Saturday, December 27, 2008

Return of "Review in Haiku"

One of my favourite pursuits over the holidays has been watching movies, and I have managed to watch an average of a movie a day over the past week. It's hard to fully review all of those movies in so short a time, so I thought it would be easier to rejuvenate the dormant "Review in Haiku" format. Enjoy.

Raging Bull:
La Motta's a bum
But De Niro's brilliant and
Deserves all the hype

Simpsons Movie:
Nineteen years waiting
Results in classic Homer
And lots of guffaws

Galaxy Quest:
Star Trek spoof takes off
Still hilarious the fifth time
Watch for Dwight early

Man on Wire:
Breathtaking story
Of artistic crime; creates
Mythos of Towers

Kung Fu Panda:
Flick joins kung fu with
Funny; but what's with needless
Celeb voices, eh?

Futurama - Bender's Game:
Third full-length feature
Fun spoof of Lord of the Rings;
Come on, renewal!

I'm Not There:
Experimental
Biopic sometimes flawed, but
Blanchett saves the show

The Sting:
Con man buddy flick
sets up and pays off; classic
Redford and Newman

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas of firsts

We went with some friends to a carol service and midnight mass at the Catholic Cathedral downtown. I couldn't stay in the building because of the incense, so I took some time and walked around until the service let out and the others were able to leave. In that time of perambulating, I realized that this is a Christmas unlike any other I have had. It almost feels like my first "grown-up Christmas" I am in a new city, with a new wife and new apartment. I have a new church, a new community here, a job that I enjoy, and I do not have to be concerned about what is happening at the end of April for the first time since high school. Although I am not with family and friends and I miss you all so much, I am having a very relaxing Christmas, and I have had a great first Christmas with my wife. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review: Man on Wire

Biopics have long been a staple of film culture. Re-imagining someone's life and presenting it with new actors and new perspectives almost always attracts attention and publicity, and a certain cachet of respect. Sure, sometimes they revise history a little bit or omit some of the less likable parts, but that is where "artistic interpretation" comes in (riiight). It was very refreshing, then, to watch a documentary about someone's life that still featured the creativity and freshness of a retelling of a story, while preserving the facts and history of the actual event. The film Man on Wire is the story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who schemed and plotted his way into mounting a rope between the towers of the World Trade Center and performing for close to an hour in August 1974. The film features interviews with all of the participants in the event, pictures and video from the preparation and the walk, as well as creative re-enactments of some of the events, which help give a visual guide for following the action. The result is a combination of a "heist" picture, with the planning of how to stage the stunt, a story about friendship, and a breathtaking look at how one man defied the odds - and gravity! - in a quest to reach his dream. It is a very interesting film just to see all of the preparations for the stunt and to see the video of Petit finally on the wire, but what adds to the film is the mystique of the imagery of the Twin Towers. They now seem to have an almost mythical significance not only for Petit, as the site of the "artistic crime of the century", but also for the viewer. There is no mention of 9/11, but the way in which the towers are treated in the film - with reverence by Petit - helps contribute to the sense of something special in the making both for the time in 1974 and now. In a sense, this movie might help people see beyond the terrorism, and also to see that the WTC was not just an American icon; it had - and still has - an effect that goes beyond America, beyond 9/11, beyond terrorism, and that the sense of wonder brought about by Petit that day in August 1974 still lives on, even if the towers do not.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Super Mario Awesomeness

I just spent the weekend immersed in the world of Super Mario Galaxy for the Nintendo Wii, and I was amazed. The way the game designers found ways to make the gameplay fresh and fun is really exceptional, and the game's controls are so unique that this is a brand new Mario experience. The creators have introduced several new abilities for Mario in addition to his already expansive list, and these new abilities - including Bee, Boo, Spring, Flying, and Ice Mario - help make the game different from anything that has come before. And then I started thinking about where I would put this Mario game in my Top 10 list of Mario games over the past twenty-five years. I decided to eliminate puzzle, sports, racing, and party variations and to focus just on the Mario games that have a storyline, whether they are platform or adventure format. I also have not played the handheld Mario games, so they will not appear on my list. This is my attempt to answer the question, "If I could play only one Mario game for the rest of my life, which one would it be?" Here are my top 10:

10. Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES) - The variation that did not quite work, though playing as Luigi was a lot of fun, and throwing vegetables was awesome.

9. Super Mario Bros. (NES) - The original side-scroller set the standard for platformers for many years, and it still stands up well.

8. Super Mario World (SNES) - The new twists of Yoshi, secret levels, and dual endings for levels made the 16-bit debut replayable. The Star Road secret levels made this game truly gnarly...or was it tubular?

7. Paper Mario (N64) - I have not played the two sequels to this game, but there was a really unique feel to this game that would be fun to play over and over.

6. Super Mario Sunshine (GC) - This was the most original Mario game, as Mario was equipped with a water pack with which he had to remove gunk from all over an island. This game would be higher on the list if not for its difficulty level - it was almost unbeatable in places, and there are only so many times one can play a level before frustration sets in.

5. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (SNES) - I know that this is not exactly a Mario game, since Yoshi was the main playable character, but it still featured the same kind of format as most of its predecessors, as well as many of the same enemies and situations. As one of the last entries of the 16-bit generation, this game set a new standard for side-scrolling platformers, and it was a lot of fun, despite the annoying crying of Baby Mario.

4. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES) - Mario transformed, warped, and P-Winged his way through the eight worlds of this masterpiece. The game may be twenty years old, but it is still a really fun way to spend an afternoon. My favourite was always World 7, the Pipe World, but the whole game is still fun.

3. Super Mario 64 (N64) - This game reinvented Mario and set a new standard for platform-adventure games. The idea of exploring worlds with different missions was revolutionary, and the game has enough fun challenges to be worth playing over and over.

2. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) - Part of the joy of playing this game is simply marvelling at the wonder of the game and the seemingly endless creativity of the designers. It is inventive, and though it still uses many of the same motifs as previous incarnations of Mario, it does so in new and exciting ways. The uniqueness of the controls, which often require players to execute three separate functions at once, make for an unparalleled gaming experience. One of the drawbacks is that the game has a fairly low difficulty level, though perhaps my previous experience with Mario games contributed to my success. It is a breath-taking game at times, and it would be number one if not for...

1. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (SNES) - The combination of Nintendo and RPG master-developer SquareSoft resulted in one of the most entertaining and replayable adventure-style RPGs ever. The storyline of the game is very interesting, and the gameplay is nearly flawless. The mini-games are a lot of fun, and it is fun to see how the Mario universe really expanded with this game. Plus, this was the first game that allowed players to play as Bowser, and that is still really cool.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The decline of Heroes

[Spoiler alert!] In the past three years, I have faithfully watched Heroes. But midway through Season 3, I have begun to wonder if the show has lost its way. I thought it might be useful to recount what has happened so far to see where Heroes has gone wrong. Heroes had an riveting first season; from the initial story arc of "save the cheerleader, save the world" through "are you on the list?" to the finale in Kirby Plaza, viewers became consumed with the lives of real people who were discovering their abilities as the season progressed. Though the season-ending showdown was not as climactic as many had hoped, it still served as a satisfying coda to an exhilirating ride.
Then came Season 2 and the writer's strike, during which the show started its decline, to the point that series creator Tim Kring apologized for the season after it aired. Though the idea of exploring the heroes' pasts through bringing in generational lines was interesting, and the Shanti virus storyline provided some momentum toward the season's conclusion, there were many problems with season 2. Hiro was stuck in medival Japan for far too long - it should have been no longer than two episodes. Too many new characters were introduced, especially the brother-sister duo of Maya and Alejandro, who contributed little to the plot other than a vehicle for Sylar to re-enter the show. Sylar should have been left out of Season 2 and brought back in Season 3. Thankfully, the whole Shanti virus storyline was cut off by the writer's strike, and the much simpler solution of just having the virus be destroyed became the easiest way out of the traps into which the writers had cornered themselves.
That brings us to Season 3, which started with Volume 3, "Villains". The end of S2 had shown some promise, and S3 upped the stakes significantly with more violence and gore and perhaps some of the most disturbing images ever shown on prime time television. But ratings were heading the wrong way - good, but not great - and the co-executive producers got axed early into the season. But it is hard to understand: there is action, intrigue, character history, a couple of key new characters, and some really cool stuff going on in this season, which has focussed on teams of heroes coming together on either side of good and evil to either support or destroy a formula that could give everyone powers. Then, as I was thinking about the season that has been, I think I realized what has gone wrong: the show is too contrived. So much of what happens in the show happens because it's plotted to happen, rather than a natural progression from one step to the other, and many of the problems the characters face are meant to keep the plot going longer.
Take, for example, the characters of Peter and Sylar. Both have been very powerful, and both have been robbed of their powers several times, whether through memory loss, injury, another character, or an eclipse. The show seems to be trying to find ways to keep them from being powerful so that they can do things with the other characters. Another recent example is Hiro losing his powers and being stuck in time. Considering that Hiro is one of the most popular characters, it's an ill-advised plot thread at best. But after suffering through several episodes in which Hiro had the mind of a 10-year-old, his powers were taken away and he was trapped in the past, which then meant that the writers needed to make another ridiculous couple of leaps to rescue him. It was all so contrived, and all of these plot movements could have been solved by eliminating the source of the contrivance - just let Hiro do his thing. I think it is this constant see-sawing of characters' powers - and even of the morality of characters - that has made the show contrived and that has taken away from the show. Although I enjoy observing some moral ambiguity and personal struggle, let most of the characters be either good or evil, and focus on a few characters who can vacillate (the Petrellis, for example).
Things have been overcomplicated too often in the show; sometimes, the simplest solution is the best and least contrived. The writers need to work at figuring out the most natural solution and letting situations unfold, rather than creating situations that they need to create complicated circumstances to solve. It does seem, however, that there is some clarity now, as the show enters Volume 4: "Fugitives." The heroes are now faced with an X-Men-like scenario in which the government is bent on destroying them, and they will have to bond together to survive. After a maniacal purging of almost all of the secondary characters, the show is left with its main stars: Parkman, Daphne (the newcomer), Claire, Noah, Mohinder, Peter, Nathan, Hiro, Ando, Micah, and Tracy Strauss (another "newcomer"). Perhaps the threat of humans will help bring things together; perhaps the elimination of all of these lesser lights will help bring focus on the main characters. As long as what happens in the next half-season is less contrived, the show will survive. Otherwise, Heroes may find itself entering Volume 5: "Cancellation".

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The winter of my content

I had my first snow day yesterday. We had about 6 cm of snow and a windchill of gasp! -13 here in Victoria, so school was cancelled. It strikes me as quite humourous that I had to leave Saskatchewan to get a day off work because of winter weather, but a day off is a day off. It's actually quite nice right now on the Island, as temperatures are not supposed to be above freezing until Christmas Eve. Yay for snow in December! Also, it's much brighter at night now, and there's wind! I did not know how much I would miss wind until I heard it again. So, sure, it's the kind of weather that Saskatchewan has at the beginning of November and the end of March, but it's still winter, and it still reminds me of home. I am content.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Trekkie time

I, like other bloggers, am nerding out over the new Star Trek trailer. I am very optimistic about the movie, which seems to be prepared to re-vision the Star Trek universe in much the same way James Bond and Batman have been re-imagined. But even the release of this movie speaks to the enduring nature of Star Trek; the series is one of the most significant examples of pop culture becoming enduring culture. I think, along with the writers of Futurama, that Star Trek will be looked upon as a significant part of Western culture in the latter half of the 20th century; not only has the show had a committed following, but it has had significant cultural impact beyond its media. It has changed technology, language, cultural customs, and even politics (in a minor way, but the influence is still there). Plus, it introduced the world to Shatner, without whom we wouldn't have this. Or this. Or this (one of the DVD releases I really want to see happen soon).

And for your enjoyment, here is one view of how William Shatner may have reacted to the new trailer.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Careful, man, there's a beverage here!"

I have, in the recent past, declared my fandom of the cult classic movie The Big Lebowski. When I meet people who say they are movie people, I often throw out a quotation from the movie, just to see if they live up to their words. If another quotation comes back, I know they're not lying; if they stare at me blankly, I know I've got some work to do. It is one of those movies that stayed mainly in the cultural subconscious - at least until this year. The critical success of No Country For Old Men and the relative box-office success of possible future cult favourite Burn After Reading have resulted in a renewed interest in the Coens, which combined with a recent tenth anniversary release of Lebowski, has brought the movie back to common pop culture awareness. One example is this New York Times article, which chronicles the revival of the White Russian, the Dude's main beverage. It is doubtful that the movie will ever become "mainstream", but its reputation has grown and developed over the past ten years, both in pop culture and academic analysis, and it is not hard to foresee that the appreciation of the movie will only continue to grow. As always, the Dude abides, and I take comfort in that.

The Canadian "Crisis"

What a week it has been in Canadian politics and blogger rhetoric. The metaphorical fur has flown throughout the week, and many vindictive tirades have been lashed against the "power-hungry PM" and the "undemocratic, insurrectionist, unconstitutional, anti-Canadian, pro-separatist" proposers of the coalition government. And then, today, Governor-General Michaelle Jean ended a week of speculation by proroguing Parliament according to the wish of the PM, which then avoids the impending vote of non-confidence and preserves the Conservatives' power until the new year. Of course, it is doubtful that the media exposure to this "crisis" will end; there will be endless posturing on the future of Harper, Dion, and Parliament, much to the delight of the major newspapers, to the chagrin of people who are sick of politics, and to the indifference of the rest of the world. But only in Canada could this situation be called a "crisis"; after all, it has challenged our values of "peace, order, and good government," and left Canada with the possibility of a Parliament run by a different party that is mostly filled with middle-class white people with semi-conservative social values and semi-liberal political ideals (and yes, I would consider myself a political cynic). This is a situation that has been blown way out of proportion because of media frenzy and opposition parties who are frustrated with a minority government that is ruling like a majority, and I believe that the G-G made the correct decision in proroguing Parliament. Dion would have, at best, been a lame-duck PM, with his resignation impending with a leadership convention upcoming in May, and it is difficult to foresee that the coalition would have functioned any better than the current dysfunctional government has. In proroguing this session of Parliament, the G-G has given this government a chance to right its wrongs through compromise and negotiation, rather than giving up on this government entirely. She has also partially corrected the mistake she made in allowing an election to happen in the first place, when she should have told Harper to make Parliament work; she has now seemingly taken that step, and it is a good precedent to set on the Hill. She has put some faith in Stephen Harper's ability to fix things, and it is now his responsibility to do so; whether Harper rewards her faith in him will be seen when Parliament resumes in January. And if his government fails after this measure, he will bear the brunt of the blame - and deservedly so.

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