From the archives: May 2004

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Ounce for Troy ounce a good movie

Wednesday, 19 May 2004 — 10:47am | Film, Full reviews

Troy ends with an almost joking dedication, “Inspired by Homer’s Iliad,” when adaptation-wise it more precisely sits somewhere in between O Brother, Where Art Thou? being inspired by the Odyssey and, to draw an obligatory Peter O’Toole connection for a moment, Lawrence of Arabia‘s roots in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Never mind the Homeric credit; this is a film best watched for what it is, which is not at all an arm of mythology, but rather a dramatized historical portrait of mythmaking.

Before I get any further, it should be made clear that discussing spoiler material is quite necessary for a proper appraisal of Wolfgang Petersen’s latest offering to the deified audiences of epic cinema. Suffice to say, if you don’t know that Achilles gets shot in the heel, that’s about equivalent to watching Titanic and not knowing the boat sinks, and there is no hope for you.

That leads me to the first curiosity about Troy, which is where it situates itself in its assumptions about what and what not to consider a priori, a problem for any historically-minded film to resolve. For example, Saving Private Ryan never feels it necessary to explain the nitty-gritty of the significance of the Normandy landings and what that whole D-Day schtick was about in the first place. A more recent example is The Passion of the Christ, which asserts some degree of familiarity with the source material on the part of the audience, and tends to fare better with those who know who the likes of that Simon of Cyrene guy are.

Troy‘s assumptions in this regard make it an accessible film without ever openly insulting the audience, with the asterisk that its source material is less the Iliad than the archaeological remains of the titular city, and what else we know of the classical civilizations. David Benioff’s screenplay freely takes Homer’s dramatis personae and the who-kills-whom scorecard and embellishes it with characterizations specific to the film, which work when they are present. What the film appears to be trying to accomplish is to re-enact not Homer himself, but what Homer may have written about, and thus it is imbued with a worldview of secular realism, with no sign of cleanliness’ next-door neighbour aside from the beliefs of the characters themselves. This is a more than legitimate excuse for the liberties taken, as in the same respect, better films have done worse.

But without the mythical element behind it all, Troy faces a unique challenge: it has to make the human characters interesting enough to carry the story. Given that these characters are in many ways archetypal personas defined by their Homeric stature, this is no easy proposition. In exactly three cases, it lives up to the challenge, thanks in large part to the acting power behind these roles. These are Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector, and the consistently marvelous Peter O’Toole as Priam.

All three lend physical personality to their characters in their own ways. With Achilles, we see the stature of an epic character defined not by heroics but by a rebellious arrogance, as well as what proves to be a unique fighting style to call his own. Hector is perhaps the strongest presence in the film, and walks tall with a sense of heroic nobility that goes unmatched. Eric Bana was long overdue for a star-making role despite coming close with a hammerhead shark and a big green angry guy, and this may prove to be it. Priam is a kingly character, and besides, this is Peter O’Toole we’re talking about; sadly, his screentime is just as limited as fellow Lawrence alumnus Omar Sharif’s in Hidalgo, which comes off as almost wasteful.

This is not to say that Troy is not without its distractions, and there are many. Many of them involve pacing, particularly of the first and last act. The opening is riddled with an excess of title cards that cheat their way around exposition, and the initiation of the conflict proved to be a pickle when avoiding any mucking about with that god brouhaha. At the end, after the point at which the Iliad has had its fill, the movie suddenly realizes that it has some unfinished business, and rushes to completion. It’s as if someone in the editing department realized that once Hector is out of the picture, the glue holding the movie together starts to dissipate, so why not wrap everything up in a hurry? Before long, Troy is sacked and Achilles is shot in the heel, all because of a trick with a horse that is in obvious reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The conflict resolution is, in a word, patchy.

Conversely, the movie has its best moments when it takes its time, particularly with the two key duels – first between Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), and later, Achilles and Hector – and Priam’s key scene, when he appeals to Achilles for an honourable funeral for his son. Believe it or not, the 160-minute epic could have done well with being longer, taking its time to properly transition between scenes and establish roles such as Sean Bean’s all-too-brief appearance as Odysseus, while remaining true to itself as what William Goldman would call the “good parts” version.

One would think that a film that promoted itself with the tagline, “If love is worth fighting for, then it has known no greater battle,” would be a little more competent in the romantic side of things. Unfortunately, this is not the case; despite an attempt to salvage Achilles’ hero status by overplaying the captivity of Briseis (Rose Byrne), about the only romantic depth we see is in Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Paris as a besotten idealist who acts on infatuation alone and hides behind the nobility of his brother. As for the subject of said infatuaton, Helen of Troy (Diane Kruger) is hardly even a presence, a concern the film dodges by establishing that her supposed beauty had little to do with launching a thousand ships in the first place; again, realpolitik at work in the Ancient World.

Thematically, what holds Troy together and sets its tone as a work of cinema is the relationship between its characters and the very idea of being immortalized in legend. It outright rejects mythical elements such as Achilles’ purported physical immortality, but shows the origin of myth by implication; Achilles is found dead with an arrow in his heel, and such a circumstance overshadows the fact that it is not singularly responsible for his demise. Where this kind of pragmatism falls short is in the case of Agamemnon, who comes out of this story looking the most outright villainous. Brian Cox is only as good a bad guy as the material he’s given – see X2: X-Men United for a recent comparison – and here, it’s not much more than your standard megalomaniacal fare.

There are very few complaints to be had about the production on a technical level. Roger Pratt, best known for his collaborations with Terry Gilliam and saving The Chamber of Secrets from Chris Columbus’ inability to move a camera, shoots Troy entirely in shades of desert yellow, treading the line between consistent and stale, but ultimately producing a look and feel reminiscent of the period epics of the sixties. James Horner’s score is at times in far too close proximity to Hans Zimmer’s work in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down in its use of ethereal vocals in exotic modes, but by the end of the movie, he carves out a Troy theme that manages to stand on its own. While much has been made of the decision to scrap an allegedly more ambitious score by Gabriel Yared, Horner’s work is sufficient to be shortlisted for an award or two, albeit penalized on the basis of originality.

At the end of the day, Troy receives credit for serving as a fairly definitive narrative of the siege of the titular city, if not quite a retelling of Homer. It is at least as good as some of its lesser big-budget costume epic forebears, the kind that rightly won few awards in its day but still sees release and critique; like Spartacus, but an hour and an Olivier shorter. Flaws are noticeable in an abundance proportional to expectations and a priori baggage, but by no means is Petersen’s project a disaster like the one that befell its namesake.

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It’s a Bird…

Tuesday, 18 May 2004 — 12:50pm | Animation, Film

Play a word-association game in sets of three and in two moves, someone is bound to mention Krypton’s finest. But as far as superheroics go, it’s only a one-step removal to Brad Bird of The Iron Giant, whose Pixar project, The Incredibles, has a new trailer. As has been the case all year, nothing has come close to unseating it as my most-anticipated film this year – but that’s not to slight some other very major blips on the more immediate summer radar, particularly the month of June, with the quadruple-whammy of (in chronological order) The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Terminal, De-lovely and Spider-Man 2.

Interestingly enough, the trailer to The Incredibles credits it to the same studio that delivered Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo; A Bug’s Life is conspicuously absent. Oh, how quickly we forget; pray tell, is it because the insect flick is the one errant statistic in the Pixar streak that did not manage to break $200M domestically, or something far more sinister, like trying to bury the gaffe that all of the ants have four legs?

One wonders how Monsters, Inc. will be treated years down the road, when the “From the makers of…” shortlist fills up even more with the likes of The Incredibles, Cars and Ratatouille. Like A Bug’s Life, Monsters was a run-of-the-mill Pixar film in the sense that it was merely wonderful, as opposed to a life-changing experience on the order of the two Toy Story films and Finding Nemo. Both drew comparisons to similarly-themed PDI offerings released earlier in the same year, Antz and Shrek, both of them hits in their own right – and case studies alpha and beta of PDI’s and Pixar’s differing philosophies.

PDI seems to go for the immediate returns, capitalizing on popular culture, aiming straight for the hardest laughs – but with the price of what plagues most of the comedy genre this day and age, which is that certain elements get stale by the third or fourth time through. In spite of the initial praise for Antz as an edgy response to a Pixar that was still growing up, its staying power has waned.

As for Shrek, PDI’s crown jewel and by all means an excellent work of pop art, I saw it again last week for the first time in over a year, and with divergent feelings. Much of it is still very good; the castle sequence, the transformation, and the more serious bits still resonate as they always did, and nobody can deny that the animation is lovely to this day, thanks to some exceptional character design. The toilet humour does not fare so well, nor does much of the music, which should have been tackled entirely as an original score from the outset, as the little of the score we hear makes some of the movie’s best scenes what they are. The spoof of The Matrix, once the best of its kind, comes off almost as a hump to get over. One should normally avoid making such comparions, but while Shrek beat out the lighthearted Monsters, Inc. for open laughter and heart at the first viewing, and took home the corresponding Oscar, the latter is easier to watch again.

What Pixar seems to do with every one of its films is establish a sense of lasting power, something that can rarely ever be appraised in the crop of reviews during a given movie’s initial theatrical run. The returns – and here, I mean that in the sense of the degree of entertainment provided – are not of the diminishing sort.

This, of course, leads me to a requisite discussion of the PDI offering formerly known as Sharkslayer, which was perhaps unwisely renamed Shark Tale to avoid confusion with the Calgary Flames. So far, Shark Tale has been pretty low-profile – in fact, there has been little to go on aside from this trailer – but one can expect a promotional blowout to accompany the opening of Shrek 2 later this week. I may end up eating my words as I initially did with Shrek three years ago, since it was a case of a film’s quality far exceeding that of its portrayal in advertising, but Shark Tale – which is not nearly as edgy as originally promised, especially with the modified title – is a film to be sceptical about. It appears to be swimming straight for standard PDI territory with its celebrity voices, hip-comedy tone and more expressionistic design aesthetic, but the Nemo comparisons will be unavoidable. See, it’s already hard enough for any movie to follow an act like Finding Nemo, let alone do everything short of picking a fight with it. The Incredibles already scared Dreamworks into bumping this movie up a month, which will not avoid an animation duel this fall where hopefully, the audience will emerge the ultimate winner.

At some point in my life I want to see Pixar earn history’s second Best Picture nomination for an animated feature, the first being the certainly deserving Beauty and the Beast. It should have been Andrew Stanton and Nemo, but let’s see if Brad Bird can do the trick.

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The Trudge Report

Tuesday, 18 May 2004 — 10:07am | Debate

This comes a little late, but punctuality is a secondary concern when appraising something on the magnitude of this past weekend’s major Nick-occupying event, that being the University of Waterloo’s Summer Tournament. Known as the Debate Death Trudge, the concept behind the Waterloo tournament is this: begin debating on Saturday morning, rinse and repeat until Sunday morning. This time around it consisted of no less than fifteen round-robin debates in mercifully shortened Canadian Parliamentary times (5-6-6-8-3), the fifteenth round a hidden quarterfinal, followed by a breakfast banquet at Mel’s Diner (an offshoot of the same restaurant that launched George Lucas’ career) and a break to semi-finals.

There were other assorted twists, such as matchups for “specific knowledge rounds” where arguments predicated on factual expertise, conventionally disallowed out of fairness, are permitted concerning topics to which both teams consent. Where it gets really interesting is when said consent does not imply equal parity of knowledge, leading to situations like Round 6, where a certain Flames-jersey-wearing Government team argued that Harry Potter let Cedric Diggory take the Triwizard Cup, only to discover that the Opposition had never read The Goblet of Fire, let alone memorized it to the point where the structure of the Ministry of Magic and the legal complications of the Bartemius Crouch inquisitions are small beans of the Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavoured variety. The Opposition team of “Greg Allen’s Older Sister Is Hot A” (Crossman/Kotrly) not only won the round by means both inexplicable and totally legitimate, but went on to claim victory over the entire tournament and pick up a Nintendo Entertainment System apiece.

The very notion of debaters staying up and doing rounds in the wee hours of the morning produces amusing results. At no other tournament can one profess to witness the enormity and depth of silliness characteristic of Waterloo DDT, particularly once it heads into the double-digits. By then, adjudicators are just as fatigued, and oh, do they ever respond accordingly. It still has to be determined if they were scoring by attempted content or just sheer entertainment value, but I imagine the former is difficult when people are crossing the floor midway, going off on wild tangents about their parents and Bob Dylan being sell-outs while on the subject of Scrabble, drawing diagrams of scandalous polygonal relationships in multiple dimensions, reading Economist articles verbatim, laughing for half a speech or justifying political mergers by quoting Dylan Thomas.

Everything was tackled, nothing was sacred, and by the end of it all, the only real survivor was the enigmatic Carl, who somehow remained a good guy – despite being sent to Abu Ghraib prison and given the standard treatment. But don’t take my word for it – see what everybody else got out of it.

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Nintendo’s double deuce

Wednesday, 12 May 2004 — 10:29am | Video games

It’s official: Nintendo is cleaning up at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.

The first major revelation at their pre-show press conference yesterday was the Nintendo DS, a handheld as powerful as the Nintendo 64 and consisting of two screens – one in the clamshell lid, and a touch-sensitive one nestled in the middle of the SNES-style control pad. That’s right – the X and Y buttons are back at long last. The second screen is itself usable as a control apparatus; for example, one early demo was of a new first-person Metroid game, Metroid Prime: Hunters, wherein one can aim Samus’ beam weapon with the stylus and tap to fire. The device also supports wireless LAN over 802.11, which means multiplayer support.

Of course, a system is nothing without some games. Two words and an acronym: Animal Crossing DS. Think about it – it’s perfect. The keyboard-intensive letter-writing and the inventory system currently require scrolling around, and could benefit immensely from a point-and-click interface. The wireless support means that visiting other players’ towns and trading fruit and furniture will become more viable than ever. It’s a dream come true.

Speaking of dreams coming true, Capcom’s listed as having Viewtiful Joe DS in development, and moreover, Nintendo is finally developing the Mario game I’ve been awaiting since about the same time as when the Flames (which are on fire, by the way) last made the playoffs. It’s a traditional Mario side-scroller – that is to say, a real Mario game – but with a 3D-generation look, and of course, dual-screen capabilities.

In addition to this, the DS is backwards-compatible with Game Boy Advance cartridges. It looks like holding off on picking up a GBA SP is paying off after all.

There are a few things I’d still like to know. One is battery life, which will hopefully not be an issue. The DS, unlike the SP’s one major oversight, had better also include a standard headphone jack. A reliable place to store a stylus is something I assume will be a given. There is also the matter of the price, but that only concerns those of you whose Christmas lists I’m on.

Sayonara, PSP – the DS is almost certainly the next-generation handheld to buy.

While on the subject of giving Nintendo money, the other bomb they dropped yesterday was a teaser trailer of the latest incarnation of The Legend of Zelda – no, not the upcoming Four Swords Adventures or Minish Cap, but an entirely original GameCube adventure. This one has a whole new look and feel, going for the photorealism and cinematic tone of The Ocarina of Time but incorporating aesthetic elements that came out of The Wind Waker, particularly the expressiveness in the character animation. Look at Link’s eyes, those pretty, pretty eyes. What more could you ask for, combat on horseback? Oh, wait – they’re doing that.

With Nintendo regaining momentum, one can only hope that their systems will sell like hotcakes. It’s high time for the video game industry to return to where it belongs.

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Now you’re playing with power

Wednesday, 5 May 2004 — 9:59am

When I first put this site together, it was originally intended to be a testbed for some basic CSS layout techniques. I finally got around to playing with the code and implementing the stylesheet switcher explained in this ALA tutorial. To your right, under the “décor” heading, you may currently switch between the current layout and an otherwise identical one that uses a blue colour scheme, effectively remodeling Nick’s Café as a casual seafood restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf – and here I refer specifically to Neptune’s, where I last dined in April 1999 whilst inadvertently separated from my school band tour, but without the barking sea lions.

As time goes by I will likely add a few more colour schemes or even wholly different layouts, while also fixing some of the less standards-compliant exploits I used to force certain things to work, such as the spacer image setting minimum dimensions for the title graphic above and the open <p> tags that get paragraph indentation going – ugly cheats that CSS was meant to eliminate, only certain web browsers refuse to handle the specification properly.

Speaking of standards-compliant browsers, I now primarily use Mozilla Firefox 0.8 on my Windows XP machine, and I would recommend it to anyone still stuck on Internet Explorer, even the lazy ones that hate downloading and installing new software. The switch is well worth the effort, and though it is visibly in the pre-1.0 stage in some respects, it’s a vast improvement. Tabbed browsing is a godsend to anyone such as myself accustomed to having eight to ten pages open at any given time. When I require pages to be open simultaneously – say, for example, submitting Diplomacy orders in one window while having the game map open in another – I can easily switch between the two on the main Windows taskbar without having to wade through everything else. Better still, most of the current shortfalls are easily circumvented by the mountain of extensions available for quick and easy customization.

I still keep MSIE around for testing purposes, and because FTP access is where its integration with Windows really shines, but there’s no substitute for better software.

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