Monday, April 16, 2012

GoT: What Is Dead May Never Die

This week's episode of Game of Thrones follows the precedent set by episode 2, giving us a deeper look at certain characters by leaving out others entirely. I think this has worked out quite well so far, and I expect that this pattern will continue throughout the rest of the season. There's simply too much going on to be able to deal with all of it in each and every episode, and we need on-screen time with these characters to get a sense of who they really are.

The character who I feel benefits the most from their on-screen time in this episode is Theon Greyjoy. In last week's episode we saw that Theon's homecoming didn't go as he had planned, and this week we see more of Theon's reaction to the cold reception he faced from his family. Theon has never been portrayed as an especially virtuous character, but Alfie Allen's strong performance in this episode builds a lot of sympathy; even if we might condemn his decisions, we're nonetheless getting a much better idea of why he's making them, and we might even feel a bit sorry for Theon.

We also get our first season 2 view of Renly Baratheon and company in this week's episode, but I didn't feel that these scenes were especially compelling. Loras Tyrell comes across as being quite petulant, and though Margaery's character is interesting I didn't feel that I had much cause to sympathize with her yet, since she's just being introduced. Part of my general disappointment here may be due to the differences between the portrayals of Renly Baratheon in the books and on the show. In the books he comes across as being quite genuinely charismatic and confident, and it doesn't seem that much of a surprise that he'd be able to rally the banners of the Stormlands and the Reach to his cause. The television series, however, shows us a conflicted man full of hesitations who relies on Loras to be his strength. I don't think the latter approach is necessarily worse, nor am I bothered that the series is deviating from the books here and there (nor am I the only one to have noticed this particular difference). I just think the television-Renly comes across as more of a hopeless pretender than book-Renly does, and I'm not sure whether or not that's a change for the better in the long-run. Perhaps seeing more of Renly as this season progresses will change my opinion, as there's still a ways left to go...

We're also treated to an amazing montage with Tyrion and the remaining members of the Small council in which the Halfman shows off his aptitude for playing the political games of King's Landing. This is the sort of intricate plot where you'll think there's no way they could do it justice on television after reading it in the books, but yet again the writers, directors, and producers behind Game of Thrones have exceeded expectations by distilling the essence of a fairly complicated ploy into a single scene. The resulting encounters Tyrion has with Petyr Baelish, Maester Pycelle, and Varys are all quite satisfying as well; I was especially pleased to see how pathetic Pycelle looked after they cut off his "manhood".

That said, this episode wasn't without a few flaws. Despite all the brilliant work that went into Tyrion's plot with the councillors, there were also a number awkward moments in the direction and editing. In particular, there were a few shots that seem to linger far too long without really having much to say. There's a close-up shot of Margaery Tyrell when Renly walks away with Catelyn that doesn't seem to say anything about the characters involved. The scene where Pycelle is dragged away by Bronn and Timett (?) features two close-ups of the prostitute, the first of which gives us a moment of questionable continuity when she appears to be looking in a different direction when we cut away. Perhaps they felt it necessary to give her extra screen time to affirm to the viewer that this was the new girl introduced just before the bastard-hunting montage of season 1, but it felt clunky to me. The close up of Balon Greyjoy works because of the intensity of Alfie Allen's performance behind him, but even that seemed a bit awkward - a bit of a reaction from him, even if small or subtle, would have been welcome. Finally, the episode's closing shot on Gendry's bull helmet lingers on for nearly 7 seconds, which is a lot of time for a still shot with no characters or dialogue. Again, perhaps this is an attempt to make things glaringly obvious so that viewers aren't confused, but it just feels awkward to me.

Some short-form observations:

  • We see more of Gemma Whelan's take on Yara Greyjoy this week, and she shows a menacing, almost stoic confidence. Her body language when she confronts Theon - standing uncomfortably close to him - is a subtle but effective way to show that she won't be intimidated by her brother.
  • "Hodor!"
  • The scene where Cersei confronts Tyrion regarding his plans for Myrcella was another strong one for Lena Heady. These scenes showing her temperamental side really help to show how much self-control Cersei is exerting to appear calm most of the time.
  • Speaking of Cersei's calm side, I really loved the dinner scene with her, the younger children, and Sansa. This helps to reinforce the relationship between Cersei and her children (which, of course, becomes important later on in the episode), and it's one of Sophie Turner's best scenes yet as Sansa.
  • The scene with Sansa and Shae, however, came across as a little awkward. This is somewhat appropriate since both characters are obviously quite appropriate in that situation, but it's a bit unclear exactly what Sansa thinks or feels about her new maid.
  • I find Shae less likeable on the TV series than I did in the books. It would be nice to reinforce the positive sides of her relationship with Tyrion, to show why he's going through all this trouble for her.
  • Showing Gwendoline Christie as Brienne side-by-side with Michelle Fairley as Catelyn does a great job of emphasizing just how immense "Brienne the Beauty" is.
  • Francis Magee's performance as Yoren in this episode was excellent, and I'm glad we got to see a bit more of him before he met his end.
Overall this was an enjoyable episode with some really amazing scenes, but a few low points brought it slightly down. This season is still doing a lot of stage-setting for things to come, and things might feel a bit less dramatic at this point due to the number of characters being introduced, but it's still very enjoyable to see this story brought to life on-screen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

This Post Brought To You By The Letter "M"

Late March was a relatively exciting time for me in terms of new music. I'm going to share a few of my thoughts on new releases from Ministry, Meshuggah, and The Mars Volta.

Noctourniquet may be the most normal album yet from The Mars Volta, and I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing for them. This album sounds like a compromise between Octahedron - TMV's previous album, which the band described as their attempt at an "acoustic pop" album - and their earliest material. The horns that helped give TMV a distinctive sound on Frances The Mute, Amputecture, and The Bedlam in Goliath have been replaced entirely with keyboards, and while the arrangements are often nicely layered the effect isn't quite the same. The drumming on Noctourniquet also fails to match the intensity reached on TMV's earlier material. Some of this may be due to the absence of former TMV drummer Thomas Pridgen, whose previous work with the band was pretty legendary, and some of this may be caused by muffled, echoey mixing - Molochwalker features some prominent drumming, for instance, but the drum hits sound like they're bleeding into each other rather than coming across as distinct, discrete sounds. This style of production helps give the keyboard and guitar parts a rich, full sound, but the drums and vocals lose some intensity as a trade-off.

The tracks are also shorter; only a pair of songs on Noctourniquet break the 6-minute mark, and while there are some nice crescendo moments on the album, these fail to reach the epic scope and intensity of some of TMV's earlier material. The quiet moments aren't as quiet, the crazy moments aren't as crazy, and the album comes across as a little boring as a result. There's less experimentation overall, and much less of Omar Rodríguez-López's trademark noodling.

That said, this isn't a bad album. There are a lot of strong melodies on Noctourniquet, and the shorter songs make those melodies much more accessible for those looking for something quick to entertain them during the daily commute. I'm not sure this album will weather the test of time as well as some of TMV's earlier material has, since the melodies here are much more overt and leave less to be discovered on repeat plays, but it's worth a few spins at least.

I find myself having an opposite reaction to Koloss, the latest offering from Swedish prog-death metal act Meshuggah. The intensity that went into this recording is evident from the start, with a wonderfully heavy and punchy sound that perfectly complements the band's trademark rhythmic experimentation. The mixing is so consistently deep and menacing that it almost works to hide some of the more subtle, interesting moments on the album. At first I thought the album was a bit monotonous in its plodding heaviness, but the more I listen to it the more I get out of it, and the more I enjoy it.

It's almost as if Koloss is a concept album built not around a narrative in the traditional sense, but instead on the idea of a consistent sonic experience: a constant, unstoppable heaviness; an impending doom that's felt through the music itself rather than through any sort of lyrical story. The slower tempo of many tracks on the album evokes the feel of 2002's Nothing, but the sharp production, interesting harmonies, and complex arrangements on Koloss reflect a lot of growth for the band over the past 10 years. Fans of Meshuggah's faster material also have a lot to enjoy on Koloss, as there are a number of tracks - such as the relentless The Demon's Name Is Surveillance and the frenetic Swarm - which highlight the band's aptitude for technical, precise musicianship at break-neck speeds.

Finally, Al Jourgensen's back with another album from Ministry, despite suggesting that he was calling it quits after 2007's The Last Sucker and the ensuing C-U-LaTour in 2008. Relapse is mostly more of the same as what the band offered with The Last Sucker. The political themes of the album have changed to reflect the struggles of the US economy over the past 5 years, with a nod to the "99 percent" movement, but the sound is largely the same. Relapse has a number of energetic, catchy moments, but there's nothing that really stands out to me, and as a whole the album seems a bit less polished than The Last Sucker or Rio Grande Blood.

Montreal Tuition Protests

Students and other concerned citizens in Montreal will be spending much of today attending a series of protests intended to raise awareness about and show dissent for the tuition hikes planned by the provincial government of Quebec. Quebecois students pay the lowest tuition for post-secondary education in the country, and many in the province would (quite understandably) like to keep things that way. Though I agree that access to education should be a priority for any state, ultimately I believe that these protests are misguided.

The most significant fact, the way I see things, is that a university education is no longer much of a guarantee for a better career. According to a 2006 report by Statistics Canada, the income gap between university graduates and other Canadians has been steadily declining, with recent university graduates actually earning less on average than their college or trade school counterparts. With university still being seen as the primary route for post-secondary education by most Canadians, Quebec has ended up with a situation where the provincial government is providing very costly subsidies to a broken system.

Governments have limited budgets to work with. If, as the data suggests, our post-secondary education system is failing to provide a distinct advantage in terms of employment to university graduates, perhaps the money spent subsidizing this system could be better spent elsewhere - or not spent at all, lowering Quebec's budget deficit significantly and potentially preventing very significant problems in the future. I don't mean to suggest that employment opportunity is the only benefit of post-secondary education, but when seen from the perspective of governance it needs to be a top priority, and in this case the system simply isn't working as intended.

My personal view is that it's Canada's public secondary school system that's in greatest need of reform. The failings of our secondary school system have exacerbated problems with post-secondary education. Our high school education ought to provide us with a reasonable foundation for finding a career or for pursuing post-secondary education, and I do not believe that this is being accomplished by Canada's public high schools. Canadians have come to view post-secondary education as a necessity, pushing themselves further into debt and ultimately getting less value for their dollar as universities struggle to cope with an overabundance of students, many of whom have been ill-prepared for post-secondary studies. Reforming Canada's secondary school system would no doubt be a lengthy and costly process, but the potential benefits to our education system as a whole far outweigh those to be found in continuing the high level of government spending by the province of Quebec on their post-secondary education system.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Harper's 2012 Canadian Budget

Welcome to the wonderful and exciting world of Canadian politics! Or, to be more precise: blogging about Canadian politics! Could things possibly get any better?

I wanted to briefly discuss some of my concerns regarding the budget recently proposed by Stephen Harper's Conservative government. Full disclosure: I'm not an economist, so perhaps my opinions are somewhat uninformed when it comes to the technical details of the budget, but I'm also not a politician so I'd like to think that my views are a little less influenced by partisan bias, and I do occasionally pay attention to the news and have a decent idea about how this information is often presented.

The general attitude regarding this budget seems to have been something like: "Well, yeah, cuts were made, but the cuts weren't that bad, and we need to balance the books somehow, don't we?" Predictably, the opposition criticized the Conservatives for making any cuts whatsoever, and also predictably (at least if you've been paying attention to Harper's big-spending approach; the Conservatives under Harper are not fiscally conservative), the far-right criticized the Conservatives for not cutting enough. As they say, however, the Devil's in the details, and what interests me here isn't so much the grand total of how much was cut, but rather where these cuts were made, and where did spending actually increase?

I'm sure you've all heard about the cuts to public services, and, as I alluded to earlier, the general word is that these cuts aren't as bad as they could have been. The problem is that these cuts weren't uniform; cuts weren't the same across all of the public services and some areas were hit much harder than others. Furthermore, while the reported 19,200 jobs lost is lower than many expected, this doesn't account for jobs that will be lost when the full effects of this budget are felt. For instance, the CBC (which I've already written about at length; check the comments from MRR on this article) received heavy cuts while some other institutions were relatively untouched, and the cuts to the CBC were shown as a dollar value instead of as a number of jobs lost. Those cuts to the CBC, however, will translate into a significant number of jobs lost at the CBC. Similar things are happening in other areas, with many costs being passed on to government at the provincial level. This obscures the total number of jobs that will be lost as a direct result of this budget, since the specific details of those losses will have to be decided by those departments themselves.

Not only that, but it turns out the total job losses may be quite a bit higher than the 19,200 reported, because according to this article the Conservatives decided not to inform the public about thousands of "temporary" positions that would be cut. This is all very clever on the part of the Conservatives: they get to report smaller losses than many projected, which helps them appeal to politically-moderate voters. Right-wing voters, on the other hand, don't really have anywhere else to turn to and will chalk this up as a "small victory" rather than any sort of defeat.

Beyond the obfuscation of job losses, I think that some of the specific cuts and spending choices speak volumes about the Conservative mandate. These heavy cuts to the CBC are entirely consistent with Harper's tight-lipped approach to the media. Steven Harper doesn't believe in sharing information with the public and letting them decide for themselves, nor does he enjoy being questioned or challenged - his interviews are rare and heavily vetted - and so he doesn't see the value in a news source free from reliance on advertising revenue and, consequently, corporate influence.

He also made significant cuts to environmental protection agencies for the purpose of "streamlining" the approval process for businesses. Furthermore, limits placed on charities will prohibit them from taking place in "political" activities, so an environmentally-conscious charity won't be allowed to speak out against what they think is wrong. Again, this isn't unexpected from Harper - it's a consistent reflection of his party's values - but it's being buried in the guise of a "middle-of-the-road" budget. Whether environmental protection in particular is a big concern for you or not, the erosion of free speech that's gradually taking place should be a great concern to Canadians.

There are also significant cuts and changes being made to Old Age Security benefits. While I do think that changes to this and other old-age programs are required, these particular changes place the burden on those least able to bear it. These changes further reward the rich who are able to defer their payments and further punish the poor and ill who rely on that extra income. Furthermore, these changes are coming at a time where the group most affected by the changes - those in their 40s and early 50s who are on the wrong side of the cut-off dates - are facing a lot of instability in the workplace. I don't think these changes would be anywhere near as problematic if the Canadian economy was in a stronger place, but that's not the situation we're presently facing. I'm not an expert on this stuff, so here's a short video featuring someone much more well-informed than I am talking about these issues.

On the side of increased spending, Bill C-10 (the Conservative party's crime bill) will incur heavy costs on the provincial level, but won't be reported as a federal issue, making the Conservatives appear like they're saving money when they're really not. They're also spending an extra $5.2 billion over 11 years on the Canadian Coast Guard. I haven't seen a single news report in the past several years suggesting that the Canadian coast is facing any severe threat, so even though I'm not opposed to some increase for military and defense budgets, I suspect that this money could have been put to better use elsewhere. This may be a way for the Conservatives to try to score political points with some particular group or business that will benefit directly from the extra spending, or, it could be a manifestation of the Conservative's stance regarding immigration, but that's pure conjecture; the fact of the matter is that I haven't been able to find any reports that suggest why this extra spending is necessary. There's also the issue of the fighter jets, but that dead horse has been beaten far enough into the ground by now that I don't need to point out how stupid a purchase they are, do I?

The removal of the penny, for what it's worth, is essentially a red herring. It's a prudent move - originally suggested by the NDP - but it has received far more than its share of news coverage. It makes an easy story because it's something everyone can relate to and understand, but, in the end it's almost insignificant on a political level.

So, on the surface this budget might seem tame, but I think this budget is a very clever move by the Conservatives. They've made very significant cuts targeted against public broadcasting, environmental groups, and the poor, all while hiding the full extent of their cuts to the public. The numbers may not look as drastic as some initially predicted, but I think the effects of this budget will be far-reaching over the long term.

GoT: The Night Lands

The second episode of this season of Game of Thrones was much more subdued than the series premiere, which I'm quite glad to see. With the grandiose re-introductions of the previous episode out of the way, The Night Lands gives us a chance to settle in with some of the new situations the characters have found themselves in. The stage is still being set this season's story, of course, but this episode went a long way toward setting the tone for what's to come. Something I mentioned in my review of The North Remembers, which I think bears repeating, is that I'm glad to see how Benioff and Weiss are giving these characters time; some of this episode's best scenes don't involve major plot moments, but instead focus on the more mundane interactions these characters have. This helps us viewers really get a sense of who the characters are, instead of just watching what they do.

Case in point: This week's best scene, in my view, is the one beginning with a conversation between Arya, Lommy, and Hot-Pie, and ending with Arya revealing her true identity to Gendry. Arya's conversation with Gendry is certainly significant for the plot, but that's not what makes the scene great; it's moments like Hot-Pie's tale-telling, Arya's confusion when she tries to think of herself as a "lady", and Gendry's blundering apology when he realizes how he's been behaving in front of a "lady" that make this scene - and Game of Thrones as a series - memorable. Sam, Grenn, and Edd Tollet's conversation about the dignity of farting ("We were having a serious discussion.") and Littlefinger's cold threat to Ros (which again played to Aidan Gillen's strength at playing the "stern" side of Lord Baelish) are similar scenes which don't provide much exposition, but go a long way toward giving us a better sense of what these people are like.

I was also incredibly impressed with our introduction to Balon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands. The concept of "paying the iron price" was demonstrated very clearly, and this segued perfectly into Balon's decision to refuse Robb's offer. Benioff and Weiss did a very good job here of introducing a new concept and showing how its implications play out, which is something I felt was lacking from a few scenes in the first season. For example, in episode 8 when a group of Lannister soldiers led by Meryn Trant come to apprehend Arya after Ned's imprisonment, Syrio Forel asks why Ned Stark would send Lannister men instead of his own. This is intended as a demonstration of the principle he was just teaching Arya: survival depends on truly seeing rather than just watching (that is to say, on a critical outlook as opposed to a passive one). The principle and how it applies to Syrio's deduction isn't as evident as it could have been in the show. The books can communicate a character's thoughts to make these parallels much more clear, but the show needs to rely on different methods; Arya's internal "A-ha! This is what seeing is all about!" revelation needed to be demonstrated quite clearly for it to have the same effect.

I also think that casting Patrick Malahide for Balon's part was a great decision. The promotional shots and trailers I'd seen didn't show just how much he looks like he could be related to Alfie Allen's Theon, but that really sank in once I saw them on screen together. We haven't yet seen much of Gemma Whelan as "Yara" Greyjoy. Some fans of the books seem to be disappointed based on how fierce her character is in the books compared to what we saw in this episode, but I think they're rushing to conclusions about Gemma far too early; she plays coy when first introduced in the books as well, and only over time to we start to get a sense of her character.

There was a lot of material about gender roles in this episode: Arya's ongoing conflict with "ladyhood", Sam's defense of Gilly as a person and not property, Danaerys's difficulty being accepted as a female leader, Theon's discussion of "salt wives" and indignation with the idea of his sister commanding a fleet, Cersei's gripes about her brothers not taking rulership seriously, and even Salladhor Saan's "one true god" between a woman's legs. This material is all interesting in its own right, but I'm not sure each episode needs a coherent "theme" to be enjoyable. Despite ending on a bit of a cliffhanger, The Night Lands felt much less "episodic" to me than last week's episode or many of the episodes from season 1, and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. Trying to break up A Clash of Kings into a series of satisfying hour-long arcs would be doing a disservice to the story as a whole. Perhaps I'm just reading into things and "gender" isn't supposed to act as any sort of consistent theme - we have yet to meet one of this season's characters who would fit that theme most strongly, and if a gender-themed episode was truly the aim it would seem like a mistake to exclude them - but in any case I didn't find it to be problematic. I just don't want to see a situation develop where episodes are tied up too neatly into little mini-arcs; I don't need a theme to tie an episode together, I need strong moments in these episodes to tie the series together.

I do have a few minor complaints about the episode. Cersei came across as a bit flat in her scenes compared to Lena Headey's great work on last week's episode. Her scene with Tyrion was somewhat interesting, but she came across as a bit too stoic. Also, even though I liked Gillen's performance as Petyr Baelish this week, I thought that the brothel scene slowed down the episode a bit too much. I don't mind the presence of "adult" content, but I don't find it especially interesting for its own sake. The voyeurism and fellatio/kissing gag at the beginning of the scene didn't seem to add much aside from a cheap laugh.

We don't see any of Bran, Robb, Jamie, Catelyn, Joffrey, or Sansa this week, but I feel that the extended views we got of some of the other characters more than made up for it. I think it's a true testament to the strength of the story and the actors here that the absence of Sean Bean, who was brilliant throughout the first season, is barely even noticed. This episode really got me back into the "feel" of Game of Thrones, and season 2 looks to be shaping up wonderfully so far.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Internets, please explain this to me: The Hunger Games

Dear the Internet,

I've heard some things about a movie called The Hunger Games. Mostly that it's based on a book, that it's pretty similar to Battle Royale, and that it made a figurative ton of money. Apparently it had one of the biggest opening weekends ever, just behind some movie about a Batman and some other movie about a wizard. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as I was previously unaware of the existence of The Hunger Games.

So, I ask of you: How and why did this happen?

Don't get me wrong; I'm actually not trying to sarcastically insult this film here. I really don't know much about it, and the fact that it was this big comes as something of a surprise to me. I'm often quite cynical of typical movie-going audiences, and so I'm not surprised when the latest Twilight film smashes this-or-that box office record, but The Hunger Games seemed to just come out of the blue. It actually doesn't look like a piece of pandering garbage, and it's not a sequel in a well-established and massively-successful franchise.

Having given this issue a tiny bit of thought, I've come up with a few possibilities for how this happened:

  1. Movie ticket prices might have skyrocketed for that weekend, inflating the box office figures.
  2. This book could be super popular among the hordes of young women who finished reading the Twilight books a few years ago, and those women are now looking for something new to throw their money at. My finger isn't really on the pulse of that particular demographic, so something like The Hunger Games could easily sneak up on me. (Supporting evidence: the presence of Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 on the movie's soundtrack.)
  3. Perhaps ompetition for The Hunger Games was especially stale that weekend at the box office. What else was playing? The Lorax (which is bad)?
  4. Maybe there was a secret party where people were going to see The Hunger Games and everyone was invited except for me. (T_T)
Clearly, I'm not getting very far thinking about this on my own. I actually think it's great for a new franchise to be doing so well, especially one that features a strong female protagonist. I just don't understand how. So what's the deal? Fill me in, people of the web.

TAKA NO DAN!!! New Berserk Movie Trailer!

It's a tiny bit disappointing that they're using the same Susumu Hirasawa track for this trailer, as it would have been nice to hear more music from him for the new Berserk films, but I'll take what I can get. I'm also a bit disappointed that they don't seem to be including any scenes of Guts's childhood flashbacks in these new movies. Those scenes were thematically integral to the manga and the anime, and none of them made it into the first film of this new trilogy. That doesn't look to be changing with what we've been shown so far from The Battle of Doldrey, but I'll keep my fingers crossed.

For those who haven't seen them already, here's a trailer for Egg of the King, the first film of the new trilogy, and a censored preview of the first 10 minutes of that film. (PS: The last 30 seconds of that preview clip say more about Berserk than the first 9 and a half minutes.)