Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Superhero movies

I remember in the 1990s when superhero movies weren't a thing. Batman was fading fast thanks to an unhealthy dose of Joel Schumacher, Blade was a surprising hit thanks to Wesley Snipes, Spawn just flat out bombed, and Superman was relegated to the TV series The Adventures of Lois and Clark with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher. There had been the successful Superman movies in the late 70s and early 80s, and Tim Burton's Batman in the late 80s and early 90s, but no other major superhero had been able to make the transition to the big screen with any kind of success. It was not until the 21st century that general filmmaking ability caught up with the visual imagination needed to make the kind of spectacles necessary to the genre, and even then, X-Men was doubted when it was released in the summer of 2000, a summer that featured, among other tentpole releases, The Perfect Storm and a Shaft reboot with Samuel L. Jackson in the starring role, which should give an idea of just how different the summer movie season is now than it was fifteen years ago.

X-Men's success soon proved that even more "esoteric" comic material could have mass appeal; of course, comic nerds like me scoffed at the idea that the X-Men - easily one of the most bankable franchises in comics - could be considered inaccessible, but that was the reasoning at the time. The genre still didn't fully take hold until 2002, when Spider-Man swung his way to all kinds of records, and Hollywood didn't look back. Since 2002, superhero movies have continually set and reset all kinds of box office records, won legitimate Oscars (Heath Ledger as The Joker), and generally set the tone and pace for modern blockbuster filmmaking and marketing. With the success of The Dark Knight and Phase 1 of Marvel's master plan starting as of summer 2008, there is more saturation of the number of releases and prominence of each release in the superhero movie market now than arguably any genre in the past hundred years of cinema, save perhaps for musicals or westerns in the 1950s and 1960s.

Superhero media in 2014

Despite the boom in 2008, 2013 saw even more of an increase in the number and scope of superhero projects entering development and release, primarily as a result of the success of The Avengers in 2012 as well as Man of Steel in 2013, which revived the Superman franchise. Each major studio now has their corner on the market, based on the properties they own and how frequently they need to release new entries in each franchise to keep those rights to those properties. 2014 alone features the releases of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; X-Men: Days of Future Past; The Amazing Spider-Man 2; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and Guardians of the Galaxy, each of which are all working toward even bigger futures for their respective universes,as well as the animated Disney feature Big Hero 6 in November. Sony is expanding their Spider-Man properties to include projects about the Sinister Six and Venom. Fox has already booked their follow-up X-Men movie, Apocalypse, for May 2016, to go along with a Fantastic Four reboot. Disney/Marvel is preparing for The Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015 and Phase 3 beyond that, with Ant-Man already booked for release post-Avengers, along with Captain America 3 and other rumoured titles such as Doctor Strange in the works, along with some developments on the small screen.

Netflix is getting into the action, with a deal with Marvel to produce four 13-episode series about Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones that will culminate with a Defenders mini-series. Fox TV is releasing Gotham this fall, based on the stories of the police department in the Batman universe, to go along with ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The CW's Arrow as representatives on the small screen. NBC is bringing back their much-maligned franchise Heroes in 2015 with a mini-series entitled Heroes Reborn. Although they are left out of the Marvel properties, Warner Bros. still has the market on DC superheroes, with Batman vs. Superman coming out in the future and a Justice League movie just announced for 2018. And even The Incredibles - the original animated film from 2004 that presents one of the best takes on the superhero genre - is getting a sequel at some point. It seems that from the sheer number of different franchises in development, that the market is going to get even more glutted in the years to come.

So what?

If it seems like I am belabouring the point here to come up with a conclusion that was inherently obvious - that there are more superhero movies and they are arguably the most prominent force in North American media right now - it's because I was, to help establish the discussion I really wanted to get to, which is the "so what?" side of the equation. Yes, there are more superhero movies now than ever, and they define much of popular culture: so what?

Now, before I get into the specifics of what I think, I have to note that I know that writers with more eloquence and wider audiences than me have begun to debate the question of why superhero movies matter (or don't), so I'm not going to try to duplicate their philosophical, psychological, sociological, entomological, theological, or anthropological arguments either for or against specific heroes or the genre in general. I'm sure that there are myriad theses and papers that have been written about our current crop of superheroes and their intersections with various fields such as gender studies, religious studies, social sciences, communication studies, philosophy, psychology, and the like - I may end up writing one or more of my own such theses someday - so I'm going to focus my discussion more on the personal side of the question for now.

My personal history

I was never really a comic book geek, per se, but I was captured by the Marvel universe when I started collecting the cards when I was eight years old. I knew all of the storylines and relationships without reading the comics; I even did a Family Tree project in Grade 7 French all about the Summers family in the X-Men universe (Cyclops, Jean Grey, and their kin). I still have those collections, and they still have a dear place in my heart; I look through them occasionally, and I actually just recently completed them with a few cards from eBay. I'm not sure why I favoured Marvel over DC, except that I liked the way that the Marvel universe all worked together, whereas DC seemed a little more distant and awkward; besides, I always thought that Superman was a weaker hero anyway. But like sports (which I discovered a few years later), the world of superheroes offered innumberable opportunities for a person with a cranial capacity like me to memorize, analyze, and theorize about connections, meanings, and possibilities within their universes.

The other reason I was drawn to superhero stories was the number of cartoons in the 1990s that told their stories each week. My favourites were Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series, as both of those shows treated their subjects seriously and were very intelligent for their time; I'm not sure why I didn't really get into the Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, or Iron Man series that aired at the same time, but I have watched some of them since and enjoyed them. The other shows I really enjoyed were the ones that lampooned the whole superhero motif, whether by parody, satire, or just sheer buffoonery: Freakzoid!; Earthworm Jim; and The Tick. They made me laugh, but they also did a great job of subverting the expectations of the genre while honouring them.

It's probably no surprise that my favourite superheroes today are the ones that were my favourites then: Batman and X-Men. I think it's because of the depth of the characters and their stories. Batman and his enemies are fascinating psychological studies, and the X-Men have variety and depth to their many stories, as well as the sense of alienation with which I often identified as a kid. There was always a sense of realism to those stories as well, unlike many of the other storylines. I know it sound ridiculous to call Batman and X-Men "realistic", but there was always a foundational grounded-ness to their respective universes that others - say Superman - did not seem to have. Now, sure, the X-Men travelled into outer space and fought in inter-dimensional wars and flew to the Savage Land, but they always returned to the "real" world. Even now, the success of the current crop of superhero movies is largely due to those two franchises and their ability to make the entire genre seem to be in the realm of the possible.

For some reason, I still feel the need to see almost every superhero (and comic book) movie that is released, regardless of whether I think it will be good (or if I know it will not). I do manage to avoid a few - the Ghost Rider and Daredevil debacles come to mind - but not all: after all, I have watched Green Lantern, both Fantastic Four movies, and both movies that have "Wolverine" in the title. But it feels like there is something to having seen them - some level of cultural awareness that is necessary - even after they have left the immediate cultural consciousness. I still, almost a year after its release, have not seen Man of Steel, but I still feel the need to see it at some point. I have not watched Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I still feel the need to see each of them to see how they develop the overall narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There's part of me - the same part that was initially drawn to the world of superheroes - that enjoys being able to interact with all of the entries in the genre, as well as with others around me (least of which the students whose cultural language is shaped by these movies. Superheroes are arguably the lingua franca of North American society right now, and I like speaking the language, especially because it's kind of awesomely nerdy.

My personal favourites

Despite the fact that I watch the majority of superhero movies that come out, there are actually very few that I have seen more than once; it seems that there is little to gain from the experience of rewatching them, save for a few movies that exceed the expectations of the genre.Once I have an idea of what they are trying to do, I can discuss them and speak the language that they use, so unless they are exceptional creations, I accomplish what I need to with watching them once. With that said, there are a few superhero movies that stand out for me as truly exceptional in the way that they work within and beyond the genre, so I figured I would end my discussion by giving a recap of my personal favourites. It's probably no surprise that my two favourite superhero movies are original creations, designed for and shaped by the medium of cinema, rather than existing heroes who are translated to the screen.

Honourable mention: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze - I couldn't quite give this a spot in my top 5, but I felt the need to mention it. This was one of the movies that I watched over and over again as a kid, and it has everything: ninjas, mutants, snappy one-liners ("Man, I love being a turtle!" and "I made another funny! Ha ha ha ha ha!"), an early 90s soundtrack, and Vanilla Ice. It's kitschy, cheesy, and a lot of fun.

5. Spider-Man 2 - Sam Raimi's original sequel has stood the test of time over the past decade. It's a little long, but it's easily the best Spider-Man movie by a long shot. It's a deep character study for both Peter Parker and Otto Octavius (the amazing Alfred Molina), and some of the best superhero action sequences. It just makes Spider-Man 3 all the sadder an experience.

4. The Avengers -  Joss Whedon set the template for all future superhero movies with his monster of a movie. He took a bunch of disparate heroes, some very esoteric plot points, a villain from another dimension, and even the Hulk and made them all work together in a great package. Plus, Shawarma.

3. The Dark Knight - I really enjoyed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, but this is the linchpin of The Dark Knight trilogy for me and easily the best of the three Nolan Batman movies. From Ledger's manic Joker to the exhilirating action sequences, this is easily one of  the best experiences I have ever had in theatres.

2. Unbreakable - M. Night Shyamalan's tale of a real-life superhero was one of the earlier superhero stories, and it remains one of the best. It's gritty, dark, and realistic, and Willis and Jackson play off one another perfectly.

1. The Incredibles - Brad Bird's Oscar-winning animated story about a family of superheroes is still my fave a decade later. It has action that is, well, incredible, and its jokes still make me laugh. I'm really excited about what they might do with the sequel.

How about you? What impact have superhero movies made on your life? Or do they matter to you at all? I would love to hear your stories.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Summer movie preview: 2014 edition

It's that time again: just past halfway through April, when Entertainment Weekly posts its annual gallery of photos of "50 summer movies we can't wait to see", which also happens to be a list of "every movie coming out this summer". I'm a little more choosy than EW and the other sites that are already touting the upcoming summer slate (Alex Pappademas' tongue-in-cheek dictionary of summer terms is worth a quick read, as is Grantland's round-up of picks, pans, and predictions), but I figured that it was about time to put my own entry into the mix. But I'm not worrying about being authoritative or exhaustive; I'm just previewing the movies I'm interested in and why they pique my interest for now.

I wrote about 3/4 of the way through last summer about my "blockbuster fatigue", and I think I have finally overcome it in time for the new blockbusters this year, as I have avoided almost every big movie release since last summer save for Catching Fire and The Lego Movie. That's right, I still haven't seen Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or Frozen - just let it go. In any given summer, there are between a dozen and fifteen movies released that I want to see at some point for various reasons: favourite filmmakers releasing something new; my fanboy tendencies that bubble up with each new round of comic book movies; or the general cultural zeitgeist. Here are my thoughts on some of the movies that may capture my attention - if ever so briefly - this summer.

The preamble

I tend to see between five and seven movies in theatres between May and August, with four or five of those belonging to the "blockbuster" variety. In 2013, those blockbusters were: The Great Gatsby; Iron Man 3; Pacific Rim; Star Trek: Into Darkness; and World War Z, with Much Ado About Nothing and The World's End also taking my attention as smaller independent films. In 2012, it was The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, Prometheus, and The Dark Knight Rises, with Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom filling the indie places. 2011 was a surprisingly active summer for me, with nine trips to the theatre (seven blockbusters and two indies) despite a dearth of good material; Of course, I saw most of those movies at our now-demolished local cheap theatre, of which my city now is completely and unfortunately bereft. I could go back through every year back to 1993, but I'll spare you the gory details, as I have established my pattern, and thus my point. After the summer rush, I tend to check out the remaining movies I missed at home during the fall lull, though there are occasionally a couple that somehow escape my attention beyond that time until I finally see them at some point or forget about them entirely - or at least until the sequel is released (2013's Despicable Me 2, Elysium, and Man of Steel are prime examples of this).

As the summer season starts, I usually have a good idea which movies will fit into each category for me: the movies (either blockbusters or indies) that I can't wait to see; movies that can wait for the small screen at home; the "wild card" movies that I might see in theatre if the climate is right (ie. it has critical and commercial appeal and I'm not tired of going to movies; money is rarely a factor, though it probably should be); and the movies I will avoid at all costs. The funny thing is that I rarely end up deviating from those categories; although some people might consider it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, I think it's usually the case that I know myself and movies well enough to know what I will end up seeing. With those categories (loosely) in mind, I have grouped my preview this year with those expectations in mind.

The must-see movies

There are actually only two movies coming out this summer that I am really excited about, with several others that I know I will see just to see them on the big screen. Here are the five that I expect to see in theatres, for whatever reason.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2) - Okay, so it looks overstuffed with plot and villains, and that always makes me nervous, but this seems like one to see on the big screen. I'm not expecting much, which is perhaps the best place to be, as it's not likely that I'll be disappointed. I really enjoyed the first film in this rebooted series, and at the very least, it can't be worse than Spider-Man 3 - I hope. Besides, I have to start off the season with a big superhero epic, and the next one doesn't come for another three weeks.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23) - Despite the return of the director (Bryan Singer) and the cast from the original two movies, I'm more than a little skeptical and dubious about this movie's prospects. Days of Future Past is one of my favourite storylines from the X-Men comics and the 90s Fox cartoon series, and I just don't see how making a movie of that story will do it any justice. But at the very least, it can't be worse than X-Men: The Last Stand - I hope (that phrase seems familiar...). So, it looks like this summer season will start with movies that I feel the need to see, but that I'm not really expecting to be that great. At least I have higher hopes for...

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6) - For a particular portion of the population (ie. Nerdfighteria), this is the blockbuster of the summer. John Green's lauded young adult novel might be the surprise hit of the season, as it seems to have the perfect combination of buzz, young stars (particularly Shailene Woodley, fresh off Divergent), intuitive counter-programming (being released against Tom Cruise's sci-fi shooter Edge of Tomorrow), and teen girl appeal (essential for those repeated viewings). We'll be seeing this one as soon as we can, although we will have to remember to bring a box of tissues, as my wife has already wept at the trailer repeatedly; all right, I know I'm going to be a mess, too.

Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug 1) - Now we're talking! It's probably no coincidence that the most inspired superhero movie this summer is coming from Marvel itself, rather than from one of the studios (Sony and Fox) who are so desperately hanging on to Marvel properties (hence the constant releases in the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises, lest they lose their cash cows to Disney). GotG looks like it's going to be a lot of fun, and I'm really excited to see how they will build the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (other than Thor, which didn't entirely work, IMHO). Sure, it's going to be a CG bonanza, but I think it has the potential to be really funny, dark, and ultimately character-driven. This is really the only blockbuster that I really have high hopes for this summer, and it's easily the answer to the question, "if you could only see one movie in theatres this summer...".

The Expendables 3 (Aug 15) - This one is mostly a product of a friend's obsession with the franchise, so I'll likely end up seeing it with him sometime on opening weekend. The first two were surprisingly enjoyable, and this one has me intrigued with the new additions: Banderas, Grammer, Ford, Snipes (!), and bad guy Mel Gibson. It seems like the perfect "last gasp of summer" action movie, and I at least know that it will be entertaining.

The movies I will wait to see

There are always a few movies that I know I will watch eventually, but that just don't likely merit the cost of a trip to the theatre. These are those movies for this summer (although one or more might bump up into the "must-see" bracket).

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (June 13) - The first entry in this franchise was funny and very entertaining, but I rarely see non-Pixar animated movies in the theatre. I'll wait until the fall for this one.

A Most Wanted Man (July 25) - This spy thriller is based on a John Le Carre novel, but the real reason to see it is that it is Philip Seymour Hoffman's final film (Mockingjay isn't really a "film", per se - it's more of a movie event, so I don't fully count it the same way), and his performance looks incredible just from the trailers.

Get On Up (Aug 1) - A James Brown biopic starring Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Jackie Robinson in last year's 42 (which I have yet to see), this looks like it could feature some incredible performances, as well as a fantastic soundtrack. This could be the counter-programming move of the summer, as there often ends up being one late July or early August release that gains momentum to dominate the last month of the season (see: The Help, Signs, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). Either way, it's likely going to be worth a watch.

TMNT (Aug 8) - This movie has had bad press from the beginning, whether it was the involvement of Michael Bay, the title (just "Ninja Turtles" for awhile), the alteration of the Turtles' origins (aliens?), the casting of Megan Fox as April O'Neil (which, surprisingly, I don't terribly mind, as I think they still could have done much worse), or the Turtles' facial design. I know it has the potential to be terrible, but I also know that I'm still planning to see it sometime, regardless of how poorly it is received. 

The Giver (Aug 22) - This movie started with a lot of the right moves - casting Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, for example - but it has seemed less and less appealing the more that has been revealed about it, whether it's the change in the age of Jonas (12 to 16) or the use of color in the entire film (seeming to negate a very important detail in the character's development in the book). I know I will still watch it, since this is a book I have taught and would teach again, even if just to see what they do with it.

The wild cards

These movies have my curiosity, but they could have my attention under the right circumstances. Here are my wild cards for this summer - and there are a lot of them this year!

Godzilla (May 16) - This movie has two things going for it: Godzilla and Bryan Cranston. It could be great, or it could be terrible. I don't particularly want to find out for myself if it's the latter, so I'll wait to see how it's received.

Edge of Tomorrow (June 6) - Tom Cruise's bread and butter for the past fifteen years has been high-concept sci-fi films, such as last year's enjoyable (though lightweight SF) Oblivion. This one has Cruise as a soldier with an exoskeleton who has to keep reliving the same day with Emily Blunt as the token younger female with whom he will probably end up falling in love. I'm actually surprised that this has a summer release in North America, but I suppose that Cruise's work is more for the overseas markets, anyway. Either way, there's really no other big epics releasing in June that I want to see, so I may find my way to seeing this one.

22 Jump Street (June 13) - While I did not see 21 Jump Street, the presence of Lord and Miller (Clone High, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) as directors makes me want to go back and watch it to see if I should be intrigued by this one.

Jersey Boys (June 20) - Clint Eastwood directs this biopic musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I'm always interested when Clint is behind the camera.

Tammy (July 4) - Melissa McCarthy in a raunchy comedy has been a recipe for success for two years now (Bridesmaids and The Heat), and this one has potential, with McCarthy and her husband as writers and McCarthy sharing the screen with Susan Sarandon, who plays her grandmother, on a road trip. Even though The Heat wasn't as funny as Bridesmaids, it was still worth seeing, so I imagine this one will be too; the only question is whether I'll wait or see it in theatres.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11) - Rise of the PotA was the surprise hit of 2011 thanks to the presence of Caesar, the sympathetic protagonist, and his kin. The sequel focuses more on the apes, replaces James Franco with Gary Oldman, and raises the stakes with a global virus - all of which point to an improvement on its surprisingly enjoyable predecessor.

Jupiter Ascending (July 18) - A number of critics are predicting that this will be the flop of the summer, and I'm not sure I disagree. $200 million can buy you a lot of special effects, but it can't buy you plot, character, or a comprehensible trailer. This is an audacious project from the creators of The Matrix (which conveniently omits that they were also responsible for the sequels to the Matrix), and I'm not sure that it's up to the rigors of a summer release; it seems that it would have been much better positioned as a spring or fall release with low expectations, like The Fifth Element or The Chronicles of Riddick. Then again, it will make most of its money overseas anyway, so it probably does not matter. Either way, it might be entertaining, even if just to see how bad it truly is.

Lucy (August 8) - French action director Luc Besson uses Scarlett Johansson as his action star, which could be a very good use of both her acting talents and her experience as the continually under-used Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The movies I will avoid at all costs

So, I have only two must-see movies, another three that I'll end up seeing in theatre, another five that I will see at some point, and eight (!) wild cards, for a total of eighteen movies that pique my interest in some way going into the summer. I am certain that a few of those will fade out of sight as they are released, as will the two or so dozen other movies to which I am ambivalent. But there are a few movies that I will actively avoid at all costs; these are the five on that list this summer.

Blended (May 23) - Say what you want about Adam Sandler, but he knows how to play to his strengths and make money. Just not out of my pocket.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (May 30) - I'm not a huge fan of Seth MacFarlane's comedy, but this looks to be especially crass and unnecessary.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (June 27) - Even dinobots couldn't make me see this.

The Purge: Anarchy (July 18) - Really? People pay to see this?

Hercules (July 25) - They tried this once with The Rock as The Scorpion King. It didn't work then, and it won't work now.

That's my preview for the summer at the theatre. What is on your radar for the next few months?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wheeling and Dealing

Ever since I was a kid, I have always enjoyed the process of finding a good deal. I would save and scheme and find ways to get what I wanted by selling my toys or books or video games, and I always managed to get the best deal possible (except for that one time my parents let me sell all of my Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Batman, Star Trek, and Terminator figures for $20 to a store, rather than just giving me the $20 and putting them into storage for me to find later. Not that I'm still slightly embittered about it). Gift certificates or money were one of the best gifts I could get, since I always knew how to spend my money, and I often felt that I could do it better than the people giving me the money could (which is, I suppose, the point of giving gifts like that). At any rate, my point is that I was born and bred to wheel and deal, and I end up doing a lot of it. 

The thrill of the hunt

One of the legacies given to me by my parents was the joy of thrift shopping. When I was a kid, we did it out of necessity; now, I do it for fun. I enjoy finding items on the cheap at various secondhand shops, and enjoying them (or not using them, as the case sometimes ends up being) and generally having collections of stuff. I really enjoy finding items of high value for a bargain, and I am always astounded to find something of value in a thrift shop or otherwise underpriced, as I just cannot understand why people give valuable things away without getting anything back; after all, it's not difficult to use Google to ascertain the value of an item. But I suppose their ignorance is my gain, since I often profit as a result.

Thrifting is genuinely one of my favourite hobbies, in addition to enjoying the items I find on my journeys, but I also really enjoy the process of wheeling and dealing, of determining the value of items and haggling and bargaining and chatting with different store owners and proprietors as I give them what they want and try to get what I want. It's a huge game, and I love playing it. I have a few regular haunts that I occupy at which I trade in the various wares – board games, books, video games, DVDs, collectibles, the like – that I have accumulated (mostly from thrift shopping) throughout the years. But every so often, I find it necessary to be a little extra intentional in going through my collections and really closely evaluating the items I own in terms of relative value in general and value to me. I am going through one of those phases right now as part of the process of simplifying that I wrote about, and it has been a very rewarding time both for clearing off my shelves and for getting new items.

The art of the deal

I often find that my purging goes in phases. There's an initial phase in which I pull the most obvious choices from the shelves. Then I go back and start to look a little more closely and pull some more and maybe put them back and put some in a "thinking pile" and am generally indecisive. This might last a couple of rounds, until I finally get enough items to go and get some trade at one of my usual stops. And then it starts to change, as I realize that there are items available there that I want far more than the items I have, and I start scheming how to get those new things into my house. Of course, part of the game is doing it with as little cash outlay as possible, so I start wantonly plundering my collection for goods that I can trade. Suddenly, items that once seemed unassailable are up for grabs because I have a specific target to meet (ie. I need this much money to get this item that I know is there), and everything is being questioned. Some items become available due to the sheer value they hold, which is far greater than the value they hold for me. By the end of the entire purge, I have gotten rid of far more than I had anticipated I could, and I'm always very happy with the results.

In January and February, I divested myself of: over 100 video game items worth over $800 total; at least fifty books; thirty board and card games; over 50 CDs and a couple of dozen DVDs; and a bunch of random collectibles, including my inflatable Stanley Cup. Nothing that I have gotten rid of was that important to me (obviously), and I am very glad that I have not only cleared out those items but replaced them with significantly fewer items that are more valuable to me. Between cash and credit, I have made (and mostly spent) more than $1200 in the past two months on various items: $800 for video games, $85 for books, $160 for board games, $50+ for CDs/DVDs, $170 for collectibles. In a lot of these circumstances, the only the only way that I could get any value whatsoever was to take items in trade, so I have brought in a few items in my travels, including: a Wii U with five games; a few other video games and peripherals; a number of CDs, including several I have sought for a decade; and, of course, these fantastic finds.

Conclusion: what I've learned

I was very intentional about my season of wheeling and dealing in January and February, and equally as intentional in taking time away from the process for Lent in March and April, and I have learned a lot about my process as a result of both of these periods. I have learned that it is really easy to accumulate a lot of things and that it's equally as easy to focus on them to an unhealthy extent. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the items I end up parting with came from thrift shops originally, and there are very few items that I buy new that I do not keep; there might be a little bit of loss aversion there, but I think that it's equally likely that my original interest level is an indicator of how likely I am to remain interested. In keeping to a budget and then further by eliminating thrifting for a period, I learned that it really is a hobby and something I enjoy but that I have to balance appropriately. In the past year, I have been much more choosy about items I buy at thrift stores anyway, but I feel as if I will be even more aware of my purchases now. I do spend too much time on my stuff, and although I do enjoy the hobbies of thrifting and collecting, I need to be much more prepared to reduce the amount of focus and effort I put into maintaining my collections and wish lists.

I have learned a number of things about my wheeling and dealing process as well. Much like almost anything else I do, I am intense when I get into it, and it becomes a big part of my life; when it's time to wheel and deal, I do it with vigor. That's why I should limit the W&D process to a limited period of time; go through the collections, purge, repeat a couple of times, and then appreciate the work that I have been able to do. I know people who are re-sellers who constantly have a supply of board games or video games for sale after they buy them on the cheap or in bulk lots, and I do not have the patience, the willingness, the physical space, or the time and energy to invest in that kind of constant selling. (Although I would if I ever chose to open a store at some point...) I also have learned how to manage the phases and when they are coming on; I thought I was mostly done after February, but the last couple of months have helped me to realize just how much more I have to get rid of before I am "done." And I know that right now that I'm not finished, so I'm looking forward to some greasing those wheels and making those deals over the next month!

The Opportunity Cost of entertainment

One of the concepts that I remember clearly from my Economics 100 class in my first semester of university is the idea of opportunity cost: the notion that the cost of any action is all of the other actions that could have been taken instead of that action. That means that the cost of any purchase or choice, in essence, is not only the cost attached to it, but also the entire set of purchases or choices that were not made in order to make that purchase or choice. It's a daunting idea if you allow it to be, but it makes a lot of sense as a method of measuring the value or worth of any good or action and giving an absolute value against which any other values can be measured. And for me, the area in which I most often apply the idea of opportunity cost is in the entertainment I enjoy - particularly when it comes to re-experiencing media.

When given the option, I will almost always rather read, watch or play something I haven't experienced before. I know people who can - and do - rewatch movies or the same episodes of TV repeatedly, but I tend not to. I might watch a movie six months or a year after seeing it initially, but even my favourite movies are ones that I watch once a year or so. I don't understand why I would try something I know I enjoy and appreciate when there's something new out there to experience. But here's the paradox: I often find that I get as much - or more - out of a book, game, movie, or show during the second (or further subsequent) time through. So why do I like the variety, particularly at the expense of the admitted depth that repeated exposure to a book/game/show/movie will provide?

The reasons why

Perhaps the biggest reason why I choose new experiences is that I have a very strong desire to continually broaden the scope of my knowledge and awareness of a particular area. This might be a genre, the works of an author/writer/director/actor/creator, or even as a result of an allusion from another work. I am almost always interested in having a very broad (some might say "encyclopedic") knowledge of a genre, and that can come at the expense of increased depth on understanding of members of that genre. Some of the reasons for this desire are internal - I am interested for my own sake - but some is external, the result of either my desire to keep up on pop culture, the need to know what's going on with students, or just as part of the general zeitgeist.

Another reason is that I do tend to have strong recall of the things I do watch, and although there is no replacement for actually re-experiencing something, I do recognize that my inherent memory and critical abilities allow me to not have to watch things as frequently in order to have the same appreciation as others might. I tend to enjoy a broad scope of material for its own merits (not just as a product of having mastery of a genre), which means that I have to spread myself thinner to enjoy all of the different material adequately.

The ramifcations

Regardless of the exact reasons for this particular predilection of mine, there are both benefits and detriments (as one might expect of any economic analysis); I'll start with the benefits. I do have a broad awareness and knowledge of a wide variety of genres, and I get to enjoy that knowledge often. It is a benefit to me as a teacher, both in regard to the wealth of information I can share and as a way to interact (and admonish) students. I have a strong sense of what I like and don't like, and what is worth and not worth my time, so I tend to be able to avoid things that will not be worth my time. I also get to draw from my repository in recommending and sharing with others, and I enjoy being able to not only appreciate but also to discuss a breadth of material.

The detriments are also present. I often find it difficult to narrow my focus sufficiently to be able to intake all of the media I would like to, so I have to continually exercise judgment in the immediacy and necessity of my intake. I have written before about this process and how I find it difficult - at times almost paralyzing - to choose one item over another. I actually have to work through the sense of guilt, shame, or obligation in choosing to watch a TV drama, over, say, The Wire. Until this last December, almost any time I chose to watch an older movie that was not The Godfather gave me reason to hang my head a little bit. I still have a list of books to read, games to play, shows and movies to watch, and every time I choose something that's not on that list, I have a little twinge that I need to justify, even if it is just to myself.

Board Games

One area in which I do find this tendency of expanding my horizons at the expense of re-experiencing media challenging is in playing board games. I very often will choose to play new games, rather than replaying games I already know. In the past few years, I have played 68 new games - 11 in 2011, 29 in 2012, 15 in 2013, and 13 so far in 2014 - with 50 (or so) of those becoming part of my "repertoire" - that is, games that I can play at any time with minimal re-learning. Most of that happened in 2012, but I'm off to a banging start already in the first few months of 2014, with a lot of new plays yet to come. This trend has been assisted by a gaming group that has not really stopped buying new games for almost four years, as each of us have purchased several new games each year, as well as my first real intensive forays into the world of board gaming as an intentional hobby.

There are rewards in playing a wide variety of styles and mechanics and themes, but most of those rewards are not necessarily present in the gameplay itself, but in the wider understanding of game theory and how it is applied in different circumstances. For example, I generally know how worker placement games work now, and it is far easier for me to learn a new game like Stone Age or Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar and to apply my general knowledge to a new game and to have greater success than I might have otherwise; at the same time, I recognize that each game has its own set of strategies and idiosyncrasies, and there is only so much that you can learn or apply without playing a game repeatedly enough to get a real grip on its features, feel, and flow; I would argue that, for a game with adequate replayability, that that process is only beginning to take place at five plays, given that those plays are within a time span that is short enough not to have entirely forgotten how the game works.

This is the inherent problem with this tendency in playing board games: you need to replay a game repeatedly to really be able to appreciate it; but there are always more games to play (124 on my list currently) and replay. I am continually attempting to rework my "to play" list to feature fewer and fewer games, although there are still a lot of games that I feel the need to play just to have played them; in some cases, I might feel the need to play them again just to log that second play. I hope to be able to find the balance between learning new games and replaying familiar ones, and I recognize that the balance may only come with time after having continued to play more games for the first time and further reducing my list (hopefully without expanding it much further in the process).

The (re)solution

While I admit that this entire argument is perhaps the very definition of a "first-world problem" - truly insignificant in almost every way - I still know that it is something that I need to deal with regularly. There are a few possible resolutions, several of which I already employ. I keep lists of items to read, to watch, and to play which are easily accessible and updated at any time. I continually evaluate those lists as to whether certain items need to keep being included or whether they can be eliminated without compromising any integrity (again, a ridiculous idea, but here it is anyway). I do tend to alternate between media that I feel the need to watch or read and those which I feel more of an obligation, usually to a rate of three or four to one.

Then, of course, there is perhaps the simplest solution: get over myself, get rid of my lists, and enjoy whatever I enjoy in the moment for the sake of enjoying it. That, however, would require me to overcome another economic concept: loss aversion, the notion that it is far more difficult to get rid of something once you already have it. Although I might not own these items, per se, I do take some of my identity from having these lists, and I would posit that one of the reasons that I even feel the need to analyze myself in a post like this is that I am too tied up in these enterprises. This is an extension of the "simplifying" I have been processing for a few months, so maybe the best thing for me to do is just to forget any sense of obligation - either to myself or to others - and just to watch, play, and read what I can when I can. But if this post is any indication, I still have a bit of a process before that fully happens.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

I will admit to not having paid much attention to the NHL this year, particularly after Christmas; I just had too much going on in the rest of my life this year, and it was the easiest thing to drop. I also had a sense of impending doom about the way the season would turn out for my Leafs, and teams north of the border in general, so it made it more difficult to be emotionally invested. Unfortunately, I was not surprised by the result of the regular season: the continued ineptitude of the Flames and Oilers, the Canucks' unsurprising woes (what a surprise that Tortorella was a terrible fit for that team), the Jets' inability to make progress into the playoffs, the Senators' struggles, and the Leafs' last quarter collapse all contributed to my lack of attention being "rewarded", so to speak. But even with my relative lack of attention to the NHL over the past season, I still feel that I need to posit my thoughts on the playoffs as they start later today. Before I get to my (admittedly mostly uninformed) picks, here are a couple of asides on the Leafs' performance and the new division/playoff format.

The wilting Leafs

This was not the year that the Leafs needed, although it is easy to argue that it is the year they deserved. As many critics stated, the Leafs' performance this year would be a de facto referendum on the new focus on advanced metrics; the vote was clearly in favour of Corsi and company, rather than the old-school kind of method the team used. David Clarkson was (as many people, including me, expected) the worst free agent signing in recent league memory, and aside from Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and Jonathan Bernier, the entire team was a disappointment. Bernier was a revelation in goal, but his success came at the expense of James Reimer (one of my favourite players who I hope gets traded to the Jets, my team in the West). This team, only a year removed from that heart-breaking loss in Game 7 in Boston, regressed significantly, and they look as far away from success as they did several years ago.

With that said, though, there is always hope for next year: the team has the 8th pick in a strong draft class; the team just brought on Brendan Shanahan as team president (a move, I know, that could seem like they are still depending on "old school" hockey, but that I think could pay off with the power of Shanny's personality in the Toronto market); and players like Kadri and Lupul could bounce back from their off years. I know that kind of talk reeks of the "maybe next year" desperation for which Leaf fans are perenially mocked, but we really have no other option, especially when the team nosedives in the playoff stretch. In some ways, I would rather have endured this setback as opposed to a crashing loss in the first round, but then again, it's always better to have the chance to win than to be watching from the outside. The next few months will be really important for the Leafs, and it will be very interesting to see how Shanahan affects the team.

On the new playoff format

I can't say that I was a huge proponent of the new divisions and playoff system at the beginning of the year, but it seems to have worked out well enough. A cursory glance at the results of the season seems to indicate that the teams that should be in are in, and the teams that did not play well enough were not in; I'm sure some stat geek out there will crunch the numbers and see how the new divisions and shootouts and the imbalance between conferences all affected the final results, but it seems like everything worked out well enough. It's interesting that Detroit and Columbus both made the playoffs in their first year in their new conference (like Toronto did in their switchover in 1999), and that Dallas made the playoffs in their first year in their new division; it just really indicates how much a geographical misplacement can affect a team.

In terms of the actual playoff seeding, it seems like the new format may actually be more fair than the previous three-division format. In previous years, there was almost always a fourth (or fifth) seeded team that earned more points than the winner of the weakest division, who was automatically awarded the third seed in the conference; this year, the seeds are all in order, and there is not that kind of discrepancy. The wild card format seems to have worked well (so far); the fact that the competition was interesting only until the last week or so of the season was due to the collapse of some teams and not to the fallacy of the format. It does seem like the divisional rivalries will work well in the playoffs, and for the most part, each team is playing a divisional rival even with the wild cards (only Anaheim and Dallas is the exception, and they were divisional rivals until this year, so it still has that same feel). Perhaps the best part of the new format is that not only are teams seeded, but there is now a functional bracket, rather than the reseeding process that always messed with playoff predictions. Teams - and prognosticators - now will know who they could play in each round, rather than waiting for the last Game 7 to be played. So with that, it's time for my picks for this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.

Western Conference

Colorado vs. Minnesota: This series features two young teams with lots of firepower, strong goaltending, and minimal playoff experience, so it's really anyone's guess. Although I think that Minnesota could pull it off, I think that coach Patrick Roy might make the difference in this series. Colorado in 6.

St. Louis vs. Chicago: This might be the best series in the first round: two teams with young leadership, great goaltending, and lots of expectations. Chicago is the defending champs, and although they seemed unbeatable early in the season, they look beatable now. I expect Ryan Miller to make the difference here, so I am picking St. Louis in 6.

Anaheim vs. Dallas: Anaheim was the second-best team in the league this year, while Dallas surprised a lot of people by finally making the playoffs. The Ducks are just too strong, though, and the Stars have been playing for their lives for so long that they might be a little tired. Anaheim in 5.

San Jose vs. Los Angeles: Another candidate for the best first round series and arguably the hardest series to pick. Both teams have playoff experience, strong goaltending, veteran leadership, and high expectations. In the end, I think that the series will likely come down to Game 7, and I'm picking San Jose to win that game, knowing that I could very easily be wrong. But the pick is San Jose in 7.

That would pit Colorado against St. Louis and Anaheim against San Jose in the divisional finals. I think St. Louis would beat the Avalanche, and I'll pick San Jose to advance out of the Pacific. That would result in a St. Louis - San Jose Western Conference Finals, with a long-awaited Finals appearance on the line for both teams (never for the Sharks, since 1970 in St. Louis). It could go either way, but I'm going to pick St. Louis to make it to the Finals out of the West; call it a hunch.

Eastern Conference

Boston vs. Detroit: Boston is the best team in the league, and they have a chip on their shoulder after last year's stunning Cup loss in Game 6 to Chicago. Detroit is young and vulnerable, so even making the playoffs has been an accomplishment for them. Detroit will be able to play loose and free, so they should take a game or maybe two, but I think that Boston is just too strong and too motivated to win. Boston in 5.

Tampa Bay vs. Montreal: The only Canadian team against a team that no one expected to be there, especially after they traded away Martin St. Louis. TB gets to play free, while Montreal might be tight under the weight of their expectations. My thought is that Montreal waits until Round 2 for their heartbreak, but they still don't make this round easy on themselves. Montreal in 6.

Pittsburgh vs. Columbus: This is arguably the least interesting series of the playoffs, and unless something happens in the first couple of games, it will likely be the most forgettable. Pittsburgh should win this series easily, unless Bobrovsky steals the series. I'm picking Pittsburgh in 4.

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia: These are the two most inscrutable teams in the playoffs. They both looked terrible and terrific at different points in the season, and their players are equally as unpredictable. I think it will come down to a couple of points in favour of the Rangers: Martin St. Louis and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. New York in 6.

That would make the Division Finals in the East Boston and Montreal and Pittsburgh and New York. Boston is just too strong for Montreal, and they are primed for a collapse anyway; Pittsburgh and New York will be an interesting series, but I'll pick Pittsburgh, even if just to see the rematch from last year's Conference Finals between Boston and Pittsburgh. While the Penguins have the motivation to avenge last year's epic choke, I just think that the Bruins are too strong this year, so I'm picking them to win.

That would make a St. Louis and Boston Cup Final with a lot of storylines: Boston's return to the Final; Ryan Miller's redemption; St. Louis' first appearance in the Final since 1970, when they lost to the Bruins on Bobby Orr's famous goal; and, of course, Jarome Iginla's quest for the Cup. Although that would be a memorable match up, it just seems like the Bruins' destiny to win this year; plus, it puts that extra little bit of the knife in the hearts of Leaf fans, who know deep down that Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask should have been a Leaf. Boston will hoist the Cup for the second time in four years, and Rask should win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

TV of the Nerds

It's April, which is a good month for TV fans. The final episodes of the network seasons are within reach, most of the initial wave of cable shows of the year have finished their runs, and there are a new crop of shows just starting to premiere, trying to catch a small audience in the waning months before summer for people (like me) whose hockey (or basketball, I suppose) teams are out of the playoffs. It's also the time that I like to look back and celebrate the shows I've watched, lament the shows I haven't watched, and feel slightly guilty both about the amount of TV I have and have not watched; it's kind of a preposterous paradox and a first world problem, but it's a tradition for me (well, most of the time), so here we go. To start, here are my thoughts on the shows I have been watching over the past few months.

Community (Season 5) - With the "gas leak" of Season 4, the departure of Chevy Chase, and the impending departure of Donald Glover five episodes into this season, there was every reason to be dubious about Community returning to its form from Seasons 1 - 3, despite Dan Harmon's return as showrunner. It turned out that, after a couple of awkward introductory episodes, that Season 5 has given us several pantheon episodes and in-jokes along the way: Ass-Crack Bandit; Polygraph Tests; Lava World; Abed and Hickey's face-off; the dystopia of MeowMeowBeenz; Koogler; Pile of Bullets; Tight Ship; and Joseph Gordon Die-Hard. The last few episodes - Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, G.I. Jeff, and Basic Story - have been a slight step back, but they are still better than pretty much anything from Season 4. It looks like the dream of six seasons and a movie is still alive, and Community is once again my favourite comedy on TV (though, quite frankly, it does not have much competition right now; the comedy pickings are a little slim right now).

Doctor Who (Series 4/5) - The Doctor is the main focus of my watching with my wife right now, courtesy of Netflix. We just started Series 6, and we are thoroughly enjoying the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory, and the genius of Steven Moffat. We might even catch up in time to watch Series 8 later this year and to see the Twelfth Doctor in real time, so to speak.

Justified (Season 5) - The penultimate season of the show revolved around the arrival of the Florida Crowe clan, led by Daryl Crowe Jr. (Michael Rapaport), Ava Crowder's stay in prison, and Boyd's attempts to bring heroin in from Mexico. It was probably the weakest season the show has had (which says more about the incredibly high quality of previous seasons, as opposed to low quality of this one), but it still had some really great moments, both in overall story progression and in the presence of moments that evoke Elmore Leonard's dark humour. The major storylines are in place for the show's final confrontation between Raylan and Boyd in Season 6 (technically a spoiler alert, but fairly obvious), and barring a major change, the next season should be amazing.

King of the Nerds (Season 2) - The first season of King of the Nerds was a fun experiment in reality TV and in social relationships, as well as a celebration of all parts of nerd culture. The second season has been similarly entertaining, funny, creative, and nerdy, and it is well worth a watch for anyone who enjoys watching nerds be nerdly. It's well worth the watch if you derive any enjoyment from nerd culture, particularly if you know the references (like I do).

Survivor (Season 28) - This season in Caguyan started off weaker, with the division between Brain, Brawns, and Beauty, but much like Season 19 (Samoa with Russell Hantz, Shambo, and others) it is turning into a very entertaining season. There are some great personalities, and some really fascinating gameplay. I still think Survivor is better with returning players, but seasons like this demonstrate that there is still a lot of life left in the game.

True Detective (Season 1) - I watched through True Detective's eight episodes in 36 hours last week (a time period which included two nights of sleep) and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. In fact, it deserves its own section...

About True Detective

If there was one story that dominated the first three months of entertainment in 2014, it was the McConaissance, which included Matthew McConaughey's Oscar win and his starring role in HBO's True Detective, along with Woody Harrelson. McConaughey and Harrelson both brought huge expectations as A-list stars (Woody's more of an A- or B+, I think, but that's probably not the point here), and they delivered two of the most memorably nuanced characters in recent television (along with a permanent spot in the "top-10 bromances of all time" argument). Both in spite of and because of all of its misogynizing, mythologizing, and philosophizing, TD has garnered more attention than any show in recent memory other than Breaking Bad, and rightfully so: it is one of the most significant debut seasons in years, and it may have changed the American TV landscape. With that said, I completely understand the polarized critical reaction to the show. I believe that TD does have a problem with the way in which it portrays women (although it had no problem showing women off), and that the whole "troubled white male" trope is getting a little tired. There are elements of the believability of the show's events that stretched far beyond plausible, and the season finale's concluding third could be argued to invalidate the whole point of the season. But there's still something about the whole season, as well as many individual moments within the season, that elevated it to something beyond itself and perhaps its medium.

TD was full of obscure references and allusions that, along with the loquaciousness of Rust Cohle, gave it a literary presence unlike most TV shows; similarly, its cinematography and direction gave it a cinematic sense rarely seen even in the best television series. Regardless of your thoughts on the eventual payoff and the aforementioned issues, the fact is that TD has perhaps bridged the two media on either side of television in a way that is arguably unprecedented and unparalleled for this side of the Atlantic. TD is one of the first American-created British-style TV successes, and I tend to think that it will not be anywhere near the last. TD may in content be more similar to the previous generation of shows, but it is part of the next generation of television shows that do bridge that small-to-big-screen gap much more successfully. The Wire and Breaking Bad did that to a lesser extent, but they always still felt like television shows; TD felt like more. It was auteuristic (and unfortunately voyeuristic at times), and for all of its flaws, it may be the true start of the next generation of television. (And yes, I know that American Horror Story, Top of the Lake, and others all preceded TD in the mini-series format with big stars, but this is the one that made it really a thing, so just go with me on this one.)

With that said, there is a short list of TV shows with a mystery component that have captured the cultural consciousness like TD has: Twin Peaks; The X-Files; Lost; the first nine episodes of Heroes. That's pretty much the list, each of which only lasted for a season or maybe two. Unless TD does something radical with its second season, it could go the same way and be a flash in the pan. For my part, I mostly enjoyed TD, save for some of the "HBO-ness" of the show. It had some electric moments - the final tracking scene in Episode 4, the first appearance of "the monster", McConaughey's mustache, Hart's one-liners, and the swampy feel of the whole show - but it also had some disappointing points: the final resolution; the leaps in logic; the cop cliches. I think that bingeing was the right way to watch it, and while I'm not going to anoint it as "the best thing on television", it was enjoyable and far from the worst. I think it will probably end up in my top five shows for the year, and if nothing else, I'm glad to have been part of the zeitgeist, if a month late. Plus, it gave us lines like "time is a flat circle" and "you're the Michael Jordan of being a son of a...", not to mention a half-year of speculation as to who will star in Season 2, which is reportedly about the "occult nature of the US transportation system." Of course, the bar has been set really high now, so the next season had better deliver on its promises, the least of which is that Brad Pitt was reportedly rebuffed for a role. I'm hoping for two strong female detectives, like Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon; maybe there could be a role in there for Brad Pitt after all as eye candy, much like the women were treated this year... (and yes, I'm fully aware of the Thelma and Louise reference here).

Top 5 lists

Whenever I do a media update - especially about television - I find that it is easiest to just make a few Top 5 lists that cover some of the information that I otherwise might have had to omit.

Top 5 dramas to watch soon: Top of the Lake; Broadchurch Season 1; House of Cards Season 2; The Americans (Seasons 1 & 2); and Orphan Black (Seasons 1 & 2).

Top 5 comedies to catch up on: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 1); Moone Boy (Season 1 & 2); New Girl (Season 3); Parks and Recreation (Season 5 & 6); Veep (currently in Season 3).

Top 5 shows to actually finish sometime: Doctor Who (Series 6-7); Homeland (Season 3); Luther (Season 2 & 3); The Newsroom (Season 2); and Star Trek (Seasons 2 & 3).

Top 5 new shows to check out (with brief descriptions):
Fargo - based on the classic Coen dark comedy, starring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton.
Silicon Valley - Mike Judge comedy about computer nerds.
Halt & Catch Fire (June 1) - 1980s drama about the start of personal computing.
The Leftovers (June 15) - Assorted people left over after some kind of rapture-event...could be interesting.
Welcome to Sweden (July) - A comedy about a guy who moves to Sweden. Those Swedes are always so hilarious.

Five series I'm looking forward to in the fall: Backstrom (Sept. 16); Better Call Saul (November 7); Doctor Who (Series 8); Gotham; The Newsroom (Season 3)

And this is the part in which I should probably again lament that I still have not yet watched The Wire and restate my intention to do so soon. But I'll save us all the trouble by not doing so. Instead, I'll just mention the final thing I'm excited about in the next few months of TV: the return of the fourth season of Louie on May 5. Louie C.K. may not have gotten the Letterman gig, but this is probably the next best thing - at least for fans of his show. It seems like it should be a good summer for bringing some new shows into the fold - or maybe finally watching The Wire.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The problem of "Ameritrash"

When I was at our local gaming convention a month ago, I had the opportunity to play a game called Sentinels of the Multiverse, which has one of the coolest concepts I've seen for a game. Each player gets to play as a hero with their own identity, deck of cards, and powers, but the heroes all play together against a common villain in an environment. Though the essential game play is simple - the villain and his henchmen attack, each hero play a card from hand along with any other powers from the cards in front of them, the environment responds, followed by a new round - the game is incredibly intricate in its design, as each card from each deck (heroes, villains, and environments) has its own artwork, along with a number of rules, powers, or abilities on each card. It has been one of the biggest successes in the short history of board games on Kickstarter (its most recent incarnation is blazing through a campaign right now), and it is arguably one of the most prominent games released in the past five years, both as a commercial success and as a top-100 game on Board Game Geek (#95 right now). It's a fantastic concept for a game, it looks great, and it's incredibly popular, but I did not really care for it.

I really appreciated the creativity that has gone into the design of each character, their backstories, and the overall depth of the universe. If it were to exist as a comic series, I would probably love it, along with my fanboy tendencies toward Marvel and the first season of Heroes in 2006. But as a game, it did not really engage me. The turns were long, as almost every turn involved at least a short debate about which rules on which cards applied which way. The cards sometimes seemed arbitrary, and it was hard to get a feel for the flow of the game as a result. There were rarely instances in which one card was not significantly superior to the others, making the player's choices more a matter of playing one pre-ordained card rather than genuine choice. It was fun as an attempt, and the co-operative element of the game drew me in, but I left the experience with the thought that I would never really have a reason to play that game again.

Later that night, we played a quick round of Smash-Up, which has a similarly unique concept and implementation: each player picks two factions from a wide selection (the base game alone includes Ninjas, Pirates, Robots, Dinosaurs, Tricksters, Zombies, Aliens, and Wizards), each of which has a particular set of powers and proclivities, and shuffles them together to create his team that is trying to win a base through playing minions (cards). It was my second time playing the game, and I was not much more impressed than I was the first time; the gameplay again seemed finicky; some of the overpowered cards became tired quickly; and the game ended up with someone just giving me the win so that the game would end. I realized that day why I don't like games like Sentinels and Smash-Up, particularly when they were juxtaposed with the two other games I played that day for the first time - Glass Road and Stone Age - both of which provided tight, strategically engaging experiences. That was the day I truly remembered how little I care for games that can be classified as "Ameritrash".

Defining "Ameritrash"

"Ameritrash" is one of those terms that lets you know that you are talking to a real BoardGameGeek, along with "FLGS" ("friendly local game store") and  "AP" (short for "analysis paralysis", the state in which a player cannot make a decision because of the multitude and variety of choices before them), among many others. "Ameritrash" is a term for a certain style of board gaming that was initially primarily developed and marketed in the US (hence the label), and it stands in opposition to the label "Eurogames", which - you guessed it! - come primarily from east of the Atlantic. "Ameritrash" is now considered a somewhat pejorative term, but it is not necessarily thought of that way; to some, it is merely the label that describes a certain style of gaming. Either way, it is still a commonly-used term among board gamers, so I will use it here. There is a lot of debate about what categories of games make up the entirety of Ameritrash, but there is a general consensus that it includes some mass-market games while excluding certain genres (such as miniatures, RPGs, and war games) which have gathered their own cultures and identities. 

Some of the hallmarks of games that are considered in the Ameritrash category are: dice (or randomness); theme (often fantasy, horror, sci-fi); long, involved, and occasionally confusing rules, many of which often come into conflict with one another or need clarification based on particular events that occur in the game; lots of cards; gadgets, toys, or miniatures; direct player conflict; player elimination; long turns and games; collectiblility (with lots of expansions); and asymmetric gameplay or "overpowered" roles or cards. Publishers such as Avalon Hill, Hasbro, and Fantasy Flight Games specialize in games of this ilk, the list of which includes games such as Munchkin, Arkham Horror, Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter, Twilight Imperium, and my personal frenemy, Killer Bunnies.

The Quest for the Magic Carrot

Back when I was first really starting to get into board gaming, in 2007-2008, one of my favourite games was Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot. Some friends ordered the entire set from eBay, and we played every few weeks with a new expansion until we had finally added them all: over 700 cards; 9 dice; several different game mechanics; and a lot of dead bunnies. We thoroughly enjoyed the game, so much so that we we made it a priority to buy all of the expansions after we were married, including the kids' version Kinder Bunnies. And when I say all the expansions, I mean "all": in addition to the starter blue and yellow decks, there are red, violet, orange, green, steel, pink, beige, and onyx decks (the latter of which is a double set), along with a chocolate booster released a couple of years later. I even bought the new space exploration version, Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter, with Christmas money that year; it was not integratable, but it included the same play style but with a modular board for exploration and a lot of great science fiction references.

We played Killer Bunnies many times that year, both with friends and with only one another, including an epic 4-game set in 2 days during spring break. But then something broke with the game; we started noticing all of the imbalances and the ways in which the game did not work well. We had to create house rules to make sure that people got bunnies early in the game, as it would otherwise become an interminable slog until finally drawing a bunny randomly out of the monstrous deck. We realized that many of the cards in the upper decks of cards created such an imbalance in powers and length of turns (it was not uncommon for one player to have three or four turns while the other player had one or none) that the game became less fun. So we generally stopped playing it after our binge. I think we have played it maybe twice in the four years since, but never two-player again.

And so Killer Bunnies waits on my shelf to be played. I gave away our copy of Journey to Jupiter to some friends last year because I realized I would never play it again, particularly if I did not even play regular Killer Bunnies. I did, however, pick up a copy of the new base game Killer Bunnies and the Conquest of the Magic Carrot for $10 used, as it integrates with the original set to create an even larger game; I figured that, at that price, I could easily recoup my expenses if I ever sold it. But, for whatever reason right now, I just can't bring myself to pull the trigger on selling my Killer Bunnies set; I know I probably won't really play it enough to justify keeping it, but I just can't clear it out. I do enjoy it as an activity, and I know that it is a great game for certain crowds (especially some teens I know), so there's always that possibility that I will play it again. And so it waits, taunting me.

Invasion of the Euros

It was not just the Ameritrash nature of Killer Bunnies that turned me off of the game; it was also that I discovered (or embraced, perhaps) a new style of gaming. The same Christmas that I bought Journey to Jupiter, which was just after we bought the whole set of Killer Bunnies, my wife bought me the game Carcassonne, a tile-laying city-building game set in medieval France. We had also picked up a game called Thurn & Taxis, which featured the exciting world of the 19th century German postal service. Despite the lackluster themes, I thoroughly enjoyed these new discoveries, as they were easy to teach but also significantly strategic. They opened my eyes to the world of Eurogames, and I have not looked back since. Many of the games I enjoy and play fall more into the "Euro" style rather than the "Ameritrash" style, and many of the games that I have tried in the latter vein have ultimately run their course quickly; in addition to the aforementioned Sentinels of the Multiverse and Smash-Up, this includes games such as Blood Bowl Team Manager: The Card Game.

It's not that I dislike all "Ameritrash" games. In my collection, I do own several games that are considered Ameritrash, most of which fall into the lighter diversion category: Fluxx, a card game that thrives on randomness (including the conditions for winning); Chrononauts, a card game in which the players are time travelers who adjust events throughout history; and Evil Baby Orphanage, a card game in which players are "time nannies" looking after a host of infantile versions of history's worst villains. The only major Ameritrash game I own is Cosmic Encounter, a game that has players take the role of an alien species and trying to take over colonies on the other's species' planets; I really enjoy a robust round of this game, and I would love to play it far more often than I do. I would enjoy owning a copy of RoboRally, and I can even enjoy the occasional game of Zombies!!! (as long as there is a time limit for the inevitably interminable ending sequence as everyone tries to make it to the chopper and on how many times a player can imitate Ah-nuld saying "GET TO DA CHOPPAH!")

"Ameritrash 2.0" (aka hybrid games)

One of the recent trends in the past decade of gaming, as European styles have become more prominent in North America and more people are gaming as a hobby, is what is often referred to as "Ameritrash 2.0", a hybridization of the two styles. These are games that feature many of the hallmarks of classic Ameritrash games while also incorporating Eurogame-style mechanics and strategic possibilities. Eurogames are also much more likely now to use some elements typically associated with Ameritrash, particularly in theme. Some of these games have done quite well, and Kickstarter is continually filled with examples of games that incorporate both styles. There are arguments, often in the forums on BoardGameGeek, that even using the terms Ameritrash and Eurogames is redundant now, as there are few examples of "pure" Ameritrash as there once were. There are still some "Trashers" and "Eurosnoots", as they call themselves, but ultimately the entire discussion seems to have been rendered more or less moot with the way that gaming is changing.

I own a number of games that are, to some extent, "hybrids" of the two styles; they would, however, be likely classified as "Euros" if they had to be one or the other, not "Ameritrash 2.0". Eminent Domain and Among the Stars, while using more controlled Euro-style gameplay, feature sci-fi themes. Carcassonne starts to feel a little less controlled with more expansions, so it feels a little more Ameritrashy the more you add in. Innovation and Glory to Rome, while featuring the kinds of themes of Euro games (civilization building and ancient civilizations respectively) both feature the kind of variety in cards and swinginess of most Ameritrash games. I also own the sci-fi card game Race for the Galaxy, which, while based on one of the pre-eminent Eurogames in Puerto Rico, feels decidedly like Ameritrash at times with its variety of cards, particularly with the second and third expansion in the first story arc, particularly in contrast with its cousin San Juan, which is decidedly Euro-style and developed (though not released) concurrently with the same basic game mechanic. These games often fill the spaces that Ameritrash games might otherwise fill for me, without the undesirable length or randomness of true Ameritrash games.

To Trash, or not to Trash?

If it has not been made clear yet, I am, in general, not a fan of Ameritrash-style games. Thankfully, I know enough now to be able to spot them fairly easily, and I can generally avoid them. They occasionally still pique the interest of my inner fanboy, but I usually get over that tendency once I recognize them for what they truly are. They are usually too long, overly involved, and random for my liking, and I often find myself dissatisfied after playing them. There are very few Ameritrash (or Ameritrash 2.0) games that I would own or even play, as I would almost always rather play a tight Eurogame with a well-developed gameplay mechanic.

At the same time, I can appreciate the contributions of Ameritrash to gaming. There are times that I really appreciate the element of randomness - say, in the frantic Galaxy Trucker - that might not be as present otherwise. I appreciate that there are more thematic games in Eurogame vein now, as it allows me to enjoy the sci-fi element without having to play games I do not enjoy playing. I will never really be the type of gamer to seek out Arkham Horror or Descent or any of the host of zombie games. I would play them occasionally with friends who are fans of that style of gaming (and I do have some friends who love these kinds of games), but they are not the kinds of games I will seek out for myself or buy - except if I were to find them dirt cheap at a thrift store in order to resell them, of course. I have enough games that scratch that itch to keep me happy, and if I ever really want that Ameritrash experience, I'll just pull Killer Bunnies off the shelf - at least until I sell it to buy more Eurogames.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Lords of Tabletop: board gaming update

I'm excited for this weekend: not only is it International Table Top Day on Saturday (with free promos at your Friendly Local Game Store, or FLGS for short), but I will be going on a men's retreat with several other guys who also enjoy gaming, so I will get a few good plays in this weekend. But, for now, here is my quarterly-and-entirely-too-self-involved summary of my last three months of board gaming.

Games Played and To Play

I was a little lower on plays than I wanted to be, with only 54 total plays, but I did have 25 in March alone (almost one per day on average). I would still play way more, though, if given the choice. I played a dozen new games, and quite a few of them more than once. Four of those were on my list of games to play this year, and several of these plays were thanks to the services of the awesome library of the Interactivity Board Game Cafe in downtown Victoria.

Most played games: Flash Point: Fire Rescue (7), Fleet (4), Lords of Waterdeep (4), Eminent Domain (3), Hanabi (3), Spyrium (3)

New games played: Among the Stars: The Ambassadors (expansion); Eminent Domain; Flash Point: Fire Rescue; Glass Road; Gloom; Hive; No Thanks!; Sentinels of the Multiverse; Spyrium; Stone Age; Takenoko; Zooloretto (finally, after several years; it was, however, a little underwhelming.)

Remaining "Top 20 Games to play in 2014": Bora Bora; Ora and Labora; Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar will be played soon, so 13 more remain: Belfort; Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Core Worlds; Coup; Firefly: The Game; Forbidden Desert; For Sale; Fresco; Hawaii; Jump Gate; Keyflower; Morels; and Tigris & Euphrates.

New games on my "to play" list:
Gravwell; Palaces of Carrara; Suburbia

Changes to my collection

I had probably more change in my collection in the past three months than in any period since I started becoming a more intentional gamer and collector. I cleared out almost thirty items, mostly in a trade with Starlit Citadel (my Friendly Local Online Game Store), so I'm feeling much more lean and mean: only 91 games in my collection now, with another 78 expansions for those games (many of which are very small expansions of a few cards). I could probably still work it down even more with a few more sales and trades, but I'm happy enough with my efforts for now. Here are some of the specs on the changes to my collection since January 1:

New games purchased: Anomia; El Grande Decennial Edition; Fleet; Hanabi; Killer Bunnies and the Conquest for the Magic Carrot (the new base game which integrates with the old set); Ra; Spyrium; and Telestrations (8 in total). Castles of Burgundy and Galaxy Trucker: Anniversary Edition will be on their way soon as a result of that aforementioned clearing out of old games.

Kickstarters backed: I backed several big games this quarter, including three "Big Boxes" that include expansions for games I (mostly) know and love: Fresco, Alhambra, and Kingdom Builder. I also ordered Scoville and Space Junk, as well as three micro-games (Burgoo, Province, and This Town Ain't Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us, the latter of which has one of the worst titles I can recall). It will be fun come June when these all start arriving!

Progress on 2014 board gaming goals

1. 300 plays total: I made 25 in March, but I'm 21 plays under that mark for the year. Time to pick it up!

2. Nickel and dime my collection: I played only 17 of my 91 games, so I have a weak start to this one.

3. Clear out 10 games: I got rid of 30 items, so one accomplished!

4. Add a dozen quality games to my collection: including KS games to come in, I'm already at 12 (not including the KS games that came from campaigns from last year). Achieved.

5. Add 15 games to my playable repertoire: So far, I've added five: Flash Point: Fire Rescue; Fleet; Eminent Domain; Spyrium; and Takenoko, so I'm on track.

6. Play all the games on my top 20 to play list: 4 out of 20 down with 3 more coming soon, leaving 13 remaining. I think I could actually do it this year, but five will be a challenge, as they will be difficult to find here without buying them - which, of course, I am hesitant to do without trying them first. Hmmm...

7. Blog more about board games: I wrote 2 posts this quarter, which is an improvement from before. I am now revising this to be a smart goal with an average of one post on board games per month.

8. Design a game: I have made some progress in the idea, but not in the actual design or gameplay. My goal now is to have a playable prototype made by the end of the summer.

So that's my summary of board gaming for the first quarter of the year. See you at the tables!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Journeyman teacher

I recently read through “Can I Keep My Jersey?”, the memoir of a professional basketball player named Paul Shirley, who played for several teams in the NBA, minor leagues, and Europe over the course of seven years after college. Shirley chronicles his journeys through several countries, including Siberia, as he tries to make it as a professional over the course of four years. He only played in 18 actual NBA games, but he was a member of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns in 2005 when they made a run to the Conference Finals – albeit as the token white guy in the twelfth spot on the bench. He is referred to as a “journeyman”, meaning that he has played with a number of different teams and has been well-traveled.

Shirley’s memoir is interesting for the experiences he undergoes, though I did find it to be occasionally unbearably smug and self-absorbed; he does continually observe that he is probably being unreasonable, but that does not necessarily make it any better to write some of those things in the first place. Still, he did make some very interesting observations from the perspective of a twenty-something Kansan trying to make it in the big time.  The few blips of immature language and self-absorption aside, Shirley’s story is worth reading for any fan of sports who wonders what it’s like for the ones who just don’t quite make it. At any rate, it was an interesting account, and I managed to read it over the course of 24 hours, which brings me to the reason why I am bringing it up.

Being a journeyman teacher

I read most of Shirley’s memoir as I was “teaching” a computer class at a local high school. I placed “teaching” in quotation marks because, although I was being paid as a teacher for the day’s work, I’m not sure that I did much actual teaching that day. I gave the students their assignments, made sure that they did not watch offensive YouTube videos once they were finished, and read my book at the back of the class while I supervised. It’s not an uncommon experience when I get called in to teach, especially at the high school level, to function as little more than a warm body in the room or a babysitter. Even now, as I write this, I am sitting in a classroom of middle school students work as I “teach” them. Partway through that day of “teaching” and reading Shirley’s story yesterday, I realized that I actually identified with his experience and that I might best be considered a “journeyman teacher”. Allow me to explain.

I graduated from University seven years ago, and I have been working as a teacher since. In those seven years, I have spent just under four years as a teacher under contract at a school and the rest (just under three) as a teacher-on-call, a job title we use in BC that is much preferable to the long-used epithet “substitute”.  I have completed my first year at a school three times, and I have never had a full year at a school that has been without some form of transition. Including my work as a teacher-on-call, I have worked at over two dozen schools (perhaps closer to thirty) and in almost every grade and every subject at almost every level (save for Home Economics, Industrial Arts, and Second Languages other than French) along the way. If I’m not considered a “journeyman teacher”, then I don’t know who would qualify.

The challenges along the way

A number of topics arise repeatedly through Shirley’s journey, mostly relating to the challenges inherent in such a nomadic existence. The challenge of constantly changing teams and cities and the difficulty in adjusting to new environments all the time. The difficulty in having the same conversation with General Managers about how they appreciated him as a player but that they just could not offer him a spot and in not allowing his inner cynicism to escape. The constant threat and reality of impending rejection and what that did to his self-esteem and psyche in the midst of an emotional roller coaster. And, perhaps most significantly, the desire to actually do and enjoy the thing he wanted to do (ie to play basketball), despite the various impediments and detours along the way.

It should come as little surprise that several of those issues are very similar to the ones I have faced in my teaching career. Whereas Shirley (and other wannabe professional athletes) had the context of teams, coaches, and hundreds of thousands of dollars across different continents, my context is schools, principals, and hundreds of dollars in one local area, but I still feel the same kind of angst as what Shirley describes. The high mobility, the instability, the temporary nature of each position, the constant threat of rejection, the platitudes when that rejection inevitably arrives, and the overwhelming desire to just have someone validate me and to allow me to do what I have really wanted to do are all part of my existence as a teacher-on-call.  Like Shirley, I am constantly aware that each day might bring a new transition, and that the possibility of not being able to do what I want to do is always a day or two away. 

Glimmers of hope

Although he tends to be more cynical in the way he views himself and his chosen profession, Shirley's story is peppered with little anecdotes of encouraging events. Sometimes (like when he is in Siberia for almost two months), it seems like the little things are the only thing that keeps him going toward his dream. Like Shirley, I am able to take joy in the successes of what I do. Some days are really hard - particularly when I feel like I am not really being effective as a teacher that day, often due to circumstances beyond my control - but some days are really good. I have days when I am able to make meaningful relationships with a student, or I am able to teach a lesson in a way that works for me, or I see a student have an "aha!" moment because of the way I explained things in a 1-on-1 situation. I have those moments that remind me of what it's like to have a dream of being a teacher, and those are enough to get me through the day to the next one.

But the real question I have been working through in light of this discussion is whether I still actually have the dream of teaching. Sometimes I feel like a professional athlete whose window of opportunity has passed him by, and I wonder whether I will actually teach. There are days during which I cannot imagine continuing as a substitute, seasonal, or temporary teacher for much longer without having some more significant discouragement, and it is difficult to imagine that I could actually get a teaching job I want at a school that fits. I'm not questioning my ability or my drive to do so, but just more whether my time has passed and it might be time for me to do something else. I am inclined to believe that I have not accomplished what I had wanted to accomplish as a teacher, so I suspect that my teaching career is not finished yet. I think I just really want to have one really good experience in my teaching areas at a good school for a few years before I truly evaluate whether I am finished or not, as I just don't think I know enough right now to make that decision. I could also take a break from teaching and come back to it, I suppose, and it probably would not take me too long to get back into "teaching shape." Whatever path I take, I'm going to keep moving forward and hoping for the best with this teaching gig, and maybe I can get to move beyond being a journeyman teacher soon.


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