From the archives: May 2004

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Tomorrow never dies

Monday, 31 May 2004 — 3:11pm | Film, Full reviews

Roland Emmerich’s latest Movie of Mass Destruction, in which the culprit responsible for desecrating the Statue of Liberty yet again is neither an invading race of space aliens nor a knockoff of a radioactive Japanese lizard, but no less a threat than global warming, is a movie in two parts. The first half of The Day After Tomorrow deals with the melting of the polar ice caps triggering a cataclysmic change in the North Atlantic Current that, in a dramatic reversal of Inigo Montoyan proportions, brings about the abrupt glaciation of all of North America. Think of it as Kill Bill, Vol. 1, but with the Los Angeles skyline shredded by tornadoes instead of masked henchmen shredded by a Hattori Hanzo blade. The second half focuses on the survival of a group of teenagers stranded in New York on account of a trivia competition, particularly Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Laura (Emmy Rossum), while Sam’s father (Dennis Quaid) embarks on an epic snowshoeing trip to rescue them. Think of it as Kill Bill, Vol. 2, but with kids buried in the New York Public Library under twenty feet of snow instead of Uma Thurman buried in a coffin under six feet of dirt.

Likewise, I will follow the same narrative structure in this review by doing it in halves: the part that everyone actually came to read, followed by a few paragraphs of melodrama where this reviewer valiantly begs to be taken seriously.

Roland Emmerich is often criticized for being one of those filmmakers whose films quite unfortunately started making money before he ever learned the fine art of subtlety. The naysayers need not say nay to this latest movie of his, as it embodies all manner of clever literary devices in its very title. Now, while pretty much everybody in the business of making fun of movie titles has already trodden on this with the standard attempts to emulate Abbott and Costello (“Did you buy tickets for The Day After Tomorrow?” – “No, I bought them for today.”), what has not been done thus far is its subjection to the rigorous critical analysis that it deserves, an appraisal that exposes its true genius.

What the target audience of “people who inexplicably still watch television dramas” will miss completely, but any respectable aspiring film scholar should pick up on right away, is that the title The Day After Tomorrow is an obvious allusion to Casablanca. In Rick’s last speech to Ilsa before she boards the plane to Lisbon, the same one where he makes the observation that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” he also says: “If you don’t get on that plane with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” This applies very well to a scene early on in the film that establishes the father-son dynamic in preparation for the second half of the film, where Sam’s father rushes home to send his son to the airport for his flight to New York. Besides that – if not today, and not tomorrow, then when doth regret arrive? That’s right: The Day After Tomorrow.

The Casablanca connections don’t stop there; recall how Rick tells Major Strasser, “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.” The subtextual point is that according to Emmerich, the coming of a new ice age heralded by global warming is analogous to no less than the Third Reich. Take that for what you will.

But let it not be said that this is the be-all and end-all of subliminal allusions in the piece. For a moment, let us turn our attention to the real reason anybody would pay to see this movie: not the thunderous wanton annihilation of an entire continent, but whether or not Emmy Rossum is a good enough actress to carry The Phantom of the Opera. Sadly, as was the case with Gerard Butler (who plays the Phantom) in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the jury is out. Perhaps what The Day After Tomorrow needed more than anything was a musical number about how “the sun’ll come out tomorrow,” not that it’s been done or anything.

Still, even without any singing and dancing – not even on ice skates – Emmerich does not ignore the Phantom Phactor: that if the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical makes a successful transition to film, people may one day watch his apocalypse flick and exclaim, “Hey, that’s Christine!” like how they pick out Bob Falfa in American Graffiti as Han Solo with a cowboy hat. Observe the two-part structure of the film I pointed out earlier, and how this is really two movies in one – one before the disaster that befalls the United States, and one after, which works its way towards a big happy reunion. Now observe what Christine sings in Act II of Phantom: “Past the point of no return – no going back now, / Our passion-play has now, at last, begun… / Past all thought of right or wrong – one final question / How long should we two wait, before we’re one?” Case closed.

And now for something completely different – the boring part where I actually talk about the film.

For a movie boasting variants of the typical Roland Emmerich clichés – the Sceptical Authority Figure whose negligence and resemblance to Dick Cheney lead to the deaths of millions, crowds huddling around televisions watching the disaster on a breaking-news segment, a sympathy-wrenching boy afflicted with an incurable disease (a level down to which even Don Cherry would not sink) – The Day After Tomorrow feels surprisingly fresh. On a visual level, it is almost the opposite of a standard disaster movie: there are no fiery explosions that blossom into the lovely mushroom clouds of a nuclear spring, but tidal waves that engulf cities and icy winds that creep along walls and chase you down and freeze you on the spot. Count on Emmerich to preserve his long-standing tradition of defying physics and explaining it with threadbare junk science, but innovate when it comes to executing such defiance itself. As an effects spectacle, it holds up well, and in all likelihood there is little about its images of an apocalypse-in-progress that will look dated a decade from now. The five-minute destruction of Los Angeles by tornado has more visceral impact than all of Twister put together, and the flooding of Manhattan is a serviceable prequel to A.I. if there ever was one.

The most significant change from the norm is that this time, the world is faced with a disaster that cannot be defeated or stalled; nobody flies up to Mother Nature with an Apple Macintosh and infects her with a virus. The characters have to accept the consequences, suck it up, and sit around trying not to die. It makes Tomorrow a lot more human and mature than the average movie of its sort, and justifies the implausible survival of the protagonists without going one step too far and having them save the rest of the world, too. It is easy to pass off the human-driven drama of the movie’s post-disaster phase as extraneous and juvenile – and admittedly, it is written that way – but at the end of all things, the actors do what they can considering the material they are given, and emerge with their careers largely unscathed.

The political messaging does not fare so well. (Note that I said “messaging” and not “subtext”. Messaging is overt, and subtext has already been discussed.) It is tellingly comical that The Day After Tomorrow is a hot-button topic in political circles when its grasp on how policymaking actually works is more of a children’s fantasy than its pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Basically, the movie is trying to tell us all that global warming will doom the human race, in the same way that every other movie back in the 1950s had nuclear fission heralding the environmentalist’s Cassandra. At one point it even dares to slip the K-word (rhymes with “Schmyoto”). This is not to say that the politicking is not at least somewhat intentionally tongue-in-cheek; there is, I kid you not, a mock newscast about an hour in that makes a passing mention of the President suddenly forgiving all Latin American debt. So much for your aid budget, Mr. P.

Notably, this is Emmerich’s first motion picture since Manhattan was actually sacked back in 2001, but it pulls no punches when it comes to tearing the island apart. If anything, the eponymous event of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 almost lends false credence to the reality depicted in Tomorrow, now that the images of unfortunate innocent extras panicking in the shadow of skyscrapers getting their windows knocked out are no longer as far-fetched as they once may have seemed. Some may call this penchant for picking on New Yorkers a demonstration of cinematic insensitivity, but this is a case where the circumstances enhance the experience.

The end product of The Day After Tomorrow proves to be a very watchable, albeit forgettable film that in many ways represents a high point for everybody’s favourite Hollywood sadist with a Lady Liberty fetish, but should not be seen for anything more than what it is: a disaster effects extravaganza that just happens to substantiate the theory that in the world of cinema, every story has already been told – by Casablanca, that is.

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Flame Wars: The Tampa Menace

Saturday, 29 May 2004 — 8:29pm | Film, Hockey

In honour of tonight’s 3-0 victory over the Lightning, at which the audience was entirely in varying degrees of red, I am going to write some more about the euphoric atmosphere in this here city of Calgary.

From the Yellow Journalism Files comes this little gem I saw in this week’s FFWD Weekly, which, for you Edmontonians reading this, is Calgary’s equivalent of your SEE Magazine: a brief observation by one Jason Lewis that the sports fans leading the charge of Flames fever here in Calgary “are not only a little hypocritical, but also a bit nutty.”

This by itself is not so objectionable, but read on. “You know when the latest Star Wars movie comes out and people line up for five days dressed up as R2-D2 to buy tickets?” asks Lewis. “You folks in the Flames jerseys with the thermoses of soup outside the Saddledome at 5 a.m. to get playoff seats are the sports-world equivalent of those sci-fi geeks.”

Speaking as someone who indeed lined up for five days (okay, three) to buy tickets for one of the Prequels – and let’s not even get into The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Tuesday or the midnight launch of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – it’s easy to take this as a compliment to Flames fans everywhere. But in light of what he says in the first paragraph about hypocrisy, is it just me, or do I detect a bit of negativity? Lewis goes on and makes an entirely anecdotal argument that we “didn’t see [him] walking around in a yellow track suit for the opening weekend of Kill Bill,” which is a rather misguided take on the motivations underlying the dress-up, line-up subcultural phenomena we are seeing more often in this age of tentpole events.

The Kill Bill argument falls flat because as good a film as it is, and as recognized as it has become in the Internet film geek community in particular, Miramax never let it dabble in big licensing deals, which meant the burden of acquiring a yellow track suit (itself an homage to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Death) demanded that you make it yourself. That already eliminates the first pillar beneath a public demonstration of one’s admiration and support for something: the commercial infrastructure.

With the Calgary Flames, you have both the merchandise and a team whose performance makes it fashionable. In the case of films that have yet to establish both a major commercial presence and a fan base willing to spend hard cash on it – a fan base that needs to be earned on merit – this does not happen. This is why the hype machine comes into action primarily for sequels to films that are mainstream cultural phenomena, which Kill Bill, Vol. 1 sadly was not.

For instance, the amount of costuming that happened going into The Fellowship of the Ring on opening night was minimal; without the images from the movie imprinted on society at large, and given that the mass merchandising of Tolkien was just getting off the ground, it was impossible to tell the Aragorns apart from the Boromirs anyway, unless you somehow managed to procure a Horn of Gondor. The openings of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, however, saw a whole lot more in the way of elf fashion and hobbit pageantry. The first Star Wars underwent a similar pattern, and by passing off its growth with every passing film as the development of a geek subculture, it is easy to ignore how this culture was driven by the general public. Tellingly, nobody went to The Passion of the Christ decked out as Jesus despite its record-shattering run at the box office. The exception to the rule was the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but only because the kids already had costumes they wore to the release of The Goblet of Fire or the previous Halloween.

The thing to remember about dressing up for movie openings and sports games is that it only works, and it is only fun, if a lot of people are doing it. Even when you put aside the commercially licensed paraphernalia you are still left with what is, in its own right and on its own terms, a crafts fair. On one hand, you have your tinfoil Stanley Cups and “Cup Belongs in Calgary” signs; on the other, you have the latest handmade Stormtrooper costume projects like the ones coordinated by The 501st Legion. Ultimately it has little to do with the event, and a lot more to do with the sense of community. It may seem obsessive to the layman, but that does not make it a bad thing.

Lewis may contend that the bodypainting of red flaming Cs on game nights is no better than mock fighting in a cinema parking lot with glowing plastic lightsabres, but it would be more accurate to say it is no worse.

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It runs in the family

Friday, 28 May 2004 — 9:31am | Hockey, Music

I will begin by saying that the homegrown Albertan doctrine of “shoot, shovel and shut up” applies not just to mad cows, but also to hockey games like the one last night. No, really – let’s not talk about it. The penalties alone speak for just how poisonous the atmosphere was in the Ice Palace last night – 64 minutes dished out against Calgary and 60 against Tampa – but like I said, let’s not talk about it.

What this means, though, is that there will be at least one more return to Tampa for Game 5 – a bad thing in its own right, even when home-ice advantage is not taken into consideration. I refer not to the thirty-above hockey weather or the unsportsmanlike demeanour of what can be termed a hostile fan base, both factors that run quite contrary to what one can expect of watching hockey here in Calgary, but to a far greater menace to society as a whole. Her name is Brooke Hogan.

Ms. Hogan, a Tampa native who sings the national anthems at their home games with about as much vocal ability as her father Hulk, is – and I mean no disrespect to the Harts, who are good folks with whom I once crossed paths by way of piano lessons, of all things – irrefutable proof that professional wrestlers shouldn’t breed. I say this because the way she stomps all over “O Canada” like a wounded soldier limping across the Somme would be considered grounds for war by any country with an actual military. Here’s a lesson to all the aspiring American Idol contestants out there: singing a cappella does not give you a free pass to disregard the idea of tempo, which is about as fundamental to human civilization as the concept of the number zero. Don’t believe me? Take a wave mechanics course.

Leading an audience in an anthem (keyword: leading) comes with the implication that to some extent, members of said audience will be singing along. The fact that the American arena is primarily full of Americans is irrelevant, when ten percent of all Canada is watching the live telecast. When you lead an audience in song, you never, ever push and pull the tempo to your liking. It’s bad enough that she speeds through the first stanza as if it were the Indy 500, but to pull a ritardando in the next and an accelerando in the one after that – assuming she even has the capacity to understand that this is what she’s doing, which is a leap of faith – should get her at least a ten-minute misconduct.

The bottom line is, regardless of whether or not it is intentional, Hogan’s “performance” of the Canadian anthem is nothing short of cultural mockery. History has shown that such mockery has a very real demoralizing effect – one that Calgary overcame in Game 1 on merit, but you can only stomach something like this for so long. This is no different than the raucous booing and jeering of the visiting team that seems to be such an integral part of Tampa’s sporting culture. Come Game 5, someone get the girl a metronome, or get her off the ice.

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Maintain a stronger election with supplements online

Wednesday, 26 May 2004 — 3:13pm

There is something different about the federal election campaign atmosphere this time around, and I don’t mean the fact that the Liberals are actually in a spot of trouble. The biggest difference is the presence of “something there that wasn’t there before,” to allude to Beauty and the Beast completely out of context: the prevalence this time around of the “blogosphere” and the sudden mobilization of Canadian Internet writers everywhere offering varying degrees of punditry about the second-most important thing happening in the country – the first, of course, being something big, silver, and three victories away. To quote Tim Louman-Gardiner, “When did the Bhulin Wall crumble? 1989. Think about it.”

The election’s effect on the Internet is inescapable; already this site is receiving hits from, say, people looking for Paul Reikie, the NDP candidate for Edmonton Beaumont, who has been mentioned before on this site in relation to his stint on Students’ Council. He is not the only name from Alberta student politics running for Parliament; the other one, as most of this weblog’s readership should already be aware, is former CAUS Executive Director Melanee Thomas, who is running as the NDP candidate in Lethbridge, the same riding where former provincial Liberal leader Ken Nicol is going federal. While on the subject of just how creepy it is to either know or know people who know candidates running in this election via entirely non-political circumstances, one cannot forget Wascana’s very own Erin Weir.

However, this is where I disappoint you all by saying that the amount of political talk that will go on here will be minimal, aside from some coverage of the happenings in my home riding of Calgary Nose Hill, in which I do not to my knowledge recall having a readership. The real fun is happening over at Points of Information, where some Hack Club 7 alumni and others are reveling in a thirty-six day windfall of big fish to fry. Now that’s a political party if I ever saw one.

As far as said Calgary Nose Hill goes, here’s the lineup: Diane Ablonczy returns for the newly and bitterly pepperminted Conservative Party of Canada, while Ted Haney challenges her from the Liberal end of things, alongside also-rans-in-the-making Vinay Dey (NDP) and Richard Lawson (Green Party).

The campaigning has all the rip-roaring intensity of a Jane Austen thriller. Ablonczy’s name is appearing in small print on a few lampposts down Edgemont Boulevard, and her website seems oblivious to the fact that there’s even an election going on; it seems like her team is rightly expecting this to be a walkover. Haney, on the other hand, has signs… on lawns. Maybe I’m expecting a bit much given that we are only half a week into campaigning, but considering how already higher-profile candidates in neighbouring ridings are coming out guns blazing – I refer specifically to Jim Prentice here, whose pulling-out-stops-to-necessity ratio is the greatest I’ve seen since Tyler Botten spent his entire allotted budget on an unopposed run for Students’ Union VP Operations/Finance – could things not be just a tad bit more exciting?

Ted Haney, of course, does have a campaign website up and running – and right off the bat, one can tell that he’s quite the enigma. The President of the Canadian Beef Export Federation and someone who obviously has a background in issues such as the whole “shoot, shovel and shut up” BSE fiasco with that one poor cow last year, the real question – upon a perusal of his stance on most of the major issues – is why in the blazes he’s running for the Liberals. I’m not sure what he’s getting at with his support of accessible and universal “heath care”, either. That sounds more like something the Green Party would say.

Of course, he’s not the only source of confusion between the new Conservatives and Team Martin. One look at poses a matter of much curiosity: is it just me, or are the Conservatives trying to slam the Liberals for acting like Conservatives? If the quotations there are meant to be taken negatively (and honestly, I can’t see what’s so controversial about Paul Martin once saying, “I don’t think there is any doubt about just how evil Saddam Hussein is”), is this campaign not self-defeating and counterproductive?

But that’s stepping out of bounds. After all, I’m not going to talk about politics, right? Right?

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Hear ye, hear ye

Tuesday, 25 May 2004 — 9:27pm | Hockey

Let it be known through all the kingdom that the Calgary Flames destroyed the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. One could say Tampa discovered, the hard way, the truth behind a rather clever anagram that was passed on to me this weekend, which appears to have originated from a Vancouver Canucks newsgroup: rearrange the letters in “Ville Nieminen” to get “evil men in line.”

The real irony of it all is that for perhaps the first time ever, it’s election season, and everybody in Calgary is proudly wearing red.

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