From the archives: July 2004

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For lonely nights in cyberspace

Thursday, 29 July 2004 — 1:52pm

I was making a few changes to the CSS code on this site in preparation for something big I’m cooking up for next week, when I realized that I had not done anything with the template-switching feature since I introduced it back in May. Back then I treated it as a nifty little gimmick to repaint the site in seafood-restaurant tones whenever I got sick of the default coffee colours, but never did anything with it that would warrant being called a full redesign.

A dash of technical wizardry ensued, and at long last, I present a third ‘Décor’ link to the right – one that I liked so much, I’ve set it as the default skin that first-time readers and those on public lab machines will encounter; if you miss the old look, it remains available. With a more nocturnal feel, sans-serif typefaces (for those of you who are into that kind of thing) and a cute little martini glass in the title image, all it’s missing is the muted wailing trumpet of Miles Davis.

This is still not a full redesign in that it is still constrained to the same tabular layout, and until I get a table-free, standards-compliant stylesheet nearly indistinguishable from the current setup, I won’t be pulling a Zen Garden anytime soon. Nonetheless, enjoy the new face of Nick’s Café Canadien – and there’s more where that came from.

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Pom-Pom likes the Single Deuce

Wednesday, 28 July 2004 — 2:23pm | Video games

The Nintendo DS has a brand new look – and compared to the one revealed back in May, the form factor is sleeker in a curvaceous, aerodynamic way. Plus, I can put aside fears of Nintendo, say, forgetting to include a slot for the stylus and magnifying the warranty service nightmare they are boldly trying to avoid. I like the new shape; whereas the last one was a rounded rectangular prism that could slip around in your sweaty fingers, this one invites a firmer grip with its intrusions and extrusions. In the initial photographs, the black and silver make for a somewhat awkward contrast, and I will likely want the machine in prettier colours (or even a retro design like the NES-style Game Boy Advance SP); purple, mayhaps?

Also, the Nintendo DS will not be renamed prior to release, which is a good sign. To change it at this stage when it has already established itself as a brand name to which the gaming public is accustomed would be folly, unless they had something really nifty-sounding in mind, like the Double Deuce.

On the software end of things, Square Enix has been sending out polling cards concerning what games to port or update for a DS release. To me, this is a no-brainer: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI (III in North America) and the curiously unlisted Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Imagine playing these games with maps and status screens put on a separate display, not to mention all the speech and battle status boxes that cover half the picture and in Chrono Trigger‘s case, even block enemies from your field of vision. Also: Square, you’re developing for a Nintendo system. Everybody in that consumer demographic wants Super Mario RPG back, especially with its descendants (Mario & Luigi and the upcoming Paper Mario 2) bringing the Mario-themed role-player back in vogue for a new generation. To understate things, porting SNES-era RPGs and leaving this one out would be a bit of an oversight.

The DS itself is looking pretty solid at this stage, even though we have yet to see a retail price. But given that its projected release is within the next four months, and Nintendo absolutely must get the unit shipped before Christmas to get a jump on Sony, it is disconcerting how little we have heard about the software to be available at launch since the E3 unveiling. We are getting Animal Crossing DS at launch, right?

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It could have been De-Lovelier

Wednesday, 28 July 2004 — 10:53am | Film, Full reviews

Irwin Winkler’s De-Lovely beckons one to draw comparisons to a very odd assortment of movies, a selection where “Anything Goes”. Begrudgingly and with an asterisk or two along for the ride, it can be described as a conventional bio-pic about the life of the legendary songwriter Cole Porter, not dissimilar to the post-Casablanca movie musicals of Michael Curtiz such as I’ll See You In My Dreams (a straightforward look at the rise and fall of Gus Kahn starring Danny Thomas and Doris Day) and Night and Day (a sensationalized portrait of Mr. Porter to which De-Lovely makes some reference). Amidst its traditional aesthetics, cinematography and story structure a part of it wants to be more; it takes the straightforward biography and frames it as sometimes a stage musical, sometimes a film that an older, reflective Cole Porter watches and criticizes whilst sitting beside its director, played by Jonathan Pryce. Here we are reminded of the real-life Harvey Pekar observing his filmed biography, last year’s splendiferous American Splendor, right there in the movie itself; that’s what De-Lovely intermittently tries to be, but it falls a ways short. Where it most excels is in its main selling point, the performances of many Cole Porter favourites embedded within – and even there, it’s no Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

De-Lovely is not at all a bad film, but the recurring theme in this review is that it sets its own ambitions, and thus the expectations of the audience, at a standard too high for itself to achieve. You can imagine the pitch: a postmodern arthouse Cole Porter musical biography featuring cameos by contemporary recording artists, period costumes designed by Giorgio Armani, and a cutting look at repressed homosexuality in the underground of the forties! Looks like an Oscar-sweeping formula, doesn’t it? Even when you compartmentalize the work into its components, everything looks praiseworthy; replacing Night and Day‘s Cary Grant and Alexis Smith as Cole and Linda Lee Porter are Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, who both look and feel the parts as they age decades together over the course of the piece. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts paints a moving picture of the exquisite sets and period aesthetics with a vibrant colour palette that exudes a constant sense of warmth. The music is a guaranteed seal of quality from the get-go. Look at this movie in snippets, and (as the song goes) it’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely.

Then the audience actually sees the film in its entirety, and a major problem surfaces: the screenplay. The culprit is not the dialogue itself, which is likable if never quotable, but structure. De-Lovely runs for a standard 125 minutes, but feels a lot longer because of a lack of narrative drive. Instead of delineating conflict-resolution patterns into plot threads that guide the audience from one scene to the next, Cole Porter’s story is told in clumps of singular moods and events like a biography of the dullest sort: one that retells, but does not synthesize, and thus has very little to say about its subject. Sure, we have some resurfacing character dynamics, like how Linda manages to stand back and ignore Cole’s latent homosexuality, but these would be more aptly labeled character statics – descriptions of traits rather than evolutions of personality. Conflict isn’t conflict if it sits around and never goes anywhere.

In the end, the whole experience is a lot like flipping through a photo album, only in true Harry Potter fashion, the photos move. This is the part where Cole meets Linda Lee. This is the part where Cole goes to MGM and starts writing songs for movies. This is the part where Kiss Me, Kate opens and brings down the house. It’s all fine and good until you realize that you are flipping through said album for two hours, all the while not knowing how far you are from the last page.

As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Somebody in the De-Lovely process should really read up on his Hitchcock, because the dry spells between musical numbers and performances could use some serious trimming. Given that the highlight of his resumé the similarly problematic Gangs of New York, that somebody is probably screenwriter Jay Cocks.

But aside from the major annoyance that it is just plain hard to sit through, De-Lovely is a great movie. Kevin Kline’s starring performance is arguably a career best. He plays, nay, becomes Cole Porter young and old, and both with a convincing sense of humanity. When committing his latest hit-song-in-the-making to the piano, he sings along with a subdued, only marginally in-tune voice true to the form of a composer who writes with the knowledge that his work is to be bestowed upon a more talented performer to come. In the theatrical dreamland of De-Lovely, these talented performers include the likes of Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Robbie Williams and Natalie Cole; even Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow do not seem out of place.

In spite of all of the screenplay’s difficulties in negotiating the gulfs between one chapter of the story and the next, the visual handling of transitions from scene to scene is something to be admired – particularly the segues back and forth between the Chicago-esque onstage sub-universe and the empty rehearsal hall where the old Cole Porter sits beside the Jonathan Pryce character, like an invisible Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Sometimes, a roaring musical number will disassemble its periphery like a fading reverie; at one point, the camera pulls out of a vintage film to reveal the darkened theatre once again, similar to the device employed in Moulin Rouge! as the curtain falls on the final shot of Toulouse-Lautrec singing “Nature Boy”. Seamless pans and rotations take us from the composer at work or an actor in rehearsal to a full performance; best of all, this display of technical prowess is subtle, and fits in so comfortably that it may easily go unnoticed. These spurts of dynamism are hidden further by the fact that within the scenes themselves, De-Lovely is very traditional, and the camera tends to sit around. It is no surprise that in one brief sequence shot in monochrome, there are few hints that this movie was not made decades ago, as its vintage feel is quite authentic.

With glorious production values and a songbook more than capable of carrying much of everything else on its back, De-Lovely is a lot better in parts than it is as a whole. As social commentary on buried matters of sexual orientation in decades past (which, to be fair, it never makes that big a stab at being), it is far from Far From Heaven. The screen story is a scatterplot of independent scenarios with few connections, and therefore little narrative drive. This tale of the man who wrote “You’re the Top” is a lot closer to the middle of the pack.

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I still prefer The Passion of the Jedi

Sunday, 25 July 2004 — 7:45pm | Film, Star Wars

It just so happens that the one weekend I go camping in the Rockies, I miss a monumental piece of news:

Special Announcement: Episode III Title is pleased to announce that Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith is the full title of the next Star Wars film, scheduled for release on May 19, 2005.

The Sith are masters of the dark side of the Force and the sworn enemies of the Jedi. They were all but exterminated by the Jedi a thousand years ago, but the evil order continued in secrecy. They operated quietly, behind the scenes, acting in pairs – a Master and an Apprentice – patiently biding their time before they could take over the galaxy. In Episode III, they’ll finally exact their revenge on the Jedi.

The title was publicly revealed today in a special presentation to a packed audience of Star Wars fans at Comic-Con International in San Diego, California. “For some time now, the naming of a new Star Wars movie has taken on some special meaning among core fans, who love to take part in guessing games before a title is announced, and then engage in debate once it is,” said Steve Sansweet, Director of Content Management and Head of Fan Relations for Lucasfilm. “Let the debates begin.”

Coincidence or not, I first got into watching, writing about, living and breathing cinema at around the same time as the year or two leading up to The Phantom Menace. Until that first title was announced in late September 1998, the fans thought they knew it all; it was going to be Balance of the Force, Rise of the Empire and Revenge of the Sith. Nobody told them so – it was just one of those memetic phenomena that everybody just assumed. So The Phantom Menace came as a bit of a surprise, and created a temporary divide that would foreshadow a more permanent one to come – a rift between those outraged that George Lucas had not pandered to their collective expectations, and those more accepting of novelty who rationalized the merits. Attack of the Clones faced the same thing, only by the time of its release, the hostilities were already firmly cemented.

This time around, the camp better known to laypersons and the media at large – the complainants still aghast that Lucas isn’t adhering to their vision of a saga set in a universe of his own imagination – have nothing to complain about. Revenge of the Sith is what they always wanted, and if anybody wishes to contest that, I will gladly provide links to title speculation threads on any selection of Star Wars discussion forum on the Internet, including those I have never visited. I guarantee you that every one of them guessed this one. Not that I agreed, necessarily – I always preferred Duel of the Fates, which was the very appropriate name of John Williams’ thunderous choral track in the Phantom score, or alternatively, The Passion of the Christ. Think about it.

Of course, expectations are secondary to what works in the final product. Does Revenge of the Sith work, in the storytelling sense? You bet it does.

Return of the Jedi is the best Star Wars title for a number of reasons, the paramount of which is that it has a triple meaning, just as Star Wars is really three parallel stories that cross at six catastrophic turning points. For the sake of discussion, let us refer to them as the Metaphysical, Political and Individual. The Metaphysical story is the tale of how the balance of the Force sees disruption and restoration, demarcated by the resurgence and vanquishment of the Dark Side, corporeally embodied by the Sith Lords. The Political story is the conflict introduced by the rise of the Galactic Empire as the Republic crumbles beneath its feet, only to be thwarted by the restorative Rebel Alliance. The Individual story deals with two individuals, really – on one hand, the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker; on the other, the role of his son Luke in facilitating the latter, something I discussed in depth last Father’s Day. Return of the Jedi, the title, means three different things: the return of the Jedi Order with the induction of Luke Skywalker as he overcomes his last trial (Metaphysical); the return of the Jedi Anakin Skywalker from the Dark Side (Individual); and most overtly, Luke’s own return to the surface of the narrative as he accompanies the Rebel Alliance to Endor (the eye of the Political storm).

Popular legends tell of how prior to Jedi‘s release, the title was announced as Revenge of the Jedi to thwart bootleggers, only the ruse fooled distributor Twentieth Century Fox itself, resulting in some of the most coveted merchandise items on the Star Wars auction block. The Episode III title is a neat homage to that particular debacle. Revenge, of course, is quite contrary to the doctrines that guide a Jedi, something never specifically named and often crudely referred to as the “Light Side” out of ease.

But the Sith, on the other hand – to them, the employment of revenge is quite different, in that it is not only acceptable as a motive, but encouraged. Now, I must hastily tack on a quick disclaimer that I have not read anything pertaining to the plot points in Revenge of the Sith, and the execution of what we all know must happen, but it is already easy to see – by method of interpolating the events that must link Episodes II and IV – that it contains the three-story structure. Like “Jedi” in Return of the Jedi, “Sith” in Revenge of the Sith can be either singular or plural. It fits neatly into all three major narrative threads. The upheaval that marks the transition from Republic to Empire is an exactment of revenge against the political structure that thrived for a thousand years on the banishment of the Sith Order, or so it is implied. At a greater level is the spiritual motive to vanquish the decrepit stabilizing force that is the Jedi and deliver the galaxy to the Dark Side of the Force. Then we have Anakin Skywalker, who emerges as the Sith Lord Darth Vader – and the groundwork has been laid for his own vengeful intentions, in line with what we already know about his demeanour; observe the massacre of the Tusken camp in Clones, or the seeds of hatred in his personal conflicts with Count Dooku and in a whole other way, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Given that we know how the story ultimately ends, Revenge of the Jedi does not breed the same level of speculation as something ominous like Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. (Tangential observation: Anakin Skywalker is a half blood prince in his own right… hmm.) The title is something to which it is quite easy to be accustomed, and in terms of tone and word choice, fits the Star Wars saga like a glove – “Revenge”, aside from being a dish served cold (in the words of another franchise), is a compatible neighbour with the likes of “Menace”, “Attack”, “Strikes” – words that comprise titles of chapters where on one level or another, the bad guys win. Come May we will know not only the full significance of the title, but possess the last pieces of a grand thirty-year puzzle. Being of that oft-overlooked demographic that saw the Prequels and left the cinema as a satisfied customer, I can hardly wait.

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Doing it on the tiles

Friday, 23 July 2004 — 12:54pm | Scrabble

Last night I was at the receiving end of a loophole in the Scrabble Tournament Rules, one that I had known about for a long time but had never personally observed. It comes from a unique situation where you can exploit the overtime penalty of ten points deducted for every minute over, rounded up, and the stalemate rule that six consecutive turns with a score of zero result in a draw.

So there I am with an unplayable Q on my rack and “00:00:00” on my clock. If my opponent plays his remaining tiles, the game ends, the clock is neutralized and he gets a twenty-point bonus off my Q. But alas, my opponent is Jason Krueger (who, it was observed, may be the bastard child of two classic movie monsters) – and what he does is not only crafty, but perfectly legal.

“I just wanted to warn you,” he says, “that I’m going to be a jerk.” As his clock keeps ticking – he has about three minutes left – he explains his diabolical plan in true James Bond tradition: because regardless of whether or not any legal moves remain, it takes three consecutive passes by both players to end the game, he was going to pass two of those three turns – pushing me a second into overtime, and knocking me down by ten points. Only then would he play off his tiles and bring the match to its conclusion. It was quite courteous of him to notify me beforehand, really – pull that off without warning in front of a stressed and antsy player who hasn’t read the fine print, and you can bet on some rising tension in the room.

Combined with the Q, that boosts his point spread by thirty. He already had the game in the bag, so in the context of a single game, the move was inconsequential; but in a tournament setting where win-loss ties are broken by cumulative spread, it could make all the difference.

Roger Ebert, whether you agree with him or not, is always an entertaining read. In his three-star review of the Scrabble documentary Word Wars, he says of the rack-and-tile subculture:

Scrabble is one way to kill time. I can think of better ways to pass obsessive, lonely, anti-social lives; a documentary named Cinemania is about people who literally attempt to spend every waking hour watching movies, seven days a week. At least they get to see the movies. After a Scrabble player has triumphantly played a word that contains Q without U, where does he go from there? How long can you treasure that memory?

Actually, QAT is the most-played word in the game at the tournament level, and the list of words containing Q but not U (which, incidentally, is sold as a T-shirt) is one of the first thing a player learns. The first ‘bingo’, a play using all seven tiles – now that’s a milestone. Then you have the first game over 500, or in very rare cases, 600; I have yet to surmount the latter myself.

Then you have the guys who memorize the entire dictionary. They are in a class of their own.

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