From the archives: June 2004

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A brief apologetic

Monday, 14 June 2004 — 3:53pm

Regular readers, I implore you to pardon the recent sparsity of posts. You see, unexpected interruptions – being stopped by immigration officials while crossing the Chinese border, for instance – tend to impede the production of such indulgences. Expect Nick’s Café to be fully operational once again at some point in the hopefully very near future.

In the meantime, why not familiarize yourselves with my present whereabouts?

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I solemnly swear Azkaban is up to some good

Friday, 11 June 2004 — 4:41pm | Adaptations, Film, Harry Potter, Literature

The Philosopher’s Stone was a screen test: the characters were cast, the sets were built, and we saw the definition of some design conventions that would guide how J.K. Rowling’s imagination would look on film. The Chamber of Secrets was a exercise in refining the execution, with more attention to visual effects and cinematography, and served as a vehicle for Chris Columbus to develop as a director. But now, at long last, we have Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkaban: the first real Harry Potter movie.

For the first time, we have a Harry Potter film that not only feels complete, but achieves what made the books the phenomenon they are – a balance of gleeful entertainment and meticulous artistry. Steve Kloves’ adaptation of Rowling’s third novel cuts its losses and accepts that some things only work on paper – something that he did to a lesser extent with the first two films – but the big difference is what Cuaron did and Columbus did not, which is recognize there is a lot of unfulfilled cinematic potential lying in the fact that conversely, some things only work on film. Azkaban actively takes advantage of cinema as a medium of expression, and adds a whole new dimension of what the magic of Potter is all about: imagination.

Take, for example, the way the cutting room tackles the passage of time. Because the Potter novels each last a full academic year in what can be perceived as a rather serial fashion, jumping from summer vacation to the first day of school to Halloween to Christmas, there are some inherent pacing issues to resolve. While the first two films negotiate this with jump-cuts that drop requisite visual clues like holiday decorations and the presence or absence of snow, the seasonal transitions in Azkaban are demarcated by a recurring visual gag involving the Whomping Willow, The effect is not only charming, but also serves the literary function of reminding the audience that the Willow is there, and acting as a framework for structural coherence.

This is not the only indication of how the editing work has matured tremendously. The Prisoner of Azkaban is a textbook example of when and how to execute fade-to-blacks for dramatic effect, as whenever Harry is approached by Dementors and falls unconscious to the sound of a woman screaming. On a more general level, the Dementors are everything that the encounter with Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest in The Philosopher’s Stone was supposed to be. Whereas that scene in the first film amounts to all of a cloak floating around a dead unicorn while Harry clutches the lightning scar on his forehead, Cuaron’s vision of the Dementors stops and asks: how is it that one visualizes fear – or soul-sucking, for that matter? Rowling describes the approach of a Dementor as akin to a sinkhole for warmth and happiness; the film conveys this by having these foul creatures freeze everything around them as they pass, with a creeping frost effect very similar to the one in The Day After Tomorrow, only here, it makes sense.

That is what sets The Prisoner of Azkaban apart: its embrace of the medium of cinema defines a magical tone and atmosphere that its predecessors did not possess. Because of this, it stands out as an independent work of art in its own right, instead of relying entirely on Rowling’s contributions alone. The Marauder’s Map is far more than just a leaf of parchment with moving labeled dots on it; it unfolds in all manner of directions like Hogwarts itself, movements are traced with tiny pattering footprints, and the labels themselves are stylized to fit a medieval aesthetic. The Invisibility Cloak is no longer just a close-up of Harry traipsing around under a semi-transparent cloak; it does not stop him from leaving revealing footprints in the snow. The climax is bookended by shots that pass out of Hogwarts and back in through the gears of a large and very symbolic clock, and its initiation – when Hermione activates the Time Turner – is without question the single best moment I have seen in any film this year, a shot that trumps its counterparts in even the most legendary movies that involve the manipulation of time.

The casting work deserves a great deal of recognition, in supporting roles big (Gary Oldman as an appropriately scruffy and bonkers Sirius Black) and small (Lee Ingleby as Stan Shunpike), the best of the lot being David Thewlis’ precisely-in-character performance as new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin. The concern of the main and recurring characters outgrowing their roles is not too much of a problem at this stage, but definitely shows through (a fancy way of saying, “Gosh, Neville Longbottom is tall”).

What holds the film back is the difficulty of reconciling a consistent linear structure and pace with the complexity of Rowling’s book. In The Prisoner of Azkaban in particular, Rowling constructs her plots very much in the style of Agatha Christie, dropping seemingly unrelated clues to a grand and sinister mystery for ninety percent of a work, then tying them all together in a singular denouement that answers every lingering question in one fell swoop. Even the 1974 film of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express discovered that with so many interrelated clues, the adaptation process that leads to a coherent screenplay is a game of pick-up-sticks. The remedy that screenwriter Kloves tries this time around, which peels off a few of the outer layers of the mystery and spreads the rest of it out so as to achieve a relatively even distribution of clues and solutions, is an improvement upon the last two films in the sense that the adaptation work seems considered right from pre-production and not in the cutting room; however, the consequence is a barrage of abrupt revelations and name-dropping that would be an information glut for all but those who have a thorough memory of the original work.

To illustrate some of these concerns, I am now going to discuss a plot-specific adaptation issue, so if you have not read the book, go catch up with the text and come back later.

The biggest omission in the film is a critical one, and sorely missed, which is that the identities of Mooney (sic), Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are never revealed, and Remus Lupin never explains how it is he knows how to operate the Marauder’s Map, even though Snape’s implicit line about Harry getting it “straight from the manufacturers” (in a perfectly executed staging of the scene where Snape catches the boy wizard out of bed at night) remains intact. It would have taken a minute – just one question from our dear inquiring Harry, and an answer in return. It is only excusably problematic that the details of how the whole matter of betrayal and the Secret Keeper charm are never explained, but an understanding of the roles of Lupin, Pettigrew and Black in relation to James Potter is key to what Azkaban contributes to the grander saga, which is an introduction to the dynamic of the parental generation, as well as a clue to the form of either Potter’s Patronus.

It should be emphasized that we do see individual scenes that go into the various relationships with the elder Potter on a one-on-one level. A delightful chat between Lupin and Harry about the latter’s parents whilst all the other students are at Hogsmeade, a scene not in the book, may well be what Rowling referred to as the unintended clue to Book Six. Still, it would have been nice to see such a vital clue tie it all together. As it stands, the fact that Lupin could read the Marauder’s Map at all is a plot hole; and while tackling the Shrieking Shack as a ten-minute dialogue sequence would not have been feasible, whittling it down does make it look like Harry trusts Black’s side of the story far too quickly.

These complaints aside, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is in every way a superior film compared to its two precursors, and the first one that is not only highly watchable, but a lot of fun. No longer does it feel like the whole affair probably looks a lot better on set than it does on screen; and finally, we see some literacy in the language that is unique to cinema. While The Chamber of Secrets was developing this communicative aptitude with key scenes like Tom Riddle’s diary and the fight with the Basilisk, now we have an entire movie that does J.K. Rowling justice, a movie that captures the dark, yet lively spirit of Harry Potter from beginning to end. It could have been longer without penalty, but that does not stop it from already being a must-see for veteran Potterheads and non-fans alike.

Ideally, Alfonso Cuaron should be invited back for at least one Potter movie. Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) is already working on The Goblet of Fire, and I maintain that there is no better person for The Order of the Phoenix than Terry Gilliam, but Cuaron now has a proven record of knowing how to commit Rowling to film.

Next: some equally belated thoughts on the Calgary Flames’ blaze just short of glory.

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Not quite across the border

Friday, 4 June 2004 — 1:07pm | Scrabble

Never mind that I have yet to send in my registration for this year’s National Scrabble Championships; it’s enough of a pickle to pick a division in which to play.

It so turns out that I did well enough at the last Calgary Summer Tournament for my NSA rating to shoot up by 112 points, which puts me at an all-time personal best of 1399. 1399, as it turns out, is a nasty little bugger of a boundary value. Players rated in the 1200-1399 range are slotted in Division 4 but eligible for Division 3, and the same ability to “play up” applies to the other divisions above and below, so should I play in Division 4 – as was the plan back when I sat pretty in the mid-1200s – I would be the top seed in what is effectively a 1000-1399 competitive pool. While that would theoretically give me a clear shot at $1500 USD, it does mean I would have to win almost all my rounds just to keep my rating afloat. Now Division 3 looks almost a certainty, though the expectation would be to break even – and I am but one rating point short of tackling Division 2, which is well into the 1600+ expert range, which would have been optimal for boosting my rating, though picking up some hard cash would not be a reasonable expectation.

Division 3 will still be a challenge, though. I will be playing with the likes of Robert Gillis, author of indispensible reference Bob’s Bible, and the mystery man known only as Winter, who registered under the fill-in surname “Zxqkj” (which, he explains, is “not for human consumption, but rather only for reporting results to the NSA computer”) and has achieved some renown for his epic quest to visit every Starbucks in the world.

But first, I need to register.

My next post, when it comes, will be to one extent or another a discussion of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I am seeing later today at an IMAX screening. It is unlikely I will afford it quite the same depth of analysis as I did The Return of the King in my extensive adaptation notes, but I make no promises either way.

Flames, once again, in six.

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Roma victor

Thursday, 3 June 2004 — 3:47pm | Board games

It appears I have won the first completed game of SU Webboard Diplomacy playing as Italy, with the domination of over half of Europe achieved by Fall 1908 – that is to say, a victory in sixteen moves. Italy, as Diplomacy players are generally aware, is popularly considered the least desirable country to play for a number of reasons: it cannot pick up more than one supply centre in the first year without seriously angering Austria or France, both of whom will become inevitable enemies; Venice’s adjacency to the Austrian home supply centre of Trieste makes the border the most volatile spot on the map in the opening phase, and often sets the stage for a early invasion of one by the other. Richard Sharp, in The Game of Diplomacy, writes in his chapter on the Boot: “In a high-standard game, I would put Italy’s chances of winning at zero, I’m afraid.”

The initial strategy was to ally with Austria, push out from the centre, invade France with England’s assistance and pull a sharp one-eighty eastward. The game turned out to be not quite that simple, due to the unexpected factor of Austria, Germany and Russia not consistently submitting orders. The French invasion – an uncommon opening strategy – was held back due to the uncertainty of Austria and the need to defend Venice, but still succeeded due to a feint that drew France (played by Ross) into a defensive position that forsook expansion into Iberia in Fall 1902, and the good fortune of a missed submission on his part.

With France out of the way, the three most active powers in the game, which also ended up being the last three standing – Italy, England, and Turkey – all benefited from the truancy of the competition. Without the central powers actively expanding, there was little in the way of checks and balances for the first few turns. England marched into Scandinavia and the Lowlands uncontested; Turkey, despite starting a turn late when Josh stepped in to replace a resigning participant, and was clearly in the lead by the end of 1904, but made the fatal mistake of missing a submission when he was entitled to three builds – a gaffe that, along with a failure one year later to practically knock me out of the game when he had the chance, may have compromised a Turkish victory.

Would an Italian victory have been possible in normative circumstances, where every player submitted orders on time every turn? Perhaps so, but it would hardly have come that easily. I got away with a lot of things in that game that, under balanced circumstances, would be next to impossible barring some extremely cunning negotiation tactics. A lot of bad moves on my part went unpunished: aside from leaving Naples wide open for Turkey that one turn, I conducted a risky double-cross against long-term ally England that was next to suicidal; thankfully, an Anglo-Turkish alliance never came into being.

Regardless, it does feel rewarding to pull something off so contrary to the statistical norm, handicaps and all. Right now there is an attempt to set up another Webboard game, this one on a Middle Eastern variant map. While I will not be participating in this round, I encourage you all to sign up. Diplomacy is a game that truly shines with maximal effort and participation.

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Calgary West feels Robbed

Wednesday, 2 June 2004 — 8:39am

I told you I wouldn’t be talking about politics here, so I won’t. Nonetheless, the campaign being mounted by an organization known as Concerned Citizens of Calgary West to oust MP Rob Anders come 28 June is worth not only a mention, but a few honours for being skilfully punny. This is evident on their website and the banners that are going up, which profess to be “Giving Rob Anders the Full Nelson” in reference to his opposition to granting Mandela honourary citzenship. In response to inquiries about why their campaign is so Mandela-centric, I quote: “Because we think that this referendum on Rob, like apartheid, is a black and white issue.”

While the Vote Out Anders! team is busy digging up what they can about Anders’ record – and let’s face it, it’s fairly public, but one can never presume the citizenry is well-informed – there are two things I want to know about him: first, did he really debate in CUSID ten years ago, or was that back when the University of Calgary’s debating clubs were still departmental? Second, while it seems that he plays my second-favourite board game at the Sentry Box, is he any good?

As an aside, I generally avoid talking about my referrer logs as a matter of principle, but since the launch of the campaign yesterday, I have been receiving a surge of hits from people looking for the President of Concerned Citizens of Calgary West, Queen’s political science student Josh Kertzer, due a prior mention of him this post. This can only mean one of two things: either said Concerned Citizens are keeping an eye out for press coverage and Google PageRanks, or Team Anders is desperately trying to dig up some dirt linking him to an opposition party – an accusation that has already been leveled. If the latter is the case, I have some advice: don’t bother (but tell all your friends to visit my blog often and read my movie reviews).

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