From the archives: February 2006

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Plunky’s Dilemma

Tuesday, 28 February 2006 — 12:42pm | Scrabble

The new Scrabble dictionary, the OWL2, is the official book for all tournaments effective tomorrow. Although I had a chance to flip through the OSPD4 (the book with the red cover you see in stores which also claims to be official) back in June, and my copy’s been collecting dust on the shelf ever since, I only just sat down to go through the complete list of additions.

I’ve only played a handful of games under the new book, so I can’t comment on the new dynamics afforded by QI and ZA and the whole slew of S-hooks you can slap on two-letter words (AGS, AHS, BES, EDS, GOS, HOS), but on the whole, I love the new words. I love how they encourage riskier play.

See, a good Scrabble vocabulary was never only about knowing the words in the dictionary. One also had to learn the negation: you had to remember which commonsensical words you knew were words could not be played. This still holds true, but the problem is now substantially alleviated.

The number of new words that I once played (and had challenged off) is really quite unbelievable. Before I learned all my threes, I was certain that I could play the likes of APP, CIG, DUH, EEK, FAB, MIC, POO and VID – all invalid in OWL/OSPD3, all good in OWL2. And that’s just the threes – never mind the fours (DINO, GOTH, MEDS, TECH) and the bingos (FAGGIEST, TAGLINE, UNLIKED, and yes, BINGOES).

My favourite? PLUNKY. In one of my very first games against Jason Guillery, I played it on a triple in the corner and made him sweat. He stared at it for five, maybe ten minutes trying to decide whether or not to challenge it off, whilst hovering kibitzers checked their dictionaries and looked at us with the smuggest of visages. In the end, he let it stay on the board.

I rebounded to a win and caught him with only a second left on the clock. I’m not sure if he ever got over letting it go. It was an eminently memorable match; this was over four years ago, and I still remember it among hundreds of forgotten games. Since then, I think I’ve only beaten him once.

The new list doesn’t demand a lot of learning – just a lot of “not unlearning”. And this applies not only to the perpetually neologic techies (ANTISPAM, BITMAP, TERAFLOP) and gastronomes (AHI, UDON, CHAI), but ordinary people who read the daily news (BURQA, HIJAB, HEGEMON). Canadians rejoice: LOONIE is now good without the S, and TOONIE is in the mix. (Remarkably, so is TWOONIE, though I know not a soul who spells it that way. Is it identically pronounced?)

I think newcomers are going to have a substantially easier time adjusting – until the next revision a decade down the road, of course, when the lexicon will no doubt look decrepit again and former grungy teenagers will complain about the omission of EMO*. (And may it never be legitimized.) People who are new to competitive Scrabble will always exclaim, “That’s not a word” – but that’s the nature of the game: if you don’t know the word, it’s your fault. But they shouldn’t have to say, “But I know that’s a word” – or worse, trap themselves in self-doubt and fail to muster up the courage to make the best move. And now, we should have less of that.

We might have quite a bit more of the “That’s not a word” sort of indignation, though, because of all the genericized brand names that have now joined the likes of XEROX, among them JELLO, KLEENEX, LEVIS, POPSICLE, PYREX, TEFLON and VELCRO.

As a parting treat, here are some of the new words you will never see in a televised championship final: BOINK, BOODY, BULLDYKE, FUBAR, GAZOO and WAZOO, JOHNSON and WILLIE, NOOKIE, STIFFIE, and WANK (with a whole set of familiar inflections like WANKING and WANKERS).

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Late, as in the late Dentarthurdent

Tuesday, 21 February 2006 — 11:48pm | Video games

If you thought waiting three weeks for a new post here was bad, you only know a fraction of my pain. You also need a new hobby.

Revised ETA for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Autumn 2006. I realize Nintendo wants to make the greatest game ever made and all, but to insist on pushing the title onto the GameCube is now getting really silly. I once adamantly supported the idea of releasing Zelda as the Cube’s swan song, a last hurrah of sorts, but I think it’s time to jump on the put-it-on-the-Revolution bandwagon.

It would make sense for Nintendo to move Zelda to the new system even if they retain the GameCube-style controls and design (which are too integral to change by now, and probably have been for some time). Two immediate reasons: four times the storage on the DVD format (because I highly doubt that a game ballooning to its alleged size, a year past its deadline, is going to fit on one GameCube disc), and the next-generation graphics hardware, which the game could really put to use given these few extra months of polishing time. The first is probably the more critical benefit, since a defining characteristic of the Zelda series is its free-roaming exploration, and I would hate to see it partitioned.

They’re obviously trying to duplicate the Minish Cap phenomenon – one of the latest and greatest games for the Game Boy Advance released after the launch of the DS, which early adopters used their DS to play during the launch-period software drought. But it makes no sense to apply the same strategy here. For one, the GBA still had a near monopoly on the portable market prior to the launch of the DS. Unlike the DS, the Revolution is not an incremental layer over Nintendo’s existing home console business, which has been travelling on inertia alone since its last significant title, Resident Evil 4, came out over a year ago.

People won’t buy Cubes just to play Zelda, even at bargain-bin prices, because at this point the GameCube is basically a dead system (albeit the one with the best games to rediscover over the years to come). If the expectation is that a traditional console game will sell Revolution units while developers figure out how to take advantage of the Revolution controller, then the only thing stopping Nintendo from pushing Zelda to the new system is that they would be going back on months of assurances that it is still a GameCube title. But breaking this promise isn’t going to lose them any customers.

As for delays that are even more egregious, let’s just say Air Canada owes me a lot more than the $100 voucher and apology letter I was offered. I would elaborate, but your time would be better spent sitting through The Terminal; the stories are basically the same, but Spielberg tells it with more charm.

In the intervening time that went to waste, I could have watched Gone with the Wind. I could have watched it twice.

Anyhow, if I were not so busy, here are some other topics I probably would have written something about earlier in the month: Kurt Elling, Michelle Grégoire, The Marriage of Figaro, Bluebeard’s Castle, Erwartung, and how Freedomland isn’t an outright terrible movie in spite of the impression that might emanate from my review in Vue Weekly, but it sure makes an easy target for merciless lampoonery. In other words, three things the world couldn’t do without: jazz, opera, and Samuel L. Jackson.

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Snobbery robbery and rubbery snubbery

Wednesday, 1 February 2006 — 11:45pm | Film, Oscars

I have a few remarks to make about this year’s Oscar nominations.

First off, all the number-crunchers out there lambasting 2005 as a slump year couldn’t be more wrong. This year’s nomination field for Best Picture is, overall, the strongest and most balanced I’ve seen for quite some time. The one of the five I have not seen is Crash, which everybody keeps saying is Paul Haggis’ directorial debut for some reason when his real debut, the quite excellent (and very obscure) Canadian production Red Hot, was a full thirteen years ago. I can’t comment on that one, but I was very impressed with the other four. The big story is that the five contenders are all serious, intelligent dramatic films and, to varying extents, independent productions.

Now, at this point, Brokeback Mountain is practically guaranteed to take home the top prize based on other awards events and the all-important guilds, though my personal pick remains Munich. But all four of the five that I sat through are films of such a high calibre that they’d make a serious and deserving bid for the win in almost any other year. And beyond that, it still feels like some of the best movies I saw this year are not on the shortlist, though I have no idea what they would replace. Among them are King Kong, The Constant Gardener, Wallace & Gromit, and maybe A History of Violence, which is growing on me the more I think about it. Make no mistake: 2005 was a very good year. That is, unless your film was computer animated. We’ll get to that.

The single most atrocious absence is Revenge of the Sith in the Visual Effects category. Narnia? Are you kidding? The awards establishment has been progressively (or rather, regressively) less kind to the Star Wars saga over the years, but I never thought it would go quite this far. Now, I think this is King Kong‘s award to win, but to ignore Episode III completely is just bizarre.

For the second year running, my favourite musical score of the year was ignored. Last year it was Michael Giacchino’s work on The Incredibles. This year, it’s James Newton Howard for King Kong. That isn’t to say I don’t admire the music in the five films that were nominated for the award. The piano cues in Pride & Prejudice were arguably the prettiest thing about a very pretty film, Brokeback Mountain sports one of the better scores in its style not written and played by Clint Eastwood, and The Constant Gardener felt very complete as a production in part thanks to its underscore. Munich was tense with percussion and Geisha was lush with exotic colour, but neither of them strike me as that magical sixth win for John Williams alongside Fiddler on the Roof (adapted), Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. and Schindler’s List. In fact, they don’t come even close. Williams has lost with much better scores in much weaker years.

The point remains that while I wonder how things would have turned out had Howard Shore stayed aboard King Kong or James Newton Howard been hired from the get-go, the end product was great film music in the footsteps of a grand tradition that began with the likes of Max Steiner (whose music to the original King Kong is incorporated into the Jackson film’s “Eighth Wonder of the World” sequence). Corpse Bride, one of the high points of that vintage Danny Elfman sound, is also conspicuously missing. So is Revenge of the Sith, but it looks like John Williams already has his hands full of accolades.

The Original Song award has not had any legitimate reason to exist in at least a decade. This year, it did, thanks to Corpse Bride and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – both of which were left out. It’s seriously high time to scrap this junk filler category if significant in-film showtunes are going to go completely unrecognized.

I’m very pleased to see that the Animated Feature award is earning its keep. All three of this year’s nominees are movies I would buy on DVD and treasure over and over again. I suspected CG would get snubbed entirely, though I wasn’t sure Howl’s Moving Castle was high-profile enough to take the third slot over actual (albeit limited) moneymakers like Madagascar, Robots and Chicken Little. But to my relief, it was; and when awards recognize films that are worth awarding, nobody gets hurt.

Speaking of animation, this is another year where like Boundin’ and Geri’s Game, a Pixar short is cruising to the Oscars before being released to the general public. The one in question is One Man Band, which I assume will be playing in front of Cars. Will it win? I don’t know – I haven’t seen it.

And as for Supporting Actor, it’s about time they nominated Paul Giamatti for something. He should have made the cut last year for Sideways, and he should have won the damned thing for American Splendor. It appears that boxing movies make for compelling sidemen.

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