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Archive for April, 2013

DOs and DON’Ts of The Amazing Race

Posted by finedaysunday on April 28, 2013

Race

After 22 seasons of watching The Amazing Race, you’ll no doubt notice certain patterns emerge that separate the successful teams from the not-so-successful teams. The former are the ones with great chemistry and a fierce competitive spirit, while the latter camp can often be seen making baffling errors in judgment and unraveling at the worst of times. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of DOs and DON’Ts as a message to those who hope to someday compete on The Amazing Race. In writing these up, I’ve observed that most of it is just common sense for traveling abroad with or without the context of a competition-based TV show, so take that for what it’s worth.

DO: CHOOSE YOUR PARTNER WISELY. This is by far the most important element at play here. Travel compatibility is essential on any trip, but it’s doubly true on The Amazing Race. You need to have a strong rapport with your teammate that can withstand the trials of a grinding marathon. Assertiveness, positivity, discipline, and an outgoing personality can go a very long way. On a more basic level, you want to travel with someone in strong physical condition, or someone knowledgeable about world history and geography. If your partner is neither of those things, you had better be. Oh, and at least one of you needs to know how to drive stick. It wouldn’t hurt for both of you to learn in advance.

DO NOT: Leave your passport unattended for any reason. This one is so obvious, and yet it shocks me how often I see teams get done in because one or both of them got careless with their travel packs. I don’t care how insecure you are about having to wear a fanny pack. Use one.

DO: Your homework. Before the race, study and memorize useful phrases in several languages. Examples include “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, “can you help me?”, “how much?”, “wait”, and “give that team the wrong directions no seriously they’re really annoying.” This is useful information to have regardless, so you have nothing to lose by educating yourself. Just as importantly, use the downtime between legs (or on periods of long waiting during a leg) to read up on the city you’re in. Is there a significant historical monument or landmark? Odds are it will come into play at some point.

DO NOT: Be an ugly American. The race is a high-stress environment, absolutely. This does not excuse berating the locals when you get impatient or flustered. You’ll be surprised how far common courtesy can get you. In relation to the above section, you have no excuse for being annoyed that the people of a non-English speaking region of the world do not speak English.

DO: Make nice with other teams. Yes, it is a competition first and foremost, but making a good impression on your competitors can make all the difference in the world. This means helping them out once in a while and generally being a good sport. The only strike I had against Jet and Cord, one of the strongest teams I’ve seen on the race, is that they largely ran alone. Learn not to put a massive target on your back, or you’ll make it that much easier for other teams to U-turn you without a moment’s hesitation. On that note…

DO NOT: Get squeamish when the time comes to U-turn another team. Unless you are absolutely certain that you’ve got a substantial lead on the pack, be ready to take advantage and give your team some breathing room. Yes,this often means making a target of yourself if the U-turned team comes back to haunt you, but the U-turn doesn’t usually come into play until late in the race as it is. The herd is already starting to thin out by this point, and everyone’s competitive side is likely to have fully emerged by now.

DO: Keep in mind that, at some point, you’re probably going to have endure heights, going underwater, or eating something you’d rather not.

DO NOT: Be either of these two people:

AMAZING RACE 6

DO: Read your clues carefully. This is even more basic than keeping your passport on hand. While you’re still riding the high of completing a task, don’t speed-read your next clue only to realize later that, yes, you were in fact supposed to travel on foot to the next location rather than by taxi.

DO NOT: Hang around if your taxi driver appears lost or overwhelmed. This one’s a bit fuzzier than other pieces of advice, but as a general rule, if your driver just plain does not know where he’s going, bail. The time it takes to hail a new taxi may be shorter than however long it takes the first guy to get his bearings. More promising teams have been done in by bad luck with cab drivers than I can remember.

DO: Book your flights in advance whenever possible. Call a travel agent in the cab on your way to the airport. It may make the difference between getting two seats on an early flight and being stuck at the back of the pack.

DO NOT: Be afraid to abandon a task at a detour and try the other option. Use your best judgment and learn to recognize that there’s no sense banging your head against a brick wall if you’re making zero progress. Who knows, you may even be surprised to see that the other task is easier than you thought.

DO: Remember every city you travel to along the course of the race, as well as several significant details about each one (flag, location on a map, etc.). Keep a diary if possible to help you remember. Don’t forget to make note of each person greeting you at the pit stop. Nearly every season of the race ends with a memory task to see if you were paying attention, and it’s often the final challenge before the sprint to the finish line. If this moment is going to be a game-changer, make sure it turns the tide in your favour. Good luck.

DO NOT: Worry about being as likeable as Bopper and Mark. It’s just not going to happen.

“Save me Barry!”

BopperMark

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Mail-it-in Sunday: Riz’s Grab Bag

Posted by finedaysunday on April 21, 2013

Hey, guys. I’ve got a few topics here on the back burner that, on their own, don’t seem to be meaty enough to fill out an entire post. Consider this the inaugural Mail-it-in Sunday, where I’ll collect a few of these subjects together, then throw them out there and see what sticks. Some of them may blossom into full-blown topics in a future post, but for now, here’s what I’ve got.

~ ~ ~

Anyone who knows me will tell you that Dead Poets Society is my favourite movie. The writing, the characters, the cinematography, the heartbreakingly beautiful ending… I’ll be a lucky man if I ever see a film to top this one.

That being said, there’s one very ugly bit that, with the benefit of hindsight, has not aged gracefully. One of the subplots deals with Knox Overstreet, the hopeless romantic of the group. Like the rest of his friends, he gets all starry-eyed and inspired by their new English teacher and his mantra of carpe diem, or “seize the day.” In Knox’s case, this manifests when he falls head-over-heels for a pretty girl, and is determined to win her away from her big dumb jock boyfriend. To that end, he attends a party, gets some liquid courage in him, and before he knows it she’s passed out drunk in his lap. He proceeds to kiss this unconscious girl, and the nearby boyfriend rightfully springs into action and beats the hell out of him.

If that were the worst of it, this would be an isolated bit of ugliness in the movie. If the point here were simply that Knox misinterpreted his teacher’s message and distorted it beyond its intended meaning, that would have been fine. There’s established precedent for that, as seen with the character of the class clown.

But, no, that’s not the end of it. Instead, the movie validates Knox in the end. He ultimately gets the girl after assaulting her, and humiliating her in front of her friends and classmates. We’re meant to side with him as if he were some sort of hero. Unlike the class clown, he is rewarded and not punished for his perversion of carpe diem.

Looking back on this in the 21st century with enlightened eyes, that’s pretty screwed up. I guess the only thing you can say in its defense is that the movie is set in a 1950s prep school for boys, so of course these characters are going to lash out in reckless ways as a result of being repressed for so long. That doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable to watch. Did anyone react this way back when the film was new?

Knox

~ ~ ~

Don’t you love that feeling you get when you revisit something you have major nostalgia for, and discover that it still holds up? It’s just so… pleasant. For me, that’s Escaflowne. I recently bought the series on DVD, and I’m genuinely impressed that it wasn’t all rose-coloured glasses. You see, this show was part of my Monday night YTV ritual well over a decade ago, and of course this was also right around the time I started to really sink my teeth into Japanese RPGs. Naturally, this sort of high fantasy anime material was right in my wheelhouse.

It even follows the same sort of arc that you still see in a lot of traditional JRPGs. It begins as a pulpy fish-out-of-water action adventure with heroes and villains painted in broad strokes, then somewhat jarringly shifts into introspective meditations on fate and destiny. Before you know it, cosmic forces are weaponized, there’s a bit of bizarre fan service, and the villain is given such a preposterous eleventh hour back story that you start to wonder if you’re still watching the same show that began with a ragtag band of sky pirates. I’m not making excuses for any of these strange indulgences, but looking back on it with fresh eyes, I do think the show’s merits are strong enough to overcome them.

Oh, and the one and only reason I still stand behind the English dub is Andrew Francis’ delivery as the maniacal villain Dilandau. I may have forgotten great chunks of the plot in the years before I revisited this show on DVD, but this guy’s absurd vocal interpretation is the best sort of camp, and it has stuck with me ever since I was a kid. Imagine if Final Fantasy VI‘s Kefka were a spoiled teenager, and that’s pretty much Dilandau. Francis’ work here is so ridiculously over-the-top that it makes the rest of the (occasionally weak) English dub better by association.

Dilandau

~ ~ ~

I’ve been piecing together a Harry Potter fan fiction for a while now (no, not like that). This is sort of an ambitious pet project of mine. I think it’s worth telling the story of the ill-fated group of exiles glimpsed only on the borders of the main plot. Specifically: Ted Tonks, Dirk Cresswell, Dean Thomas, and the two goblins, Griphook and Gornuk. We know a bit about how these unlikely allies ended up where they are, and we know that all of them, save Dean, never made it. I’d like to to know a bit more about how they held it together in a world that was hunting them down with extreme prejudice, just as much as I’d like to know about Neville Longbottom leading the underground rebellion at Hogwarts. I know I’m not alone in that regard.

I’d like to discuss the shaky ground of race relations in the Harry Potter universe at some point in the future. This particular story, however, would relate to the uneasy relationship between wizards and goblins, and the consequences of their inability to work together. One of my favourite themes in that regard is given a great deal of focus in Deathly Hallows itself. As admirably well as the book handles that material, I’d like to subvert it to an extent. To be specific, could these characters truly set aside their own prejudices and the ugly histories of their species in order to survive one more night?

If I had my way, this would be a plot structured into six chapters, one told from each character’s perspective as they try to get by on the fringes of a hateful and merciless regime (framed with a bit of back story and flashbacks, naturally), and culminating in a sixth chapter in which everything comes to a head and ultimately falls apart. Think of it as Lost meets Halo 3: ODST, if you will.

Goblins

~ ~ ~

Aaaand that’s all I’ve got for today. Let’s see if I can tackle a single topic next week that can justify all this verbosity. See you then.

“I see you galavanting.”

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In Defense of Verner Vollstedt

Posted by finedaysunday on April 14, 2013

Entourage 3

Entourage is, on its surface, a wish fulfillment fantasy show for white heterosexual males, in which a promising young actor makes it big, and all of his closest friends come along for the wild ride. At its heart, it’s about the strength of male bonding and camaraderie. I’ve even heard it described as Sex and the City for guys. It’s not an especially challenging show on an intellectual level, and rarely asks much of its audience. Conflicts arise and are dealt with, plot threads come and go, but on the whole these characters don’t face a lot of real adversity, and rarely experience anything less than a comfortable, privileged, pampered lifestyle. Nothing’s wrong with that, of course. I can absolutely get behind some male-targeted “good times” superficiality just as much as I can enjoy watching something a little more morally and ethically charged.

It only becomes a problem when the show tries to juggle both.

Let’s keep the back story short: Season Four of Entourage ends on a major downer of a cliffhanger. Movie star Vincent Chase’s crime drama and Pablo Escobar biopic, Medellin, is a massive flop. This is a big deal because the show has spent nearly its entire run up to this point hyping up Medellin as Vince’s dream project, and having the fourth season end on such a resounding thud sets the stage for an unprecedented introspective turn.

A few months have passed by the time Season Five begins. Medellin is released straight to DVD after stinking up the Cannes Film Festival, and Vince is now considered unemployable in Hollywood. The vast majority of this season centers around his efforts to rebuild his reputation from the ground up by taking on smaller projects, so that he can once again be seen as a viable movie star… and he gets rejected every step of the way. He is brought crashing back to Earth, and is forced to learn a little humility. His professional life and public image might have taken a few bumps in the show’s early goings, but never before now has he had to take a good hard look in the mirror and take stock of his life. At one point he even confronts his agent Ari Gold, by far his most outspoken supporter, and asks him straight up, “Do you think I’m a good actor?” Ari is unable to look him in the eye and give him a straight answer. This is all great stuff, and I was genuinely impressed that the show was going to bother going down this road at all after years of dishing out nothing but relatively minor speed bumps in the lives of Vince and company. Although on reflection, maybe four seasons deep really was the right time to mix up the formula lest it become stagnant.

Well, so much for keeping it short. Anyway, in the season’s home stretch, circumstances lead to Vince landing a secondary role in Smoke Jumpers, the story of a team of heroic firefighters, which it is hoped will give Vince the shot at redemption his career needs. The director is Verner Vollstedt, an esteemed German filmmaker with a reputation for demanding the most out of his actors. The two don’t exactly get along, to say the least. After discovering that Verner has been giving many of his lines to his co-star, Vince approaches the director and promises to redouble his commitment to the film and give a worthy performance.

Verner and Vince

The strangest scene of this little circus happens when Verner finally takes Vince aside and tries to patiently explain to him that he just doesn’t think he has much range as an actor. He makes Vince sit through clips of his own work, and points out each and every one of his poor mannerisms and instances of wooden delivery. It’s clear that Verner’s attention to detail goes much deeper than anyone expected. We don’t see this footage ourselves, but we do see Vince’s baffled reactions while he watches himself on screen. Has he never seen his own body of work before? Does he just not notice his own personal tics? Or maybe he does notice them, but just doesn’t see them as the sort of deal-breakers that Verner does? Or is it simply the fact that Stellan Skarsgard is a much better actor than Adrian Grenier, and was therefore more able to convince me to take his character’s side? This was the moment I decided that Vince just might be in the wrong here.

To his credit, Vince eventually owns up and realizes that Verner has a point, and he dedicates time to work on his bad habits. With a renewed focus, he announces to Verner that he’s ready to give it his all, and prepares to film his most emotionally intense scene. This is where things spiral out of control.

Vince proceeds to deliver such an awful performance that I’m still not sure if Adrian Grenier just can’t handle a heavy emotional monologue, or if he’s deliberately playing a guy who can’t handle a heavy emotional monologue. Either way, a frustrated Verner storms off the set. Now the clash of the two egos comes to a head as the director tears into Vince, calling him a shallow Hollywood pretty boy incapable of delivering anything with real weight and humanity. He reveals that he never wanted Vince in the first place, claiming that the studio forced him into the movie at the last minute against the director’s wishes (which we already know to be true, by the way). Vince, having been surrounded by nothing but yes-men for most of his career, fires back that Verner has unrealistic expectations and simply refuses to be satisfied, and that he has had it in for Vince from day one. It’s worth pointing out at this point that Verner has two Oscars to his credit, a fact that all of the main characters are aware of.

And so, Vince runs crying to mommy, telling his agent that the big bad director is being mean to him. Ari flies out to the set of Smoke Jumpers to back up his highest priority client and lock horns with the “dictator”. Yeah, I should also mention that Ari Gold is Jewish, and you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the writers go for the low-hanging fruit of comparing the German director to Adolf Hitler at every possible opportunity. A power struggle ensues in the studio headquarters in a scene that attempts to frame Vince as being the bigger man in all of this. And just in case there was any doubt left that we’re supposed to read this whole mess as “Vince good, Verner bad”, the director suddenly throws a fit and runs up and down the halls, yelling for the studio’s CEO (to the tune of Rammstein’s “Du Hast”, because why not at this point). Once he sees this madman foaming at the mouth, the studio head realizes what a disaster the production of Smoke Jumpers has become. He decides to cut his losses, and promptly pulls the plug on the entire movie. Vince and company dejectedly leave Hollywood for Queens, New York, and Verner Vollstedt is never seen or heard from again.

Verner Rage

Look, I get that you could call me out for reading waaaay too much into a TV show that, quite honestly, never had a great deal of depth to it. And you’d be entirely correct if not for the fact that Entourage ups the ante by tackling bigger subject matter beginning with the closing moments of Season Four, carries it all throughout the following season, and then tries to go backwards. The three-episode Verner Vollstedt arc represents a regression in the way the story presents itself, and by the sixth season, the show has retreated to the safer and lighter fare of its early years.

There’s an interesting moment one episode before Vince gets his world rocked by Verner: a rival agent, who has been presented as nothing but a grade-A douchebag since Season One, has a shocking moment of sobriety and tries to delicately tell Vince that his career as a can’t-miss bankable film star might be coming to an end. He is immediately told to take a hike and, you guessed it, is never seen or heard from again. Hey, Vince? If the one-dimensional asshole is breaking character in order to send you a message, maybe you ought to stand up and take notice.

So, that’s my defense of Verner Vollstedt. No reasonable person could say that he ever did anything out of line, until his cartoonish explosion in the studio HQ when the writers realized they didn’t want us to root for anyone but the hapless protagonist. One episode later, the fifth season ends as Vince’s career is suddenly put back on track through no effort of his own, and he never seems to learn a lesson of any kind from this ordeal.

Or, to put it another way, it’s all gonna work out ’cause Vince is doin’ the movie!

“He’s the master! … Of thumbs.”

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“What’s a die-dum?”

Posted by finedaysunday on April 7, 2013

At some point in the recent past, I realized that I’ve gradually become less critical of films and television shows adapted from some of my favourite books, specifically when it comes to those all-too-critical moments when what I’m seeing up on the screen deviates from what’s on the page. I’d like to say that it was during the big final act of the Watchmen movie when it finally dawned on me (because boy was that a big one), but who can say for sure. The point is, while I still certainly expect to see a great deal of faithfulness in these adapted works, I’ve also become much more accepting of a few differences here and there.

The biggest example of such a change is one I embraced wholeheartedly, one that I didn’t even see coming.

The plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows centers around our heroes’ search for the last remaining fragments of Voldemort’s soul, each one housed in a prestigious magical artifact, based on what few clues Albus Dumbledore left for them. Once each piece has been properly destroyed, Voldemort himself will be rendered a mortal man and can finally be killed. These objects are known as Horcruxes and, as Hermione painstakingly explains to Harry and Ron before they begin their quest, there are precious few ways to go about destroying them. The most surefire method: basilisk venom, one of the most dangerous and magically corrosive substances known to exist.

And so they travel the world, following vague leads based on Tom Riddle’s history, their loyalties to one another are pushed to their breaking points, and before long they’re in possession of the Sword of Gryffindor. Conveniently enough, the blade is still impregnated with the venom of the basilisk Harry slew years ago in the Chamber of Secrets. They use it to destroy a Horcrux, and soon enough they’re back at Hogwarts with only a few of the soul fragments left. Here the dead basilisk proves useful yet again as the fangs from its skeleton are still intact, Harry and company having lost the sword by this point. Finally, the trio ends up in the Room of Requirement, and Harry locates Ravenclaw’s tiara (er, diadem) which they have enough evidence to believe is a Horcrux. Before they can get rid of the thing, however, in walks Draco Malfoy flanked by his two goons to stir up trouble. After a brief skirmish, a great mass of living fire erupts seemingly from nowhere and consumes the entire room. Our heroes manage to save Malfoy and one of his thugs (sorry Crabbe) and just barely escape with their lives, diadem clutched firmly in hand.

Then the dumbest thing in the book happens.

The diadem inexplicably crumbles in Harry’s hand. Mission accomplished! With not a drop of basilisk venom in sight! But how? Well, as Hermione quickly explains, that inferno they had just escaped was Fiendfyre, another substance deadly enough to destroy Horcruxes. She speculates that Crabbe must have conjured it up without knowing how to control or extinguish it. She adds that she totally knew about the stuff from the beginning, but never considered trying it because it was too dangerous.

Reaction

The fact that neither Harry nor Ron responds with an immediate “Oh, good. What with all the basilisks, centaurs, giant spiders, monstrous three-headed dogs, violent trees, dragons, soul-eating Dementors, werewolves, Death Eaters, mutant plants, merpeople, more dragons, mountain trolls, venomous snakes, boggarts, Blast-Ended Skrewts, as well as several close brushes with the Dark Lord himself we’ve had to deal with over the years, it would have really sucked to have to face something dangerous,” is a testament to the strength of their friendship.

This little revelation by Hermione takes up less than a single page, and let me tell you something folks, I was absolutely dreading seeing it play out in the movie. Great acting can gloss over a lot of awkward dialogue, but I don’t think even Emma Watson could have made this sound passable. But to my immense satisfaction, the film doesn’t even bother with it. Instead, Harry simply stabs the diadem with one of the basilisk fangs that they’ve already got with them, and Ron kicks its smouldering remains into the fire just as the door closes. It’s such a simple and obvious fix that I was, and still am, amazed that I didn’t think of it first. The Horcrux still gets destroyed, and you still get your thrilling escape sequence from a malevolent, sentient firestorm. Everybody wins. There is no reason at all for the bit about the Fiendfyre to exist.

Any time you set your story in a magical world with magical solutions to its problems, it’s understood that you have to exercise your suspension of disbelief to a certain degree. You have to accept a few instances of convenient plot insulation. I don’t mind that Harry happens to have a one-of-a-kind invisibility cloak which allows him to overhear countless meaningful conversations over the years. I don’t mind that he also happens to have a map of the castle that accurately tracks everyone’s movements at all times. I don’t mind that Order of the Phoenix introduces a room that literally conforms its size, shape, and contents according to the seeker’s whims. I don’t even mind that Half-Blood Prince retroactively adds world-changing significance to Harry’s actions at the end of Chamber of Secrets. The Fiendfyre, however, is where my suspension of disbelief can go no further, simply because it introduces a magical all-purpose solution to a problem that already had a comfortably established magical all-purpose solution readily on hand.

This is the sort of change that probably doesn’t bother many people about films adaptations, which might be because it changes a means to an end, rather than the end itself. There are plenty of examples of movies and TV shows that make numerous controversial changes to characters’ personalities and/or their relationships with one another. Sometimes its events are structured in a different order. Sometimes the entire tone of the narrative is changed. Heck, Watchmen remains to this day one of the most remarkably faithful film adaptations I’ve ever seen right up until the ending, which is still a topic of debate among fans to this very day.

It’s a very delicate balancing act in film and TV production, being faithful to the source material but still having enough freedom not to be shackled by it. Where do you draw the line? I believe that answer depends on the work being adapted, but that’s a much bigger subject for another day. For now, it’s safe to say that I’m relieved that someone working on the final Harry Potter film recognized an easy fix to a problem that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It’s so satisfying that I’m almost willing to overlook “DID YA PUT YER NAME IN DA GOBLET OF FIYAH.” Almost.

“The in-flight movie was Juno.”

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