well, the little bird wasn't really moving so I was being more positive than usual and counting on it being more stunned than seriously injured. It struck me as strange that a bird would be gallivanting around at night time; perhaps, if we had the "avian flu" scare around back then, I would have thought twice about my chance encounter with the little bird.

Even if the bird was merely stunned, I figured it wouldn't survive that frigid winter weather on its own that night. So, as gently as I could, I scooped up the little bird and placed in it my jacket pocket, and went home. I really didn't know what I was going to do with the little guy, but I figured I could at least keep him comfortable; I lined up an old shoe box with some waste paper and placed the bird inside. (I might have placed some water for it to drink, but my memory fails me)

Come morning time, I was in a hurry to get to class, so I left without even informing my housemates (Collins and Luke) that I had stowed away the bird in a shoe box within the upper reaches of the wardrobe. I don't even remember checking in on the little fella before I left. Anyway, after class was done, I made me way back to the apartment, hoping to come up with a solution for the little avian visitor; when I got home, I ended up finding a bit of a mess with a scanty trail of feathers scattered on the furniture, and an exasperated looking Luke.

Turns out the little bird had come to, and must have been shocked to find himself in a strange place. So, it panicked! I never found out what the finer details of the escape were, but I just know eventually Luke found a way to let it out. He gave me the kinda look that just screamed, "What the hell, Richard?"; but then he was one to have an eclectic collection of pets, so he knew my heart was in the right place.

My ex-girlfriend, Heather, reminded me about this incident a few years back. She told me that it was an idiosyncrasy that was just "so me." More compliment than actual backhand comment, it lifted my spirits. Who would've thought that the first life that I actually made an attempt at saving wasn't even human at all. I doubt that this one act will place me in that "weird" friend category, y'know, the kind who picks up weird animals, takes them home and fosters them. I just feel like it's something anyone would do if it happened to them.

Now that I'm a bit removed from my college days, I'm really missing school. Life was simpler, and I don't think I've had a boss and colleagues as good as the ones I had while I was on the cleaning crew. Nothing upped the job satisfaction scales like getting the seal of approval from my bosses (Teresa, Chuck, Dwight, Bob or Elick):
You do good work!
Who would've guessed that one of my best formative experiences was being a janitor (ahem, custodial assistant). It's too bad I can't list it on my resume. Lord knows my current life could use some of that simple appreciation from the higher-ups. It really is the simple things in life that you crave for when all is said and done.

Here's to hoping that the road ahead is filled with more positives.

God Bless.
    

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: Suave Kenya BP-214





I've been really craving a bag from the company Suave Kenya ever since I learned about its history from a youtube video in a friend's Facebook post. It's a nice little upstart which up-cycles kitenges (a traditional fabric native to East and Central Africa) and denim to create really stylish looking bags. Currently, they offer 2 styles of bags: bag packs and messenger bags.


They put an interesting twist on things, adding little flourishes even when using the same kitenge to make different bags; sadly, though, this has meant that the styles they offer sometimes fly off the shelves real quick while I procrastinate about buying a specific bag. 

Anyway, last month I finally committed to getting one of their bags; the BP-214 to be exact (which according to their page is no longer available). I gravitated towards its dark purple colour scheme with the quaint kitenge highlights for its pockets.


This bag also contains its fair share of denim. The denim forms the inner lining of the bag, and it just makes it a beautiful ensemble of seemingly contrasting elements that fit surprisingly well together.


What struck me from the get-go is that this seems like a very small bag. They don't list its dimensions on the website, but I've measured it at 30 cm by 40 cm by 15 cm. Combine that with the rather small straps, and I initially felt like this bag would serve more as a stylish embellishment rather a good workhorse of a bag.


At least that's how I felt until I actually placed a good sized book in the bag. I usually tote around Creative Home Landscaping, and as the pictures show, it fit in quite snugly with lots of room to spare. The book measures 22 cm by 29 cm by 2 cm, which is probably representative of your typical book.

A spacious stylish interior



Side-by-side comparison
I really love this product. I'd say that my only gripe right now is the straps. My recommendation would be that perhaps when they upscale the company, they could look into making a more rugged version with fuller more padded straps and a little more height. I feel like the current dimensions are more suited to a lady than a gentleman per se; but perhaps that is just a bias from the vast majority of bag packs I've had before that had to be big enough to survive a medical student's books and things.

I will certainly be making a repeat purchase from Suave Kenya (possibly for a friend)...but first, I should probably start by sampling one of their messenger bags for myself. I think I could eventually end up using it as my "doctor's bag". They retail at the same price as the bag packs - sh. 3500 - with free delivery in some parts of Nairobi (best contact them first at 0726352001 to find out if you're eligible for this offer). I'll be making my choice between models ML-71, ML-74 and ML-75.

Note: The messenger bag on offer is the 13'' version. I hear there's a 15'' version that retails at sh. 4500, but I guess I can look into that later.

God Bless