From the archives: February 2005

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Viewty and the Beast

Monday, 28 February 2005 — 8:39pm | Film, Oscars, Video games

So, how did I do for predictions? Passing on the two Documentary awards leaves 22 categories, of which I managed to guess 15; curiously, I underestimated The Aviator in the technical categories, yet I incorrectly pegged it for Best Picture. In the eight “majors” (Picture, Director, acting and screenplays) I got everything but Picture and to some extent Supporting Actor, though I was definitely fence-sitting when it came to Owen and Freeman.

In retrospect, as much as I enjoyed Million Dollar Baby, I do stand disappointed that Scorsese and The Aviator did not take home the top two. Once again, the Academy went for the safe, perhaps even slightly compensatory choice. Honestly, what does Martin Scorsese have to do to win an Oscar? But then one thinks of the usual stable of examples – Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock – and quite frankly, this is the Academy’s loss.

The best acceptance speech of the evening was, without question, Jorge Drexler singing after winning for “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” – a deserving winner.

Film clips were by and large absent, and nowhere was this more noticeable than in the Animated Short category. Chris Landreth had to accept his award in the aisle instead of onstage, and I wonder if some technical budgets were slashed this year. Speaking of which, it has come to my attention that the National Film Board has Ryan available on its website for viewing online. Take fifteen minutes out of your busy schedule and watch it.

And that closes the book on 2004, minus any straggling films I did not catch, of which the most notable is Hotel Rwanda. But given that March consists of exactly one and only one new release that strikes me as interesting – Robots – I have plenty of time.

I want to discuss Oscars of a different sort: the Rainbow Oscars that are the centrepiece of the wacky film-spoofing video game Viewtiful Joe 2. Well, not the Rainbow Oscars themselves, but what you need to do to get them; as with most video games, it involves the systematic defeating of what a Campbellian mythologist would call “threshold guardians” – in vulgar terms, bosses.

The original Viewtiful Joe was, in terms of a niche GameCube action title that was somehow enough of a sleeper hit to be named the best game of 2003 by USA Today, legendary in many ways. As a 2D side-scrolling anime-styled beat-em-up in a market favouring photorealistic 3D environments, it was a daring and unique blend of old-school values and modern technology. What really made it stand out, though, was its rogue’s gallery. If I were to name the most exhilirating, albeit frustrating boss battles of the past five years, Viewtiful Joe would claim at least three of them.

One of the toughest challenges in the original Joe was the sixth chapter of seven, “The Magnificent Five.” Basically, it was a slap in the face of anyone who might have emerged from the first few boss battles scathed, but self-satisfied. This chapter pitted you against the Raging Stones, tougher versions of the first four bosses in the game in back-to-back succession with no saving or powering up in between. Not only did you have to beat them all over again, you had to do it cleanly and without taking a whole lot of pain, or start from the very beginning. Then you were rewarded with a duel against none other than Fire Leo, a nine-foot flaming beast in a volcanic cavern, who had a tendency to dispose of you in about ten seconds until you figured out how to exploit his weakness, after which he would dispose of you in the more gracious span of two minutes. On the standard Adults difficulty, Fire Leo dragged me to the “Game Over” screen kicking and screaming no less than thirty times. He gave my delicate piano hands cramps.

Viewtiful Joe 2 is in many ways as great a game as the original, boasting a selection of bosses that have a lot more personality – the squid-like mad scientist Dr. Cranken, for example, or Fire Leo’s brother Frost Tiger, a cool-as-ice samurai who punctuates his entrance with lyric poetry in the style of Basho. (The exception to the rule is the rocket-powered Egyptian sphinx Flinty Stone, who spends half his showdown asleep.) It also has a similar sixth chapter where you fight your way through iterations of four earlier bosses that move faster and take a lot more punishment before yielding. The problem is that the sequel, unlike its predecessor, is merciful; you get a chance to save and heal between every battle, which turns the entire exercise into a purely temporal endurance test as opposed to an attritional one. This is Viewtiful Joe, for crying out loud! I expect to be punished. Every point of damage should strike terror in my heart.

I should note that this is one of the few irritations in an otherwise phenomenal game that was sadly ignored when it was released in November (thanks to the blitz of Halo 2, Metroid Prime: Echoes, Half-Life 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and World of Warcraft), but I do find it a concern when such a fast-paced game repeats itself for such a long stretch. Really, though, if you have a GameCube, there is absolutely no excuse to not have the two Viewtiful Joe titles in your collection.

Still to come: a preview of film in what looks to be a busy 2005, and Students’ Union election coverage in tandem with the campaign season kickoff this morning. Disappointingly, both Katz and Bazin pulled out, leaving the Presidential race as the only one of interest.

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A last-minute Oscarnalysis

Sunday, 27 February 2005 — 2:04pm | Film, Oscars

I will preface this with that rare, hard-earned endorsement of a fellow blog; several in the immediate University of Alberta circle popped up earlier this week. There are few that completely win me over as a regular reader within the first two or three posts, but Lycée Stephen Potyondi is one of them. Now give the guy an audience as a sign of positive reinforcement so I don’t have to wait another month for his next substantial post.

As was the case last year, I will now proceed to offer my eleventh-hour endorsements and commentary on the golden statuettes to be awarded tonight.

Actor (Leading): Incredibly, Paul Giamatti got screwed out of a nomination for the second year in a row. Even judging only by American Splendor and Sideways, he has already established himself as the best everyman actor since the pre-superstardom Tom Hanks. The Academy has also always been loath to recognize Jim Carrey, even though Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine was probably his most engaging role since The Truman Show seven years ago. No matter; this year, the award should and will go to Jamie Foxx. His portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray was not just the most compelling performance of 2004 – it’s one that only comes about once every few years.

Actor (Supporting): Of the final selection, my personal preference is for Thomas Haden Church for his embodiment of testosterone gone awry in Sideways. Pundits are calling this a race between Clive Owen for Closer and Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby; I did not see the former, and as for the latter, I think while Freeman portrayed a very interesting character, it was as much a typical Morgan Freeman performance much like how Clint Eastwood pulled off a typical aging post-Unforgiven Eastwood performance. It was very, very good, mind you, but almost a bit too constrained within the typical Freeman mould. On statistical grounds I predict Owen, but Freeman could take it just as easily.

Actress (Leading): Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby. Case closed, though an Eternal Sunshine upset by Kate Winslet would be awesome. It won’t happen, though, and given that I consider Swank’s performance in Baby to be worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great movie boxers, this is hardly problematic. I did not see Vera Drake, but word is that Imelda Staunton is the closest in contention.

Actress (Supporting): Please, please, please give it to Cate Blanchett for being as perfect a Katharine Hepburn as you could imagine (aside from the distinctive Blanchett look) in The Aviator.

Animated Feature Film: What’s the thoroughly mediocre Shark Tale doing here instead of The Polar Express, which – while entirely a surface-level visual experience and not that great of a narrative – was, well, not irritating? As for the win, I think it’s pretty obvious where I stand. Shrek 2‘s box-office clout is the only worry here, but I find that Pixar will win the day this year whereas it did not with Monsters, Inc. back in 2001.

Art Direction: This category presents an incredible lineup, and one hardly notices that missing in action are Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and, more significantly, The Incredibles. I have never quite understood why animated films get no recognition here, but that may be partly because this prize rewards set construction just as much as it does concept art. As much as I love the lavish opera house in The Phantom of the Opera, I seriously think this should and will go to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I never posted a complete review of that film, but it really is a Brett Helquist illustration come to life, equal parts Gothic, Victorian, and vintage 1920s. Count Olaf’s tower, Aunt Josephine’s house on Lake Lachrymose – gorgeous to behold, and it’s a pity that the film did not achieve a similarly extravagant replication of the wit and substance of the source material.

Cinematography: Yet another strong category, though I favour Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is strangely absent here as it is from so many other categories. That aside, this should go to House of Flying Daggers, though none of the others can truly be ignored. In terms of light and colour, A Very Long Engagement presented itself as an older, darker Amélie bathed in yellow, and the end result is the same mix of beauty and melancholy as is present in the movie itself. One should not ignore that for better or for worse, this award will be consolation for two foreign releases that did not make it into the Foreign Language category.

Costume Design: Where’s The Phantom of the Opera? That said, give it to A Series of Unfortunate Events. The look of the film exceeded my expectations, even if the rest of it did not.

Directing: It is a crime, a crime, that Michel Gondry is not on the shortlist for his work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; if you see it, you would understand. That said, I really think Scorsese should take home his first Directing Oscar for his breadth of imaginative acumen he displays in The Aviator. I can name shot after shot from that movie that I want to frame, and scene after scene that I envision I will cite in future cinematic discussions for some time to come. Gangs of New York sputtered and died in its final act; The Aviator didn’t. But all this aside, I just have a sinking feeling that Clint Eastwood – who, after all, some may feel was ignored last year for Mystic River (not me, as the real travesty in my mind would have been to ignore Peter Jackson) – is going to pull an upset here. That would be no surprise, either, as the intimacy of the character work in Million Dollar Baby is something to be treasured.

Documentary Feature: I’ll pass on this one, having seen none of the nominees, though two of them – Super Size Me and Tupac: Resurrection – have high profiles on their side. Not as high as, say, Fahrenheit 9/11, but its disqualification here was Michael Moore’s own doing.

Documentary Short Subject: Pass. They really need to start screening these once nominations are announced.

Film Editing: On one hand, we have Ray, with the lasting image of its record-label transitions and tactfully-inserted watery flashbacks. On the other, we have The Aviator, with its superimpositions over Howard Hughes films, spectacular aviation sequences and Hughes caressing Kate Hepburn one moment and his baby aircraft the next. I err on the side of the latter, and once again, bemoan the absence of Eternal Sunshine (and to a lesser extent, House of Flying Daggers).

Foreign Language Film: A Very Long Engagement was not in the running for deadline-related reasons, but there is absolutely no excuse for the absence of House of Flying Daggers; both would have been prime choices to take this one home. It will instead go to The Sea Inside.

Makeup: A Series of Unfortunate Events will take this one, once again for the work done with Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, which is every bit how I expected him to be handled. It is interesting that The Passion of the Christ essentially got a gore nomination, which is appropriate, because damn, it was gory.

Music (Score): Where’s Giacchino for The Incredibles? Where’s Williams for The Terminal? Where’s Rolfe Kent for Sideways? I think the score to Azkaban is easily Williams’ best and most original of the three, but traditionally, Williams only wins if he knocks one out of the park in comparison to his already impressive oeuvre, as he did with Schindler’s List. Kaczmarek delivered some very gentle, sentimental incidental music for Finding Neverland, and will likely win. I quite enjoyed Thomas Newman’s work in A Series of Unfortunate Events, but it was stylistically too similar to his win for Road to Perdition and moreover, his amazing compositions for Finding Nemo last year.

Music (Song): Perennially the silliest category to keep around given that the original movie musical is extinct, I can’t even see Phantom winning it with the new “Learn To Be Lonely” motif, which was basically stuck in the movie in a bid for this award, and even sounds extraneous. The Globe winner, “Old Habits Die Hard” from the Alfie remake, isn’t even in the Oscar shortlist, so there is not point of reference. That said, I will in fact go with “Vois Sur Ton Chemin” from Les Choristes, which I haven’t even seen, but intend to. This one is anybody’s game, and irrelevant nonetheless.

Best Picture: This is between The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby, with the latter suddenly becoming the talk of the town at the expense of the former over the past few weeks. Baby is the tighter, better-paced and more emotionally engaging film, albeit at the expense of novelty. Remember, this award isn’t about winners or losers so much as it is about what people will come back to rediscover years, even decades from now. Given its scale, ambition and overarching sense of fun – not to mention the best senate commission hearing scene since The Godfather, Part II – I am rooting for The Aviator. I do not in any way consider Baby to be an “inferior” film; it takes a wholly different approach to storytelling and does some things much better. But on a holistic level, and looking at a film as a complete production in terms of both the whole and the parts, The Aviator would be my pick. (Well, no – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would be my pick, and I also think it a shame that Phantom got killed by the press before it even made it into the lower nomination slots – and let’s not get started on A Very Long Engagement, which would be a contender if it were not French, which it cannot help being.) My wavering prediction of who will actually win is a split: The Aviator will take Picture, Clint Eastwood will take Director.

Short Film (Animated): Let’s hear it for Ryan!

Short Film (Live Action): As with all the other categories recognizing shorts, they really need to screen these every year after nominations are announced, so I can actually begin to comment. Word is that Wasp will take it, but I can neither confirm nor deny.

Sound Editing: Perennially almost as bogus a category as Original Song, but the nominees this year are not quite as bogus as in the past few years. I see a Spider-Man 2 sweep of the technicals as a distinct possibility, but the more Oscars The Incredibles wins, the better.

Sound Mixing: As before, this will likely go to Spider-Man 2, though by this point my predictions are pointing to an Aviator near-shutout in the minors, and that does not bode well statistically for its Best Picture chances when Million Dollar Baby scored three acting nominations.

Visual Effects: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got the shaft, but after watching more DVD features and reading articles on the effects pipeline of this year’s visual powerhouses, I am convinced that Spider-Man 2 should win this one. The blending of old-fashioned mechanics and newfangled computer wizardry to create Doctor Octopus is alone worthy of recognition.

Writing (Adapted): Traditionally the writing awards have been recognized as a sort of consolation prize for the small-scale films that do not have the grand, epic production values clout of the heavyweights, but it is usually well-deserved, given that the small films rest on the strength of their screenplays and principals anyway. In other words, Sideways, though a Million Dollar Baby win is not out of the question, nor would it be undeserved.

Writing (Original): Can it be? Can it be Eternal Sunshine‘s one gasp of air, one moment of recognition this Oscar night? One can only hope. I am already elated that Brad Bird was recognized with a nomination for The Incredibles. Then again, The Aviator needs to pick up what it can, or it will undergo the biggest nomination-to-win drop since, well, Gangs of New York (zero for ten). That would be unfortunate, because unlike Gangs, The Aviator was consistently fun to watch, and it boasts a screenplay full of moments worthy of study. But seriously – please give this to Eternal Sunshine.

This is probably the closest year since 2000, so the race tonight will be a fun one to watch. Keep your eyes peeled for Marlon Brando being featured in the annual obituary clips, and whatever it is Chris Rock comes up with in his first turn as the host. Quite frankly, I’ve never been too impressed with the guy, but let us see what he comes up with before we start evaluating.

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2004: Film in review

Thursday, 24 February 2005 — 11:45pm | Capsule reviews, Film

As was the case last year, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country, where “aid” consists of making sweeping recapitulative generalizations and comparative value judgments, and “country” refers to films classified as 2004 releases that caught my attention.

I will first begin with an identification of some of the major trends and overarching themes that characterized 2004 as a film year. Consider this an exercise in completing the sentence, “2004 was the year of…” – as in, “2001 was the year of preposterously explosive opening hype-driven weekends and precipitous second-week plummets,” or “2003 was the year of The Lord of the Rings and not much else.” So, 2004 was the year of the following:

The episodic bio-pic: This year saw a collective, synchronized movement to reduce the genre of the dramatized biography to a series of unfortunate events, to borrow a phrase. Initially there seems nothing wrong with this – after all, isn’t biography just the story of someone’s life? – but what separates a dramatization from a documentary is its engagement in the act of interpreting the life of its subject into a cohesive, selective narrative that makes decisions about what to focus on.

De-Lovely forgot about this and ended up being a lot of pretty pictures and good songs – great scenes, but not much of a movie. Ray fared considerably better, but it is a film that I would put on the shelf next to A Beautiful Mind, alphabetical considerations notwithstanding; both consist of visionary representations of their subjects’ talents and limitations, but fall victim to an episodic structure proceeding from event to event without an eye for priority. Superb filmmaking, yes, but with an asterisk. Alexander… well, we all know how that turned out.

The Aviator is a remarkable case study in that it, too, takes the conventional episodic approach complete with an abundance of title cards, but there is something to be said for the effect of title cards that read “Hell’s Angels, Year Two” and later, “Hell’s Angels, Year Four.” The events themselves are disconnected as we proceed from Howard Hughes, the filmmaker to Howard Hughes, the titular aviator to Howard Hughes, the openly obsessive-compulsive recluse – but what makes it all click is that everything feels like it lends itself to a consistent revelation of who he is, and who the film says he is.

It seems like the only high-profile bio-pic to break the one-event-after-another curse was Finding Neverland, which steers clear of being the Life and Times of J.M. Barrie and instead focuses on his relationship with a specific family and relatedly, a specific work of literature for which he is known.

The good sequel: I keep hearing people in both the critical community and the filmgoing public complain about what a bland year 2004 was. Well, for films that bodies like the Academy would actually consider awarding, that is to some extent true. But unless you are Francis Ford Coppola or Peter Jackson, you accept that sequels just don’t get a lot of recognition; justifiably so, most of the time, on the grounds that relative value judgments like awards, star ratings and Lettermanian decuples should generally offer a handicap for novelty.

This is a shame, as three of the very best films I saw in 2004 were, in one way or another, sequels. Spider-Man 2 is, hands-down, the best comic-book superhero movie I have ever seen (aside from The Incredibles, but that’s an equine of a different pigment). It’s smart, funny, and involving – and the fights are great. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was underage wizardry finally done right, and everyone from John Williams to Steve Kloves to Emma Watson churned out their finest work in the franchise. It only took them three tries, but as Alfonso Cuaron hadn’t stepped in yet, I guess the first two don’t count.

And then there’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2 – not a sequel so much as the quieter half of a deeply schizophrenic movie, where one half cannot exist without the other (at least, not very well), but the two are in so many ways completely different. On its own, Vol. 2 does not stand up, but it justifies the first part, which justifies it back in return. Taken as a whole – and at some point, I should like to see the two parts cut together – I consider Kill Bill a career-best for Quentin Tarantino.

The Mad Genius archetype: In no other year has the Incredibly Talented Crazy Person been treated with so much respect by so many films, each of which have something unique to say. There’s Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2, who, unlike the Green Goblin, is a character and not just a bad guy on drugs. There’s the Phantom of the Opera in a little film curiously entitled The Phantom of the Opera, whose disfigurement and isolation drive him to a misdirected self-consciousness, a heartbreaking denial of the love he seeks, and a penchant for nooses. Then there’s Syndrome from The Incredibles, who fails to recognize the special ingenuity that resides within himself and applies it to weapons of mass destruction as if they were a necessary equalizer. We don’t see much of Totenkopf in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but in him we see the convergence of the man-machine dynamic.

The most thorough take on the Mad Genius was what Scorsese and DiCaprio did with Howard Hughes in The Aviator, but that is because after a very lengthy sit-through clocking in at almost three hours, one really comes to know the ins and outs of how a character is portrayed. We really do get a complete picture of the young Hughes, and the film says enough about him that I shall not repeat it here; go check it out for yourself.

Snow: Last week I watched the DVD restoration of the Vincente Minnelli classic Meet Me In St. Louis starring Judy Garland, which is a generally great movie with a major distraction – that being how in the Winter vignette, the snow is really, really, really fake. Considering that this is the film that gave us the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” this is a big deal. But it does give us a sense of how far movie-snow has come in the past sixty years, and not just when it comes to how real it looks, as in the Caradhras sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring.

In 2004, snow wasn’t just real – it was beautiful. Some of the most memorable and downright gorgeous scenes of the year involved snow. The Phantom of the Opera spun high romance on the rooftops with little flakes of snow in “All I Ask Of You,” and then painted a breathtaking cemetary in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”; the latter was as perfect as perfect gets when it comes to staging an Andrew Lloyd Webber number, and I wouldn’t change a frame of it. The Prisoner of Azkaban not only harnessed snow to show off the Invisibility Cloak in a way we had not seen before, but squeezed a great scene out of it in Hogsmeade upon Harry’s discovery of the truth behind Sirius Black’s connection to the Potters. The Polar Express was an hour and a half of lush animated snow with a movie buried somewhere underneath. Perhaps the very best scene in Alexander is when an endless expanse of snow-capped mountains presents itself as something even Alex the Great could not surmount. And one would be remiss to neglect the signature shot in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of a couple lying on the frozen Charles River; which, I might add, I will have to try sometime.

If there were an Oscar for Best Snow, though, the clear winner would be House of Flying Daggers. It delivered the fluffiest, puffiest snow you can imagine, but more than that, it highlights the brutal emotional anguish of the finale; autumn turns to winter with a ferocious blizzard, and it captures a certain mythic poetry of a fight that lasts from one season to the next. This, my dear readers, is great snow. Andrew Adamson, take note: when Lucy wanders into the wardrobe and steps into Narnia next December, I want to see snow this lovely.

Now, without further ado, let us move on to the lists. As always, I find ranking movies in an enumerated fashion to be far too discriminating and always in flux, even as someone who is willing to call some movies better than others. So, in an effort to offer some compromise between relative appreciation and subjectivity, I will delineate films into tiers.

Instant classics built to last: For the past few years we have been spoiled with life-changing landmark films that will identify this decade in the history books and more importantly, have earned a permanent place in my heart as a total movie geek – The Lord of the Rings, for instance, or Finding Nemo. This year was lacking in masterpieces that would contend for positions in the upper echelons of my all-time favourites, but I did manage to identify two for which I harbour a boundless love: The Incredibles and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Must-sees both, and the best films of 2004.

Reservations are negligible at most: These are movies I enjoyed and will probably continue to treasure once I have them on high-quality DVD, if I don’t already, and can watch them over and over again. You should watch them too, and stand in awe of what they achieved. I had an absolute blast with Spider-Man 2, A Very Long Engagement, House of Flying Daggers, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Garden State, and I remain in awe of how good they are. They are in plentiful company, but good company.

In my opinion, terrific: The following have certain properties that make them open for some very valid criticisms in the eyes of their occasional detractors, but on balance, those alleged flaws either did not detract from the piece on the whole or did not appear for me at all, and what I saw was an astoundingly good movie. They are The Aviator, The Phantom of the Opera, Million Dollar Baby and Kill Bill, Vol. 2.

The ones that didn’t make the above: Funny how when you start naming a bunch of films at once, it doesn’t feel like such a bad year after all. Nevertheless, I feel it necessary to artificially extend this discussion so Steven Spielberg doesn’t get left out, and mention that I saw a lot of films in the past year that demonstrated some very skillful movie magic at work, though ultimately, I do not consider them to be what I expect I will remember most about 2004. There’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – stupendous fun from beginning to end, but in the end just a diversion; Ray, a marvelous but sometimes unfocused achievement that I assessed in the above discussion of episodic bio-pics; The Terminal, because even when Spielberg tries to be as standard and mainstream as possible, he does a good job of it; The Passion of the Christ, which is so commendably good at hurting the audience that I never want to see it again; and Finding Neverland, which legitimately earned its Best Picture nomination but is really nothing revolutionary.

And now, for the ancillary mentions:

Worst film I paid to see: In retrospect, I let The Punisher off easy. Aside from the origin-story killings that set the plot in motion and a good performance in a sea of dreck on the part of Thomas Jane, there is nothing about it that I can recommend. On the upside, maybe it’s setting itself up for a Most Improved Sequel prize a few years down the road, which Marvel has a knack for doing.

Most Improved Sequel: Spider-Man 2.

The Holdover Prize: This is awarded to a film from recent years that I did not or could not see until this year, and I give it to 2002’s Hero. Miramax finally got its act together, and in spite of the extraneous prologue and epilogue text that was tacked on for the North American release, we got to see what I think will be remembered as a true wuxia classic.

I don’t get it: I have a feeling that I will fall in love with Sideways when I am forty and divorced. Right now, I am neither, and while I found it to be a highly enjoyable and smartly-written character comedy, I am befuddled at how the vast majority of critics in professional circles have stopped just short of calling it the Second Coming. Most overrated by the general public, as reflected by box office returns, was Shrek 2. Cute, funny, and full of visual gags, but the first one was so much more than that.

Nobody else got it: Well, most of the lay-audiences I have spoken to got it, but it would be hypocritical of me to cite them now when most of the time, I let them eat cake. That said, The Phantom of the Opera was clearly the most underrated movie of the year, and it continues to astound me how so many others decided to pick on it at once. Having read most of the negative reviews in an attempt to understand where the detractors are coming from, I have come to the conclusion that they either have no affinity for the music (a sentiment with which I absolutely cannot empathize) or like the musical, but want Michael Crawford to reprise a role he played on stage fifteen years ago.

It could have been a contender: I desperately wanted both Alexander and De-Lovely to be among the best times I have ever had at the cinema. As it turned out, I was asking for a bit much, and instead of great movies I got a bunch of great scenes scattered about here and there. A ho-hum expedition like Hidalgo can fizzle out like it did and be excused and forgotten, Troy can be evaluated with severely lowered standards and dismissed with a “What did you expect? Besides, the fights were great,” but Alexander… what a shame.

There you have it, folks. Still to come, time willing, is a pre-Oscars assessment of this year’s nominations, what they mean, where they went horribly wrong, and where they will in all likelihood go horribly wrong when the awards are announced on Sunday. Then it is time to pull out the calendar and start booking off weekends for the major releases of 2005, and by golly, they’re numerous. Somewhere in between I may even sneak in a Constantine review, but I make no promises.

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Grottier than thou

Thursday, 24 February 2005 — 10:56pm | Scrabble

I would like to amend what I said in this post by announcing that yes indeedy, I have finally won a game against Albert Hahn. By no small margin, either – the final score was 470-340, though had it not been for an impatient oversight on my part, I could have made it 486.

While I did not record the board layout or keep track of either player’s racks (though that information could easily be deduced from my scoresheet, as it always can unless I do not figure out what my opponent exchanged on a given passed turn), I attribute the victory to three key plays. The first was my opening rack of DEIJKO?, which I harnessed for JOKED on 8D for 50 points. The second was a double-blank bingo, eXHaUST for 98 with the X hooking to make JEUX; usually, double-blanks are a curse in that one of the two blanks feels wasted and you can often go clinically insane trying to find the best bingo, but here, everything fell into place. Shortly after, Albert extended it to eXHaUSTED for 36, but I stayed ahead.

I lost a turn due to a phoney – in yet another quirk of the OSPD, GOETH* is no good, but COMETH and DOETH are okay – and I also let Albert get away with a rather spurious one, SILENIC*. I suspected that it was SELENIC gone wrong, but when you play opponents with a vastly superior vocabulary, sometimes you play it safe. But the clincher was my out-play, a lucky draw to ETOILES for 67. I actually could have played it on a triple that Albert had just set up as a last-ditch gamble for 83 points, but I missed it. Patience, young Jedi.

Interestingly, before we cleaned up the board from the previous round, Albert pointed out a valid bingo on a TWS that he mistakenly challenged, GROTTIER. It’s not exactly a rack that you study, he noted. I knew the word with absolute surety, but that was only because I am a practicing Beatlemaniac. “Grotty” has a fascinating etymology, albeit brief: its first appearance was in 1964, in the scene from A Hard Day’s Night where George Harrison is speaking to a marketeer who makes a special note of his using what is apparently slang for “grotesque” amongst Liverpudlian youth. Can you name another rock band that shot a word into the lexicon with a single utterance? I didn’t think so.

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However, I should have delivered a real speech

Tuesday, 22 February 2005 — 11:51am | Debate, Literature

On the subject of a rather unimpressive 3-2 finish at UBC’s Pacific Cup by Nick Fowler and myself, I will say little. On the subject of the associated public speaking competition, I said little and will say more now.

I earned my way to my first public speech final by way of such pseudo-quotable platitudes as “People don’t kill people; Dan Brown novels kill people” and a mini-thesis on why grammar is the new exorcism. In the latter, I spoke of false prophets and the erroneous prescriptions on the part of Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, particularly the prohibition on using “however” at the beginning of a sentence. Immediately after the speech, Lindsay Eberhardt from Alaska gave me a look of utter shock as if I’d just pronounced something totally wacko, like “There’s no such thing as Silicon Heaven” or “Mustafa Hirji is running for Students’ Union President.” “You can use however at the beginning of a sentence?” she exclaimed. “My grade school teacher would kill me!”

Immediately after the tournament, Language Log came to the rescue. Timely of them, really. The criticism of the fallacy of the “however” prejudice should be nothing new to people who are already well informed about how syntax actually works, but here’s an eye-opener from the second post cited above:

But what I am suggesting is that if you look at works published around the time of White’s birth and in the early years of his lifetime, works published when Strunk was in college and early in his teaching career, you find good statistical evidence that literary English really did favor however in second position but not first position in sentences.

Strunk, then, was simply insisting that the use of English by others ought to conform to the statistical patterns prevalent in the literature he knew. And fifty years later White was sticking to the same dogma. The grammar of however is not so simple, though: the word did sometimes occur sentence-initially in the 19th and early 20th century, as Mark’s investigations showed; it just wasn’t so frequent, and Strunk and White missed the subtlety of a word with two competing positional tendencies showing different frequencies.

With that said, to those of you who were present at the speech final, do excuse me for the three minutes of verbal haemorrhaging. To those of you who were absent: you don’t want to know.

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