From the archives: December 2006

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The isle is full of noises

Tuesday, 26 December 2006 — 3:31pm | Literature

Happy Christmas, everyone.

In the lingo of collegiate debating, which is apparently going to be relevant to me later this week, “burning the turf” is (to tilt a paraphrase in order to make a point) what you call it when someone on your side of the house, who precedes you in the speaking order, opens and closes the book on the subject and leaves those after him with nothing substantial to say. It’s a localized formulation of the paralysing encumbrance that weighs upon the shoulders of any sufficiently literate (aspiring) artist: if every frontier you wish to explore has already been traversed, where do you go?

You’ll notice how by this logic, it follows that most artists who shed the “aspiring” label are not sufficiently literate. I’ve always thought this obvious, myself: art in any medium – music, film, words, or what have you – could only be so plentifully derivative if the little worker bees exploited by the media factory showed a considerable lack of self-restraint, propelled by the favourable trade winds of market forces or the groundless praise of layman peers who never read a stanza of real poetry in their lives.

I spend a considerable proportion of my uptime Not Writing a Novel. Industrious as I am, I sometimes commit to a sitting of several hours where all I do is not write. I am a practised notwriter. And from experience, the best way to go about developing a fruitful career in the arts of not writing is to read voraciously, and read well.

If you ever wondered what a Nicholas Tam novel might look like, given n discrete units of time-talent-practice and m monkeys on typewriters greater than sufficiently large N and M, I suggest you read Richard Powers.

I’ve only read two of his novels (The Time of Our Singing and, as of last night, Galatea 2.2), but I think I can already posit with confidence that Richard Powers burned my turf.

I discovered, from observing my classmates in my first semester as a full-time student of English literature, that for a lot of readers, the primary rubric by which a story is measured is, in the first instance, a personal one. Did it elicit your sympathy? Could you identify with the characters? Did you care what happened next, or in the nonlinear case, what was left to be revealed? These are not sophisticated questions by any means, but immediate, and fiercely emotional.

This is not how I evaluate literature; at least, not consciously, and not primarily. Its natural consequence is the constriction of one’s reading habits to a whittled selection of authors, genres, styles and socio-historial milieux, and I find that to be intellectually limiting. I ask instead: Is this a story well told? Is it thematically coherent? Is the language eloquent and conducive to the delivery of ideas? Do the ideas themselves matter?

And there, we complete the circuit and return to the domain of personal taste: do the ideas themselves matter to me?

It should go without saying that I am almost predisposed to adore a book like Galatea 2.2, which demonstrates not only exemplary craftsmanship in covering the gamut from heartbreak to laughter, but tackles big questions with admirable finesse. Problems like the limits of artificial intelligence. The line we draw between the merely operational and the truly conscious. How to read and why we read. The consequent anxieties of the complete overhaul of English literary education in recent decades, which the University of Alberta undertook in force just before my arrival in the relevant department. The instrumental futility of poetry. The inadequacy of language as an independent cloud of signifiers unbound from material reality. The conceded irrelevance of literature in a practical world in practical crisis. Love. Loss. Shakespeare.

That’s thematic material, of course, specific to one novel alone and not necessarily endemic to the author. But consider this: what is the most significant barrier to reading? It’s language. In literature, it’s figurative language. You can’t understand a metaphor if you don’t speak the language of that metaphor and are unable to trace its analogues and connectives.

Richard Powers, more than any other author I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, speaks my language. He manipulates the symbol set of science, mathematics, music and literature in order to grapple with concerns that are relevant to everyone. What it means to be human, and all that jazz.

More to the point, he does it extremely well, with a lucidity that explains why I found Galatea 2.2 immensely more pleasurable than a similar book, Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which got mired in its symbols. To find an author whose wavelength is in such fine coherence with what I want in literature is downright intimidating.

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Twilight Princess is in another castle

Monday, 18 December 2006 — 8:01pm | Video games

I finished The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess almost two weeks ago. I logged a solid 57 hours without reference to any external source of information. Since then, I have added almost another 10 hours roaming Hyrule and discovering new things I’d completely bypassed, even though I’d thought myself quite thorough. I am now two pieces short of all twenty hearts, and not even close to finishing the two major collection quests.

I finished Zelda, but I did not complete it. I’ve only ever “completed” The Wind Waker – and by that, I mean not only the standard four bottles and twenty hearts, but every bonus chart, underwater treasure chest (including the bogus one from the auction that only yields one rupee), observation platform, secret cave, submarine and Nintendo Gallery figurine. The Gallery quest requires you to play through the game twice. I got the Hero’s Mask on my second run, prior to which I didn’t know it existed. So, yes: I completed it. (Okay, so I didn’t get the Tingle Statues, but I did plug in the GBA long enough to get a snapshot of Knuckle on Tingle Island. Surely that counts for something.)

I’ve been meaning to write a review, though it took me awhile to balance the desire to not spoil anything for the general readership, which I’d wholeheartedly recommend grab a Wii (once possible) and play the game, against the compulsion to give the game the thorough assessment it deserves. The latter would be directed towards audiences that have not only completed Twilight Princess, but have an extensive familiarity with the Zelda series as it currently stands.

Let’s make a stab at some postgame impressions, then, and see where they go.

To be honest, finishing the game was a deflating experience. For two weeks, it had a monopoly over everything that could be considered “free time” in my schedule, which obviously excludes watching televised coverage of party leadership races. I’d taken my time and kept a relatively steady pace for someone swallowing the game in eight-hour chunks – a bit of time in the fishing hole every now and then, perhaps. And then I rushed straight through the last three dungeons and the thrill of the superb, superb final battle.

That was it?

See, upon finishing a game of this scale after familiarizing yourself with every known nook and cranny (with a plethora of unknowns remaining), it’s easy to look back and say, well, wasn’t that a lot smaller and shorter than I expected. What a letdown. And then you notice the omissions. No Magic Meter? Octoroks? Moblins? Great Fairies? Gallery-esque monster of a side quest? Post-completion save file with hidden bonuses in the second playthrough? I was wrong about one of these, but what a letdown nonetheless.

What I’m saying is that it’s very easy to underrate this game. After exploring some more and finding out just how much I missed along my beeline to the final boss, and watching someone else play through the first half of the game (which really does feel like a lifetime ago), I have renewed an appreciation for Twilight Princess that almost – just almost – slid into disillusionment.

This is an incredible game. Compelling. Magnetic. I’m a very thorough player, and it’s telling that I rushed to the end, just dying to see the big finish.

Is it better than Ocarina of Time? Yes.

Is it the best of the Zelda series? In some respects, perhaps. (Notice how this was a separate question.)

Is it flawless? No.

For the sake of elaboration, we here enter the realm of Nintendo geekery. That means specifics, and moreover, spoilers. I’m not going to discuss the story – in my opinion, the hallmark of the Zelda series is that the way the player progresses through the game is the story – but I will name specific locales, elements and items. I wouldn’t have wanted to read this before I played the game: ergo, spoilers.

So, what matters in a Zelda game? Off the top of my head: dungeons, overworld exploration, items, optional quests, minigames, bosses, enemy design, the general environment of the game (people, places and things, if you will), and my personal speciality, the music.

Dungeons: What impressed me most about the dungeons was how functional they seemed. There was a certain logic to their design, in that most of the obstacles displayed an implicit reason for existing beyond just waiting to be solved by a swordsman in a green tunic. The Lakebed Temple’s slides, mills and gears are a suitable exemplar, as are the magnets in the Goron Mines and the entirety of the Snowpeak Ruins. This isn’t saying that I dislike abstract environments, but on the whole, I’m very satisfied that the dungeons are architecturally coherent, in addition to their typical property of being thematically coherent.

There aren’t any puzzles that I would call outright hard, but I don’t think I’ve ever been outright stumped by a Zelda game. I think the tasks that confront the player in a typical Zelda dungeon fall into four classes: problems of mechanics (speed, timing, aim), problems of observation (which items you should use, where you can use them, what you can interact with, and where you can go), problems of logic (blocks and switches), and problems of combat.

To be honest… none of them were really a challenge. Observation, maybe – I’m thinking of the City in the Sky ceiling switch – and it might actually be because of the lack of a free third-person camera in the Wii version, something I worried about going into the game. The absence of a free camera doesn’t outright impede anything, but it might be responsible. Combat was a piece of cake, but fun. I did wish that Hyrule Castle had more in the way of actual puzzles, and wasn’t so exclusively combat-heavy, but to each his own. As for logic, I can see how some people might have trouble with the ice block puzzles and the statues guarding the Master Sword, though I didn’t. They’re not overly hard, nor are they easy in a way that makes them less than fun. Like the Water Temple in Ocarina, they’re not difficult, just lengthy without being repetitive.

Complaints? Hyrule Castle was too combat-heavy. The Twilight Palace thinned out after retrieving the two Sols in the palace wings; it deserved at least a miniboss and a unique item, not two mini-minibosses and a temporary upgrade. City in the Sky was so spacious and dependent on Clawshot mechanics that at times, it felt devoid of enemies. The late dungeons are the weakest, but the boss battles were appropriate compensation.

Regardless of their ease, I think the Twilight Princess dungeons are almost all among the best of the 3D Zeldas. It’s their scope and their variety. There are a lot of moments that hearken back to other games’ dungeons and improve upon them – Poe-hunting in the Arbiter’s Grounds, controlling statues in the Temple of Time – but little repetition within this game itself, from one dungeon to the next.

Best dungeon? I’m going to have to go with the Snowpeak Ruins, which really captured the spirit of the entire game.

Overworld exploration: It’s the biggest one yet, though it feels small once you get to know it well, and big again once you realize you didn’t know it well at all. Because you are constrained to certain boundaries and tracts of land, there isn’t the same illusion of total exploratory freedom as that of The Wind Waker. That has been replaced by an illusion of density, that there’s something worth checking out at every turn: it’s a trade-off, but it works. At the same time, however, there’s ample space for so much more.

The secret caves are the best yet in variety and scope – easily equivalent to the Bottom of the Well in Ocarina or the Ghost Ship in Wind Waker – though too many of the rewards are monetary and therefore unnecessary, because there aren’t any extortionary fairy-man cartographers squeezing you for thousands in cash. Remarkably, I didn’t discover the Cave of Ordeals until after I finished the game, in spite of the fact that I repaired the Eldin Bridge, leaving the cave in plain sight. It’s an improvement over its predecessor, the Savage Labyrinth, though some of the rooms were made considerably easier by the fact that you could snipe away from the ledge before diving into the heat of battle.

Items: These are probably a clue as to the relative weakness of the last two or three dungeons. The Double Clawshots probably would have been more fun if I hadn’t expected to see them the entire game. The Spinner, Ball and Chain and Dominion Rod are interesting in that they made their respective dungeons worthwhile, but seem to be of little relevance afterwards. While this is true of the Dominion Rod, which could have benefited from there simply being more statues in the overworld left unmarked, it speaks to the thoroughness of the game’s design that while you’re rarely required to use the Spinner or the Ball and Chain, their effects were often taken into consideration. For instance, using the Spinner protects you from fall damage and lets you coast right over the collapsing blocks in the City in the Sky.

Bomb Arrows and Water Bombs were marvelous: I only wish there were more arrow combos aside from Bombs and the Hawkeye. Speaking of which, I think the Hawkeye didn’t quite make it through the GameCube-to-Wii transition. Maybe it’s for stability’s sake, but it doesn’t make much sense to pan with the stick and aim with the remote, only to put on the Hawkeye and suddenly aim entirely with the stick.

On another note about the interface, the Fishing Rod desperately needed an in-game explanation at the beginning of the game, where it is required. The item selection screen tells you how bobber fishing works, but the manual only concerns lure fishing, which could be misleading. There’s no other mention of how to fish with the bobber anywhere else.

On yet another note about the interface, the item selection wheel was an excellent idea, though the concealment of the number of usable items remain would have worked even better if there were more (or, indeed, any) secret items to be found.

Optional quests: This is one area where the game seemed lacking. Aside from secret areas like the Cave of Ordeals, there just wasn’t much to do. Magic Armor was a nice reward for the game’s big money quest, which there’s a certain impulse to perform because the reward is in plain sight, though it’s not obvious how much you have to spend. The Golden Bug and Poe collection quests are a challenge, but also probably the biggest impediment to truly completing the game. I’m not sure what I prefer: being required to find all 60 Poes in the game world, which means you’re not allowed to skip any, or something along the lines of Joy Pendants in Wind Waker, which enemies drop from time to time (albeit too abundantly when it came to, say, King’s Crests). The absence of a trading quest similar to how you obtain the Biggoron Sword in Ocarina was felt. What else is there? Hot Springwater delivery? Is that it?

At the same time, I think many of these deficiencies are made up for by the variety in the main quest itself, whether it be collecting Tears of Light or my personal favourite, the thrilling carriage escort sequence. It isn’t the activities themselves that disappoint, but the game’s overall linearity.

Oh, and call me spoiled on Wind Waker, The Minish Cap and to a lesser extent, Navi’s presence in Ocarina, but I really wanted to see every enemy in the game named and shamed. If there’s a better way to do it than as a figurine gallery, fine, but do it.

Minigames: Absolutely fantastic. Fishing, flying up Zora’s River and sailing back down, snowboarding, the rupee sink that is Rollgoal – there’s so much to play, and it’s all worth playing. Occasionally frustrating, sure, but only because I kept going back for high scores. If Twilight Princess is the best of the series in any one aspect, this is it. That said, I was stunned at the absence of a sumo-wrestling game where you work your way up successively tougher opponents. It seemed like an obvious choice to me, but sumo wrestling completely disappears after the Goron Mines.

Bosses: In general, far too easy, but fun to play and fun to watch. Never mind that Stallord barely hurts you at all: coasting around on the Spinner is great. And they kept getting better: Argorok and Zant weren’t difficult, but they were dynamic, and in a very rewarding way. What also struck me was the outstanding quality of the minibosses guarding each dungeon’s special item. Maybe it was because these battles – like the Ball and Chain Soldier and the Darknut in the Temple of Time – were often more combat-oriented, and didn’t practically end as soon as you figure out the (often obvious) strategy. It’s probably also the variety of what you get to face, which is evident right from the beginning, when you fight the boomerang-throwing monkey in the Forest Temple.

That said, the bosses could have been more aggressive. Some of them, like Morpheel and to a lesser extent, Stallord, sit back and wait patiently for you to make a move. The battles do escalate as you get a few hits in, but often not in a way that deals more damage. Like the other 3D games, the hint system (here, Midna) is all too eager to hold your hand and show you what to do after very little time (which really isn’t necessary), and I do wish there was a way to turn it off. But I suppose there are kids playing this too.

As for the final battle (by which I mean each of its separate phases put together), I have never seen better in a Zelda game. A novel combination of the 3D battles that have come before it and exciting new material that plays to the strengths of what makes Twilight Princess unique, its greatest moments were every time you saw what you got to do next. I really don’t know how they’re going to top this.

Enemy design: (Here, I mean both function and aesthetics.) Hit and miss, I’d say. Hits: Gorons, Beamos, axe-wielding Armos, variously-armoured Lizalfos, the Snowpeak ice knights, Freezards, two-phase Darknuts. (Notice how so many of these are mechanical, metallic or otherwise solid.) I was impressed by how many elements from the 2D games finally made it: aside from the close-quarters miniboss battle with the Ball and Chain Soldier, we finally have enemy archers, and the desert is full of sandworms leaping all over the place (which we’d previously only seen in the Molgera battle in Wind Waker). Also, the Twilight Palace provides the most inventive use of Wallmaster-like disembodied hands I’ve seen to date: they serve a purpose and pose a threat.

Misses: I primarily miss the life and expressiveness that Wind Waker‘s cartoon stylings brought to the classic Zelda enemies. Stalfos are back to being generic skeleton warriors. The ChuChus, if that’s what those slugs full of Chu Jelly were supposed to be, were inert little blobs, quite unlike the ones that sprung to life in the previous game. I don’t think it’s a graphical problem, just an stylistic one: the Bokoblins, for instance, are no less dynamic than the ones in Wind Waker as far as interesting foot soldiers go. But I do get the impression that there’s very little way to make creatures like the last game’s pop-up ChuChus and drooling Moblins work in a grittier, more “realistic” aesthetic like what Twilight Princess offers. Because of that, I hope the Zelda series moves towards a stylistic compromise similar to what you see with the Twilight Beasts, which are reminiscent of the cel-shading technique (mostly because their textural uniformity reacts the same way to the lighting model). Or, for that matter, the battle with Zant.

Obvious omissions include Octoroks, Moblins and Wizzrobes. I miss them slightly less if only because Lizalfos and Zant Heads are functional replacements, if not as lively.

I suppose this is my way of saying that Wind Waker is the better-looking game, but that’s not to discredit Twilight Princess for a vast rogues’ gallery that keeps the combat fresh. If anything, the Cave of Ordeals is a reminder of these strengths.

Environment: I appreciate how the NPCs preserve a lot of the genuine quirkiness of the Zelda series, and that the more “realistic” look of Twilight Princess does not preclude a few indulgences in caricature. As with the enemies, this works for some characters (Midna, Rusl, Barnes) more than others (Telma, Agitha, the Lake Hylia cannon guy). The landscaping and architecture are exquisite throughout, though as a world in decay, Hyrule Field naturally feels a bit dull and dry. Since you spend most of your time there, it’s tempting to say that the game lacks colour, though Snowpeak, the Faron Woods, and the Twilight Realm prove otherwise.

The most beautiful part of the game is the Sacred Grove, which I think demonstrates what I mean by an ideal stylistic compromise for the Zelda series: the trees and crumbling structures are intricate, the lighting makes the whole place downright painterly, but cartoonish enemies (Skull Kid and his puppets) don’t feel out of place at all. It’s full of life and colour without being overly abstract, and it’s built to last.

Music: Ha! That’s a whole other post.

Verdict: We now return to the question of whether this is the best Zelda to date. My answer would be, not at the exclusion of the other ones. It doesn’t make any game obsolete, though it goes a long way towards doing almost everything Ocarina of Time did, but better. Not the whole way, but a long way. I still think the 3D Zeldas have yet to live up to A Link to the Past in terms of puzzles, secret items and other elements, but Twilight Princess is a step forward. The dungeons don’t supercede everything that has already been done; Wind Waker still has its cooperative dungeons to recommend it, even if Twilight Princess incorporated most of its innovations, like controlling statues and working against the wind. I can’t say how it compares to Majora’s Mask, which I haven’t played, and I’m not going to bother drawing comparisons to the other 2D Zeldas.

This was a really long post. I suspect it was time better spent fishing and playing Rollgoal. And telling people to see The Fountain, which I’m tempted to call the best film of 2006, though I’m reluctant to jump the gun on such a judgment until I see it again, a careful reluctance that also applies to the more publicly acclaimed Babel.

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No rest for the wiki

Wednesday, 6 December 2006 — 12:15pm

Well, this is interesting. Today I discovered that someone has, on two separate occasions, attempted to create a Wikipedia entry under “Nicholas Tam”, which is an esteemed name that I would prefer remained unsullied. Both times, it was deleted. The second time, it was protected; now nobody can write a Wikipedia entry under that name without first obtaining administrative approval. Naturally, I would never do this myself: I’m keenly observant of Wikipedian etiquette, and well aware that autobiographical masturbation is best conducted in the privacy of a user page.

At first I thought the culprit was my kid brother, who occasionally spams my referrer logs with frivolous queries like “Nick the ugly canadien who goes to café”. In fact, the date of the entry’s first attempted creation coincided with my brother’s birthday, which is, if anything, circumstantial. Alas, it was but an alignment of the stars. Upon an examination of the entry’s edit history, it seems that there was indeed an individual who assumed my fine and noble name and wrote about himself, no doubt miffed that it is I, not he, who represents at least the first twenty Nicholas Tams in the World According to Google.

The deleted entry reads:

Nicholas Tam is a distinguished student, sportsman and debater in Victoria, Australia.

Wrong! Nicholas Tam is a distinguished student, sportsman and debater in Alberta, Canada (pick a city – there are only two that count, and I’m not sure about the northern one). For the sake of argument, we’ll consider Scrabble a sport.

But that’s not all, no sirree. Not only does he create a vanity article, when it is (properly) tagged with a notice for speedy deletion, he removes the notice. When a passing volunteer leaves him a message on his talk page expressing the nature of the problem, he removes the message. We have here a genuine troll, it seems – and thanks to him, there’s one more hoop to jump through if you are to write a well-earned article about me once I’ve achieved something sufficiently prominent, which is bound to happen sooner or later. Vandal! Charlatan! Fie upon him!

You’re on, Nicholas George Park Wing So-Called Tam from Victoria, Australia – if that’s your real name. The gloves are coming off. I will find you. I will get you.

But soft! What’s this I see on my talk page?

Looks like I’m not the only Nicholas Tam on the planet. So, is my Canadian counterpart also Eurasian? Tamazoid 10:40, 1 December 2006 (UTC)Nicholas Tam (of Australia)

Ha! You don’t know the half of it, kid. I have always been at war with Eurasia.

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A fate worse than rap

Sunday, 3 December 2006 — 4:27am | Music, Pianism

What’s worse than listening to a tinny Casio electronic keyboard with a MIDI-quality timbre, muddy pedal effect, miscalibrated tuning dial and spring-loaded keys that offer no tactile response whatsoever?

Answer: playing a tinny Casio electronic keyboard with a MIDI-quality timbre, muddy pedal effect, miscalibrated tuning dial and spring-loaded keys that offer no tactile response whatsoever.

There is a very good reason why I refer to myself as a pianist and not a keyboardist. In fact, I will turn down very good money in the event that someone attempts to secure me for a gig in a venue that lacks a piano. Seriously, why even bother?

Nobody can sound good on these things. In fact, when it comes to jazz harmonies, it’s likely you’ll sound outright terrible. Improvised harmonic voicings depend heavily on a habitually-developed ear for resonances, overtones and the flavours you get from the spaces and clusters associated with a given register. That’s not even accounting for pedal technique, where you are not only sustaining notes, but considering how they cohere. While there’s a whole spectrum of quality from the living-room upright to the nine-foot concert grand, the same principles apply: you are still fundamentally triggering hammers on strings, and that comes with specific tactile and aural expectations.

Yes, I am aware that there are acoustic pianists out there who somehow manage to sound incredibly good on electric instruments. They go by names like Herbie Hancock and Doug Riley, and even they use proper electric instruments that don’t pretend to be low-fat synthesized substitutes for real pianos.

I don’t care if Donovan Bailey can sprint a hundred metres in 9.84 seconds: he can’t do dick-all in a pair of Wellingtons. This is no different.

(As for the circumstance in question, I cast no blame; a booking oversight landed the choir that I accompany in an abandoned-cinema-turned-church instead of the usual haunt at Convocation Hall. I would suggest to the gallery, for future reference, that “Do you have a piano?” is an essential question when selecting a venue. If you accept budget synthesizers as a placebo, you do it at your own risk, and I take no responsibility for sounding as uneven and insipid as a Michael Ignatieff speech on the Friday night of a leadership convention.)

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Unresolved appoggiaturas (shaken, not stirred)

Friday, 1 December 2006 — 7:30pm | Capsule reviews, Film, Video games

A few disconnected notes from recent weeks:

Prior to last weekend’s Vanier Cup, the top prize in CIS “football”, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix ran an article on the players permanently affixed to the bench (“‘Redshirts’ key to Green and White”, 22 November 2006). I mention this primarily because they interviewed my elementary-school partner-in-crime Russell Webb, who is now at the end of a five-year career sitting on the bench for the Huskies, but also because I can’t help but notice that Star Trek terminology has entered the general lexicon.

Wikipedia tells me that the use of the term redshirt has a distinct etymology in the context of college sports, since red is a common scrimmage jersey colour, but I don’t buy that. I think that has at least been absorbed, if not superceded, by the more familiar meaning that refers to the junior ensigns on the Enterprise who serve as dutiful away-mission cannon-fodder.

Next: Cartoon Brew recently linked to a post on the five lamest Charlie Brown cartoons. #3 is a Cheerios commercial (and a link to a special about leukemia), and #5 is a Family Guy clip as uninspired as the rest of that show has been in recent seasons. They are new to me. Not only do I remember the other three, I own them. Yes, that includes the disco-fever Snoopy of It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. Hey, it was catchy at the time. In my defence, I would say that I do consider Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Come Home to be rather good; believe it or not, the melodrama works. (The latter is legendary in its own right for the “No Dogs Allowed” sign and accompanying jingle.)

Next: I am six dungeons into Twilight Princess, and at the gates of the seventh; naturally, this comes directly at the expense of my academic work (and so, for that matter, does the act of confessing that in writing). I am astounded by this game’s continued ability to surprise at every turn. You see a pit you cannot traverse, and you think you’re going to pick up some Hover Boots. Nope! You see a block of ice in your way, and you think you’re going to pick up a Fire Rod. Nope! The surprise, though, is that what you actually do obtain is a lot more fun. Aesthetically, I still prefer most of the enemy designs from The Wind Waker, but that’s neither here nor there. More on this some other time; I don’t expect I’ll be shutting up about Zelda anytime soon.

Next: While I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to current cinema, and while I have a lot of elaboration to do on all of the below (if only I had the time), I want to offer a few brief, undefended impressions. I’ve only seen each of these once, and opinions may change.

Death of a President: Technically and logistically interesting, but surprisingly tame. There is nothing controversial about this movie. Speculative history doesn’t work if you don’t take any risks. No, the assassination of George W. Bush is not, in itself, enough of a risk.

Babel: In recent years we’ve seen the popular emergence of ensemble films consisting of parallel stories connected only by thematic material and trifles of cause and effect. Traffic was nominated for Best Picture in 2000, and while I admired it, I found the actual parallel storylines to be weak in isolation. Crash won Best Picture in 2005, and while it was both engaging and fun, the thematic material was often much too overt and heavy-handed to make an effective statement on racism. I would argue that Babel is a better film than both of these, and perhaps the best film I’ve seen in this ensemble format, precisely because it is strong on both accounts. I will be returning to this movie, and unless I was fooled by first impressions, I think it should be a legitimate contender this year.

Flushed Away: To paraphrase a scene from the film – “amusing”, and by that, I mean “diverting”. There’s a lot of classic Aardman irony that begs to come out in this film, and a lot of their stop-motion character designs survive the translation to CG (watch the exaggerated mouth movements and how they sync with the dialogue). However, I think the pace of the action is often much too frantic, and it’s really quite inexcusable to have so much forgettable licensed music obscure the score by Harry Gregson-Williams, one of the most interesting film composers of the past decade and such an integral part of Chicken Run. I may come to think better of this film in time, but I do think that despite its strengths, it doesn’t distinguish itself from the Great CG Cesspool of 2006 as effectively as I’d hoped.

Borat: Occasionally hilarious in the tradition of “informed silliness” pioneered by the Monty Python troupe. That said, this movie runs into the same problem as Rowan Atkinson’s Bean did back in 1998: it fails to situate its disconnected sketches within a narrative good enough to justify its feature-length running time. The Pamela Anderson business simply doesn’t cut it, and I do wish it was there as more than just a middling excuse for a frame story. Also, in the odd moments when the jokes are misfires, there’s an awkward dead space in Cohen’s timing where laughter is supposed to be, and it’s very obvious. I speculate that the larger the audience you’re in, the less often you will see this happen.

Casino Royale: I can’t praise this film enough. I haven’t seen all twenty-one Bond films, but I am ready to declare this one the best. It is certainly the closest to the Ian Fleming ideal, and without a doubt, exactly the kind of Bond film I’ve wanted to see for years. As trepidatious as I was of the substitution of poker for baccarat, when the baccarat scenes in the book were probably the most electric card-playing passages I’ve read in any novel, the execution is superb. I may write a more thorough post on Casino Royale at some point, because there’s just so much to applaud.

Next: nationhood. Maybe. It’s an infuriating issue exacerbated by the wild stupidity in this country in the past few weeks. I know this blog is predominantly apolitical, unlike those of my compatriots in the immediate vicinity (Dan Arnold, for instance), but poke a sleeping dragon in the eye with sharp enough a stick and he’s bound to wake. Or, as J.K. Rowling would put it, draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

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