Monday, January 20, 2020

Oscars 2020: Early thoughts and predictions

The Academy Award nominations were announced earlier last Monday, and the general reaction was somewhere between an exasperated sigh and a frustrated "meh" (as I will discuss throughout this post). The nominations were earlier than usual by at least a week (if not more than that), and there is an abbreviated season this year, with the Awards coming up on February 9, which means that the fact that I waited a week to publish this post makes my picks that much better, right?

That said, there has been some clarity that has come through the announcements of several Guild awards (Producers' Guild and Screen Actors' Guild), so I will incorporate those observations into this post. But first, a few general observations about this year's Oscars.

A top-heavy year


This year's nominations are unusually top-heavy, as all of the Best Picture nominees earned at least four nominations; four of the nine films were in double digits for their nominations, with another four at six nominations each and one at four. The dominance of those nine films left little room for other films in the mainline categories, as only seven other films in total received nominations in the acting or writing categories.

This particular division of nominees seems like it means that this year's awards may be concentrated on the core group of nominees, and that there may be a sentiment similar to previous years in which voters are trying to spread out the other awards among the dominant group of films, leaving little room for other movies to work their way into the conversation.

It would seem that there is more (or at least as much) of a trend of groupthink than there has been in the past, and that the Academy is mostly playing it safe this year, with just a couple of disruptions making it seem like they're being progressive.

With that in mind, it is also unlikely that there will be a dominant film at this year's Awards, and that even the most-awarded film will only win three or four Oscars. In the decade since the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to more than five nominees, there has been only once when a film has won more than six Awards (Gravity won seven) and another three times when a film won six (The Hurt Locker, Mad Max: Fury Road, and La La Land). So, basically, assume that most major nominees will get at least one award, and the most awarded film will only get three or four Oscars.

Nominations hurt by lack of diversity


The Oscars continued (or revived) a couple of unfortunately long-standing trends: mostly ignoring women and people of color. It remains one of the greatest stains on the Oscars (though there are a few), and I really hope that the changing composition of the Academy actually changes these trends in the next few years. It could easily be argued that Greta Gerwig deserved a nomination for Directing and not just a writing nomination, and that there were far more female directors and writers that deserved conversation.

The Oscars are once again #OscarsSoWhite, with only one acting nominee of color (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet), despite there being several widely well-recognized performances from that community. This really has become one of the worst continuing storylines for the Oscars, and although it's hard in some ways to find fault with the nominated performances when evaluated individually, it is very troubling that the general neglect of minorities continues as a trend.

What seemed particularly egregious this year is the way the conversation shaped over the past few months, as it seemed that this trend seemed inevitable, and that the actors of color were competing for one open spot in each acting category. There were several performances that merited nominations from other bodies - Lupita Nyong'o in Us and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers come to mind as the foremost examples - but there are many others that could have been nominated, which makes this whitewash even more frustrating.

But it's not just the nominations that are male and white: it's the movies themselves that reflect that reality. Two-thirds of the Best Picture nominees seem to appeal primarily to that demographic, and as mentioned earlier, it seems as though the Oscars doubled down on those films rather than trying to incorporate a wider diversity of experiences.

Of course, each branch of the Academy works independently for their nominations, so it's perhaps not quite as simple as observing that the Academy is mostly male and white and so are the nominations. And there is an argument to be made that there should not be tokenism, and that the best films should be recognized, regardless of color; but to do that blindly is to also ignore the systemic patterns of privilege that continue to benefit white men (primarily).

There still is a significant system of privilege in place, and it's far easier for films that appeal to white men to succeed at the Oscars, and this year's nominations have demonstrated that there is a lot of work to be done in the Academy and in the world of film in general to rectify some of those historic imbalances of power that still proliferate.

Other emerging trends being established


There are a few other trends that seem like they may be solidifying in regard to new norms being established within the Academy. They're certainly less significant than the required changes in regard to diversity, but they're still notable shifts in the Academy's patterns (at least for now).

After emerging as a contending studio last year with Roma, Netflix continued to establish itself as a dominant studio, with a total of 24 nominations leading all studios. The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes all earned multiple nominations, and Netflix has several other films contending in other categories.

Parasite's six nominations marks the second consecutive year that a film made in another language has received significant attention from the Academy at large - although it could definitely be argued that it deserved at least one acting nomination, especially in light of the film's win for Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors' Guild Awards

And Joker's eleven nominations seem to indicate that the superhero genre is now even less anathema than it was before last year's nominations for Black Panther. It's taken over a decade since The Dark Knight was snubbed in Best Picture, but superheroes (and villains, for that matter) may be here to stay in the serious consideration department. Also, what would the odds have been even a few months ago that Joker would have been the most nominated film? What a world we live in.

My early thoughts and predictions for the 92nd Oscars


Best Picture: This is by far my worst category to predict, and I'm still not sure exactly why. I made a couple of dumb mistakes, but mostly, I still defend my reasoning behind choices like The Revenant, La La Land, Get Out, and Roma over the films that won in the past four years. So, what I'm trying to say is, you probably shouldn't trust me in this category, especially since I have not seen any of the nominated films at the time of nomination for the first time since the Best Picture field expanded to more than five nominees in 2010.

With nine nominees becoming the standard, it's normally easy to group them into three categories based on their prominence and ability to win the big award - but this year seems different, with at least five or six movies that would seem to have a strong narrative to win Best Picture and another two or three that can make a case; that said, each of those eight movies also have a narrative against them that could develop over the next few weeks.

If I had to group them, I would say that the frontrunners are 1917 and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, as I find it hard to see a case for Joker to actually win (though it would be the most Oscarsiest thing ever for Joker winning Best Picture to be the way to finally recognize the superhero genre), and that the only nominee of the nine that seems likely to not win and not really gather much momentum in other categories is Ford v. Ferrari.

That leaves the middle group - the films that maybe could win, but will probably be awarded elsewhere (or maybe not at all) - as the largest, including: The IrishmanJojo RabbitJokerLittle Women; Marriage Story; and Parasite. In short, it feels like a mostly wide-open year, and with a shorter Oscar season, it seems as though the outcome is far from guaranteed. The Irishman could actually become the latest film to get blanked after receiving ten or more nominations, given this group of nominees.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, on the other hand, has the cachet of being a production about Hollywood with some of its biggest stars of the past quarter-century both in front of and behind the camera. There are some problematic discussions both of the content in the movie and Quentin Tarantino's career in general, but there is also a strong "he's due" case that's being made, in addition to the "this is the kind of movie that helps remind us of what movies are like" narrative that has developed since the summer.

1917 has a lot going for it, and I think it has the momentum right now with its wins at the Golden Globes and the Producers' Guild, as well as the advantage of having a sense of being political without actually having any current political stakes. OUATiH was the odds-on favourite right after the nominations, but I think there's a good chance that 1917 will keep coming on strong after its recent wins and box-office success, so I'm leaning toward 1917 to win right now. But chances are that I'll be wrong no matter who I pick.

Best Director: The biggest story here is that Greta Gerwig was omitted, leaving it as an all-male category yet again. Todd Phillips is just happy to be here for Joker, but each of the other four could win. Bong Joon Ho will probably be awarded elsewhere, but then again, Cuaron won this award and Best International Feature last year, so it's possible Ho will win for Parasite. Although there could be a move to give it to Scorsese to validate his career (in addition to his win for The Departed), I tend to think it will go to Quentin Tarantino, who has never won this award, over Sam Mendes for 1917. But it could go either way; my early pick is that they give this to QT as a way to acknowledge his work over the past three decades.

Best Actor: I don't see a way that this doesn't go to Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, but also for his entire body of work . Driver seems too young, DiCaprio won recently, and Banderas and Pryce seem mostly happy to be there. For that matter, though, the entire slate of Acting nominees is entirely uninteresting this year, with all four having highly favoured nominees.

Best Actress: Renee Zellweger seems poised to win for Judy, and that's probably a lock. But if there were an upset, I'd pick Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story over Saoirse Ronan in Little Women.

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt being nominated along with four previous winners seems like a lock for Pitt to finally get an Oscar for his role in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.

Best Supporting Actress: This category consists of one previous winner, three young actresses (well, Scarlett Johansson isn't exactly young anymore, but I think it still fits the general narrative), and the much-beloved Laura Dern, who should win for Marriage Story.

Best Original Screenplay: Will Tarantino win his third writing Oscar (tying him with Woody Allen), or will Noah Baumbach win for Marriage Story? Or maybe Bong Joon Ho for Parasite? I have a poor track record in this category, but my early hunch is that it could be Bong Joon Ho winning for a screenplay in another language.

Best Adapted Screenplay: It seems like this should go to Greta Gerwig, as she has adapted a much-beloved work, was snubbed for Directing, and didn't win for Lady Bird two years ago because she was up against Jordan Peele for Get Out. Her main competition is probably Todd Phillips for Joker, but I think we'll see Greta get an Oscar.

Best Animated Feature: I have no idea. Toy Story 4 might seem to be the frontrunner, but I have a sense that this could go weird - like I Lost My Body weird. But it's probably Toy Story 4. But maybe not.

Other Technical Categories: I'm assuming that these will mostly be divided among the Best Picture nominees, with 1917 picking up two or three awards of the eight (Cinematography; Costume Design; Film Editing; Makeup and Hairstyling; Production Design; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing; Visual Effects). I imagine that most of the main contenders will get an award here, too.

My prediction records since 2005


For the record, here are my results by category and by year since I've been publicly predicting the awards in this forum. As you can see, I have been particularly poor at predicting Best Picture most years, but I have only had two really bad years in which I have missed more than three of these nine categories; in fact, my most common result is 8/9 (five times), and I only miss one or two awards (at least 7/9 correct) 60 % of the time, so chances are I will mostly be correct in my final picks - except for Best Picture, of course.

Results by category:
Best Picture: 6/15 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Best Director: 12/15 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015)
Best Actor: 12/15 (missed 2007, 2009, 2017)
Best Actress: 12/15 (missed 2008, 2012, 2019)
Best Supporting Actor: 13/15 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 13/15 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Original Screenplay: 9/15 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12/15 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)
Best Animated Feature: 12/15 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)

Results by year:
2019: 6/9 (missed Picture, Actress, and Original Screenplay)
2018: 8/9 (missed Picture)
2017: 7/9 (missed Picture and Actor)
2016: 8/9 (missed Picture)
2015: 4/9 (missed Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, and Animated Feature)
2014: 8/9 (missed Original Screenplay)
2013: 6/9 (missed Director, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature)
2012: 8/9 (missed Actress)
2011: 7/9 (missed Director and Original Screenplay)
2010: 6/9 (missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay)
2009: 8/9 (missed Actor)
2008: 6/9 (missed Actress, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay)
2007: 5/9 (missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature)
2006: 7/9 (missed Picture and Supporting Actress)
2005: 7/9 (missed Picture and Original Screenplay)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Dough of Skywalker

I don't know that there was ever a time in my formative years that I considered myself to be a "Star Wars fan". I mean, I enjoyed the original trilogy well enough as a kid, but I always fancied myself a Star Trek person rather than a Star Wars person. I don't think it's that much revisionist history to say that I actually wasn't a big fan of Star Wars, even though there were a few years in the early 1990s in which I read almost all of the Expanded Universe novels (alongside the monthly paperback releases of Star Trek novels, which occasionally verged into more salacious territory than the Star Wars books).

As a result of friendship with a couple of rabid Star Wars fans in my life at the time, I watched The Phantom Menace in theatres a second time (I fell asleep the first time), but the experience of that movie, even as a teenage viewer, was enough to turn me off of the franchise almost entirely. (Though, to be fair, I was ignoring Star Trek and most of pop culture at that point as well; it's a long story.)  I skipped the next two entries in the prequel trilogy, and by the time that trilogy ended, I saw myself as an outsider to the fandom of the franchise; to this day, I have still not watched either Episode II or III, and I have no intention of doing so.

All this is to say that when Disney purchased Lucasfilm in October 2012, I was mostly indifferent to the franchise, though I was curious as to where the series might go. And as they started announcing various plans to erase the canon of the Expanded Universe that had developed over the previous two decades and to bring back the principal characters of the original trilogy - all of whom were alive and still acting at the time - in the new series of movies, I started to become more nominally enthusiastic - even excited at times - about the possibilities of the revival.

The past four years of the revival of the franchise have provided a lot of entertainment - highs and lows - and more than a little fatigue, even, it seems, for devoted fans; after all, it has been an eventful half-decade for this entity that is arguably the most beloved intellectual property of all time, but that perhaps tried to do too much too quickly too soon and, it could be argued, squandered a lot of good will along the way.

With this context in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take some time to think about where the franchise and my fandom are at in the days before the finality of the release of The Rise of Skywalker, which will shape the ways in which the entire series is viewed; think of this as a final snapshot of my view of Star Wars before it is permanently altered before The Rise (hence the pun in the title).

Reflecting on the recent revival of Star Wars


I was effusive in my praise for The Force Awakens when it was released, as I think it accomplished the challenging task of honoring the original trilogy while introducing a new group of iconic characters and ideas, and above all, it made me realize that I could enjoy Star Wars again. I remain enthralled by what it accomplished - even if it was at times an almost shot-for-shot remake of the first movie - as it started something new while honouring what had been.

But after The Force Awakens, I have enjoyed each subsequent movie less than its predecessor. Rogue One was a great idea for a movie and what should have been a great war movie that seems to have gotten muddled from corporate interventions resulting in reshoots - although I maintain that the final half-hour - the actual "war" part - is as exciting and dynamic as any action sequence in the franchise.

Solo was narratively and tonally a dud, as well as proof that simply releasing a movie with “Star Wars” in the title would not be enough to guarantee success. It turned out that viewers didn't really care about Han Solo's background or need an explanation of the Kessel run and they didn't need Han to be a rogue with a heart of gold and a lost love; they actually needed him either to remain steeped in mystery or to be truly developed as a full character over time in the way that, say, a TV show on a streaming service could do.

If anything, fans needed a young Lando movie, as Donald Glover (and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37) seemed to be the only one to get the comic tongue-in-cheek tone that the movie should have had - and likely would have had under released writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as opposed to the semi-serious tone that seems to unfortunately be embraced as the base for the series at this point.

That leaves the previous entry in the Skywalker Saga, the much-maligned The Last Jedi, which I think deserves a bit more analysis at this point heading into The Rise of Skywalker - particularly since I neglected to write anything when it was released two years ago. (For the record, I have yet to watch The Mandalorian, though I suspect that the fact that I have heard it described as "Justified with blasters"  means that I will enjoy it greatly when I finally get around to binge-watching it.)

The Last Jedi


I always intended to write out my thoughts about The Last Jedi after I rewatched it, which I assumed would have been within a couple weeks of my initial viewing upon its release. I figured that it probably wasn't going to be fair to judge it on a first viewing, so I was going to do the responsible thing and see it again to really form my opinion. Then, after watching it, I as so baffled by it and generally non-enthused by what it did that I just didn't watch it again...until this past weekend, in order to prepare for The Rise of Skywalker.

I realized in my rewatching of TLJ that I had perhaps been somewhat unfairly remembering it as worse than it was, as often happens when you rely on one viewing of a movie for your reference; while it might not be the "hot garbage" I have been known to use as shorthand in reference to TLJ, I do now recognize that a number of my criticisms were well-founded. It's just kind of a messy mish-mash of ideas, and it just doesn't really work as a result. [Obligatory spoiler warning for The Last Jedi - but why are you even reading a post like this if you haven't seen it?]

I was super keen on TLJ in advance of its release, mostly because it was being written and directed by Rian Johnson of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, “Ozymandias” - the single best episode of Breaking Bad, and now Knives Out. I’m still a fan of Johnson’s (especially after really enjoying Knives Out and recently rewatching Brick), so I remain mystified as to what happened with TLJ.

Maybe he was trying to do things that couldn’t be done in this kind of a mega-blockbuster, or maybe there were too many restrictions from Disney, or maybe his vision for the movie and/or franchise just did not work; I tend to lean toward a combination of the three, with more emphasis placed on corporate intervention as a culprit.

There are elements of the movie that work really well. The four new principal characters all deliver spirited performances, and the acting might be the best of any Star Wars movie so far (which is not exactly a high bar to clear, but it's still something to note). It is easily the most visually engrossing entry of the series, and it has several incredible indelible scenes: the initial bombing sequence; the escape from Cantobite; the throne room battle; the moment after a light-speed jump tears a ship apart; and the sand speeders at the end, to name several examples.

There are many aspects of the narrative that also work really well: the Kylo-Rey plotline; the Kylo-Luke conflict; Luke and the ending of the Jedi; even aspects of the Resistance chase. But when you actually try to diagram the plot, it becomes a lot more confusing and ultimately kind of pointless, leaving more questions than answers. Sure, Star Wars movies have always jumped between sets of characters and taken some shortcuts in narrative and/or character development,, but TLJ seemed to be even a bit more herky-jerky and disconnected than any previous movie in the series.

For example, as I rewatched the movie, I was really trying to understand the military structure of the Resistance, especially why Commander Poe Dameron seems to outrank General Leia at the beginning, while Admiral Ackbar and Vice-Admiral Holdo report to her? And why is Poe, even after being demoted to Captain, still calling the shots throughout most of the movie, despite committing treason and committing a mutiny and attempting an ill-fated plan that ultimately gets another significant portion of the remaining Resistance transports destroyed? It seems like he is probably personally responsible for three-quarters of the destruction of the Resistance fleet, and yet he’s a hero at the end? (Don’t get me wrong - I think Poe is a great character, but his plotline makes very little sense.)

Then, there’s the matter of that little side adventure and the three sequences of events in which Finn and Rose try to bring in a "master" codebreaker - the travel to and initial experience in Canto Bight, the escape from Canto Bight, and the attempt to get to the tracker on the First Order ship - that, while entertaining, have very little effect on the outcome of the plot. Sure, I get that Johnson was (maybe?) trying to make points about the nature of "real life" in the midst of the genre - after all, the "plan" usually doesn’t work IRL - but I had expected there to be something more than what actually happened, which was just that the plan doesn’t work and in fact puts the Resistance further in danger.

Perhaps the thief would turn out to be the real Master Codebreaker and he would use their capture as a way to disable the tracker and allow the Resistance to escape; or maybe he would turn out to be a double agent for the Resistance; or maybe he would die saving the life of one of those heroes; or anything, really, other than just disappearing after having sabotaged the Resistance. I get that Johnson was again seeming to attempt to make a point, but the "meh" ending to that character seemed to invalidate all of the time spent on that entire sequence of events.

And on that point, wouldn’t the First Order have been able to see that planet - the only planet to which the Resistance could escape? Wouldn’t they have had the intel to know that it had been a Rebel base in the past? And even if they did not know it for sure, wouldn’t they have been able to guess at the attempts of the Resistance - or are they really that obtuse and/or blinded by hubris?

Also, where is the rest of The Resistance, anyway? Why do they have everyone in such a confined space and not spread out throughout the galaxy? For that matter, how did they get to this point (other than "yada yada"ing everything that happened since TFA in the opening crawl)? Does this progression of events even make sense considering what happened in The Force Awakens? (You can probably guess my answer.)

And then there's the ending of The Last Jedi, in which the Resistance is reduced to the point at which everyone can fit on the Millennium Falcon. There's something to be said for cliffhangers to be resolved in the conclusion, and then there's just writing yourself into a teensy-tiny corner. I don't know why Johnson wrote it this way, and why Disney allowed it - perhaps this was their attempt at having stakes to the franchise? - but it ultimately seemed short-sighted at the time and has not aged well in the years since.

The Force Awakens opened a lot of narrative possibilities - too many, arguably - and then it seemed as though The Last Jedi wanted to operate in an entirely different narrative reality. The Last Jedi did not do much to resolve many of those open threads, and instead created more questions and problems than answers. I felt at the time - and after rewatching it, I still feel this way - that The Last Jedi was a mish-mash of ideas that probably should have been spread over two movies. I'm not sure how they would have done that, exactly, but it felt, well, forced (pun intended).

Speaking of which, although I have no problem with the new uses of the Force in The Last Jedi - Leia flying through space, Kylo and Rey being connected psychically, Luke's projection from across the galaxy - in regard to the integrity of the concept of the Force, I do wonder about them in regard to narrative progression. It really seems like Leia shouldn't have been put in the situation to have to use the Force in that manner, and that there were other choices that should have been made in her arc.

Also, what exactly happened with Rey in that chasm? Was it meant to be her temptation to the dark side? Was there something she discovered? And what was the point of that scene? It just kind of happens, and then...nothing - another narrative dead end, other than leading into the Kylo-Rey relationship that did result in an inspired choice in killing Snoke - even if I still think that they used that plotline one movie too early.

As you can tell, I thought that The Last Jedi was a misfire at best, and that it created significant narrative problems for the story arc of the new trilogy, as well as a few confusing and disingenuous character arcs (I like the idea of Luke's arc, but it is problematic at times, particularly as it marks a very significant character change without the true explanation of how it fully occurred). I think that even on rewatching TLJ that I wanted to like it more than I did and to be more sympathetic to its cause, but even as I have tried to parse it here, I have realized that it really was not very good.

Part of what I have found really frustrating, however, is that the narrative of disapproval of TLJ was co-opted by the internet trolls who criticized the movie for reasons for which it should not have been criticized - namely, the development of strong female characters and the changes in the use of the Force. I did not have a problem with either of those aspects of the movie - after all, Star Wars certainly needed more strong women, and the Force has always been kind of wishy-washy.

My criticisms of the movie are based in more legitimate concerns about character, conflict, and plot, and although I know I am not alone in those criticisms, I think that the voice of people like me who had defensible criticisms of the movie was lost in the morass of propaganda from the anti-Last Jedi community.

And now, it seems that the corporate entity of Star Wars is finally trying to distance themselves by essentially disavowing Johnson and TLJ altogether. There seems to be a full public embrace of J.J. Abrams from the cast, and an accompanying distancing from TLJ; sure, it seems mostly to be a brazen attempt to bring back those alienated fans, but still, it's notable that even the franchise itself is essentially ignoring The Last Jedi, other than having to wrap up any loose ends that it left and find a way out of its awkward ending.

Conclusion: Final Thoughts before The Rise of Skywalker


I am certainly less enthusiastic about The Rise of Skywalker before its release than I was about The Last Jedi mainly because TLJ was so disjointed and ineffective. But despite the relative failures of TLJ - and Star Wars in general - in the past few years, I'm still very interested to see how they resolve the conflicts of the series and how they "end" the Skywalker Saga.

I really have no idea how they will resolve the many hanging plots from TFA and TLJ, other than the fact that TROS is going to have a lot of plot - which has been echoed in the thoughts I have heard and read. I don't think that it's even really worth conjecturing about what might happen, since I have a feeling that there will be some attempts at subverting expectations even as those very expectations are further advanced through the story - that said, I have a feeling that there will be a few turns away from what was established in The Last Jedi (like Rey's parentage) and that good will be victorious in the end.

I am more than a little dubious about the choice to bring back Emperor Palpatine as the true source of evil; after all, it seemed as though part of the point of this new trilogy was that these patterns of power and evil and resistance and valour and freedom are not centered in one person, but in the nature of our very being, meaning that we keep repeating the history of these patterns. Therefore, it would seem that bringing back Palpatine would undercut that entire idea by having to have a Big Bad to mastermind behind it all; then again, there could be some turns and twists there, too.

Something else that has struck me in the whole course of this revival is that it has been very very fast - arguably too fast to allow for the kind of reflection that may have really helped make each entry better.  The pacing of the two previous trilogies left three years between releases, and the abbreviated release schedule of this trilogy left two years between releases. Sure, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were released in very quick succession, but those were less sequels than they were simultaneous stories that were divided into several movies (not that I saw the second or third Hobbit movie, anyway.

Despite the problems of The Last Jedi and the overall issues of the revival of the franchise, I am interested to see how they bring it all together, and whether Joseph Campbell would be proud. I'm sure it will be a little shaky and overstuffed and kind of a head-scratcher at times, but that's kind of the nature of Star Wars as a franchise. Patchwork, pastiche, homage - call it whatever you want, but the whole Star Wars franchise is kind of rickety and hokey and yet endearing and enjoyable, kind of like the Millennium Falcon.

So whatever happens in The Rise of Skywalker, the movie will be more enjoyable if it's not taken too seriously and I know how to not take Star Wars too seriously, even if I did just write over 3,200 words before watching a movie. Whatever happens in the movie, I just have to remember the words of the great baker, Yoda: "dough or dough not; there is no try".

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The 10s: An Introduction

In the past few months, I have been increasingly keenly aware of the upcoming shift to a new decade and what that transition entails as a self-identifying pop culturally aware blogger: making "best of" lists. I know it's a bit cliché, and it's definitely overdone, but I do feel as though I need to present these lists as a way of creating a snapshot of what my past pop culture decade looks like at the end of the decade.

But as I have gone through this process, I have also spent a fair amount of time thinking about the process of making best of lists, as well as my permutations thereof over the past fifteen years of blogging. So I thought I would start with some reflections on the nature of making a best of list, especially at the end of the decade, and some of the ways in which this process has evolved for me in the time that I have been consuming and critiquing and commenting on various forms of media. (Leave it to me to write over two thousand words about the process of writing a best of list, right?)

On making "best of" lists


I used to make best of lists - or at least personal summaries - for each year in a variety of media: movies; music; television; video games; board games; and on occasion, books or authors or podcasts. I've stopped in recent years, however, mostly because I found it difficult to see/hear/play everything in a reasonable amount of time within the end of the year, and I always felt there were too many gaps in my list to justify publishing it. Then, by the time I would finally feel like I could compose a list that would be truly reflective of the year, it would be too late to post it, so I just would not post (even if the list was started or significantly underway).

Of course, there are other areas of tension in creating "best of" list for a year, other than actually experiencing all of the possibilities in time to publish a post. Perhaps foremost among those areas of tension is the difference between choosing the "best" entries in a given time period, and including personal favourites, whether out of a sense of personal advocacy, contrarianism, or some other strange compulsion.

Some critics just pick their own lists without regard for critical consensus, but I know I always felt like there could be a significant difference between movies I really liked and "the best movies of the year," usually in the sense that there are almost always movies that I really enjoy and appreciate but that I (or the wider critical world) would not likely list among the "best".

Maybe the best example I can think of is Pacific Rim in 2013, a refreshingly entertaining and original sci-fi blockbuster from Guillermo del Toro in which kaiju (giant monsters) attack Earth through a dimensional rift in the ocean, only to be defended by humans controlling giant robots called Jaegers in pairs of pilots who are connected through a psychic drift.

It's as wacky as it sounds, and it has emerged as one of my favourites of that year (and arguably my all-time favourite "guilty pleasure" movie); that said, even though it is very well shot, paced, scripted, and directed, I would struggle to justify as one of the ten best of that year; although, now that I think about it, the entire exercise of picking a "best of" list is about choosing the movies is as much about demonstrating that you are worthy as a critic. So maybe Pacific Rim - and other movies like it in my personal esteem - should merit more consideration after all; it's certainly an intriguing proposition as I create my lists that attempt to reflect an entire decade.

Making a decade list


As I entered this process, I found myself being both enthusiastic about the possibilities and cautious about all of the ways it could go wrong. I assumed that the tensions of making a year-end list would be compounded in doing a "best of the decade" list; after all, it seems as though the stakes should be higher with a longer period of time and more choices.

As an aside, some of you may note that I was blogging in 2009, when there was also an opportunity for a best of a decade list, so my experience from back then should surely be enough to have assuaged any trepidation or tentativeness I experienced in the past few months. Indeed, I wondered that myself, so I looked back and realized why this process felt somewhat fresh this time around: I did not actually write that much to review the previous decade.

I wrote exactly three posts at the conclusion of The Aughts: one that summarized each year of my life of that decade in haiku; one post on television that was woefully incomplete and rightfully criticized in the comments for several key omissions; and one on assorted influences - authors, filmmakers, musicians. Nothing about video games, books, movies, or music outside of those posts, even though I was blogging quite regularly at the time - so that makes this time around feel fresh and unfamiliar, which is, in fact, I think a positive thing to make this process even better than it otherwise might have been.

As I have been compiling my lists over the past couple of months, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much easier it seems to do this task for an entire decade than it does at the end of each year. Perhaps that's because there is more time and space to have clarity than there is at the conclusion of a year, or perhaps it's because it's easier to separate the highest quality entries - the ones that really stand out - when there's a larger scope. Maybe I'm just more confident in who I am as a critic, consumer, and evaluator of culture, which has made it easier; but whatever the reason, I have enjoyed this process more than I expected to.

I think I also care less now than I have in the past about being "right" or about understanding or mirroring the general consensus of what's "best". My lists now seem to be more descriptive than prescriptive, meaning that I have learned to work within the boundaries I have set according to what I have experienced, rather than trying to experience everything. These lists are not authoritative, and nor should they be treated as such; they are my choices based on what I have experienced over the past decade. Of course, I still feel the need to qualify my choices sometimes and to create lists of things I should have experienced and runners-up and honourable mentions, but overall, I have still enjoyed the entire exercise.

Thinking about my lists


As I started going through my annual best of lists and the various lists of media I have taken in over the past decade, I found myself gravitating back to the usual suspects: video games; board games; television; music; movies; and books/podcasts. Most of those were fairly easy to compose for various reasons, but there were a couple that proved to be more challenging.

The areas that proved to be easier had a variety of reasons for the comparative simplicity, even compared to a decade earlier. In some of those areas - music, for example - I have far less interest than I once did (say, in that previous decade), which lowers the stakes for me overall in creating a list. For some - video games, for example - I have long since given up being an "expert" in the field, and I have self-limited my areas of exposure and expertise to specific niches or styles, which again removes any temptation to be authoritative.

Media like television, music, and books/podcasts are now so fractured that it is almost impossible to be "prescriptive" in choices, so all I can do is talk about what I have experienced and why I enjoyed and/or appreciated those things without nearly as much worry of missing out. (By the way, maybe that phenomenon of being nervous of omissions be called "FOMOOBOL" - "fear of missing out on best of lists".) There were two areas, however, that I found challenging this time around: movies and board games.

In regard to movies, even though my general movie-watching activity has significantly decreased from the beginning of the decade (maybe by as much as half), my interest in movies is still high, and I still have a significant base of information and interest from which to draw, so I still feel some "requirement" to be more authoritative in making my choices. In addition, there seems to be more consensus about movies than in other areas, and so I feel that it is more challenging to make a list that is accurate and that reflects the best of the decade, even though it is personalized.

Board games are a different story, as they are the form of media into which I have put the most energy, effort, and money over the past decade. Sure, I played board games before the start of the decade, but it wasn't until the end of 2010 that I started to track my collection and my plays on BoardGameGeek, in doing so becoming a lot more invested in board games as an intentional hobby and not just a pastime.

I have had more exposure to board games than any other form of media in the past decade, so it's hard to sort through what I think are the "best" games. In addition, I feel a lot more internal pressure to be an "expert" in the field, and so I know that I give more weight to my own choices in that area, even if my experiences far exceed the game-playing of most people who profess to like board games.

I think I have managed to come to some resolution in each of those areas, and if nothing else, I can rest in the impermanence of the nature of this medium as a way to amend any possible omissions; after all, I can always post an updated list in any of these areas at any time in the future. My goal, then, with all of these lists, whatever the medium of choice, is to give a picture of what I thought at this time, not for all time.

Conclusion


In my relatively recent return from my general absence from blogging over the past two years, I have learned that it is better to provide a snapshot than it is to not write at all, so I have been learning that any pressure that I feel in regard to this "Best of the Decade" exercise is internal and ultimately meaningless. Any lists that I generate are my best guesses at this point, and it is entirely possible - even likely - that these lists will change, even in the next few months.

My goal in this series is to provide a snapshot of the kinds of things I have been enjoying over the past decade, and, where I can, to point out the gaps that I know are there. I'm not making a career out of any of this consumption or criticism (at this point in my life, anyway), and my reputation is not at stake; I just get to share about people and artists and thinkers and games and shows that I enjoyed.

I am certain that, despite the general level of care and attention that I give to these lists, that I will forget things or have regrets or otherwise miss the mark several times, but that's not the point; the point is to get these lists out there in whatever form they exist as a time capsule for the past decade at this point at the end of the decade.

This is one of the best parts of blogging - its malleability and permanent impermanence, as I can always return to these lists and update them in the future, or at least admit where my gaps might be revealed in the future (or in the present, as it may be).

Over the next couple of months between now and the end of January (I hope), my goal is to make these lists public in whatever form they exist with whatever issues exist in their midst. It's more important that I contribute to the greater conversation in whatever way I can at this point than to miss out like I did back in 2009, as I really wish that I had published those lists even with their imperfections. I hope you enjoy these upcoming "best of" lists from the 10s; I know I have enjoyed reliving the highlights of the past decade as I have compiled them, and I look forward to being part of the greater cultural conversation moving into the 2020s.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The season that saved our Riders

The Saskatchewan Roughriders lost last weekend, marking the 103rd time in 107 seasons that their season will not have ended in a Grey Cup victory and the 88th time that they will not even make an appearance in the championship game - so in that sense, it's not much of a surprise that they lost. But it was definitely a surprise to those of us in attendance, as they had finished first in the west and seemed primed for a Grey Cup appearance that very few fans and pundits would have predicted at the onset of the season.

Despite the team's success last year - 12-6 with one of the best defenses in the CFL - I thought that this year was going to be a letdown. I was expecting the Riders to win at most 8 games (out of 18) and to compete for last in the West, rather than first. The Riders had an untested offense, a fragile starting QB, and a new front office and coaching staff after Chris Jones, who had served as VP of Football Operations, General Manager, Head Coach, and Defensive Coordinator for three seasons, had left the Riders rather unceremoniously in the lurch after their playoff loss last year when a job with the NFL's Cleveland Browns opened up only a week after Jones had signed a two-year extension on his contract.

Even though the team had improved significantly under Jones, I was not a fan of his philosophies and practices of player management, and it was very much his team, which I thought would mean that his absence would be a huge hit to the team - possibly the difference between 12-6 and 6-12. In short, I was not looking forward to this season, and I was not expecting to invest much emotionally in its outcome.

An unexpected season


My fears seemed validated early on, as the Riders lost their starting QB in the first game and started off 1-3. Their third loss, which I had the displeasure of viewing live, was an ignominous 37-10 loss to the Calgary Stampeders at home, and it seemed like my predictions might be right. But then something happened: the team started winning, often in unorthodox and last-second ways, and the Riders found themselves at 6-3 halfway through the season at Labour Day.

They split the home-and-home Labour Day Classic and subsequent Banjo Bowl with Winnipeg, and then lost only one more game (to Calgary, again) on their way to a 13-5 finish which placed them first in the West - an incredibly unexpected finish to what had turned into a surprisingly enjoyable season and team.

The team had already by far exceeded all expectations, including the emergence of starting QB Cody Fajardo, who would also become the West Division's nominee for Most Outstanding Player, as a possible franchise QB, and easily the first to truly take up that mantle since Darian Durant's departure in Jones' first year. There had been one-and-a-half years of tearing down, two years of rebuilding and one year of success under Jones before this year, so this was easily the most enjoyable full season since the Riders won the Grey Cup six years ago.

A community team


As this season went on, I really started to appreciate this team and these players more, both through what they were doing on the field and what was happening off the field. These players seemed to be having more fun, and they seemed to be more involved in the community than the Riders had been in the past few seasons; I can't say for sure if that impression is true, but it certainly felt like these Riders belonged more to the community than they had in the past few years.

I don't think the problem in recent seasons had just been Jones - although his authoritarian presence and summary dismissal of many beloved Riders certainly didn't help); the Riders, perhaps buoyed by the success of winning the Grey Cup at home in 2013 and building a new stadium, seemed to be more corporate in the past half-decade than they had been earlier in my life.

I remember the days of the Rider telethons and community outreach and selling shares in the team, when we were the lovable underdogs and not the crown jewel franchise of the CFL. It seemed in the midst of their unprecedented success as a team and a business as though the team had lost a lot of the sense of community that had made them so endearing for so long.

So this season was refreshing both on and  off the field, and for somewhat estranged fans like me, it took most of the year to move forward with this team. My heart softened significantly as the team succeeded and seemed to change its ways, and I found myself once again looking forward to watching games and cheering for players as they battled with Calgary and Winnipeg for first place in the last month of the season.

The Western Final


So, somehow, the Riders found themselves hosting the Western Final not against the Calgary Stampeders, who I had thought were the team to beat and who had beaten the Riders twice in the regular season, but against the upstart Winnipeg Blue Bombers, to whom the Riders had lost in last year's home playoff game and whose quarterback had been the Riders' Day 1 starter. A victory was not only not improbable, but possible, and arguably even likely.

That is, at least, until they started playing the game. It soon became evident that the Riders were having the kind of game that they have every so often - one in which they make it more difficult for themselves by not playing up to their true potential, especially on offense. And they were underwhelming all game, settling for field goals rather than touchdowns on play calls that were increasingly baffling as the game ensued.

The fact that the game was somewhat winnable until the very last play was more of a testament to the Riders' defense (well, maybe not their secondary) and Winnipeg also playing an underwhelming game than it was to the Riders playing a good game. I mean, a game in which a team has a 1st down at the 3-yard line and fails to score is probably a game that they don't deserve to win. But at least they kept trying until that final errant pass hit the goal post to end the game, and they did not stop right until that final buzzer.

Conclusion


The renewed sense of community and the increased enjoyment of the players on the team makes the defeat in the Western Final much more bittersweet than it otherwise might have been because I felt like this team cared about us as fans again, and I felt that part of the reason they were disappointed to lose was not just for themselves, but also for us.

It really felt like the team understood us as fans for the first time in years, and that they were truly frustrated in their inability to score even one touchdown - particularly when they had a first down inside the five-yard-line with three minutes to go to potentially score to tie the game, and then when they had another three downs to try to score at the end of the game to send it to overtime.

It was disheartening, discouraging, and disappointing, but nowhere near the level of say, the 2004 Western Final (McCallum's missed field goal) or the 2009 Grey Cup (losing on a re-kicked field goal because of a 13th man penalty with no time left on the clock). Perhaps that was because this whole season was a delightful return to form for the franchise in the community, but also because it seems more like the start of something rather than a culmination or conclusion for this group; of course, rosters vary from year to year, but it really seems like the core of this team will be together again next year.


Sure, a Grey Cup appearance would have been amazing, especially considering the tentative expectations for this team at the beginning of the year, but we have not seen the best that this team has to offer. This might feel like a missed opportunity - and it surely was, even just to give this young group some big game experience - but I don't think it will be this team's last chance to make a playoff run and win a Grey Cup. After all, as we say far more often than not in Rider Nation, there's always next year - and next year, the Grey Cup is back in Regina, which will make next year a true community effort.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Writer's blog

I've heard educators who teach about writing say that "writer's block" is not a real thing - or at least that it shouldn't be considered as a factor when students claim that they are not able to write. The answer, they say, is to encourage students to keep writing even if they don't feel like they have ideas or things to say; the "block", such as it is, will be resolved by the act of writing.

On the one hand, I agree with them, as the research and examples they cite show that statement to be true: what many of us perceive or project as "writer's block" is merely something in our own heads. On the other hand, there's the reality of my recent life, as I have not written much at all over the past two years, during which I have been experiencing something like writer's block, myth though it may be.

So, to appease the writing teachers and my own conscience as a writer and as a teacher, let's avoid using the term "writer's block"; instead, let's call it "writers' blog". This post, then, will serve as an investigation as to why I might be experiencing this "writer's blog" and what I might do to solve it. And with that in mind, it makes sense to start by determining just what has actually happened over the past two years.

The unwritten posts


Other than a very prolific publishing year in 2016 (thanks largely to writing while I was substitute teaching), I had settled into a fairly good rhythm of posting around 50 times per year, or an average of once a week. Posts were often released in bunches (usually depending on when I was working), but my annual rate had mostly settled. But then I mostly stopped publishing early in 2018, and aside from a few topical posts about the Oscars and the Toronto Maple Leafs, I have not blogged consistently for almost two years (although I did publish a reflection on the recent Canadian election earlier this week).

It's not that I have not wanted to write - in fact, I have either conceived of or have begun drafting dozens of posts - including at least one previous post about posts I wanted to write - since I was last posting consistently in the fall of 2017, but I have not written anything publishable outside of those subjects in that time.

Many of these unwritten posts were about external media or current events, but I also had a number of ideas for posts about things that were going on in my life, like buying a house or having a baby or starting a new job or being a teacher-librarian or any of the other various changes in my life that have happened in a short span.

I miss having these posts to serve as a time capsule of the things I was thinking or experiencing, but yet I still found it very difficult to find or make the time to write, despite having many ideas. I certainly had enough to write about; even if I had not posted about my personal life, I could easily have posted two or three times per month just based on what I was watching, reading, hearing, or experiencing.

For example, I have wanted to write posts about movies (Avengers: Infinity War; Blade Runner 2049; Spider-Man: Far From HomeStar Wars: The Last Jedi; Thor: Ragnarok), albums (U2's Songs of Experience, Muse's Simulation Theory), TV shows (Disenchantment, Arrested Development), or even more about the Academy Awards (a further exploration of the "Popular Film" Oscar in August 2018, or an examination of Best Pictures after the recent Green Book win).

It was not until May 2019, however, that I really started to feel the pull to start writing again and that I distinctly regretted not writing and publishing a variety of topical posts: the impact of Rachel Held Evans on my life after her unexpected death in May; a review of Avengers: Endgame; thoughts after (finally) watching through The Wire; or a celebratory post commemorating the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA Championship.

In the summer of 2019, the inspiration continued, even if the posts did not actually make it past draft (or often even idea) form: ranking all of the movies of the MCU after the conclusion of Phase 3; a review of Season 3 of Stranger Things; a review of the limited series Good Omens with a particular focus on the intersection of religion, media, free will, and faith; and a film-by-film commentary on the work on Quentin Tarantino.

Some of those ideas may end up being published in some form at some point - perhaps upon rewatching Endgame, or upon the publishing of Evans' posthumously released book, or in the midst of the seemingly inevitable campaign for Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood to win Best Picture in February - but I think the window has passed for most of them, so I mention them here mostly for posterity.

Of course, that still does not explain why did not finish these posts in a publishable form, and since part of the reason for this post is solving that mystery, I have spent some time trying to figure out what's going on in my own head and why I have been experiencing this "writer's blog".

Trying to explain my "writer's blog"


There are, as I indicated earlier, some practical reasons for my absence from the blogosphere - the aforementioned list of life changes is a good start. But that's not a sufficient enough explanation to satisfy me; after all, I have still found time for other hobbies like board games, so why couldn't (or didn't) I find time to write for two years?

On some level, I felt pressure to "do it right" when I started writing again. It didn't feel like I could just start making posts about random topics again, even though that has been my modus operandi since I started publishing my work two decades ago (!); I think that I felt like I needed to have a vision and consistency and branding and a relaunch and a purpose and space to keep it up. I have wanted for almost a decade to launch my own site and to do it really well, and so I think I wanted to do that and not just to "keep blogging" as I had been, and I didn't want to start again just to stop and then try to start again and... well, the point has been made.

Then, the longer it got between posts, the more I felt like I had to justify my absence; even this post, in a sense, is a form of appeasing that unease with just launching back in (even though that's what I did with my recent political post). I have actually tried to start writing a form of this very post at least twice in the past few months in an attempt to kickstart myself back into blogging on a semi-regular basis, and I have been able to incorporate pieces of those past misfires into this post.

I realized, then, that I also often put pressure on myself in each post I write for it to be a "definitive" publishable work. I tend not to just put out a couple of half-baked paragraphs on an idea, as some bloggers do; I like to put in the time and go through the writing process and research and publish a post that is ultimately a presentable work that ostensibly could be published on a website (often with some editing, of course).

As my style had developed, I often ended up crafting these large opuses of several thousand words in which I attempted to create an authoritative response to an issue, even if that was an issue that only came up in my life, and so I felt like every post needed to be at that level, rather than just getting some ideas out.

Perhaps in the midst of those reasons is the source of my "writer's blog" - the actual writing was lost somewhere in a fog of my own ambition and my own expectations, even though no one else was agreeing with those or indeed even aware of them. But I was letting those things get to me and to prevent me from writing, even though I have consistently been encouraged by others to start writing again.

Conclusion


So, as it turns out, my "writer's blog" was almost entirely in my own head, and the solution seems to be just starting to take the time to write again - or, in other words, exactly what the writing theorists and teachers say happens with writer's block; go figure. I am thankful that I have learned a few things through the process of writing this post.

First, I really did need the catharsis of publishing a post like this to get going again on my blog, as I have experienced a not-insignificant amount of relief upon its completion and publishing; as silly as it is, I now feel like I can blog again, even though there was nothing stopping me at any point over the past two years, and this post has alleviated much of the emotional angst I experienced in not writing.

Second, I need to be aware of the constraints of my own expectations and pressures, and I need to allow myself to write what I can when I can. I would far rather publish shorter timely responses than to have to spend hours and hours that I usually do not have to write longer indepth definitive posts, so I will try to do that. The problem for me is that I start small and end up writing much longer (as this post even ended up around two thousand words), so I probably need to make some adaptations to my writing and/or publishing habits in order to accommodate the grace I need to give myself in order to write and publish regularly.

Third, although I really enjoy the act of publishing ideas and putting them out into the world for consideration, writing is really valuable for me as an exercise and as a hobby, and it's worth it to write even if no one else ends up reading it. Whether it's a reflection on my life or thoughts on a current event or a review of a piece of media, it's worth it to write just for my own well-being.

I just need to make time to write, period. I feel so much better when I do write (and publish); it's kind of like how I feel when I actually go to the gym and exercise. It's not easy to find the time to write, as my recent stretch has indicated, but it's very valuable to do so. I am lucky to have some extra time now to write, since my job situation has changed yet again and I often find myself with unexpected pockets of time in which I can do some writing.

With all of those conclusions in mind, I will need to remember to be gentle with myself - to write when I can and not to get too stressed out if I can't. I am hopeful that I can (and will) start writing more regularly again, regardless of whether I end up being able to publish weekly or biweekly or whatever interval works.

I think it's best for me to try to incorporate writing back into my routine and to publish what I can when I can and to let this blog be what it will be for now. There may be a point at which I can be more directed and intentional and meaningful in my blogging, but for now, the solution for me is just to write, period.

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