From the archives: May 2004

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A high room in a slightly shorter tower

Tuesday, 25 May 2004 — 10:44am | Animation, Film, Full reviews

Perhaps it is fitting that the hundredth post on this weblog concerns what is only the second film to date to have opened above $100 million domestically in its first weekend, Shrek 2. This film is an interesting one to critique for a number of reasons, one being that Andrew Adamson’s next directorial project is the biggest blip on the 2005 radar not entitled Star Wars Episode III, The Goblet of Fire or Cars: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. Okay, so maybe I made that last part up, but one can only dream.

Another reason why Shrek 2 is notable is because it is a model fence-sitter when it comes to a diagnosis of acute sequel-itis, a movie that falls short of its predecessor in many respects but does not fail to deliver a fresh experience in its own right and do what good sequels are supposed to do, which is to reveal an understanding of the first film that nobody knew needed revealing, and enhance the canon of the franchise in question on the whole. If there are any comparisons to be made here, it is not to the zenith of sequels (The Empire Strikes Back), the forgettable and pointless rehashes (Men In Black II), or even the disputed territory in between (The Matrix Reloaded), but to the other big parody sequel in recent memory, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Now here’s a critical quotation they should put in the ads that pretty much sums up what an audience can expect: “Shrek 2 is the Spy Who Shagged Me of animation!” Even ignoring the Mike Myers factor, the approach is similar: satisfying the reason why audiences demand sequels in the first place by giving them more of what they saw in the first: more of the same type of humour, but with send-ups that were left out of the original or simply could not be done at the time; for an idea of the latter case, the references to The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man. Given that Shrek planted itself firmly as the definitive cinematic representation of the “fractured fairy-tale” subgenre, the territory of Jon Scieszka children’s books, this is hardly a bad thing.

The casting is nothing short of ingenious. Antonio Banderas lends a swashbuckling personality to the hired assassin Puss in Boots that overshadows the returning characters from the first movie. The Fairy Godmother, played by the latter half of French & Saunders, has a few bouncing musical numbers to herself that are among the movie’s more whimsical moments. Even bit parts are spot-on when it comes to the voice work: Joan Rivers as herself? Larry King as the Ugly Stepsister? It’s all here, and it all works.

On a purely visual level, the first Shrek was impressive enough, but by the time the sequel is over, one can tell that this franchise has defined a stylistic palette to call its own. The technical advances are clearly visible in the final render, but feel like a natural and evolutionary extension rather than an overhaul. The human characters look and move more fluidly without shooting straight for realism like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and the designs seem inspired by the Claymation eyes, ears and cheeks of the Aardman variety; think Wallace and Gromit. Shrek 2 is also no slouch when it comes to pulling off what the first did in spades, some of the most radiant and magical transformative sequences committed to film. They are but subtle scenes with flashes of light, yes, but the way they are staged has an atmosphere about it that is quite reassuring when one takes into consideration that the same imaginative aptitude is going to make a stop in Narnia.

Some of the fairy-tale cameos in the first film such as Magic Mirror, the Gingerbread Man and Pinocchio return in the sequel as a cast of second-tier sidekicks, and it is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it makes for the best film spoof in the movie, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s based on something released a full three years before The Matrix but feels at least three times more refreshing than the bullet-time rehash in Shrek‘s Robin Hood fight. However, this ends up feeling very much like a pale imitation of an established Pixar tradition, and these guys don’t match up to Rex, Hamm and Slinky Dog. Ironically, Shrek 2 is at its best when it does what Pixar does, but it defines itself by doing what Pixar doesn’t – in particular, the subtle adult humour of Austin Powers territory.

Substantially, though, the main reason why the sequel falls short of being a classic is that despite its serviceably amusing extension of Shrek‘s wry humour, it misses the boat on something key. The quality of the first movie was not due to its humour, but rather because it explored the entire range from Jar Jar Binks flatulence to something ultimately more sentimental and self-contained, and knew how to switch between the two at a moment’s notice with impeccable timing. Shrek 2 has but a fraction of the heart, and its lack of a deep emotional core reduces it to no more than a lighthearted and fun movie. This may be enough for some fans of the original, but it comes off as a step backwards in comparison.

Part of the reason behind this deficiency may be that the relationship between Shrek and Fiona has little room to develop. We do see a greater exploration of what the first film hinted at about Fiona’s personality, which is that she did harbour expectations of living her adult life as a beautiful princess who lands herself a handsome prince, as opposed to say, an ogre who lands herself another ogre. This is all well and good, and what I earlier referred to as “what good sequels are supposed to do,” but it never legitimately puts their marriage in danger, even when one takes into account the major plot device of Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) trying to steal her away.

The movie ends far too quickly and feels much too short, but that is to its credit, and speaks to the frantic pace of the superbly entertaining last half-hour. The final impression as the credits roll, though, is that while Shrek 2 complements its precursor well and proves to be a lot of fun, it is just that and little else. For an ogre movie, it sure is a lightweight when it comes to actually being emotionally affecting, and that relegates it to being a cotton-candy summer sequel – sweet, but it could have taken a lesson from onions and had a few more layers beneath the surface.

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Peace through superior word power

Sunday, 23 May 2004 — 9:39pm | Scrabble

Yes, I’m well aware that not only have I owed this website a review of the delightfully fluffy Shrek 2 since I saw it on Friday, I just called an ogre fluffy.

Speaking of calling things, word on the street is that there’s an election of some sort going on here in the Great White North. According to Elections Canada, no candidates have been confirmed yet for my riding of Calgary Nose Hill, though Conservative Party incumbent Diane Ablonczy, presently the Chief Opposition Critic for Citizenship and Immigration, is more than likely to run again. The 28 June balloting will be interesting indeed, in the sense that it’s a game of picking your poison, which should remind us all of the old adage that politicians act fast.

The 21st Annual Summer Tournament held by the Calgary Scrabble Group was this weekend, in which I played in the second of three divisions and finished with a 10-4 (+296) record. This should boost my NSA rating well into the mid-1300s, which locks me firmly into Division 4 (1200-1399, effectively 1000-1399) at this year’s National Scrabble Championships. However, as is the case with all players, I am eligible to play one division higher, which presents a game-theoretical dilemma. Division 4 offers a better shot at qualifying for the generous cash prizes that come with being consistent about slapping people around, but being seeded near the top of the division means that any performance less than stellar will tank my rating. Division 3 (1400-1599, effectively 1200-1599) offers better players, tougher competition, and the potential to get a big fat ratings boost like at today’s tournament, which boasted a similar range of players, but any hopes for moolah will be tempered. When it comes to major title events, does one play to do well, or play for the challenge and experience?

Speaking of Nationals, anyone who was either at Waterloo DDT or heard about Round 4 against Harthousie (Bond/Hoddes) may be interested in this document, the inspiration for what turned out to be an entertaining round of debate, to say the least.

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Running time: 525,600 minutes

Friday, 21 May 2004 — 1:39pm | Adaptations, Film

This story broke two weeks ago, but my intention was to put it off until after I had seen the touring production of Rent at the Jubilee Auditorium, for reasons that will become immediately clear. Before long, E3 and Waterloo DDT got in the way as far as coverage goes, but I digress. The story is that Chris Columbus, whose name will be conveniently lost in history because of a) that fifteenth-century explorer guy and b) Bicentennial Man, is planning to adapt and direct Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning musical.

Even without the supposition that the film adaptation of any seminal work from another medium should immediately raise eyebrows, this is one of those things that you hope turns out way better than it looks on paper. Rent is a mature, contemporary and dynamic work of theatre that deals with the less fortunate denziens of Lower Manhattan – and by “less fortunate” I mean homeless and dying of AIDS, for starters. Then we have Chris Columbus, who has directed exactly two films worth watching, both on the merit of J.K. Rowling (who, by the way, has a brand-spanking-new website that everyone should check out).

Now, not to be an armchair director or anything, but as good as Columbus is at drawing quality performances out of child performers – please ignore Macaulay Culkin for a second – the last thing that any film audience would associate him with is dynamism. Columbus needs to get a top-notch cinematographer on board and work with him to shoot the movie with a tone that matches the rest of the source material, and do what he started doing on The Chamber of Secrets, which is breaking the habit of visualizing scenes with stationary cameras sitting around and watching the soundstage.

The central character of Rent, Mark, is a video artist who documents everything with a handheld he takes everywhere. It would be kind of sad if a director couldn’t live up to the work of one of his characters, no? That in itself proposes an interesting concept: shoot the entire film in handheld, giving it the feel of an urban documentary. As far as I know, it has never been done in an A-list movie musical, though it would not fit anywhere else, whilst for Rent, it’s so perfect that somebody out there should hire me for even mentioning the idea.

Speaking as optimistically as possible, though, this could prove to be a breakout project for Chris Columbus’ skills and reputation as a filmmaker. It’s good to see that he is taking on something challenging that may, in fact, finally provide an opportunity for him to develop.

In any case, I should be far more concerned about Joel Schumacher marching into sacred territory with The Phantom of the Opera, but casting Emmy Rossum as Christine indicates that he’s doing something right. I say that solely on the basis of Rossum’s brief role in Mystic River, and it would be best if next week’s The Day After Tomorrow does not shatter that perception.

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From a certain point of view

Thursday, 20 May 2004 — 3:23pm | Film, Star Wars

By now, anyone who cares has already seen the leaked shot from the DVD of Return of the Jedi that features a long-haired Hayden Christensen, not Sebastian Shaw, as the redeemed spirit of Anakin Skywalker. The fact that the DVDs boast further changes to Classic Trilogy above and beyond the 1997 Special Editions is nothing new – The Digital Bits has been reporting it for months – for many self-professed fans, this is probably the first time an image has really packed the magnitudinal punch for what’s happening to hit home: yes, Star Wars is changing. Yes, it’s moving closer to the controversial Prequel Trilogy. Why, exactly, is this causing an uproar, as if it were a bad thing?

The truth is, when it comes to revisionism in art, Star Wars has been almost exclusively singled out to take the heat for being changed and updated. The extended and revised cuts of Blade Runner, Almost Famous, The Big Sleep and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are considered the definitive versions of those films. After the rebirth of high-profile modified re-releases with the Star Wars Special Editions, we saw Apocalypse Now Redux and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial receive similar treatment, with the only noise being made about the latter’s trivial replacement of a few guns by walkie-talkies. Many classic films that are seeing release on DVD are as much as half an hour to an hour longer than the original without modern-day audiences knowing they were ever any different; observe the restorations of Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia.

This applies not only to film, but also to literature; academically, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still popularly studied using the text of the 1831 edition, which is heavily rewritten from the 1818 original, though the First Edition can be found and is even preferred by some. J.R.R. Tolkien rewrote the entire “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, which itself underwent subsequent revisions and the addition of supplementary material now considered to be integral to the Middle-Earth canon.

So, why the kerfuffle about Star Wars?

Having spent more time observing the patterns of the online Star Wars community over the past six or seven years than is healthy for the sanity of any given individual – I was once an Administrator at’s forums (lack of a hyperlink intended), which is a hive of scum and villainy akin to everything bad about any arbitrary Internet messageboards all rolled into one – I bring forth this indisputable fact: the majority of people who call themselves Star Wars fans, at least, the ones on the Internet, are idiots.

This isn’t a matter of who agrees with me and who doesn’t. I am clearly in the minority in the sense that, strike me off your Christmas lists if you want, I love the Prequels. A lot of idiots also love the Prequels, so like I said, this is not an issue of who holds what opinion. The real issue is that the Star Wars fan culture on the Internet is one giant pep rally after another of flag-waving lunacy, where people mobilize themselves into congruous rival gangs under the banner of liking or disliking something, justifying their cliquy behaviour by citing victimization and a bunch of other excuses they borrowed from the same bag of tricks used by racial supremacists.

Back when I was still patrolling the bozo-boards, there was actually a set of n-thousand-post chat threads started by a group that called themselves the “Expanded Universe Defense Force”, or EUDF, which was started by so-called fans that did their darndest to convince themselves and everyone else that a) the licensed fan fiction coming out of Lucas Licensing is valid literature, and b) despite the volume of said licensed fiction that comes off the press every year, its readership is an oppressed tribe of nomads under the thumb of those who for some crazy reason think that the Prequels are, in fact, not based on the aforementioned non-literature. Call it EU-vangelism, if you will. What they would do is assign themselves squadrons and ranks, and when a member logged in, he would go to the current n-thousand-post “home base” thread and post a notification that he’s patrolling their imaginary borders for danger, along the lines of, “Blue 5, coming in.” After he finished pissing on say, a given community-forum discussion about classic literature by mentioning Michael Stackpole’s I, Jedi within a ten-post radius of the name “Dickens”, it would be straight back to the EUDF thread with a “Blue 5, signing out.” And this is how they act before you engage them in conversation and debate.

Predictably, some of these camps are targeted to despise anything that was done with Star Wars after 1997, be they SE-bashing preservationists or Prequel-bashing neo-cons. For some reason, this is the camp that has a lot of allies in the online media – mostly a generational quirk unifying the fans and laypeople who liked the original films in ways that George Lucas didn’t, and are now appalled at the mere suggestion that they, in fact, do not know more about Star Wars than its creator.

A lot of the vitriol directed to the DVDs does have a valid concern, though: the fact that without a digital release in the DVD format, the orginal version of the Classic Trilogy is doomed to degrade on unreliable magnetic media. This is not quite true, as Star Wars has already been marked for preservation, original reels do still exist, and nothing’s stopping a restoration years down the road like what has had to be done with any old film transferred to DVD, much like what Criterion tends to do. The trouble is that a lot of people out there want their version and they want it now.

It’s undeniable that gradually, a lot of those who claim to be Star Wars fans have lost a lot of faith in the direction of the saga, as if George Lucas were the late-nineties Calgary Flames or something. I use “faith” here because a lot of it is predicated on the religiously fervent belief that George Lucas circa 1977-1983 was God and the Classic Trilogy was His divine creation. It just so turned out that God disagreed. God had a very different plan in mind.

Much of the opposition to the Prequels is not so much a critique based on merit; one should remember that both Episodes I and II initially opened to favourable, albeit divisive reviews. A lot of the criticism they suffer accumulated over time, though not because the scrutiny of them was any more meticulous. The opposition to the Prequels is instead largely because they are in many respects quite different from the original three, and constitute an independent trilogy. The stories are more political, the protagonists come from a higher social class, and the villains are a less visible presence (phantom menaces, alas). The Doug Chiang designs of a Republic in its last renaissance have a fluidity not present in Ralph McQuarrie’s junkyard vision of a galaxy ruled by the Empire. Given that many out there consider the Classic Trilogy perfect, and given that you can’t do better than perfect, the syllogism follows that in their eyes, you can’t do better than the Classic Trilogy – not with the Prequels, and especially not with the Special Editions, both of which compound the sense of negativity by way of a multiplier for perceived blasphemy.

But in addition to these sociological factors, the specific opposition to “fixing the Special Editions” is silly on its own merit. It has been established from the beginning that no, we are not getting the original editions this September. So what would you rather have: the 1997 Special Edition’s experiments in digital editing that, while lauded at the time, now seem like a dated and half-finished test to see if the Prequels were viable (cf. the model of Jabba the Hutt in Episode IV’s restored hangar scene) – or a project brought to completion, consistent with the rejuvenated continuity and aesthetic established by the Prequels, in the name of better flow between the two trilogies? If we are getting a Special Edition anyway, a representation of what George Lucas would have done had he possessed new-millennium technology back in 1977, why not go all the way?

Star Wars is experimental, and always has been. Experiments tend to produce the occasional unintended errors, and no matter how much the audience has grown accustomed to these errors, it does not make their errancy any different in the eyes of the artist. When something avant-garde gets pigeonholed into the status of a mainstream franchise, it faces a new obstacle: fans do not commit to franchises to see something new. They commit to see more of the same. Kudos to George Lucas for not succumbing to the demands of the mob and instead continuing to push the envelope, approximating his own ever-changing imagination more precisely with every iteration.

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Sharkbait hoo-ha-ha

Wednesday, 19 May 2004 — 9:51pm | Hockey

Tonight I went to see Game 6 of the Western Conference Final matchup between the Sharks and the Flames, taking a seat almost directly three rows behind the official scorer on the Sharks’ end (or the Flames’ end in the second period). Unfortunately, my camera just missed the puck that slid all the way down the ice into the empty San José net with less than a second remaining in the third, but that would have been the icing on another layer of icing on the cake anyway.

It was a game of compromises. On one hand, it thankfully did not go into overtime. On the other, Martin Gelinas still scored the eliminating goal. On one hand, the Sharks actually scored. On the other, they still got a sound whipping.

All of you out there who tried to convince me to take up a summer job somewhere more interesting than Calgary: this summer – well, every summer, but this one in particular – there is nowhere more interesting than Calgary.

So yeah: I got to see the Campbell Bowl presented live, the Saddledome’s getting another banner, the Flames are going to the Stanley Cup Finals – and I have yet to finish my apologetic penance for losing faith in my hometown team and making fun of them all these years. It looks like hell is three-quarters of the way to freezing over, and we all know what that means: perfect hockey weather.

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