Sunday, March 7, 2010

Olympics Wrap Up: Surprise Performers

The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games are over now and they couldn't have been a much bigger success for Canada. We did more than just not embarrass ourselves, we led the way finishing third overall in the medal standings and first in Golds. Oh, we also set the record for most by Golds by the host country as well as most Golds at the Winter Games PERIOD.

But that last Gold we won to set the record was the big one: men's ice hockey (it always feels so stupid saying ice hockey but I have to stick to Olympic Speak here). Nova Scotia phenom Sidney Crosby scored at 7:40 of overtime to send the nation into celebration and I guess it's only fitting that he was the guy to do it (I called it by the way - picking him for Canada and Patrick Kane for the yanks).

Here I'll just point out five players (plus one extra) who really surprised me with how they performed at the Olympics, whether by really stepping up or completely disappearing. Apparently there were also some other events going on at these games but I didn't really notice.

5. Alex Ovechkin - Russia
Aside from a huge hit on Jaromir Jagr that led directly to a goal by Malkin, The Great Eight was essentially invisible in this tournament, particularly in the game against Canada. Really, the top two lines for the Russians, consisting of notable NHLers Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk (more invisible than Ovie but less surprising), Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin, Maxim Afinogenov and Alex Semin were consistently outperformed by the bottom two made up of KHLers.

The knock on Russian teams of the past fifteen years is that for all their explosive talent, they never come together as a team and this leads to poor finishes in international tournaments. I personally believed that Ovechkin, with his wild passion and enthusiasm, would galvanize the Russians and they'd finally gel as they needed to. But nope.

4. Sergei Kostitsyn - Belarus

Just because a player doesn't play for a country in the Big Six doesn't mean he can't surprise you. Coming into these Olympics, no one expected much of the Belarussians and really, why would you? And because of injuries to two of their three top offensive players and two of the four NHLers on their roster, expectations were lowered even more. Not only were they without Mikhail Grabovski and short one Kostitsyn brother, it was the lesser Kostitsyn - Sergei - that they were left with.

Older brother Andrei is coming off a 23 goal season for the Montreal Canadiens and actually had 26 the year before so he was the one proven scorer Belarus had. Sergei is younger, smaller and less of a goal scorer. He has great stickhandling and playmaking skills but he's often overmatched by strong, physical players who take away his time and space. So once he became the undisputed number one offensive threat for Belarus, I figured he'd crumble under the pressure. But I was wrong. He led the team in scoring with 2 goals, 3 assists for 5 points in four games. Not overwhelming but still damned impressive when you factor in that he always saw the opposition's best players matching up against him in a tournament that featured the best players in the world. Bravo, Sergei. Grabovski still hates your guts though.

3. Brian Rafalski - USA
Obviously the entire US team's performance at these Olympics was a surprise. Many, including myself, picked them to not even earn a medal. And while the Silver they took home is more due to Ryan Miller's completely unsurprising dominant play than anything else, the fact is that lots of players upped their game. Rafalski is one of those players.

Unlike most of the roster, Rafalski is not young and unproven. In fact he was the oldest player on the team and oldest defenceman by a mile. He's had a great career as a mostly offensive defenceman, averaging close to 50 points a season and winning three Stanley Cups - two with New Jersey and one with Detroit. He played for the US at the last Olympics. And the Olympics before that. But in Torino, he didn't even score a goal. In Vancouver he got 4, 2 in the first game against Canada.

The diminutive, smooth skating native of Dearborn, Michigan, who was never drafted by an NHL team, finished the Olympics with 4 goals and 4 assists for 8 points in six games, along with a plus seven. He was selected as one of the defenceman for the tournament all star team (along with Canada's Shea Weber) and named top defenceman overall. He'll be forty by the time the next Olympics roll around and I highly doubt we'll see him there but that's ok given his amazing farewell performance on the international stage.

2. Pavol Demitra - Slovakia
Another tournament all star I don't think anyone saw coming. As I stated in my earlier Olympic list, the story on the Slovakians going into Vancouver is that they're friggin' old. Demitra is one of those players. Even more troubling is his injury history which has severely limited his effectiveness in the NHL for the past few seasons. He'd only played a handful of games for the Canucks this year so predicting how he'd play at the Olympics was tough.

Well, how he played was fantastic, finishing with 3 goals and 7 assists for a tournament leading ten points in seven games. He's easily the most surprising member of the all star team (Canada's Jonathan Toews and USA's Zach Parise were the other forwards with Toews named top forward) and helped Slovakia to a surprise appearance in the Bronze medal game. They were leading that game 3-1 (against the Finns) going into the third period but just couldn't hold it. I know the Slovaks are disappointed that they lost out on a medal but after beating the Russians and Swedes and almost coming back against the Canadians, they should hold their heads up high. Demitra highest of all.

1. Tore Vikingstad - Norway

It's only fitting that the Norwegians' most dynamic player at the Olympics is named Vikingstad. Perhaps his 4 goals in four games don't seem so impressive at first but let's put them into perspective. Firstly, in case you didn't know, Norway is pretty damn far from a power in the world of hockey (something that always surprised me a bit by virtue of geography, really) and they were definitely whipping boys in this tournament. Their number two goalie wasn't even a professional - he was a freaking carpenter. Canada smoked them 8-0 and the Americans easily handled them 6-1. How many goals did Norway even score at the Olympics? I'll tell you - 8. That's right, EIGHT. So Vikingstad accounted for half of his team's entire goal output. Even over a short stretch like four games, that's still pretty amazing. He was also the only Norwegian player to score more than one goal. Patrick Thoresen, their only player with any NHL experience, actually led the team with 5 points but they were all assists.

Vikingstad's offensive outburst came mostly in the form of a hat trick in a game against Latvia. You can say it's only Latvia but you should keep two things in mind: Latvia are technically stronger than Norway (ok, who isn't?) and a hat trick at the Olympics is still a freaking hat trick at the Olympics.

The thirty-three year old was actually a late pick of the St. Louis Blues back in 1999 (180th overall) after showing some promise playing in the Swedish Elite League. His 6'4, 204 pound frame probably was a pretty big factor too. But he never played a game in a North American league let alone the NHL. It's a safe bet this is the last we'll ever hear of him. But then again, he'll only be thirty-seven in four years and Norway isn't exactly stacked with talent...

Honourable Mention: Mats Zuccarello-Aasen - Norway
Norway's other best player doesn't have as kickass a name as Tore Vikingstad but that's ok considering his nickname which I am not making up: The Hobbit Wizard! That's right! In fact, how COULD I make that up?

While the tiny (seriously - 5'7, 154) Norwegian dynamo only managed one goal, he also had two assists for 3 points in the four games played. He also was somehow a plus one which, on that team, is outstanding, trust me. But even though he didn't pile up the points, The Hobbit Wizard made things happen almost every time he was on the ice, using his speed and creativity. He pinballed around the rink fearlessly and showed off some spectacular moves at times. He had 11 shots in the tournament, second only to Vikingstad (who had 12).

He's only twenty-two and currently leading Modo of the Swedish Elite League in scoring with 60 points in fifty-one games. That's a league full of skilled players but it is less physical than say, the AHL. Still, during these Olympics I think it's fair to say he caught the attention of some NHL scouts and gm's. Maybe the NHL is just too physically demanding for such a small player to succeed in but I'd love to see him give it a shot.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Big CGI Films of the 90s

Computer-generated imagery has been used in film since the early 70s. Being a child of the 90s, though, I remember how big of a role CGI played in film. With computers becoming a household item, and the Internet changing how we lived, the use of computer technologies in film left us in awe. These are a few of the big CGI films that were released in the 1990s.

5. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In the late 90s Star Wars geeks the world over were in a state of euphoria. Although nowadays nerds cry about it constantly on Internet forums all over the web, when George Lucas decided to re-release the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997, the theatres were packed to see his updated versions of these classic films. Amidst the cries of “Han shot first!” and “I rather the cantina scene with the muppets”, we also caught wind of Lucas’ newest project. In 1999, 16 years since the last Star Wars film, and 22 years since he left the director’s chair, Lucas would return with an all new film, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

What can I really say that hasn’t been said? The Jar Jar Binks fiasco has come and gone, but when that film came out, you gotta admit, it was pretty damned cool. I remember the film somewhat fondly, as painful as some of the storyline can be. There was a bitchin’ new Sith, Darth Maul and the introduction of Pod Racing. Qui-Gon and the young Obi-Wan were pretty cool as well. I mean, there were tons of Jedi!

Regardless of your feelings about the film, it was a special effects masterpiece in its time. The battle with the Gungan, the landscapes, it expanded the Star Wars Universe exponentially. As much as I love the original trilogy, and I find a real “character” in the use of puppets and animatronics, The Phantom Menace was a visually epic film from the 90s.

4. The Matrix (1999)

This is a film I hold near and dear to my heart. Although I find it hard to say, “This is my favourite film of all time”, with changing tastes and new films coming out all the time, I have called this movie my favourite, and I still love it. I’m a huge cyber/steam punk fan, and this film is like an action/kung fu/cyberpunk enthusiast’s wet dream. Another 1999 delight, this was essentially a Western, feature film anime, with real friggin’ people. There was awesome hand-to-hand combat, amazing gun fighting and giant freakin’ robots.

The marketing behind the film was one of the major keys to its success. “What is the Matrix?” was on everyone’s mind that year. The viral marketing, along with intriguing storyline and geektastic background made this film and instant win, without any of the great aspects I’ve listed above. This film also single-handedly redefined the term slow-motion. No one calls it slo-mo anymore. It’s “bullet time”. The effect took a combination of wire-work, CGI and a series of still-frame cameras taking hundreds of images in a swooping arc to pull off, and man, did it look awesome.

After this film, movies of the early 2000s struggled to do what they could to keep up with its technological feats. The sequels would continue on this trend, raising the bar each time, but would never touch the original film.

3. Jurassic Park (1993)

Here’s another film that made a huge impact on my youth and I still consider one of my favourite of all time. Stephen Spielberg, the big adventure film king, was taking a Michael Crichton novel to the big screen. That’s like having pizza and Coca-Cola… a winning combination.

With the leaps in CGI-related technologies coming out in the early 90s, Spielberg took on the task of pushing the technologies further than anyone had done before. Even though CG was still in its infancy, he seamlessly blended animatronics, stop motion, puppetry and computer-generated imagery to the point that even today it looks amazing.

The dinosaurs were the big ticket and did they ever look good: the flocking group of Gallimimus, the thundering Brachiosaurs, the Velociraptors and of course, the big daddy of them all, T-Rex. Even though a good portion of the film was actually animatronics, there are scenes where you can’t tell the difference, and you know it. In 1993, there was nothing like it.

2. Toy Story (1995)

Pixar is a household name these days, but in 1995 no one expected such a leap in animation. Pixar had been around for years, using their advanced computer technologies in conjunction with companies like Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) as well as the team behind Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. It wasn’t until the company was facing some hard times and signed a three picture deal with Disney that it would take off in ways that no one would ever imagine.

The first film they released was Toy Story, a full CGI “cartoon” with big name actors voicing the characters, such as Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Jim Varney and John Ratzenberger. That’s right, I just put the guy from Cheers, Tim the Tool Man Taylor and Ernest in the same sentence with Tom Hanks.

The effects were stunning. The film opened the same year as the newest Batman film (Batman Forever) as well as Apollo 13 (which also featured Hanks), another film that would be somewhat suitable for this list, and pounded the two of them, the highest grossing Disney film since The Lion King. [To be fair, that's only one year - it basically outgrossed the woeful Pocahontas - cole*]

It had a fantastic cast of toy characters, a great storyline and an award-winning soundtrack. In a lot of ways, the CGI in the film was a secondary element, but most certainly helped to catapult Toy Story into the realm of instant classic.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

You saw this coming, right? No one has pushed film technologies like James Cameron, and his seminal masterpiece, often called the greatest action film of all time, T2 was like a beacon for CGI-related filmmakers.

Using CGI to push his 1989 film, The Abyss, Cameron began his love affair with computer generated effects, and would continue to be the pioneer of these technologies, even to this day. He made the (now) second highest grossing film of all time, the phenomenon that was Titanic in 1997 (another film that could have fit this list, if I cared about it), which was only recently topped by his latest blockbuster, Avatar, which expanded the use of IMAX and 3D into realms no one has ever experienced.

In T2, Cameron paved the way for Spielberg, Lucas and the Wachowskis by creating one of the most memorable villains in cinema, the T-1000; a liquid-metal harbinger of death from the future, bent on destroying humanity's greatest hope.

The visuals of T-1000 were jaw-dropping in their time. Even though the technologies of today have grown exponentially, I think T2’s effects still stand up. Even the CG used to create a Terminator exoskeleton was amazing.

Computer effects continue to evolve, and with virtuosos like Cameron at the helm, we can only expect bigger and better things in the future. Although I think cheaply used computer effects have ruined a lot of films in the last 15 years, and there is still a place for conventional special effects, the big CGI blockbusters will still come and knock our socks off, and I for one can’t wait.