Friday, May 29, 2009

Lovin' the dozen

The TV season is complete, and I am glad to see it go. I enjoyed most of it, but it really started to drag in the past month or so. Some shows - like Chuck - ended just at the right time, and didn't drag on to the very end, like Heroes, with its 25-episode season. This is why I love the idea of the 12-13 episode television season, and I love the creativity in NBC's new schedule: a shift halfway through the year to accommodate more series, even if some of them are for a shorter time. I think it might benefit shows like Heroes that could use some brevity. It means that, in theory, I can fit more shows into my schedule, and that there will be periods that are not as heavy with shows to watch. Also, I just found out today that John Lithgow has been cast for the next season of Dexter as "The Trinity Killer", a suburbanite serial killer who relocates to Miami. It could top the Miguel bromance of Season 3, and if nothing else, it will continue to prove the brilliance of the dozen episode season.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who gives a $#!t about profanity?

The controversy is all over the faith-directed end of the interweb: Derek Webb's new album, Stockholm Syndrome, includes the word "shit." It has produced some interesting commentary, as well as some oddly cryptic e-mail correspondences from Webb himself. It is unclear whether it is a constructed or authentic conflict, but it does seem plausible, and it has ignited a debate about the place of profanity in Christian music that has not flared up in a few years, and perhaps is even surprising in 2009. The issue has been raised before by Webb, who used the word "whore" in a song, but it goes back further and to even more ridiculous extents: for example, Evanescence had been embraced by Christian radio until then-member Ben Moody dropped the f-bomb in 2003; they were immediately dropped and became pariahs in the Christian music industry. Many other artists have been tripped up by this linguistic taboo over the years: Kings X, Pedro the Lion, Brave Saint Saturn (whose work was edited by Tooth & Nail after the fact, causing BS2 to leave the label), U2 (the adopted bastard sons of CMC); even Christian rock standby Audio Adrenaline's album Some Kind of Zombie was their poorest-selling effort because it contained the word "zombie", by which some Christians were scared. It's interesting that this discussion is still an issue, but the insularity of Christian music labels has ensured that the place of profanity in Christian music will continue to be discussed. I tend to agree with Webb's perspective, as he asserts that sometimes words that are considered taboo are necessary to communicate a deeper truth; I also see why he has chosen this hill to metaphorically die on, and I think it is a good battle to fight. The Christian music industry has a large amount of creative control over its members, and Webb is trying to break that monopoly somehow. Perhaps he may have to consent to independent distribution, or to a "mature language" sticker on the album if stores choose to carry it, but I think he will find a way to get his album out to his fans, who are generally the kind of people who don't give a shit about language anyway. [pun intended]. This is a long overdue development in the Christian music industry, and I think that more artists like Webb who are actually contributing creatively to the labels will move away from CMC Distribution if issues like this continue to stifle them artistically (whether it is justified or not). As a final note, I find it ironic that the title of the album that contains the lyric is Stockholm Syndrome, the condition in which captives find themselves growing to love their captors - sounds like most of the artists on Christian labels.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thinking about debuts

When I decide to investigate an artist, I tend to be fairly exhaustive in my research. I usually try to find anything and everything by that artist, which often includes scouring the internet for little-known early limited releases and EPs or short or independent films. Wikipedia and Google have made the process a lot easier than Geocities or Napster ever were, and I am pleased with my collection, particularly of obscure b-sides and rarities for many of my favourite artists (especially U2). I outlined my tendency to delve into the back catalogues of artists and filmmakers in a post two months ago, but in some of my exploration since, I have started thinking about the place of debut albums or films.
I have recently watched Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket and the Coens' Blood Simple, and I have found it intriguing not only how well made these films were, but also how much they have been reflected in the films in their catalogues since. Blood Simple has several shots that are almost directly duplicated in the Coens' 2007 film No Country For Old Men, and the techniques that Anderson uses in Bottle Rocket are very clearly linked to his later films. But the question I often have is whether these early efforts would be worth watching/hearing/reading if not viewed through the lens of later efforts? It seems rare to me that a debut work is worth experiencing in and of itself; many of the debut albums I own I listened to retroactively, after the artist had his their peak (U2's Boy, for example). I suppose it makes sense that debuts should not be that great, considering the not-so-arbitrary figure of 10,000 hours to master a skill - most initial releases still feature a learning curve, and the artist is not yet a master of their form. I would argue that the Coens and Anderson were highly advanced even early in their careers, but you can sense when they truly begin to master their styles. Even the debuts that are very good are often preceded by other efforts; for example, Mute Math's "debut" came after five years of working together and several band members playing in other bands. So I'm always a little wary of the word "debut", since it usually seems to be indicating that the artist can only get better. That said, there are some debuts that have really impressed me over the years, so I can't completely disregard debuts. I think my favourite debut film might be Being John Malkovich, the first for writer Charlie Kaufman. Thoughts?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Survivor: Tocantins wrap-up

[NOTE: Spoiler alert!] Survivor: Tocantins was one of the more enjoyable seasons of Survivor, and it produced some of my favourite Survivor characters. Here is what I loved about season 18:
- The best bromance in Survivor history: Stephen and J.T. It was so strong that J.T. risked a million dollars to bring Stephen to the final two because of their friendship. Tom and Ian had a great bromance in Palau (season 10), and Earl and Yau-Man in Fiji (s. 14), but this one is the topper, and it resulted in a great final tribal council.
- Blindside after blindside after blindside. Unlike some previous editions of Survivor, in which non-strategic players bumbled their way to the end, Tocantins featured a series of strategically-sound moves, and the best two strategists made it to the end.
- A great jury performance from J.T. While J.T. won the strategic and sympathy vote, Stephen's only miscue in the game was his jury argument. I'm sure it sounded okay in preparation, but Stephen had one of the worst jury performances in Survivor history - up there with Vanuatu's Twila, Fiji's Cassandra and Dreamz, China's Amanda, and Gabon's Sugar. It was a sad end to an impressive game - one of the better strategic efforts of Survivor.
- Coach. Every season has a nutjob, and Coach filled the bill perfectly. From his pseudo-samurai antics to his "dragonslayer" mythology to his appropriation of a mishmash of spiritual truths, Coach was one of the most interesting characters ever to appear on Survivor. He made for great television, even if he is a total fruitcake.
- The challenges. After 18 years, one might expect the challenges to be repetitive, but this season proved that perhaps the most valuable employees of Survivor are the engineers who design the challenges. This season featured some great challenges - especially the spider challenge - and the game is still fresh
- A relative lack of twists on the part of the producers. For the first season in a while, there were no tribal switches or big twists in the show; it was more or less a straightforward game of Survivor, which may have allowed the strategic players to flourish more.
- The lovefest between members of the cast. Despite the number of blindsides, there were very few of the toxic personalities that cause disruptions in the group, and this group may have been one of the most "chummy" out of all 18 seasons, with the exception of the undeserving Sierra. I suppose that it was fitting that the charmer J.T. and the friendly Stephen ended up in the final two with no opposition - they were just so darn nice!

Tocantins was a very enjoyable season of Survivor. It had some great moments and people, and it featured an abnormally high level of strategic play. I'd place it somewhere between 7th and 10th out of my favourite seasons of Survivor, around the same place as Fiji. Stephen is close for the "best player never to win", and J.T. is in my top physical Survivor performances. I can't wait until Survivor: Samoa starts in September!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You only watch once?

There are very few instances in which I have watched a movie more than once in theatres. In some cases (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Tomorrow Never Dies), I fell asleep the first time and was coerced into going a second time. When I lived in a city with a cheap theatre, I occasionally would attend a movie a second time several months after the initial viewing. But about once a year, I am so enthralled in the spectacle of a movie that I have to see it again in the main theatre. Over the years, this group of movies has included X-Men (2000), Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003); and The Dark Knight (2008). The most recent addition to this group was Star Trek, which also has the distinction of being the shortest period between theatre viewings: 5 days, which beat my previous record of 2 weeks. This has made me start wondering why I seldom watch movies more than once in theatres, especially since it seems to go against common sense: if I have enjoyed a movie once, why would I not choose to see it again, particularly over a movie that I have not yet enjoyed? I think the reason is that there are enough movies that I want to see in theatres that I often feel that I cannot limit myself to repeatedly viewing one movie. I think the times in which I have watched a movie twice in theatres have been largely due to the level of spectacle, and that I have wanted to experience the largesse of the movie again on the big screen. Of course, it does also help that our local theatre is incredibly cheap - most showings are $6.25, and cheap shows are $4.25. But whatever the reason, there are certain movies I am glad to see twice in theatres - and Star Trek was just as good the second time, even if I was boldly going where I had gone just 5 days before.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: Star Trek

There's a great moment at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, just after the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has just successfully saved the galaxy yet again, when the crew is ordered to return to spacedock for decommissioning. With a twinkle in their eyes, the crew agrees to disobey this command, with the logical Spock voicing what everyone else believed: "To hell with our orders." It was the last time that the original crew would all be seen together, and the next 18 years all-but undid that light-hearted finale: Star Trek: The Next Generation progressed into increasingly heavy-handed territory (though it was often brilliant); Deep Space Nine was a space station soap opera; Voyager was cheesy and preachy; and Enterprise flopped. It seemed as if the franchise might not regain its swagger and sense of humour...until now.
J.J. Abrams' revisioning of Star Trek is exactly what was needed for Star Trek to boldly keep splitting infinitives well into the 21st century. He, along with writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had a difficult task: to bring a fresh vision to a tired franchise for new viewers while satisfying the legions of overly dedicated fans who have little tolerance for deviations from their canonical expectations. The twist they enact both respects fans of the series while allowing newbies to enjoy the experience afresh. It's a rather ingenius piece of writing, and it helps give new life to the series.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the film was whether a new cast could recapture the essence of the original iconic characters while giving them new life - acting, rather than imitating. Much of the delight in watching the film comes from seeing these performances bring a fresh life to the characters, in some cases with more vigor than in previous incarnations - particularly in the part of more minor characters like Lieutenant Uhura and Sulu. A significant amount of time is devoted to showing the development of Kirk and Spock from childhood and in establishing the relationship between the two as central to the events of the film. Most of the iconic lines of the series also appear, but like the characters, they feel inspired and original despite being uttered millions of times over the past thirty years. The main new character - the villainous Romulan Captain Nero, played by Eric Bana - is given license to sneer and jeer with the best Star Trek villains. He is no match for Khan, but he certainly holds his own against most of the other Star Trek baddies. Bana snarls his way through a straight-forward role and seems to relish every moment of it.
The technical side of the production process also reflects the care and attention demonstrated in writing and casting. Much attention has been paid to reproducing details and the feel from the original series while upgrading the technology to 21st-century interpretation of the 23rd century. The most welcome improvement is to one of the stars of the film, the ship itself. The Enterprise's retro-future-fit is sharp, sleek, and uber-cool. And that's part of the appeal of the film: it just looks great. The artistic design, props, costumes, cinematography, and special effects all combine for a great-looking effort.
Star Trek is artistically, aesthetically, and technically excellent. It is nostalgic and new; familiar and fresh; and fun and intense. It recaptures the relative innocence of the original Star Trek without duplicating the naiveté or the preachiness of the Enterprise's first five-year-mission. The film will reach new fans while delighting veterans of the series; after all, in the words of Scotty, "I like this ship; it's exciting!"

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Greatest Canadian tune?

The Luminato Festival has just released a list of ten Canadian guitar tunes from which they are asking people to choose their favourite as the "Greatest Canadian Tune". The goal is for the winning song to be part of a giant jam session to get into the Guinness Book of Records. Here's the Top 10 list:

Feist - 1,2,3,4; Sarah Harmer - Basement Apartment; The Band - The Weight; BTO - Takin' Care of Business; Tragically Hip - Courage; Leonard Cohen - Hallelujah; Tom Cochrane - The Boy Inside The Man; Blue Rodeo - Hasn't Hit Me Yet; Bryan Adams - Cuts Like A Knife; Neil Young - Helpless.

While I understand that this list is based on "guitar tunes", it is severely flawed.
Several significant artists are not represented, particularly The Guess Who. What about Barenaked Ladies? Or any number of more recent avant-garde artists, a group led by the Arcade Fire? Where's Rush? Top 10 guitar tunes without "Tom Sawyer", the music of the universe? I am somewhat surprised (though pleased) to not see any songs by Loverboy or Kim Mitchell on the list, and I am definitely pleased to see the absence of songs by groups like Nickelback. But I still don't quite understand some of the song selections. "Cuts Like A Knife" over "Summer of '69"? "The Boy Inside the Man" over "Life Is A Highway"? (OK, maybe that one is legitimate, but still surprising.) "Courage" over many other Hip songs?
I'm surprised and disappointed that this is the top 10 list of Canadian guitar tunes. I think it is telling that CBC's attempt to define the Top 49 Canadian songs for President Obama to listen to has very little overlap with this list. Perhaps CBC listeners have better taste in music than whoever is part of the Luminato Festival. Whatever the case may be, I don't think Canadian music is as bad as Luminato's representation would have us believe. The Canadian music scene is as vibrant and creative as any market, and this list does not reflect that reality. Now I need to go listen to "Tom Sawyer" and find an old copy of Missile Command to calm my nerves.

(P.S. That last sentence is for Chuck fans. Keep the faith!)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I'll begin by stating that Wolverine was slightly better than I thought it would be; the flipside of that statement is that I thought it was going to be a large disappointment, and it was only a medium disappointment. I could go into discussing the plot and characters and direction, but I think that might be giving the movie more credit than it deserves. It's a straightforward hack-and-slash-and-explode superhero flick, and anyone familiar with the genre will not find any surprises here, and only a few moments where there seems to be genuine inspiration or a fresh idea.
Wolverine, for most of the movie, feels like a commercial for the Marvel universe, as it tries to have as many superhero and semi-famous person cameos as possible. Look, it's the Blob! Cyclops! Gambit! Deadpool! Agent Zero! Silver Fox!Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas! Merry the hobbit! Professor X! With no character development or substance! The mutant carousel is dizzying for most of the movie, even for someone who knew the identities of the heroes without looking them up afterward. Liev Schreiber brings a snarling vindictiveness to the character of Sabretooth, but even he is thinly drawn. It's a mishmash of mediocre heroes.
As a result of this overpopulation of mutants, the titular hero does not receive the focus he deserves. Wolverine is one of the most enigmatic heroes out there, and he deserves a Christopher Nolan Batman Begins-style treatment, rather than the superficial veneer he gets here. Hugh Jackman, as far as I can tell, would be able of delivering such a performance, but he is severely limited by the aformentioned volume of characters and a ham-handed script. Like when he hosted the Oscars in February, there's only so much he could do with bad material.
This brings me to the origin story itself, the point of the movie. As far as I can tell from the events on screen, Wolverine is motivated by love and revenge. And being a patsy of the American government. That's it. Really?! This is what you're reducing Wolverine's origins too? It was the Canadian government who did this to him anyway! These Yanks can't even let us have our military blunders, let alone our successes! Most of what happens in the movie is a composit sketch of the real origin of Wolverine - it's close to the original, but it's not quite right. I'm all for the ability to adapt material to suit a new medium, but only if it's improved in the translation. Wolverine works, but it's not better than the comic origins.
So what is the viewer left with? A straight-forward superhero movie that keeps an expected pace, features a growing body count, some cool special effects, Hugh Jackman's bare arse, and a very poor Cajun accent from Taylor Kitsch (plus I just could not NOT see him as Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights - just like Dominic Monaghan will always be Merry). It will be enjoyed by the tween and teen set, but it does not accomplish what a real origins movie about Wolverine should. Perhaps it will just need a franchise reboot in about a decade, and a real director and script can come on board to make the Wolverine movie fans deserve. In the meantime, we can read the real story in the comics, or watch the 1990s FoxKids X-Men cartoon, particularly the episode "Weapon X, Lies, and Videotape." That's the real Wolverine.

Recommendation: If X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the kind of movie you would go see anyway, it's not a complete waste of your time. It's enjoyable enough, if severely flawed. If you're not a fanboy who wonders about movies like this, wait for DVD, or go see Star Trek instead.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The List: Top 10 Unique Video Games

In the past few weeks, we have been playing the 2002 Gamecube game Pikmin; it is an almost entirely unique game, and playing it has made me think about other games that are "one-of-a-kind". Here is my top 10 list of unique video games (pre-Wii and DS) - you won't find anything like them!

10. Utopia (Intellivision, 1982) - The first sim or "god game". It features a challenge between two players who are both trying to build a better island and get more points. It's perhaps the least intuitive play control ever, but it's a lot of fun.

9. Ecco the Dolphin (Sega Genesis, 1993) - This very-difficult game featured play as a dolphin with some crazy powers. It wasn't easy, but it was fun exploring!

8. Wrecking Crew (NES, 1985) - One of the earliest puzzle games starring Mario as a wrecker who has to destroy all of the obstacles in each level while avoiding some baddies. A refreshing change from the usual "things dropping" puzzle games.

7. General Chaos (Sega Genesis, 1994) - You play as a general who commands squadrons of troops against a rival army on cartoonish battlefields. There is sheer joy in using your flamethrower to turn someone into a skeleton - cartoony joy.

6. Pikmin (Gamecube, 2002) - Captain Olimar is trapped on a planet and must recover all of the pieces of his spaceship. He is lucky to find some native residents called Pikmin who help him in his quest. The game is unique because it features an entirely unusual set of commands for the Pikmin, and because of a time limit being placed on Olimar's quest.

5. Blast Corps (N64, 1997) - It is your job to clear the path of a semi carrying nuclear devices by destroying all obstacles in its way with a variety of vehicles, including dump trucks, bulldozers, and exosuits. Or Kaboom!

4. Kirby's Dream Course (SNES, 1995) - The familiar pink puffball returns, though with a significant twist: he and his powers must be employed on a mini-golf style course in which he is the ball. Easily the most creative game in the Kirby series.

3. Uniracers (SNES, 1994) - You control riderless unicycles as you race around tracks and execute sweet tricks, receiving unique praise (almost 100 different slang phrases built into the game) for your efforts! "Totally rad!"

2. Toejam and Earl (Sega Genesis, 1991) - Two aliens are stranded on Earth and must find their way through all kinds of pedestrian troubles as they find the pieces of their spaceship. The game has a completely unique sense of humour, and the levels are determined by random generation each time, so it's always a new game!

1. The Guardian Legend (NES, 1989) - A hybrid game that combines an action-rpg style search for weapons and power-ups in a labyrinth with a shoot-em-up space scroller in dungeons. One of my all-time favourites and a completely unique game.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Finger of fate

It's strange how one moment can change your circumstances for the immediate future. I was playing baseball with my students on Tuesday, and I was rounding the bases after I hit the ball. As I was running for second base, I saw that one of my students - a tall, lanky kid - had the ball and was running for the base. I had a split-second to decide what to do - so I went for it. We collided and both flew back - he went further, being about half my size - but I bent my right ring finger somehow in the process. Within a few hours, it was 1.5 times its normal size and purple; something had happened in that instant. It turns out that the tendon was strained and a very small chip came off the corner of the middle bone of that finger - enough to cause the swelling and pain, but not enough to splint it or really worry about it. So now I have a gimped finger for a couple of weeks (though not so much that I cannot type this), and I will have to occasionally "buddy splint" it with my middle finger to give it stability. It's nothing out of the ordinary for most basketball players (just a little local anaesthetic and everything's okay!), but I was surprised at how much this little injury affected my week. I had trouble writing, typing, cooking, even washing my hair. I was often reminded rudely by my nerves that something was wrong, and what I was doing was not helping the situation. There will continue to be moments like that over the next couple of weeks as it heals, and although I may curse when they happen, I think I am glad for the reminder of how fragile life is (and I am), and that I can't take anything for granted. I'll just have to work really hard to get my "live long and prosper" gesture ready for next weekend.

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