From the archives: Oscars

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And the token nominee is…

Thursday, 25 June 2009 — 2:36pm | Animation, Film, Oscars

Nothing is ever so counterproductive as a desperate gamble for popular relevance. Case in point: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is expanding the Oscars’ Best Picture shortlist to ten nominees, effectively reverting to the pre-1944 format. The press release is here. This is a boneheaded idea, although I can see why somebody would think it looks good on paper.

In recent years, the best thing AMPAS did for itself was move the Oscars forward by a month. By curtailing the ability of the major studios to do a heavily funded marketing push in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to conquer the industry’s mindspace with their chosen representative, and moving the ballot deadline ahead of the precursor awards that once rendered the Oscars too predictable, the show virtually matured overnight.

Since then, the trend has been towards greater recognition of artier, if not outright independent fare. A decade ago, it would have been unlikely, if not unthinkable, for excellent and unique films like No Country For Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire to claim the top prize. This is not to say that the Oscars used to be bad and suddenly became good: it is merely to acknowledge that the awards were increasingly living up to their social responsibility as a counterweight for the market, as a way of boosting the fortunes of films the public may have wrongfully overlooked. The public may have complained that they had never heard of the films being awarded, let alone seen them—often because the lesser-known nominees had yet to see general release outside of the major American cities by the time the shortlist was announced—but that is as it should be. If an awards show comes off as elitist, it is doing its job.

Personally, the only question I care about is whether this means Up will be Pixar’s first Best Picture nominee, and the second animated feature to make the shortlist in history (Beauty and the Beast being the first). But without an even playing field comparable to that of previous years, it is impossible to tell whether this is actually a sign of forward progress. And against the objections of those who believe the Animated Feature category has created a permanent ghetto for the artform, I do believe some progress has been made. Yes, only very recently did we see the outrageous exclusions of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, two of the finest pieces of American cinema in the twenty-first century. But the nomination of WALL•E in the Original Screenplay category last year was already a significant step forward, a recognition of what story really means in a visual medium.

The sudden expansion of the shortlist to twice its previous size is a nightmare for historians and other cineastes whose interest is in tracking the evolution of Hollywood’s congratulatory attitude towards itself. And unlike similar lists that whittle the present vintage down to ten—the American Film Institute’s comes to mind—the selection of a victorious picture as the best of the ten guarantees even more pervasive vote-splitting than what we have seen in the past.

(My opinion has always been that significant industry awards should be determined by discussion and debate rather than democracy, but the Oscars are the film industry’s way of patting itself on the back and I wouldn’t expect it to conduct itself any differently. It is a real shame that the Oscars, and not the critics’ awards or the AFI, serve as the primary guidebook for future generations to select films for preservation or rediscovery. One day, this may change.)

In my estimation, this is an unwanted and unnecessary concession to populist sentiment that The Dark Knight—a sterling if overrated crime drama, and the superhero genre’s most earnest bid for serious acceptance—was wrongfully snubbed. It is an intentional return to the pattern of including token box-office hits (remember The Fugitive?), under the appealing guise of easing the inclusion of films that have already been given uncomfortable pigeonholes to keep them out of everybody else’s business—animated and foreign-language features in particular.

If we do see increased recognition of animated, foreign, and independent films—not just this year, but going forward in the long term—I will temper my objections and stand corrected. It is far more likely that the big-studio horses will crowd the race.

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The Oscars strike back; so do the writers

Tuesday, 22 January 2008 — 9:12am | Film, Oscars

Oscar nominations are up—and while I’m not as equipped to comment as I usually am, given that I haven’t caught up on all the films I missed on account of being out of the country, but I’ll dispense some initial impressions nonetheless. At this point I’m not going to pay too much attention to whether the ceremony will have any of its usual glitz if the presenters and nominees continue to show solidarity with the WGA; for me, it’s about recognizing the films, and the ceremony itself is mostly window dressing. So here we go.

Continued »

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Time flies like a penguin

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 — 9:44pm | Animation, Film, Hockey, Oscars, Video games

I have a number of posts on queue or in mind that are actually of substance, but this is not one of them. In their place, how about a spate of disjointed miscellany, loosely connected by waddling flightless birds:

First, with the addition of Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts to the lineup, the Pittsburgh Penguins are suddenly even more interesting than they were already. I mention them both in connection to something I want to say about Ryan Smyth, which is next. I appreciate seeing someone as entertaining as Laraque on a team I will actually root for of my own volition, and the idea of Roberts on the ice with Sidney Crosby blows my mind. Mind you, to see Laraque in a flaming C would have been downright awesome, but I’m almost inclined to think the citizenry here in Edmonton, which seems to live and die for the Oilers, has taken enough punishment for one day. Or one season.

As for the Oilers? Speaking as someone from Calgary, I like seeing a strong, healthy and respectable Oilers team worthy of a provincial rivalry. Without a heated Battle of Alberta (preferably one that we win), hockey can only be so interesting. I’ve been told from several corners that in terms of tangibles, Edmonton got plenty from the Islanders for Ryan Smyth, and basically came out on top. But in the context of Edmonton’s rotten year in the front office, and Smyth’s intangible value to his team and to the community at large in terms of morale, leadership and institutional memory, I wouldn’t blame a single Oilers fan for quitting on their team. I quit on the Flames, and hockey in general, for a span of about eight years. I can identify, within a reasonable margin of confidence, when the cracks started to show and the Flames started to quit on me: when they traded Al MacInnis to St. Louis.

It’s easy to console oneself with the mentality that such-and-such a superstar who has been with you for over a decade is 31 years old and won’t be improving anyway, but you start eating your words when said player stays on the other team for another decade without too considerable a decline, and they retire his jersey before you do and stick him in management. Meanwhile, back home you develop all these new faces for a couple of years, and the fan base goes, “Who are these guys?” before it makes like a tree and leafs. I don’t know if that will happen with Ryan Smyth, and it almost certainly won’t with the Islanders, but he doesn’t look like a guy on the decline to me. Then again, he’s never been a MacInnis-class player either, though I don’t want to start comparing apples and orangutans.

Not that I expect anybody in this city to really stop caring about their floundering team. Edmonton takes its hockey very, very seriously, even by Canadian standards. We’re talking about a Roch Carrier’s Le Chandail de Hockey magnitude of seriousness. They burn their owners in effigy around here. But in the oil-ridden backwaters of central to northern Alberta, there’s only so much to live for. (That’s what the Prongers found out.)

It’s incredible to me that we’re now over a decade removed from the time when Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts were, for all intents and purposes, established franchise players for the Flames. When play resumed after the lockout, all three were still on the ice. Remarkably, one of them still is, and it’s the one we practically lost to injury. An eight-year abandonment and a Stanley Cup run later, I got over it. Go Flames go.

Next: Scientists in China have leveraged the wonders of neuroscience to develop remote-controlled pigeons. My thoughts on carrier pigeons aside (I kind of love them), all I’ll say is this: forty years ago, this would have made for a killer episode of The Avengers.

Next: I’ve come to the conclusion that the Wii remote, turned sideways, is a phenomenal NES-style two-button controller. I’ve been using it as an NES and Genesis pad on the Virtual Console, and with emulated Game Boy titles on my Mac with the assistance of DarwiinRemote. At first, it’s a bit strange to hold a controller that wide when the left side is about half the width of the right, but the D-pad is superb and the 1/2 buttons (mapped to A/B, and horizontally arranged like the NES pad and unlike the Game Boy line) contour like a dream. I’ve been told that these are the same kind of buttons as the ones on the DS Lite. If so, I think I’m upgrading. It’s not just about the buttons, though. The form factor of the Wiimote, in all its lightweight, wireless glory, is such that you don’t grip the controller so much as you let it rest on your fingers and let it become a part of you.

As I was never a Sega man, for good reason – let’s face it, Nintendo won that era handily, even though the sales at the time made it look close – I did miss out on some genuinely terrific games for the Genesis. Well, one, anyway: Gunstar Heroes, the side-scrolling shoot-’em-up to end all side-scrolling shoot-’em-ups. It now resides on my Wii thanks to the Virtual Console service. This is all quite encouraging. In two generations, when Nintendo is still alive and kicking and Sony’s games division has gone under, I fully expect to be downloading and playing PS2 games on my Nintendo system. There are a handful I’ve always wanted to try, though I could never justify purchasing a console from that generation that wasn’t a GameCube.

Would it be impossible for Nintendo to somehow update the Wii firmware so a Nintendo DS could be used as an SNES controller? Given that any sort of DS-to-Wii connection would be over local Wi-Fi and not Bluetooth, I wonder if there are any problems in terms of responsiveness and reliability. Battery consumption really isn’t an issue.

Next: I’ve decided I’m not going to comment on the Oscars until I’ve seen The Departed again, primarily because the first time I saw it, my enthusiasm was deflated somewhat because in some very significant ways, Scorsese’s film fails to escape the shadow of Infernal Affairs. It’s a strong film, but not as good as Andy Lau’s, certainly nowhere near Scorsese’s best, and – upon initial impressions – not nearly as engaging as Babel, which was (in turn) a more intelligent film than last year’s winner, the structurally similar Crash. But I have a feeling that The Departed would improve on repeat viewings.

Okay, I’ll comment on one Oscar. Cars was robbed. Happy Feet was fun and ambitious, but Cars was playing in a different league altogether – Pixar’s league. It reminds me of the hysteria over Shrek when it was the first winner of the Animated Film statuette back in 2001, which only really manifested itself in the box-office performance of the sequel. Don’t get me wrong: Shrek is still the best we’ve seen from DreamWorks apart from their work with Aardman, and is undoubtedly the best of the spoof subgenre. But on repeat viewings, it’s become abundantly clear that its opponent that year, Monsters, Inc., is the finer film by almost every critical metric that should be applied to animation, even if it isn’t as immediately gratifying. Between Cars and Happy Feet, it’s not even that close. The care and attention to character and story design aren’t even comparable.

Moreover, I worry about the impact that the Happy Feet award will have on the decisions that are made at the level of the people with money, the ones who are in the position of treating animation like a business and not a craft. Again, Cartoon Brew is on the money: professional animators have something to fear. The success of a film driven by motion-capture techniques means that the kind of studio bosses who invested in Shrek clones to the point of market oversaturation are, at this very moment, gambling their “development” money on mo-cap.

And why not? From a business perspective, motion-capture provides an Oscar-tested avenue for the budget to be spent on post-production technology that already exists, as opposed to investing in animators, who are trained to sort out all the minutiae in the design and storyboarding process – a pre-production phase that spans several years. If you’re going to greenlight films based on economic forces in a high-stakes nine-figure market, you’re naturally going to be impatient. And in case anybody is still under the illusion that the Oscars don’t matter, consider why it is that the standard idiom in mainstream CG is built on pop-culture references and celebrity voices – material that appeals to the here-and-now, and not built to last. It all goes back to Shrek.

I’m not one to knock motion-capture as a legitimate technique: once animators play with the keyframing and refine the results, the wonders start coming, and there’s no better testament than Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Remember that the harbinger of the CG revolution that first reached silver-screen audiences was also a similar live-action proof-of-concept, Jurassic Park. The real danger is when mo-cap is treated as a replacement for animators, which is a problematic strategy born of ignorance. A reliance on mo-cap as a time-saver and cost-saver, as opposed to a highly efficient modelling tool for animators to play with.

Take Happy Feet, for instance. Most of the animation in the film happens at the level of full bodies and, well, feet. When Mumble is confident, he puffs out his chest and struts around on his pair of tappity-tappers. When he’s sad, he hunches over and pitter-patters away. Fair enough. Can you think of a single memorable moment that involved, say, the eyes? Or even the flippers? If you look at a movie like Cars, almost every memorable shot is fundamentally defined by the “eyebrow” lines over the windshield. (I read somewhere that this was precisely why the animators decided to put the eyes in the windshield instead of the established standard of the headlights. It worked.)

Eyes are usually a dead giveaway when it comes to the apparent fluidity or stiffness of an animated character, and in Happy Feet, they’re not even designed to have any expressive power. They’re just there because penguins have eyes. The puppet-like rigidity in that paragon of Uncanny Valley mo-cap films, The Polar Express? It’s in the eyes, which are ostensibly only there because humans have eyes. When motion-capture actually works, like it did with Gollum, you get both natural body movements from your model (in this case, Andy Serkis) and the subtleties of facial expression (in particular, eye movements) from animators using keyframing techniques.

You can still get by without eyes and rely on full-body motion – hopping lamps, anyone? – but not if you have a pair of eyes just sitting on your character’s face waiting to be used.

I would add, on a final note, that motion-capture isn’t nearly as effective for films that are wholly animated as it is for CG elements in live-action movies. The utility of motion-capture, apart from its savings, is to make animated body movements look realistic enough to blend in with live-action ones. In feature animation, it’s not incumbent on anything to look realistic: the first priority is to be expressive, and often, that’s the opposite. (Happy Feet is a strange case in that while it is primarily CG, it does attempt to blend with live-action elements in its enthralling third act.) At the same time, the claim that motion-capture was meant for live-action films is an ironic one: the first major all-CG motion-capture character in live-action features was none other than the infamous Jar Jar Binks. By my account, the primary reason he was so harshly received was his “cartoonish” dynamism and lack of subtlety, which made The Phantom Menace feel like (shock and horror!) an animated film. I get the sense that George Lucas asked Ahmed Best to act like an animated character, and got exactly what he wanted: “Faster, more intense.”

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Messrs. Oscar and Solid Snake

Tuesday, 23 January 2007 — 8:38pm | Animation, Film, Game music, Music, Oscars, Video games

Before I dispense my informed sentiments on Video Games Live, which I caught at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Monday, let’s get through a few brief notes about film.

As longtime readers know, I make a point of catching the Best of OIAF reel every year when they bring it to the Metro, mostly because I can’t justify going to Ottawa for the festival itself, and a digest is typically sufficient. That said, the 2006 selection was a mild disappointment. In the past two years, the touring programme has shown off films in competition in the various categories, but not necessarily the winners, and I think the decision shows. While some of the shorts exhibited some superb technique and story design – Stefan Mueller’s Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen & Mr. Horlocker and Chris Choy’s The Possum being my favourites – they were typically the most conventional of a field that was often almost too avant-garde for me (which is really saying something), or at the very least, heavier than usual on the cruelty dealt to furry little animals.

Oscar nominations are here, and they indicate possibly the most unpredictable race in recent memory. Part of that may be because the Oscars are early enough now that the guilds haven’t reported in yet with their own awards; the picture should be clearer going into awards night. But consider the statistical aberrations. I’m hardly one to mistake correlation for causation, but I do think – judging from this year and the last – that the Academy Awards have become considerably more interesting since they were bumped a month earlier, as the nomination deadline arrives before any consensus congeals on the table.

Glad to see six nominations for Pan’s Labyrinth, my tentative pick for the best film of 2006 (though it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, and I still haven’t seen a few major releases I’ve been meaning to catch, notably Letters from Iwo Jima and Dreamgirls). Nothing at all for The Fountain, which is flat-out ridiculous but not wholly unpredictable, though I would have at least liked to see Clint Mansell show up in the Original Score category. Of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, I would personally give it to Babel. As for who will win, I haven’t the foggiest.

I’m not going to offer any reasoning for the above. No time, no space, no space-time. Just heed my words and go see Pan’s Labyrinth.

Now let’s talk about video game music. It’s been awhile.

Last night’s performance of Video Games Live was the first symphonic video game concert in Alberta. That’s something to be celebrated, because damnit, it’s about time. Live concert performances of video game music have been going on in Japan for a decade and a half; North America didn’t wake up to the phenomenon until two years ago, with the original VGL performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, followed by the 2006 debut of Play! A Video Game Symphony (a programme that, with only a handful of global playdates in cities that matter, isn’t going to be here anytime soon).

A matter of personal background and credentials: I’ve been following video game music for years now, as an avid collector and occasional contributor to the remix and arrangement “scene,” even if I haven’t gone so far as to do a Lancastrian study that one can find online. I’m really curious as to when Summoning of Spirits is going to be released, because I whipped up a track from Tales of Symphonia that has been sitting around for a year and a half. In many cases, I’m much more familiar with the music than the games themselves – including a few selections on the VGL programme, such as Kingdom Hearts and a number of the Final Fantasy games. (Several numbers, in fact.) I found some of the best games of all time, Chrono Trigger among them, out of musical curiosity.

Suffice to say, I’m into this stuff.

So to cut to the chase, did I find VGL enjoyable? Yes, very much so. Was it some sort of revelatory, religious experience? No, I wouldn’t say that.

If there’s one thing that really separates a concert like VGL from the sort that was circulating in Japan in the early ’90s (and I’m thinking very specifically of the Orchestral Game Concert series), it’s that we’re firmly out of the chiptune era. While many games, Nintendo titles in particular, still store their music as MIDI data to be rendered by the console hardware (not so much to save space as to leave open the possibility of dynamic, algorithmic manipulation of the music to correspond with in-game events), the big-budget heavyweights in today’s game industry deliver orchestrated music fully formed.

Usually, the best of the game soundtracks are easily on par with the best of what is occurring in contemporary cinema. Two of the most interesting film composers of the decade, Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino, got off the ground with music to games like the Metal Gear Solid sequels and Medal of Honor, respectively – both of which were represented last night. There really is no longer a significant gap in audio fidelity and the quality of the composition.

At the same time, I wager that tunes such as the theme from Super Mario Bros. are burned into our collective consciousness precisely because they operated so effectively within severe technical constraints. Composers such as Koji Kondo were tasked with making something chirpy and repetitive not only bearable, but outright fun to listen to. In an orchestral setting, these melodies are primarily interesting for how they are expanded and arranged, and what kind of ideas emerge in the overhauled instrumentation. In the case of a medley – a format often necessary for giving a classic game due coverage and introducing variety to melodies designed to be played in neverending loops – one of the defining elements is also the fluidity of the transitions, and how the piece as a whole functions as a unified suite.

VGL was heavy on faithful renditions of music that was orchestrated to begin with. The chiptune era, the epoch that inspires nostalgia, had a relatively minor presence: there was the opening medley of classic arcade tracks, beginning with the bleeps and bloops of Pong; The Legend of Zelda; accompaniment underneath guests invited to play Space Invaders and Frogger onstage; Super Mario Bros.; and a solo piano medley consisting of music from Final Fantasy, both before the switch to recorded audio in VII and after.

The music from the orchestral era, I have no complaints about whatsoever. Seeing the ESO and the Kokopelli Choir performing Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV made me a very happy man, even if it did remind me of my, my… my problem. In terms of the audio setup, from where I was sitting off in the Left Terrace, there seemed to be a few balance issues between the choir and orchestra. But I’m being picky. Overall, it was a fine selection of fine music, and it was an especial treat to hear the premiere of the music from Jade Empire as a nod to the local boys over at Bioware.

In terms of video game music, I would characterize the chosen titles as part of the recognizable contemporary mainstream. The curious thing is that what constitutes the mainstream in today’s gaming environment is deeply fractured, given the divisions between the three major console manufacturers and even the PC: we no longer live in conditions that would permit the release of a game everybody knows, short of Grand Theft Auto (where all the music is licensed). You could make a case that in the past few years, World of Warcraft and Halo came about as close as you can get to ubiquity nowadays, but that’s still peanuts next to Super Mario Bros.

So while it was neat to see a cute orchestral translation of the arcade era of game music, where the dominant paradigm was to think more in terms of “sound effects” than “soundtracks” per se, I have to register my profound disappointment with the already scarce representation of the 8-bit and 16-bit generations, which are really the heart of nostalgia as far game music is concerned. And my problem is not with the scarcity: the programme covered the major bases – Koji Kondo (Mario and Zelda), Yuji Naka (Sonic), Nobuo Uematsu (early Final Fantasy). My problem is with the orchestration.

I can’t speak for the Sonic the Hedgehog medley, as I haven’t located its source, but the arrangements of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda were ripped directly from the ones performed in Japan’s Orchestral Game Concert. This is a bad thing for a number of reasons. First, I think these two particular arrangements are becoming standardized as the orchestral suites representing their respective games, and quite frankly, I don’t think they’re good enough for that to happen.

I don’t mind the Mario suite so much – I’ve always liked the inclusion of the woodblock to punctuate the overworld theme, and while I don’t think much of the transitions or the ending, it’s functional. If you’ve ever downloaded an MP3 file of the orchestral Super Mario Bros. misattributed to the Boston Pops, you’ve heard it.

The Zelda arrangement, however, is one that I’ve never liked. I can think of no other series that has delivered such a wealth of great melodies, and yet this arrangement chooses to dote on the familiar overworld theme (and not very well; I find it to be quite cliché and generally stale). And I’ve heard it often enough in various places over the years that I fear it is legitimately and dangerously close to being the “official” interpretation. If anything, concerts such as Video Games Live and Play! should be opportunities to commission new and inventive orchestral renditions of NES/SNES-era themes and motifs. There are so many talented composers in video games nowadays that would leap at the chance to do it, likely including Koji Kondo himself, that the absence of talent should not at all be an impediment.

I’m not a huge fan of Martin Leung’s piano arrangements of Mario and Final Fantasy, which were performed last night by his sister Lee Ann. I admire them for their accessibility, and from his videos I can tell that he has the technical gifts as a performer to conduct his position as one of video game music’s foremost ambassadors (and his sister has every bit of that classical musician’s discipline, even if she exhibited brief flashes of rhythmic sloppiness; as someone completely undisciplined who also indulges in rhythmic sloppiness, I’m one to talk). I don’t think he’s a terrific arranger, though: with the Mario series, he often opts for displacing the MIDI onto the keys, and with properties like Final Fantasy where there’s a little more invention, the hit-and-miss Final Fantasy Piano Collections were there a decade ago.

It’s like whenever I hear lounge pianists take on Henry Mancini or Andrew Lloyd Webber: they demonstrate a predilection for fanciful flourishes and grand arpeggiating cadenzas to make everything sound oh-so-romantic, and they’re all people who have clearly graduated from the rites of passage commonly associated with the name “Franz Liszt.” And that has made them virtuosic performers, but what separates them from bona fide composers in the standard Romantic repertoire is this: a decided absence of depth and interest when it comes to harmony. Amidst all the fireworks and legerdemain, it’s easy to overlook the harmonic complexity of the great European composers. Even we jazz people like to think that our fourth voicings and modal substitutions over Richard Rodgers are so inventive and hip, but for the most part we’re just lifting from Debussy with one hand and the blues with the other. It’s still an improvement on the easy-listenin’ aesthetic of sitting on major and minor triads and leaving it at that.

But these are the back-in-my-day gripes of a grizzled vet, after all, and I’m sure it’s all really cool if you’ve never heard acoustic performances of classic video game music before. It was probably neat for me too, the first time. I can’t quite remember. People seem to tip me better when, after a few drinks, I stop being professional and start treating the piano as a party trick (i.e. play video game music). If you’re not used to it, it might just be novel.

I haven’t commented much on the VGL production itself, with the smoke and coloured lights and onscreen video game footage and what have you. In most cases I don’t think it was particularly necessary, and perhaps it was even a distraction, but where it really shone was in the arcade-era games, where the music really doesn’t stand on its own (when it isn’t outright plagiarized from the Romantics, which it often was back in the day), and is only effective in juxtaposition with the images. Maybe it was the selection of the images themselves: virtually every scrap of footage predating the rise of the PlayStation was inherently in-game footage, whereas afterwards, the focus was on full-motion video introductions. (Let’s face it: Civilization IV may be hard, hard crack, but it’s not exactly stimulating to watch somebody else play.)

As a project to demonstrate to everyone just how much video game music has evolved, and how fertile a ground it is for film-quality scores today, I would call Video Games Live a wild success. And perhaps that’s consistent with their objectives to move game music towards a certain mass appeal, objectives you can read about in the FAQ on the VGL website. It’s an admirable task, and given VGL’s splash in the mainstream press, the producers are well on their way to achieving it. I may sound rather critical, but in general, it was an excellent programme with some great music that can be enjoyed whether you’ve played the games or not. I do think the retro elements, in particular the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, were given short shrift in terms of quality and quantity; again, it might just be a matter of perspective.

I’m not necessarily inclined to see the show again when it hits Calgary next November. (For one thing, what equivalent does Calgary have to the Kokopelli Choir? Cowtown may be the better city, but if anyone were to make a case defending Edmonton, said choir would be one of the chief exhibits.) But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing it, not by a long shot. Video Games Live is a worthwhile experience, and a positive step towards establishing mainstream recognition of where game music is today. The potential benefits are immense: every musician or budding composer-arranger who develops an interest in game music is a valuable addition to the community. But first, they need to know that the community is there. I could go on and on with analogies to the tremendous impact that Stefan Fatsis’ book Word Freak had on competitive Scrabble, but I’ve tread that ground many a time before. Take my word for it: the principles at work are the same.

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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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