From the archives: November 2005

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On a musical note (get it?)

Wednesday, 30 November 2005 — 11:56pm | Music, Pianism

I’m told that the choir I play with is performing Saturday evening at Convocation Hall, somewhere in the vicinity of 8pm. Admission is $10 for students and $15 for all of you other folks. Aside from little oddities like banquets and weddings, this will be my first public performance in several years, so if you absolutely insist on missing it, do have the courtesy to at least miss it very deliberately.

I’m also seeing Filumena tomorrow, as far as I have been made aware. I don’t expect to have the opportunity to review the Edmonton Opera production anytime soon or relevant, not even in the form of a capsule (a capsule review or a time capsule – take it however you wish), but word is that I won’t have to: the overwhelming sentiment preceding the show is that it speaks for itself, and admirably at that.

And then it’s back to work. You probably don’t want to hear about that, unless it so happens you have a perverse fascination with suboptimal approximation algorithms or semantic analysis of formal grammars. And if you do, welcome to the club.

On a tangentially operatic non sequitur: is it Towy Season or Gwit Season?

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A man on an intermission

Monday, 28 November 2005 — 5:54pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Thoughts and ideas have outpaced my WPM to the point where, were it not for my philosophical affinity for the primacy of written communication in an educated society, I might as well carry a tape recorder everywhere I go, start up one of those newfangled “podcasts” and be done with the whole shebang.

I never got around to writing about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rent or Good Night, and Good Luck, all of which have given me so much to say that I can’t possibly hope to make the time to do them justice. And that’s not even considering the hours whiled away playing Mario Kart DS online, possibly the worst thing to happen to my precious piano fingers since cramps-in-a-jar, but one that offers the new-to-the-franchise pleasure of – how do the juvenile delinquents put it nowadays – pwning some n00bs.

More on all of this later, I’ll bet. Don’t bet against me. I’ll lose.

Other than that, two quick observations come to the fore.

If Scrabble be the game of kings, then it is a contest as marked by coups and regicides as a song about Oliver Cromwell set to a Chopin polonaise. On Saturday, when Calgary held their annual one-day, twelve-round Marathon tournament, I won $10 for losing with a score of 422. (The score was tied, but she played ID for 5 and bled a 20 off my Q for 447. I think the new dictionary will have something to say about that come March.)

I emphatically did not win $10 for earlier losing with a score of exactly half that in my worst game in years, and probably the lowest-scoring game in the entire 28-player event. I can’t speak for the goings-on in the bottom division, but even they usually have little trouble clambering over 300 – it’s the upper stratosphere that eludes them. As one of the Division 3 players remarked with pitying incredulity: “211? That’s all you got?”

Loath as I am to blame the tiles, when all you draw are a J, a W and a whole lot of dreck worth 3 points or less that never congeals into a bingo thanks to a sustained assault on the part of the letter I, you can’t do a damnable thing.

I landed another $10 for playing 16 bingos – low for twelve rounds. The Bingo Ace prizewinner, at this level of play, usually approaches an average of two a round – maybe more. It tells you that everybody was shutting the board down with a good deal more vigour than necessary.

All of that was my first observation. My second one is briefer still: I can’t understand all the talk – or “dithering”, as it were – about Canadians not wanting a Christmas election. This is an early present, as far as I’m concerned. It won’t be the single most exciting thing this Christmas, but between a Mel Brooks musical, a Spielberg assassin drama and the lifelong dream project of Wellington Santa Claus himself, comparisons are hardly fair. Speaking as someone who has no taste for partisan politics and would be happy to do without it, this is still going to be the most interesting (and more importantly, entertaining) event in Canadian politics since probably the Quebec referendum: fun to watch, fun to read about, and fun to remember. I can hardly wait to see Calgary blanketed in red, green and Tory blue. It’s going to be one hell of a palette.

A ceasefire between Christmas and the New Year? Ludicrous! If rabid shoppers are going to be lining up in droves for marginal Boxing Day discounts, that’s as good a time as any to lug the war machines of party propaganda out into the open. There’s no time like a holiday for people to sit back and actually think, or better yet, joke about the issues.

The emergency mobilization of every faction in the country is, true to our climes, just so cool. It’s like all the fanfare and glory of little Johnny going to war, without any of the death, dismemberment or yucky psychological damage – a civil war of words, to wit. Taste it. Savour it. Indulge in it to excess. Then meet the sweetness of victory or bitterness of defeat, and taste it all over again.


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When nerds collide

Tuesday, 8 November 2005 — 12:02am | Film, Video games

Well, wouldja look at that: Chicken Little hits the sweet spot, a $40M figure that could be spun for good or ill depending on who’s doing the publicity. I was going to crunch the figures and pull up a few comparisons, but as usual, Jim Hill has already done it.

My review of Jarhead is in today’s Gateway, and the editorial staff is as on the ball as ever when it comes to excising my litany of tasteless puns and Mock Turtle simile soups. As always, if you have a grip on what my blogging style is like, you can probably identify what’s mine and what’s not. My impression of the film remains intact, though: amusing as a style piece and an evening’s entertainment, but in attempting to be more serious and dramatic than its only cinematic cousin (David O. Russell’s outstanding experiment, Three Kings), conventional to a fault.

There’s also one specific item of trivia I don’t mention, because it doesn’t belong in a review, let alone any piece for a general audience. It is, if at all possible, even more obscure than Docking Bay 327 in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which I alluded to under nearly identical circumstances.

Jarhead has, to my knowledge, the first explicit reference to Metroid in a theatrical feature film. It’s a bit of a throwaway, because… well, it’s actually in error, though made as a figure of speech and not with the presumption of being factual. One has the impression that William Broyles had a little gap in his screenplay marked, “Name of popular video game from circa 1990 goes here.”

The scene runs thus: the marines are sitting on a jumbo jet to Iraq and discussing what is it they’d be doing instead if they weren’t gallavanting off to defend freedom and pop some ragheads. “Sitting at home trying to get to the ninth level of Metroid,” one says. “You know what happens when you get there?” replies another. “Nothing. You go back and do it all over again.”

Thematically, it hits the nail on the head when it comes to encapsulating Jarhead‘s attitude towards war: escalation, redundancy and repetition. Only Metroid doesn’t have levels; in fact, the series is so notoriously nonlinear that there’s an entire video game subculture dedicated to exploiting pathways unintended by the designers. So the point is totally lost – it’s no different from claiming rock and roll had stale chord progressions, and mistakenly citing the Beatles – but hey, they tried.

Tetris would have been a better example. On the original Game Boy release, the ninth level was murder.

In other news, Nintendo’s worldwide Mario Kart DS servers are online (though nobody has the game except for Nintendo and the press), and their Wi-Fi service website is live, and the documentation reveals a lot about how it will work. Hits: day-to-day, game-by-game stat tracking on the Web; a sporting interface not unlike the software that comes with most wireless LAN cards; WEP key setup that doesn’t suck aside from the pain in the ass of having to punch in my entire 128-bit hex key instead of my clever passphrase. The promised one-touch setup only applies to proprietary Buffalo routers at partner hotspots, though I suspected as much.

Misses, neither of which apply to me: the drivers on the USB connector for those without Wi-Fi are Windows-only (presumably under the assumption that since Macs have built-in wireless, users probably have a network going already – or maybe it’s just shortsightness); and for those of you who care, no WPA. The website also gives pretty bad layman’s advice for securing a home network (using your phone number as a hex key? Please!) but that’s the price of selling cool toys to the non-technical.

Also, if the Wi-Fi configuration software is embedded in the game cartridge, does this mean I have to punch in my setup all over again come Animal Crossing in December? Or does it write the profile settings into the DS firmware? If they haven’t finalized the Wi-Fi implementation until now, I’m guessing it’s the former, which would be a pity.

I have Mario Kart DS on pre-order, so I’ll give it a spin next week. Whether or not I report on the experience here will depend on the length of said spin, or perhaps its angular momentum. For now, it’s back to civilization – or maybe just back to Civilization.

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Buena Vista Fried Chicken

Friday, 4 November 2005 — 1:39pm | Animation, Film

I’ve been a lifelong sucker for computer animation. As a teenager I fancied the idea of going into the business myself. I won science fair medals for conducting raytracing experiments that I don’t even fully understand anymore. There was a time when I could have claimed to have watched every all-CG feature film to be released in North American theatres. I can still name the exceptions: Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie and Valiant. I expect the claim to give way sooner or later, because in spite of how CG productions take years, the market is overflowing with them nowadays and reaching a saturation point where it simply isn’t enough for a movie to be a digital representation of three-dimensional space. It has to be more.

I’m also a Disney fan, albeit a repatriated one. It’s a pity that so many people, particularly those with disposable income, have a perverted obsession with outgrowing things. The majesty of the Disney classics is that they improve with age. You’ve only truly grown up when you have learnt to fall in love with them all over again. That’s what makes them classics.

Remember when the Magic Kingdom had brand power? The flat one, with a chorus of strings playing “When You Wish Upon A Star” – not the 3D one over music by Randy Newman, which I think has been subverted by the mischievous hopping lamp that follows it everywhere.

Those were the days. þæt wæs god cyning.

Things have changed. For one thing, I’m not going to see Chicken Little this weekend.

It isn’t because the promotional campaign makes it look both terrible and shameless about it. It could always be better than how it’s sold, and I’ll know for sure when I see it next week, or the week after that. Bad advertising (badvertising?) is a common sight when it comes to animated features. One wouldn’t have thought Shrek or The Iron Giant were any good from the trailers alone. Sadly, only one of them made money.

It isn’t because it’s not on the top of some imaginary list of mine this weekend. As a matter of fact, it is; V For Vendetta was moved back to March, and I saw Jarhead on Wednesday.

I’m not going to see Chicken Little this weekend because I want to do my part. See, I firmly believe that a low box-office take this weekend is a good thing. At best, I expect it to be a modest hit with no shelf life. Most of the pundits are calling it at $38M, and I think that’s generous – though of course, releasing it on 3600 screens guarantees a decent aggregate figure. And I’m not going to help unless it actually turns out to be any good as a movie, because I like the message this would send.

I haven’t cared about opening weekend grosses in a while, but this is one that actually matters. Let’s examine the possible scenarios.

Chicken Little is a hit. Either it opens above $50M, or it has enough staying power between now and Christmas that a $200M total is within reach. Consequences: Disney laughs its way to the bank. Pixar loses a whole wad of chips at the negotiating table now that WDFA has proven to be a viable competitor with a hardly competitive film. They never get their sequel rights back, and Circle 7 finishes their own Toy Story 3 directed by Bradley “Pocahontas II” Raymond. The next round of Disney trailers feature the titular American Dog, Wilbur Robinson and Rapunzel shaking their respective booties to disco music. Rumours of a return to cel animation are squashed for a full decade more. Bob Iger joins Michael Eisner in hell, but on the plane of the corporeal, the suffering continues.

Chicken Little makes money, but generally disappoints. This is what I expect – an opening under $40M, and run-of-the-mill drops of 40-50% a week before ending up with Shark Tale figures, or maybe even as low as Robots territory. Here we’re talking $130-170M – big, but not for a CG film with the Disney label, and not in 2005. Consequences: Pixar has an upper hand in negotations, because Disney is no longer so sure it can afford to have them as a direct competitor. We might even see some big, lopsided concessions; the best-case scenario has sequel rights going to Pixar and Circle 7 shutting down Toy Story 3 – a huge loss for Disney and a huge win for the consumer. Future WDFA projects reevaluate their ability to out-Shrek DreamWorks, and stop trying so hard to do just that. We will hear rumblings of greenlighting cel animation again in the post-Rapunzel pipeline, and maybe the company will stop blaming the medium.

Chicken Little bombs harder than the Enola Gay. This would be an opening under $20M and a total gross well under $100M, comparable to Disney’s figures in its waning years. We’re talking about sub-Dinosaur numbers here. It isn’t going to happen. If it does, Disney will be on its knees begging Pixar to come back – a good thing. This isn’t all rosy, though. Disney’s stock price will plummet. The detrimental effect on the brand name may carry over to hurt the success of future releases, regardless of whether or not they are any good. Investment in the computer animation industry as a whole will drop. We still have no guarantee of a return to traditional 2D animation, either. It’s just as likely that animators will be fired in droves, and the Disney legacy dies a horrible, horrible death.

I think the second scenario is the optimal one here, though none of its effects are guaranteed. It would certainly cause a lot of unease; in fact, the cold critical reaction to Chicken Little is already having some effect on the company.

This morning, the news came in that Disney has halted production on Rapunzel Unbraided. Word is that the shutdown is a temporary one to rework the project from the ground up; just how temporary, time will tell. But I like what I’m hearing: less of the pop-culture trash nobody cares about. In essence, less of the Unbraided, more of the Rapunzel; less of the Shrek and more of the Disney.

I have never once seen Disney try to be wacky and hip and come out of it looking good. A Glen Keane film deserves to be better. Keane is a legend, folks. Every day of the year, mascots and stage performers around the world hop around in costumes based on stuff he drew. He created Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Aladdin in Aladdin. He designed the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, the most iconic sympathetic monster this side of King Kong. And I’m sure the five of you who saw Treasure Planet fondly remember the seamless cel/CG hybrid that was his Long John Silver – half scurvy pirate, half Howl’s Moving Castle.

The visual concept behind Rapunzel Unbraided – an oil painting that moves in 3D space – is one of the most exciting developments I’ve heard of about the future of the now rather unexciting movie business, which has with few exceptions become aesthetically stagnant now that the wonders of technology are peaking.

But it’s all for naught if the film has to work against an abrasive and annoying screenplay that plays for cheap laughs. This is supposed to ring in the next Disney Renaissance, after all. I’ll agree it’s not a wholly reasonable expectation, but I’ll sleep better at night knowing that they care enough to try.

And all it took was for the critical community to call Disney on the carpet and tell them their bespectacled gallinaceous emperor has no clothes, let alone groove. Imagine what would happen if the public agreed. All that needs to happen is for Chicken Little to fail by just enough, and we’ll hopefully see some meaningful change of the same bent.

Whether or not the film is any good is immaterial. I’ll answer that question later this month.

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Sacre bleu!

Friday, 4 November 2005 — 12:19pm | Journalism

It’s probably a measure of how out of touch I’ve been lately that I didn’t know about the new biweekly two-page supplement in The Gateway until this morning. Let it be known that Le Miroir is neither as backwards as its name implies nor miserable and inadequate as its host language suggests. There’s no online version, but as happenchance would have it, one of the contributors to its debut spread lives within striking distance of my Linksys router and has kindly (or narcissistically) provided a sample hither.

I welcome the campus broadsheet’s latest appendage with open appendages of my own. Part of it is that it will assist me in slowing the atrophy of my aptitude for comprehending the loverly language of diminuitive Alp-crossing conquerors. French is fun to read even when it’s not relegated to demanding hefty Austro-German reparations, and I find it encouraging for the paper to declare itself “tout simplement francophile” in its mission statement. And beyond that, Thursday’s Miroir, tucked into pages 10 and 11, looks terrific – it’s typeset in the standard Gateway style, fitting right into the same InDesign templates, but the absence of intrusive advertising materials makes a huge difference.

Disregarding content for now, the only really visible copyediting problem is in an opinion piece by some bloke who calls himself Carl “Le Cat” Charest. No, not the unordered-list formatting problem – that’s a lesser concern. Let me put it this way: I don’t know if using italics AND all caps for emphasis (particularly the latter) is as frowned upon in the other langue officielle as it is in mine, but I always figured it was the case. It hurts us, preciousss.

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