From the archives: November 2004

Or, if you'd prefer, return to the most recent posts.

Persia On My Mind

Tuesday, 30 November 2004 — 8:55pm | Film, Full reviews

I never thought I’d be comparing Alexander the Great to Cole Porter and Ray Charles, but here I go.

These three historical figures have more in common than you would immediately suspect, but the most topical of these analogies is that all three have been the subject of recent biographical motion pictures that suffer from what is fundamentally the same problem.

Reading over my review of De-Lovely again, it shocks me just how many of the same criticisms can be applied to both Ray and Alexander. That is not to say that these films are equally compelling; they aren’t, and it is easy to stratify this trifecta on the basis of what they did right or wrong in retelling the struggles of a historical figure. Needless to say, this would make for an interesting comparative study.

Let’s begin with Alexander, as there is more to say.

I want to make it very clear that my verdict on Oliver Stone’s latest, after only one sitting, is that it is in no way an outright bad movie. Nor is its 173-minute running time inherently too long. To think that one could tackle such a subject as Alexander in less than three hours is folly, and is a sign that today’s audiences are either impatient, or just thoroughly spoiled by once-in-a-lifetime masterpieces like the three theatrical-edition instalments of The Lord of the Rings, where three hours apiece simply wasn’t enough. Mind you, I imagine that sitting through the historical epics of yore was an easier task when the intermission served as a pee break, but the element that permits enthralling Overtures and Entr’actes is a composer with the neo-Romantic bombast of Max Steiner or Maurice Jarre. In spite of the fact that his choral theme to 1492: Conquest of Paradise is better remembered than everything else to do with the film combined, Vangelis is not the man for the job. So yes, it’s three hours long. If you can’t take it, learn how to watch a movie.

This is not to say that Alexander doesn’t suffer from pacing problems; it most certainly does. That has less to do with its aggregate length than with the selection and placement of specific problematic scenes, and the storytelling structure as a whole.

Alexander‘s biggest structural problem is Ptolemy. It begins with old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) in Alexandria, reminiscing about the glory days and dictating the story of Alexander to a scribe. The narration becomes an intermittent running commentary throughout the movie, so there is no question about this being a conscious stylistic choice. Well, it was a bad one. This is not to say that voiceovers are necessarily bad or that they never work, but Alexander is a case study in how and why not to use them. The first problem it presents is that far too often, Ptolemy talks and talks about what a legend Alexander was, how his companions will be lost in history whilst he will remain, and what a pity it is that nobody caught on to the great Alexandrian vision earlier. He shouldn’t have to tell us these things. The movie should be the addresser telling, nay, showing the audience that Alexander was great. If that fails, the movie fails. A narrator who goes out of his way to tell the audience how important a movie they are watching is a crutch that only serves as an accessory to that failure.

The second problem with Ptolemy’s narration is its use as a transitional device – or rather, a crutch for non-existent transitions between events that have nothing to do with each other, aside from their featuring that blond-haired guy played by Colin Farrell. We see a major sequence depicting something biographically significant – and when it’s over, we’re back in Alexandria with Ptolemy, where he tells us this happened. And then that happened. And then this happened. And then we get to this other part that, if you can believe our luck, we caught on film. Let’s see it.

This device makes much of Alexander play like a Greatest Hits album where half the songs have no business being there, but are included anyway. It is what Goldman would call “the good parts version,” but unlike The Princess Bride, they selected the wrong parts. The right parts would have something to do with each other, instead of floating in a sea of disconnected scenes.

Bio-pics are a challenge in that if you want to tell someone’s life story, it’s often a matter of crunching several decades into a two- or three-hour span. You need be selective, and you need to create a focused dramatic arc around that selection. Such dramatic arcs do eventually emerge in Alexander, but it takes a while before they materialize in an identifiable form. One would think that Stone and company would have it easy when dealing with a historical figure who only lived to the age of thirty-two, but that is apparently untrue. It’s almost like there was a checklist of essentials to get through; after all, one could not possibly hope to make the definitive Alexander movie without his taming Bucephalus, defeating Darius at Gaugamela, and preferring “both snails and oysters” (to borrow a sexual euphemism from Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal of Crassus in Spartacus). There’s nothing wrong with including them all, but only if they are connected by a cohesive narrative fabric.

By the end of the movie, it becomes easier to perceive exactly what it is Stone and his co-writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis are aiming for, but it still does not excuse the presentation of the overarching themes as being unclear in and of themselves. What Alexander lacks is a sense of causality.

Film is by its very nature a sequential medium. A certain sequence may depict an event in history, but it is defined by the scenes surrounding it just as much as it defines itself. There are few complaints to be had with Stone’s staging of the Battle of Gaugamela – it’s clean, tactical, and documentarian in its elegance. But there is a reason why it cannot be counted in the annals of the great cinematic battles: there’s no buildup.

And by that, I don’t mean the inspirational pre-battle address in the manner of Henry V. Show-stealing battle scenes are a matter of building anticipation, and exceeding it. This applies to the storyline as a whole. In Saving Private Ryan, we enter the re-enactment of D-Day not on the beaches where soldiers fight, but in the boats where soldiers puke. In The Empire Strikes Back, we have both offensive reconaissance and defensive preparations long before Admiral Ozzel ever comes out of hyperspace too close for comfort. In Lawrence of Arabia, we have a whole excursion across the desert that makes the ride into Aqaba all the more cadential. Let’s not even get into The Two Towers and The Return of the King and how they understood this to perfection, but consider the Last Alliance’s battle in The Fellowship of the Ring: no setup but a voiceover narration made for a scene that cannot be considered a dramatic climax by any stretch of the imagination.

In Fellowship, this was excusable because the end of the Second Age was a part of the prologue, and never claimed to be anything more. It was the only all-out army-on-army entanglement in the entire instalment, but one of the least gripping scenes. Alexander tries to do this with Gaugamela, but this is an hour into the movie. The rising action prior to the first wide shot we see of Alexander’s forces marching across the desert consists of Ptolemy telling us that Philip died, Alexander took the throne, and now we’re in Persia. So much for causality. So much for showing us how Alexander got there, or that the battle is at all deserving of the attention it receives.

That’s the main fault that Alexander suffers: things just happen for the sake of having happened in Alexander’s life itself, and not inductively from the premises of earlier scenes. The highlight of Oliver Stone’s career, JFK, got as far as it did not by showing one exhibit after another of disconnected evidence, but in putting the jigsaw puzzle together. As far as assembling jigsaws are concerned, it seems like Stone was trying to pull off a Citizen Kane of a life story without time, but the only thing he retained was a “Rosebud”-like deathbed shot where it is a ring, not a snowglobe, that crashes to the floor.

But that’s negativity aplenty. In spite of it, Alexander has its shining moments. Every now and then, there is an instance of discernible excellence, and one must appreciate the meticulous detail of Stone’s craft and visual imagination. And though it takes far too long and hops from one islet of ideas to the next, the movie eventually finds its footing.

There are essentially five things that Alexander ends up saying about its subject. The first and most successful statement is that Alexander’s motivation and ultimate undoing was an unswerving, quixotic desire to reach the ends of the earth and defy every obstacle in his way. This comes off rather favourably. In the best scene in the movie, Alexander shivers in the blistery cold as he overlooks the neverending panorama of the Himalayan peaks. They are not the seas he expected to find, so he pushes into India until those seas can be found. And as his troops suffer from the attrition of homesickness and fatigue, his authority and grandeur wanes until it is constrained only to himself. Yet he rides on, and the entirety of his personality is encapsulated in the scene when he is finally stopped, where he rides on into the thick of a jungle battle until Bucephalus rears up on his hind legs, dwarfed by an elephant doing the same. It’s an iconic shot, showing us that the only thing that could stop Alexander the Great was facing something greater than himself.

One cannot help but notice the irony of a movie about a character whose tragic downfall comes of overextension, when that movie’s own failing is that it overextends.

The second, third, fourth and fifth things that Alexander says are as follows: Alexander is Herakles, Alexander is Achilles, Alexander is Prometheus, and Alexander is Oedipus. In these respects, the execution is hit-and-miss. It is easy to appreciate minor touches like when Alexander wears a skin like that of the Nemean Lion, or the brief flashes of mythical etchings that he first sees as a youth that tell of the heroes and their violent fates. The Oedipal angle works from the beginning, and Alexander’s relationships with his mother and father make for one of the few lines of true continuity in the piece, although it could be said that perhaps Alexander’s more Freudian desires are explicated with far more in-your-face repetition than necessary. As Prometheus, Alexander delivers his own brand of the fires of creation to the world he shapes, and man as a universal being. His respect for conquered cultures as equals lends itself to this, as does the oft-repeated image of an eagle that equates him with his Persian nemesis Darius and foreshadows his analogous betrayal.

The Achillean angle is what falls flat on its face. Mostly, it involves drawing a parallel between Alexander/Hephaestion and Achilles/Patroclus. (This isn’t Troy, so no, they’re not cousins.) Ignoring for a moment that the usually-better Jared Leto (who plays Hephaestion) is a complete non-presence, Stone never really decides whether or not he’s trying to show the audience that in Alexandrian Greece, homosexuality was a societal norm. Bafflingly, the relationship is treated casually, but at the same time secluded. Troy, at the very least, had the balls to take a stance.

Lest this review degenerate into a replication of the Kerry-Bush rhetoric on gay marriage, let us proceed to a brief rundown of the more cosmetic elements like a good old-fashioned and respectable review that evaluates the film in terms of its components, starting with the actors. Colin Farrell displays the right sort of youthfulness for the titular role, and commands attention whilst on the screen. He has the poise of a boy conqueror whose achievements came too early. Alexander ages well; his younger self, played by Connor Paolo, is the spitting image of Farrell, who ages through an eight-year span quite well on his own terms. Val Kilmer’s performance as Alexander’s father Philip is the best in the film, and arguably the high watermark of Kilmer’s career. Much has been made of Angelina Jolie’s accent in playing his mother Olympias, but it lends to her exoticism in a way that matches her symbolic predilection for snakes. This does not stop her from overplaying the role in other ways that stop this from being recognized as one of her better performances, though it is clearly her most ambitious.

Alexander gets full marks for its visual design. The depiction of Babylon is picturesque, infused with epic grandeur, yet subdued enough that it does not overtake the foreground. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto delivers shots you want to frame, and convinces us that while snow-capped mountains and Subcontinental jungles are familiar sights, every new environment still feels like an explored frontier. There is a scene late in the film where Alexander is injured, and world around him becomes tinted with a swirl of red; it serves a function, but is nothing mindblowing, and will not appease anyone who is already annoyed with the film by that point.

On paper, Greece’s own Vangelis would seem the perfect match to score this movie. After a twelve-year absence from cinema, his return produces mixed results. The sombre, quiet piano melodies work; the synthetic percussion underscoring the bigger scenes ranges from insignificant to grating. This is nothing new, but nothing unexpected for the Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner veteran.

The dialogue is almost exclusively in a high and quasi-poetic register appropriate to the tone of the movie. As detailed above, the screenplay’s problems lie in structure. At the same time, it is clear that Stone lets the visuals carry most of the storytelling burden. Much of the dialogue is but rhetoric; and whenever the movie spotlights the dialogue over the images, as it does in the Ptolemy scenes and the more erotic moments, its weaknesses are bared for everyone to see.

The final verdict on Alexander is that it is neither excellent nor poor, but is a seriously troubled film that wavers between disconnected clumps of greatness and mediocrity. Judging by the vitriol directed towards it from both laypeople and the critical community at large, it is underrated, but not by enough to make it fully satisfying, either.

As an aside, it is curious to see how confused and beleaguered the reaction is to seeing a historical bio-epic position itself in contention for Best Picture in all the early rumour mills, then shoot itself in the foot, only to be shot even further once it’s down. It’s almost like they have no recent point of reference. How quickly we forget Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc starring Milla Jovovich, a movie that was subject to similar circumstances, and another that despite its almost universal panning, I found not half bad, but perhaps flawed (and evidently immemorable). The hostility directed towards Oliver Stone’s first real foray in a genre that most filmmakers dream of doing is likely not so much an indicator of a magnitude of failure, so much as a magnitude of disappointment. And to be honest, it’s not like we didn’t have reason to set our expectations high.

As a second aside, seeing Alexander reminded me of another film that was never made – yet another historical portrait of a thundering conqueror to be written and directed by a auteur-director with whom audiences had a love-hate relationship. Few now recall that Stanley Kubrick’s dream project was to film the life story of one Napoleon Bonaparte, and spent much of his life collecting Napoleonic memorabilia for the sake of research. The film nearly got off the ground in 1969, but the Rod Steiger-starring Waterloo, which nobody remembers, got squarely in his way.

The first time I read Kubrick’s script for Napoleon a few years ago, I remember being somewhat underwhelmed. Now I know why. Had it been made in that form, it would have turned out much like Alexander, in that it is a collage of events unified by an intrusive narrator. Now, screenplays only say so much – most of the storytelling in cinema lies in what you see on screen – but this tells us, at the very least, that to successfully build a cohesive narrative around the life and times of someone larger than both life and time is no small wonder, even for the titans of the industry.

The better biographical motion picture of 2004, Ray, has no narrator, but exhibits the same tendency as both De-Lovely and Alexander in that it is less a portrait of a man than it is a portrait of events, an approach that preserves biography at the expense of drama. The difference is that in Ray, the remaining drama works.

But that’s a different story for another day.

Annotations (1)

Poetry Beam acquired

Tuesday, 30 November 2004 — 3:20pm | Literature, Video games

I already suspected Nintendo had gone completely nuts when I spent an hour or two drawing trampolines on the lower screen of their latest handheld. To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “He no nuts, he’s crazy!”

Further evidence of the company returning to being as delightfully bonkers as it was in the glory days is its Metroid haiku contest. You know the drill – “Five in the first line / Seven in the second line / Five in the last line.” Apparently, the entries are going to be adjudicated by a bona fide black-belt haiku master. Due date: 6 December.

You can never have enough writing competitions, really. Speaking of which, I would like to remind my audience that tips concerning local writers’ circles or workshops are always welcome. And for that matter, chess clubs.

Speaking of chess, here’s a link from a while back that I never posted: for all you Harry Potter fans out there, check out the full, uncut Weasley-McGonagall position as designed for the film of The Philosopher’s Stone, and this accompanying analysis by games expert Jim Geary.

Next: A review of Alexander by someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Annotations (0)

The gift of incredibility

Sunday, 28 November 2004 — 10:15pm | Animation, Film, Full reviews

“They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…”

This is what Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible, laments upon hearing of his son’s impending fourth-grade “graduation” in the best movie I have seen this year, The Incredibles. It speaks volumes.

I am not about to review The Incredibles. To do so would require me to do things like go on and on about composer Michael Giacchino’s throwback to the spy-jazz Bond-film musical textures of John Barry, employ comparisons to Alan Moore’s critique of the superhero’s place in civil society in Watchmen, and point out the subliminal commentary on the state of modern animation in the cameo by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men. There’s too much to say, and there will probably be even more the next time I see the film, as I quite inevitably will.

Instead, I want to begin with a look at something that is an identifying mark of any superhero story: what is it that makes the villain a villain. It doesn’t always come down to motive. Sometimes, the intent of the diabolical mastermind’s scheme demands sympathy; the master plan is meant to serve a noble purpose, but the point at which it becomes reprehensible is the means – say, for example, developing a permanent state of world peace and eliminating Cold War tensions by staging an alien invasion that kills half of New York. Earlier this year I looked at Spider-Man 2, the other “best superhero film ever,” and attributed some of its depth to how Doctor Octopus is driven not by a desire to destroy, but merely to complete his science fair project. The problem lies not in his wants, but in the ethicality of his means.

Sometimes there is a basic philosophical villainy to the motives themselves. Magneto, for instance, is out to destroy all humankind to turn the tables on the system discrimination against mutants. Branching outside the costumed superhero genre for a bit, we sometimes see literature make an open criticism of megalomaniacal technocrats – observe Totenkopf in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or Clement Armstrong in that classic episode of The Avengers, “The Cybernauts.”

Syndrome is easy to pinpoint. He is a reprehensible character not because he developed so potent a weapon as the Omnidroid, but because the personal philosophy behind his ultimate objective is in itself evil.

(Spoilers follow. Please go see The Incredibles if you haven’t done so already. If you have, see it again.)

Something I admire The Incredibles for is its courage in directly and openly attacking one of the most dangerous ideas in recent intellectual history, one that has understandably amassed quite the popularity amongst educators and others. It’s ever so fitting that this is identified in a scene where Helen Parr, Elastigirl, drives her son Dash home from school. “Everybody’s special, Dash,” she says. (“Which is a way of saying no one is,” he grumbles in response.)

The world Syndrome envisions is one where that very notion is true: a world where not only do true superheroes no longer exist, ordinary people artificially emulate their powers. Syndrome’s goal, in a sentence, is to kill off every last superhero so everybody can be super in their place. In short, never, ever put this guy in a room with Magneto.

Far from being purely grounded in fiction, Syndrome’s plot is an extrapolation of what will happen if we let jealousy of the gifted spiral out of control. This mantra – that everybody’s special – has already found its way into much of our society unchallenged. In the past decade or two, one of the most influential sources of educational direction has been the work of one Howard Gardner and his patently tautological theory of multiple intelligences. In a nutshell, what Gardner says is that there is no such thing as a general intelligence; rather, there are several mutually exclusive “intelligences” that apply to everybody in varying permutations. Think about it in terms of Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing games where you redistribute a finite number of stat points between quantifiable character traits like Strength, Wisdom and Charisma.

Over the years, Gardner has added successively ridiculous layers to his model, such as the introduction of an eighth and ninth intelligence for people who are in tune with natural and spiritual issues, respectively. He has also quite successfully convinced educators all over the continent to structure their curricula according to his stratification of interests. The decline of the school as an academic body can be attributed to this trivializing of the classical trivium-quadrivium of the liberal arts in favour of a belief that if some students are academically stunted, that’s perfectly excusable, because we’re sure they have other talents anyway, so let’s diversify our schools so they can be good at something. The corollary of this is that those with a greater capacity for true genius – the gift of creative thought that leads to success in maths, music, Scrabble or what have you – are no longer more talented in a comparative, relative sense. And without relative greatness, there is no greatness at all.

When educational policies follow Gardner’s principles, curricula diversify to the point where vertical progression is no longer possible. School then no longer has any value aside from its role as a social incubator. By diminishing the focus on academics, we excuse illiteracy and similar deficiencies, and the impact ripples up as students are handed unearned diplomas every year. The one system under which accelerated progress can happen is in a system like what is promoted by gifted education programs, where learning is geared towards the needs of an individual in order to deliver him or her from the constraints of a severely limited academic experience.

But these programs rely first and foremost on a belief in giftedness, and it is precisely the belief that they should be universally accommodating that is destroying them from the inside. Special programs constantly subject themselves to the threat of overexpansion; complicit in it are schools that are all too willing to offer them to bargain for funding, ignoring how not that many students are gifted – and as for those who are, they are exactly the students in the most need of those “smaller class sizes” for which so many agree is a good thing.

Thanks to The Incredibles, we finally have a message in the mass media telling us straight up what we should have realized long ago: it’s ideas like a universal equality of talent that have shaped us into a culture that disrespects its heroes. We should not deny that some people are inherently special, nor should we justify such a denial with a claim that they are flawed in some trivial ways we are not.

It all reminds me of one of Douglas Adams’ essays published in the posthumous anthology The Salmon of Doubt, where he criticizes the tired old joke that they should build airplanes out of the same indestructible material as black boxes. His message: if a scientist knows better than you, don’t make fun of him. Adams goes on to exalt the likes of the Monty Python troupe for using their humour to celebrate a grasp of multiple languages, music, literature and everything we commonly identify as the cultural properties of the intelligentsia, no matter what Gardner says.

Now, what values does The Incredibles promote?

Well, more than one pundit has tossed Ayn Rand’s name into the ring. The essence of the argument identifies the moral of the story as a plea to respect the talents of your betters. (And when Mr. Incredible lifts the Omnidroid v8.0, does Atlas shrug or what?) While that is an admirable statement, The Incredibles is a lot more than just that. Mr. Incredible may be super, and that’s why the society he lives in pins him down, but that’s not what makes him a hero. What makes him a hero is how he uses his powers to do the right thing. Moreover, he feels a responsibility for doing the right thing just because he can; and he does so not in any way at the expense of ordinary folks, helping out the little old ladies who don’t have the super powers of outwitting a bureaucratic insurance agency.

The irony is that at first glance, perhaps Syndrome isn’t all that different. He has a natural gift to call his own, that of technological innovation – just take one look at the rocket boots he invents as a kid. He, too, is interested in the deliverance of those he identifies as his peers. Syndrome is a superhero of the Bruce Wayne variety, but he lacks two things: first, the insight to recognize his gift, which he forsakes or ignores in order to identify with the common people; and second, the moral character to use that power for good. His goal is to destroy his betters; his error is a presumption that he speaks for those he considers his kin. In the end, it is in fact Mr. Incredible – the one with the inherent biological speciality of super strength, as soon as he loses a few pounds – who truly acts in the interests of those who are unable to help themselves.

It’s compelling that for all the talk about Mr. Incredible as a Randian hero, to put it in Marvel Comics terms, he’s a Xavier, not a Magneto. Xavier, if you’ll notice, is an educator who promotes co-existence, and cites the respect of aberrant talents as a pre-requisite. Magneto seeks to destroy those by whom his talents are maligned. That’s the difference, and that’s what gives The Incredibles its admirable value system.

The ultimate betrayal of our heroes is when we cease to recognize their heroics. Even worse is when such an environment puts them in the position of ceasing to recognize themselves as special. If we go down that path, celebrating mediocrity is all we’ll ever do.

Annotations (2)

House of Flying Bloggers

Wednesday, 24 November 2004 — 10:29pm | Film

Earlier tonight I informed one of my regular readers that a sharp rise in the quantity of academic responsibilities on my shoulders this week is to be held responsible for the dearth of updates to this website. His reply: “That’s no excuse! You have legions of fans to cater to.”

Okay, so maybe he’s right.

One thing is certain – the sparsity of posts this month is not because there is little to write home about. In the past week I have gone for another ride on the thrill that is The Incredibles, seen The Polar Express (but regrettably, not in full IMAX 3D), finished Tales of Symphonia (logging just over fifty hours, leaving most of the side-quests incomplete), and spent countless hours on the new Super Mario 64 DS.

By the time I actually have a chance to sit down and discuss all of these at length, I will probably have added Oliver Stone’s Alexander to the pile. I would like to say that I will also see the Bollywood megahit Veer Zaara sometime in the near future, but it is currently only playing at the Gateway 8 Famous Players in Edmonton, and finding transportation there is less than convenient. Apparently, three-hour-long Hindi musicals do not constitute the most popular genre around here. It’s a shame, really.

I have now sat through The Incredibles twice, but only twice. From experience, two screenings is never enough for a Pixar feature to truly sink in, as all of them are so meticulously constructed from end to end that the unity of the entire piece only begins to reveal itself once every scene can be reflected upon in reference to the rest of the film.

And yet no matter how many times you see it, some things will always be mysteries. That’s the power of narrative ambiguity in small, teasing doses. (There’s a terrific Irvin Kershner quotation to that effect in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays in reference to The Empire Strikes Back.) Just how did Gazerbeam come upon the password to Syndrome’s Cerebro-esque megacomputer, anyway?

There is honestly too much to say about the movie, and for the benefit of a truly insightful post, I implore my readership to show a little patience. I will note, however, that the first thing I intend to discuss is the matter of what The Incredibles says about education reform.

I have a lot to say about The Polar Express as well, but I feel I may be doing it an injustice if I review it without having seen the IMAX 3D version. At the same time, I am not sure I want to sit through it a second time – not because it’s a bad film, but because much of it initially comes off as a one-time affair.

I also have a terrible confession to make. I have not seen Hero. Zhang Yimou’s followup project, House of Flying Daggers, is almost out in North America – 3 December, I believe – and yet I have not seen Hero. As a martial arts film aficionado who knows his Wong Fei-Hung from his Fong Sai-Yuk (both of whom were famously played by Jet Li in his prime, and with identical late-nineteenth-century hairstyles to boot), this is more than a bit shameful.

There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. The first is that although I have been in possession of an import DVD of Hero for well over a year – some may recall that the film was even in contention in the Foreign Film category at the 2003 Oscars – it has no English subtitles. As the film is in Mandarin, this is a problem. The second is that Miramax handled the North American distribution, which – considering their record with Shaolin Soccer – immediately raised some red flags.

Now, I heard some very positive things about how for once, Miramax did not completely butcher the film, and left it almost entirely intact, a few misjudged subtitles aside. By the time people got around to telling me this back in late August, I was too busy fawning over Garden State to notice; Hero was removed from theatrical distribution shortly after, with the exception of a few inaccessible second-run houses.

And apparently, the Region 1 DVD transfer sucks. I may have to rent it anyhow.

Thankfully, House of Flying Daggers is being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. My Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon says that they know how to release the best of Asian cinema and turn it into a Stateside hit.

There are really only two basic rules to follow when releasing a foreign film. 1) Don’t leave out a single frame; 2) Always subtitle. Never dub.

Crouching Tiger followed the First and Second Laws, made a ton of cash, revitalized North American interest in Asian cinema, and was nominated for ten Oscars. Quod erat demonstratum.

It’s amazing how many people don’t get this. I never managed to see Spirited Away, one of the finest animated features in modern history, until its DVD release. Why? Because when it was in theatres, it was dubbed in English. Apparently, some people are under the impression that if it’s animated, you’re allowed to do this, because you don’t have to worry about bad lip-sync. I have news for you: you’re not.

Speaking of things that come from Japan – briefly for now, on the subject of the Nintendo DS: Get one. I am in dire need of a Metroid Prime: Hunters sparring partner. Well, maybe not that dire, given how much amusement one is able to derive from the unlockable minigames bundled with Super Mario 64. But as is the case with The Incredibles, doing this subject justice requires more words than I have at my disposal at the moment.

Annotations (1)

As zambonis sweep the defective ice of Toshiba

Wednesday, 17 November 2004 — 11:25pm | Adaptations, Debate, Film

Call this a transitory intermission. The original intention was that the next post in line would be one of a series on The Incredibles, but circumstances of all creeds have united to prevent me from carrying it out. The number of aborted attempts to update this blog over the past week is now up to at least three, each due to a different technical issue. Here, then, is one of those catch-all posts to affirm that my complete umbilical detachment from cyberspace has thankfully been met with limited success.

October civic election candidate Jung-Suk Ryu is, according to his campaign website (which is due to be phased out at some point in the future, the same future in which DemocracyNow might finally publish The Independent), “an award-winning public speaker that has won national awards at the high-school and university levels. He has won awards in Mock Trials competitions, Model Legislature competitions, and parliamentary-style debates.”

Next time he runs for office, that claim will have a touch more substantiation. Last weekend I debated alongside Mr. Ryu at the Hugill Cup, the U of A Debate Society‘s annual British Parliamentary (Worlds Style) tournament, and we sneaked into the semi-finals after a grueling comeback involving consecutive first-place victories that catapulted us from the bins to the break. He now has an engraved silver plate to show for it. That said, we were doing just fine until we tried to convince the house that the World Health Organization should quarantine countries that are unwilling to isolate their own epidemics. See, they can’t actually do that.

In movie news, Tom Hanks may be playing Robert Langdon in Ron Howard’s adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, the book I find the most enjoyment in subjecting to relentless mockery (though Geoff Pullum does it better, much better). Mr. Hanks is, in my mind, one of the finest thespians of this generation of cinema, but even someone of his talent has quite the challenge ahead of him. Even by airport pop-lit standards, Langdon is one of the most thoroughly boring characters I have had the misfortune to encounter. All he does is wear a tweed suit and a Mickey Mouse watch, freeze time in the heat of the action to deliver extemporaneous lectures on the ubiquity of the sacred feminine, and convulse in a claustrophobic shiver whenever it be convenient to remind the audience of his dislike of confined spaces (in the book, this comes to about twice). As a protagonist, he is as dull as the flat-ended prism of a fresh, unsharpened pencil.

Regardless, it still remains interesting to see what the Howard-Hanks collaboration does with a book that has always struck me as more of a first-draft screenplay treatment than a standalone work of literature. After all, this is the same duo that took Jim Lovell’s autobiography and transformed it into a Best Picture winner of a gripping docu-drama where Houston, they had a problem. With the right visual liberties, even the intellectual vacuity of something as dry as Dan Brown can be infused with substance.

Those of you who care have probably already seen the new Phantom trailer, and perhaps this “Angel of Music” clip. In brief, I like what I’m seeing – lavish sets, colourful and dynamic photography, traditional orchestration, that restorative transition from the auction to the opera house at the height of its glory. Speaking of which, seeing the chandelier light up and rise as the whole establishment goes back in time makes me wonder about the extent to which these elements characteristic of the stage setting of the Broadway original will be preserved.

One of the things that had to grow on me with respect to the otherwise wonderful Chicago was that it surprised me with how like its cousin Cabaret, it relegated the musical numbers to the stage, and distilled the showtunes from the narrative reality itself. Phantom isn’t doing this, which is good, because I can’t stress enough how much this needs to be a self-contained period epic like Oliver! or Fiddler on the Roof in order to work. So far, so good, but the chandelier is that dangling question mark just waiting to drop on our heads.

Ever-reliable David Poland is already calling Phantom 2004’s Oscar champ – as it well should be, if it does justice to its source material. That’s not to downplay my anticipation for both Alexander and The Aviator, though – or, for that matter, my admiration for The Incredibles. Oscar-wise, though, don’t count on The Incredibles to pull a Beauty and the Beast. It didn’t happen to Nemo (curse you, aqua scum!), and it won’t happen here.

I am seriously thinking about submitting a paper for The Witching Hour, a Harry Potter symposium taking place in Salem, Massachusetts next October. That time of the year tends to conflict with the Western Canadian Scrabble Championship (speaking of which, I heard Dan Lazin’s story finally ran in the Post; please confirm or deny), and to a lesser extent, school. It’s a pity that to my knowledge, there is nothing next year akin to Convention Alley which was held in Ottawa in the summer – perfect for me in any other year, though I had to miss it on account of New Orleans.

My Nintendo DS is now on pre-order, to be picked up on Sunday. More on that when I get my grubby hands on it.

Oh, and if anyone from CompuSmart reads this – get your act together and hurry up already.

Annotations (0)

A Link to the Past (older posts) »