Saturday, October 29, 2016

Rider Reflections

Today marks the final game at Taylor Field after eighty years, and so a lot of people are sharing their #MosaicMemories. I prefer to use the term "Rider Reflections", since I don't want to give Mosaic the benefit of all of those years of Taylor Field - especially because Piffles Taylor was a total boss. Taylor had been a fighter pilot in WWI who had lost an eye and spent a year as a prisoner of war in a German camp before returning and playing professional football with a glass eye. (In one famous story, his eye popped out after a tackle in the middle of a game; Taylor found his eye, brushed it off, put it back in, and kept playing.)

I was twelve years old the first time I went to a game at Taylor Field. I'm fairly certain that it was a game against the Memphis Mad Dogs - one of the final five teams that were part of the CFL's shortlived American experiment that ended at the end of that season when the Baltimore Stallions won the Grey Cup at Taylor Field that November. The game was on Sunday, September 17, 1995, which was the only time that the Mad Dogs visited Taylor Field.

My grandfather worked for in advertising the Co-operators for years, and he would get tickets every so often through his work. He would take me and a couple of my uncles to a game when he did, but I only remember going to that game against the Mad Dogs and one other game. I know that I was at the game in which Don Narcisse caught a pass in his 138th consecutive game to break Tony Gabriel's record, but that may have been in that game against Memphis. (I tried to find the exact information about that game, but the internet was surprisingly unhelpful in that endeavour.)

I had the misfortune of having my formative years as a sports fan between the ages of 11 and 18 overlap with the second-worst stretch in Riders' history, as the team finished with six or fewer wins in six of seven seasons between 1995 and 2001. (The only worse stretch in Riders history, by the way, was the eleven season span between 1977 - the year after they lost the Grey Cup to Ottawa - and 1987, in which they finished no higher than 4th in the West, missed the playoffs every year, and finished .500 or better only twice.)

The lone exception in that stretch was the team's run to the Grey Cup in 1997, when Reggie Slack inexplicably led an 8-10 team to two road wins in the playoffs before getting creamed by the heavily-favoured Toronto Argonauts. I remember watching that game with detached bemusement, knowing that it was the very definition of a "we're glad just to be here" kind of game.

Then things started to change in the early aughts after the team hired Roy Shivers and Danny Barrett to run the team, and soon the team's trajectory shifted significantly away from poor coaches, bad teams, and telethons to save the Riders to becoming the pre-eminent franchise of the CFL. Oddly enough, I did not actually go to a game while I lived in Regina during my early university years from 2000-2003; then again, I was not a huge fan of the Riders in those days.

But the truth is that the Riders were not a huge part of my life until I was in my early twenties. I have vague memories of my family crowding into my grandfather's apartment during the 1989 Grey Cup when I was six years old; I was bored and was given a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to read. (And no, I'm not remember those details incorrectly; I actually could read Adams' books even at that age, even if I could not understand most of the nuance of the text.)

I do remember Paul McCallum missing the 18-yard field goal in overtime that would have sent the Riders to the Grey Cup in 2004, but I had nowhere near the emotional devastation of most fans, since I did not have much personal investment in the fortunes of the team. That memory, along with most of my memories of the Riders, was significant mostly as an incidental memory of something that was happening to my people in Saskatchewan, rather than an event that affected me directly.

That started to change in 2007. I went to the Labour Day Classic against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers that year - my first live regular season game in over a decade - and it was a doozy, with eight lead changes and this instantly classic touchdown by Kerry Joseph to win the game.


The Riders went on to win the Grey Cup that year over those Bombers, and little did I realize what the next few years would hold in terms of my fandom of the team. That Grey Cup did a lot to reignite my own love of the team - as it did for much of the province - but there was another factor for me: moving away from Saskatchewan for the first time.

After I moved out to Vancouver Island, my love of the Riders intensified instantly, as they now represented part of my home. I watched several games each year - something I had not really done when I lived in Saskatchewan - and I became known in my communities in Victoria for cheering for the green and white. I was not able to go to any games at Taylor Field - or Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field as it had come to be known - during my years away, but the Riders were now more of a presence in my life than they had ever been.

It was a great time to be a fan of the team. Despite losses in the 2009 and 2010 Grey Cups, including that "13th man" game, I thoroughly enjoyed wearing my Saskatchewan colours on game day in hostile territory - although, to be honest, I often saw more people wearing Riders gear than Lions gear, so it was not nearly as hostile as it could have been. Being a fan of the Riders was part of who I was, and it kept me connected to my home on the prairies.

But my most cherished memory of Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field, and of the Riders by far, was their win in the 101st Grey Cup in 2013. It would be the last time that I would watch the Riders win from afar, as I moved back to Saskatchewan the next year, not in small part due to that game. My wife and I had strongly considered finding a way to be back in Saskatchewan for that game even without having tickets to the Grey Cup, just so we could be there to celebrate when the team inevitably won. (I doubt, by the way, that there has ever been an outcome so guaranteed in sport as that game - unless you include that 1997 Grey Cup that the Riders lost.)

I remember that evening so clearly; we watched the game with close friends who, despite being Lions fans who had watched their team lose to the Riders only two weeks earlier, were wearing green and white to support us. I vividly remember tearing up during the national anthem, and having the distinct thought that these were our people as the cameras panned over the crowds throughout the game.

I remember our concern after Hamilton took an early lead, but it was shortlived, as the Riders soon not only took the lead but dominated the rest of the game. It was an incredible game, and an incredible moment - and though we were overjoyed to share it with our friends in BC, we were torn not to be at home with our people in Saskatchewan, filling into Albert Street in raucous celebration. It was a watershed moment in our journey back to the prairies, and although we did not make the final decision to move for another six months or so, I think our hearts were sealed that day.

I have made it out to a handful of games after moving back to Regina, including two Labour Day Classics, and although I have enjoyed the experience each time, the overall experience of being a Riders fan has not nearly been as much fun over the past two years. Since I moved back after Labour Day 2014, the Riders have had a record of 12-30, including one playoff loss, and they have only won one game of the four I attended (the 2015 Labour Day Classic). It has not been a great time to be a Rider fan, but I do have hope that the worst of it is behind us.

I am excited for the new stadium and for what it represents for the team and for this community. It has been a long time since Saskatchewan has worried about the financial fate of the team, and it will be a long time before that happens again. There is an argument to be made that New Mosaic is the best stadium in the league, and I am very much looking forward to watching football there - especially since the Riders should be better next season.

I will miss Taylor Field, though. It certainly had its detriments, especially if there was any kind of wind, rain, or snow, but it was an incredible place to watch football games. I watched games from each side of the stadium at some point and enjoyed every time. It was great to be a part of a loud crowd helping to cause time count violation penalties for the opposing team; it was even more fun to be a kid hearing the crowd shouting PG-13 words in unison at the referees after a bad call.

I'm sure that New Mosaic Stadium will have just as many great moments - if not more - than Taylor Field has, but I'm glad that I got to be a part of history over the past couple of decades. Thanks, Taylor Field, for the memories.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On Civic Participation

I did something today that I do not think I have ever done: I voted in a municipal election. (I may have done so once, but it was not memorable enough to warrant a prominent place in my neural network, so I'm sticking with my initial story.) My lack of civic electoral participation has been due mostly to relative transience over my voting years rather than an intentional avoidance of municipal politics, as I often found myself either just having moved to a community or just having left a community as the elections were taking place.

But even today, I feel like I did the least I could while still actually performing my civic duty. I knew very little about my municipality or my candidates, so I read their short biographies online before going in to the voting station. I was actually quite surprised at how much information it was possible to glean from such short summaries - mainly that, much like in reading a resume, any sign of poor grammar automatically discounts a candidate from any consideration on my part.

Even as I voted, I found myself  feeling like it was a bit of a useless exercise. Comma splices aside, it seemed like most of these people would be reasonable choices for their prospective positions. Most of the people running - aside from a couple of obviously eccentric oddballs - appear to be competent professionals who would be mostly interchangeable in their ability to complete the duties of their positions. But, at any rate, I contributed to the percentage of people who care, rather than the likely majority who will not take the time to vote today.

This whole municipal election campaign made me think about a couple of things. It made me try to recall when I was engaged in local politics at anything less than a provincial or federal level, and I was both surprised and not surprised to realize that it was when I was semi-active in the student politics scene when I was in university. I was part of the political scene through my connections in the student press and through a good friend of mine, and there were a couple of years in which I found myself much more connected on an immediate level. It seems like it was such a long time ago, yet I can also recall many of the moments peppered throughout those years, as well as several significant issues that came up in that time. Good times.

But perhaps more significantly, this campaign made me realize how unengaged I have been with my immediate community for most of my life. Sure' I've been part of different communities, especially in local churches, but my local involvement has rarely ever transcended beyond those boundaries - and so I find myself wondering why that is the case.

It's not as though I am uninterested or uninformed person; on the contrary, I would consider myself to be more politically interested and informed than most people I know. I think, returning to my initial reflection with which I began this post, that I mostly have not been involved in civic politics because I have barely been involved with my city.

It's much easier to engage with issues on a provincial or federal level, because they seem like they have a much more direct impact on my life, which I recognize seems ironic, considering that I live directly in a community. Then again, I'm not a home owner or a parent, so my places of interaction with issues like property taxes or schools are indirect and/or limited (other than employment by the school division, of course).

I found it interesting that I felt more engaged with the current civic election in my hometown of Saskatoon than in my current city, which is probably directly a product of having friends who have consistently posted on Facebook but also to the fact that I spent the first half of my life as well as several years of university living in that city. I know that community well, and I even knew some of the people running in this election, whereas I did not know anyone for whom I could vote in my current community.

It's not like I'm not involved in my community at all: I have connections from my time living here directly after high school; I have connections through my SaskGames community; and I have some connections through the churches we've been to or the schools at which I've worked. But most of those connections are not very deep or connected to the community at large. That is, of course, mostly a factor of the amount of time I have spent here; after all, it has been just over two years since I moved back, which is barely enough time to get to know the restaurants in a city, much less the intricacies of its local political scene.

I felt like I started to get a sense of being part of a community when I was living in Langford (a municipality in the Victoria area), but my connection to the community did not really start to sink in until I had been there for several years - and even then, much of my connection to my community was mediated either through our church or through friends who were involved in the community. I was never really directly connected to my community, as I never really felt the need to do so, since I was always preparing to transition and leave.

I have always had an end date on whatever school or job or ministry position I was in, and for the first time in my life, I have no end date on my current circumstances - a fact that has become even more clear in the past few months. So I find myself disconnected from my immediate community, but also aware of the fact that I may be here for a long time, and that may mean being more intentional about creating space to be involved in my community.

So, in light of this realization, I want this to be the last time that I feel this way toward my municipal election. I want to be more connected to my immediate circumstances and to put down roots here. I know that some of that process just happens with time, but I also know that I need to be more purposeful in cultivating my awareness of and participation in my immediate circumstances. I don't know what that will be; I just know that I want to be much more engaged the next time a municipal election comes around in a few years.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Blowin' in the Wind

My first reaction upon hearing the news last week that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was "huh" - surprise mixed with a sense of admiration and reservation of judgment. Sure, it was noteworthy, but was he actually worthy of the honour? I had friends of various levels of expertise in studying and teaching literature who weighed in on both sides of the argument on social media over the ensuing days, but I continued to reserve my own final opinion...until now.

I initially compared my reaction to the way in which I responded to Barack Obama's Peace Prize in 2009, but I don't think that comparison was quite accurate, since Obama had not (and I would argue still has not) "earned" it. I think Dylan's award is more like Al Gore's in 2007 - yeah, you could make arguments that it was deserved, but I'm still not sure it was the best choice.

Over the past week, I have had some time to consider my position, and I have found myself increasingly at odds with the pick of Dylan for several reasons. I do not think he was the best American author to choose; Dylan is a safe, canonically approved, anti-establishment choice for the establishment; and I think that there were more interesting and valid "out-of-the-box" picks.

On choosing an American


The Nobel committee, in considering authors from across the globe, have increasingly rarely acknowledged authors from any one particular country. It had been twenty-three years since the last time an American had won, so there was an increasing sense of inevitability that an American would be named to the prize in the near future. So let's make the first concession to our criteria - that the Nobel Prize was seeking to give the award to an American this year.

Dylan is the fourteenth American to be named by the committee to the prize. Here's the list of American Nobel laureates: Sinclair Lewis (1930); Eugene O'Neill (1936); Pearl Buck (1938); T.S. Eliot (1948); William Faulkner (1949); Ernest Hemingway (1954); John Steinbeck (1962); Saul Bellow (1976); Isaac Singer (1978); Czeslaw Milosz (1980); Joseph Brodsky (1987); Derek Walcott (1992); Toni Morrison (1993). I'm not sure that Bob Dylan belongs in that list, but

Let's just consider for a second the twentieth-century American authors who have not received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee does not give awards posthumously, which eliminates many possible authors who arguably should have been named as Laureates before they died: Maya Angelou; Truman Capote; Ralph Ellison; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Robert Frost; Harper Lee; Arthur Miller; Flannery O'Connor; J.D. Salinger; John Updike; Kurt Vonnegut; and Tennessee Williams, among many others.

There are a number of American authors who are often discussed as part of the conversation, much as Margaret Atwood is perennially in the conversation on behalf of Canada (though she is not likely to win as a result of fellow Canadian Alice Munro's win in 2013). Phillip Roth and Don DeLillo have been discussed as meaningful candidates for years, as has Cormac McCarthy. Even weird author Thomas Pynchon is occasionally mentioned as a candidate, and I would posit that Michael Chabon is not that far from having a body of work that could be considered.

I would argue that any of those former four - Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy, and Pynchon - would have been far superior choices to Dylan, and that Chabon would himself be in that conversation with another seminal work. My personal choice of those four would have been McCarthy, whose works have not only existed as literature, but which also have become vital expressions of American culture through film, as in 2007's Best Picture No Country For Old Men. Any of the other three would have been acceptable, but I think McCarthy would have been exceptional if they had to pick an American.

On the literary canon and establishment


Dylan is a "safe" anti-establishment choice, and that his selection actually reinforces the relative irrelevance of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despite Dylan's noted non-traditional stances and beliefs, he still represents a condoned anti-establishment, and it allows the Nobel committee to feel like they are being revolutionary when they really are not.

Imagine, for a moment, that the committee chosen an author from a visible American minority, possibly even an author who has been known for advancing queer literature. That would have been notable, just as Dylan being named Laureate would have been more significant if it happened closer to the original period in which he was originally writing.

Dylan has been accepted as part of the literary canon, and his selection does not really challenge any pre-conceived assumptions about literature. There is, after all, a long tradition of high school English teachers using Dylan's work in their classes - even in movies like Dangerous Minds - though I'm not sure that any system that features The Hunger Games as a recommended novel should be acknowledged as a source of any form of canonical validation. (I just committed a logical fallacy, I know, but I stick by my point as one of those English teachers - although I refuse to teach The Hunger Games. But I digress.)

Furthermore, although Dylan is singular as a figure in music, that there are other figures who are arguably equally as singular and as poetic and as canonically accepted in their body of work: Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Elton John, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, among others.

You could argue that, as many have, that Dylan is a step up from the rest, but I don't think that he represents that much of a step up that he should be singled out as a Nobel Laureate for his "contributions to American songwriting". Then again, I am willing to admit that I have not really been personally connected or impacted by Dylan's music, so I might not be as disposed to be as sympathetic to his cause, regardless of how objective I am trying to be.

On redefining "literature"


It seems, through Dylan's selection, that the committee is trying to make a statement about the expanding nature of what could (and apparently should) be considered as "literature" in terms of form, so let's go down this rabbit hole. The award has traditionally been given to novelists, essayists, playwrights, and poets, but never a songwriter, so this was outside the box - but I would argue that it's not the most interesting way to leave the box.

Consider, for a moment, that there has never been a true "genre" writer who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. All of the winners have been accepted as part of the mainstream canon, and there are many genres - horror, science fiction, and fantasy, chiefly - that have not received much, if any, attention from the committee over the years.

The committee missed the opportunity to award many of the greatest science fiction and fantasy authors who have passed away, including (but not limited to): Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick; Robert Heinlein, Aldous Huxley, and J.R.R. Tolkien. But I would argue that there are some intriguing possible candidates who are at least worthy of discussion.

I'll start with the most out-of-the-box idea: Stephen King. Sure, it seems odd to consider Stephen King as a Nobel Laureate, but why not? If you do not closely consider his writing style, which is occasionally somewhat stunted and awkward, so much as you consider how he has not only inspired an entire genre but been one of the most significant bridges between popular culture and literary tradition, he could make sense as a Laureate.

Or perhaps you might consider another odd choice in English author Alan Moore, who has been responsible for many of the top graphic novels of the past thirty years: Batman: The Killing Joke; V For Vendetta; From Hell; and Watchmen, which was named one of Time Magazine's Top 100 novels published between 1923 and 2005. Moore redefined comics and essentially created a new type of literature that combined visuals and text.

There are some who would make a case for George R.R. Martin (I'm not sure I'm one of them, but there are many), but there are other future possible candidates within the world of sci-fi/fantasy like Neil Gaiman, or the author who I think should have been named Laureate this year: Ursula K. LeGuin.

LeGuin is an American woman who has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards over a five-decade career and who has often been named one of America's best novelists. She has written several seminal novels, including A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, and she has represented a voice for women and an exploration of alternative viewpoints throughout her body of work.

LeGuin's selection would have been significant as only the fifteenth women of 109 Laureates, and
although there has been some attempts to equalize the gap in the past twenty-five years, there is still a long way to go. LeGuin being a Laureate would also be a message that would serve to disarm much of the current "alt-right" movement in sci-fi that has tried to take over the Hugo Awards in recent years, and while I acknowledge that it is not the Nobel Committee's job to do so, I would have liked to see it happen.

Whether you agree with the candidates listed here - and I'm not even sure that I agree with King or Moore as more than a hypothetical piece in an argument - the point is that there could have been other ways that the Nobel Committee would have expanded the definition of literature.

Conclusion


Maybe this is all just a lot of words about something that ultimately does not really matter - kind of like the Academy Awards or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's a fairly arbitrary honour chosen by a select few that has significance because it's significant and not necessarily because it reflects reality. This is not the first Nobel Prize to be contentious, it will not be the last, and it is nowhere near the most contested.

I suppose I can be okay with Bob Dylan being a Nobel Laureate. I would still prefer that the award had been given to someone else like McCarthy or LeGuin, but I can consent that Dylan is not the worst possible choice that the Committee could have made. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but I think it's as far as I can go at this point. I see enough reasons that the committee could  and should have chosen someone else that I just cannot fully support Bob Dylan being a Nobel Laureate. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Welcome to my nightmare

It's not every day that you get to cross an item off your bucket list and see a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer live in concert, but I did just that yesterday when I saw Alice Cooper live for the first time. My dad has been a huge fan of Cooper's for longer than I have been alive, and it has long been a goal of ours to finally see the Godfather of Shock Rock together, so when it was announced in April that Alice would be coming through my hometown, it was a no-brainer that we would be in attendance.

The show itself was an incredible spectacle, as would be expected of the famously theatrical Cooper. Even though he is 68 years old and has been touring and making music for fifty years, Cooper still retains much of the theatrical sense that has characterized his career since the late 1960s. He made several costume changes - including a ringmaster, mad scientist, insane asylum patient, and 80s power rocker - and he included the classic beheading by guillotine as part of his routine.

But all of the theatrics of the show would mean nothing without the music. Cooper has a long list of massive hits, and he did not disappoint in delivering them. Cooper started off with classic rock staples"No More Mr. Nice Guy" and "Under My Wheels", later played mid-career hits "Poison" and "Feed My Frankenstein", and finished off with "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out", during which he interspersed snippets of the thematically (and apparently musically) similar "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" by Pink Floyd.

With that much music in his back catalog, Cooper also has a lot of deep cuts and concert favourites, and he did not disappoint on that front, either. "Cold Ethyl", Halo of Flies", and "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" all made the cut, among others, and my dad, who had seen Alice thrice previously, proclaimed that it was his favourite Alice show - in part due to the fact that the latter two of those songs rank among his favourites and he had seen neither live before. The show's encore was another Cooper deep cut classic, "Elected", which he opts to perform every election cycle, and which took on some extra significance in this current electoral climate (more on that later).

One of my favourite parts of this particular show came directly before the two final songs of the set, after Vincent Price's disembodied voice asks Alice if he wants to raise the dead. A large black sheetdropped from the back of the stage, revealing a 20-foot high banner resembling a tombstone with the name and birth and death dates of The Who's Keith Moon as the band played the opening chords of "Pinball Wizard". After the closing chords, another black sheet dropped to reveal David Bowie's name as the band started his classic tune "Suffragette City"; after that song finished, the final banner was revealed with Lemmy Kilmister's name as the guitarists ripped into Motorhead's "Ace of Spades".

As a fan, I was entirely satisfied with the show, and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. I finally saw Alice Cooper, and I got to experience it with my dad. But even as I was enjoying the show for what it was - an entertaining rock show by a living legend - I could not help but consider some of the external factors raised by the show, particularly the current state of rock music, misogyny and rape culture, and the American election. After all, Alice is himself known for his erudite perspectives on issues, so it did not seem out of character to have some significant thoughts even as I rocked out.


The current state of rock music


One thing that struck me as interesting was the way in which rock has become commodified and cultural rather than counter-cultural as it was when Alice started. It is interesting to see the embodiment of the transition in rock music through the filter of Cooper, who was one of the leading anti-authority voices in rock music - as well as one of the most vilified figures in pop culture by morality advocates - for most of the 70s. Now, he performs many of those same songs in front of families, and his particular brand of theatrical rock is considered to be tame.

It has long been lamented that rock has been supplanted by rap as the counter-cultural force, and it's hard not to see it as true in many ways: creatively, sociologically, even politically. It does not seem as though there is much of a force in rock to work against the culture, and the fact that even someone like Alice Cooper has become part of the accepted establishment indicates that rock has lost almost any claim to being counter-culture.

It's not really as though this is anything new, as the narrative of rock becoming the soccer dad of the music world has been advanced since the 1980s - perhaps save for the exception of Nirvana and to some extent grunge in the early 1990s and Marilyn Manson, the heir apparent to Cooper, in the late 1990s. Cooper himself has commented on the sterilization of rock over the years - most recently in Paste magazine - but he still, of course, seems to believe in some fundamental level that rock can and does somehow make a difference.

His current rebellion - and arguably that of many of his peers who are still performing - is not against the machine, but against age and irrelevance; to his credit, he seems to be winning, unlike rock music in general. Sure, there are pockets within rock who are maintaining some form of defiance to the norm - Jack White comes to mind as an example in terms of form - but rock just ain't what it used to be. It does not mean that it does not have the same level of enjoyment; it's just not the sociological phenomenon it once was.


On misogyny and rape culture


Another fascinating facet of Cooper's career that I considered as I was watching him play last night was the commentary on misogyny and rape culture that Cooper has cultivated since his early days. Songs like "Only Women Bleed" - a commentary on abusive marriages - seem on the surface to perhaps be endorsing misogynistic behaviour, but Alice has always maintained that, like much of the rest of his show, his songs have much deeper meanings that often contrast with their superficial interpretation. Even songs like "Feed My Frankenstein", which was made famous by Wayne's World and contains the chorus "feed my libido; he's a psycho", actually serves as a satire of rape culture by lampooning the ridiculous claim that it is impossible for men to control their urges.

Of course, the challenge is that Alice presents these songs in his show as rock hits, and it seems that a lot of the intended nuance and social criticism is not (and arguably cannot be) correctly interpreted in the midst of the spectacle of this kind of rock concert. "Feed My Frankenstein" loses its meaning when paired with guitar solos, a mad scientist table, pyrotechnics, a smoke machine, and a 10-foot-tall manifestation of Shelley's monster emerging at the end of the song.

This begs the question of whether art should be criticized for how it is received, regardless of how it is intended, and whether it is actually Cooper's fault if people misinterpret his songs. Behind the scenes and even onstage, Cooper is known for his empowerment of women, and he has been married to his wife Sheryl for forty years, with the only turbulent time in their marriage when Alice struggled (again) with alcoholism in the early 1980s. Alice features women in meaningful ways in his show, including his current incredibly talented guitarist Nita Strauss and his daughter, Calico, who portrays several female characters, including a fascinating modern dance piece during "Only Women Bleed".

I tend to find myself troubled in the midst of the juxtaposition between the show and the substance. On the one hand, these songs are legitimate criticisms of male dominance and rape culture; on the other hand, I don't think most of the people there either recognize that fact or care about it if they did. Rock music can - and I would argue should - serve as social commentary, but it can also be the perpetuator of stereotypes - sometimes even simultaneously. Rock is neither "just music" or "just a show" or entirely something deeper; it's somewhere in the middle, and it's awkward and unsettling either way if you're willing (and able) to think about it.

It is, of course, fascinating to think about this issue of Cooper's commentary on women and rape culture in the midst of all of the fallout from the scandal of Donald Trump's sexist video with Billy Bush, particularly in the wake of the non-ironic and abhorrent "repealthe19th" hashtag that circulated yesterday among Trump supporters responding to the revelation from fivethirtyeight.com that Trump would be dominating the election if women were not allowed to vote.

It's hard not to see that many of Trump's supporters are the same people who think that "Feed My Frankenstein" is a justification for how they treat women, and it's also difficult not to blame Cooper (and many others) for their part in perpetuating that culture, regardless of their intentions. I tend to remain conflicted and aware of the problems herein, and I am certainly committed to continuing to explore the dialogue that Cooper has begun with his songwriting, as he also seems to be, which seems to be more than can be said for Trump.

On the election


The mention of Trump's misogyny brings me, perhaps inevitably, to the third consideration I had during the show - the one that seems to colour most of my waking life nowadays - the American election, which is thankfully fewer than four weeks away. Cooper, who has remained mostly apolitical over the years, commented recently on this election in Rolling Stone, calling it "demented" and "funny in a Kurt Vonnegut kind of way", which might be one of the better descriptors I have heard about the election.

Cooper has capitalized on the nature of this particular election not only by performing his song "Elected", which was originally written in 1972 during Nixon's re-election campaign, but also by announcing his own tongue-in-cheek candidacy for the Oval Office and using the branding on his merchandise.

But beyond the direct ties to the election, I was also thinking about the bigger picture - particularly how Cooper does not pretend to be something he's not. He's a rock star and an avid golfer, not a politician or a pundit, and he does not pretend to be anything other than an entertainer. In that RS article, he comments on the ridiculousness of how fans consult him about their vote, as if he had any more insight than they did; he responds that he probably has less insight as a rock star than they do.

In that light, I was thinking about Trump, who is just under two years older than Cooper. Trump has spent the last year of his life attempting to convince people that he is something he's not - a statesman, a politician, civilized, respectful of women, etc. - while using the tactics of theatrics and spectacle in a field that is (in retrospect clearly) ill-equipped to accommodate an outsider. The fact that Trump has been able to hijack the process and to get this far remains testament to how much the political arena - particularly the Republican Party - was primed for this kind of hostile takeover.

Trump has continued emphasize the fact that he is not a Washington insider or experienced in politics in any way as an appeal to his candidacy; Cooper (rightfully) asserts that his own inexperience and choice of profession would clearly disqualify him from holding any sort of public office. I would argue that their respective life experiences make them both equally unqualified to hold office, yet here we are in the midst of the most ridiculous presidential election imaginable with a spectacularly unprepared candidate lurking over the proceedings, much as he lurked over his opponent's shoulder in the Town Hall Debate.

The difference between Cooper and Trump - other than the fact that Cooper generally seems to be a decent person who plays a character onstage to choose to examine some of the depravity of humanity, as opposed to Trump, who is a seemingly indecent person who attempts to manufacture a positive portrayal of his character in spite of his depravity - is that Cooper is an entertainer, and he is leaving his work where it belongs, which is onstage. It is amazing to see him still rocking out after all this time, and I did not feel shortchanged at all by what I saw; he put on an incredible show, and it satisfied everything I wanted to see in an Alice Cooper concert.

Alice Cooper's first solo album in 1975 was entitled Welcome To My Nightmare, which in many ways could also be a subtitle for this election. It has been a waking nightmare, and the levels of depravity and ineffectiveness of the political system that have been exposed in the past year are mind-boggling at best and fundamentally deeply disturbing. I just know that I, along with the rest of North America and the world, will be happy when "our long national nightmare is over".

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Community 201: Advanced Character Development

Community really hit its stride in Season 2. The show had spent 80% of the first season figuring out the characters before the last five episodes really took off, and the show returned at that high frequency right away. The show took a lot of risks in the second season with format and with content, but they paid off with what I consider to be the show's best set of episodes.

Main character power rankings


Since most of the main characters were well-established, the writers and actors were really able to start playing around with how they would respond in different situations. They moved into much more nuanced territory, and the show was much richer for it. This is how I would rank the main characters after Season 2.

9. Dean Pelton (+0) - The show started to figure out how to use the dean this season, and by the end of the season, he was a "good dean". It was still not quite enough to pull him out of last, but that will come.

8. Britta Perry (-4) - She really is "the AT and T of people". Britta became a much more flat character in Season 2, but most of her drop in the rankings is due to how the other characters improved.

7. Pierce Hawthorne (-2) - Pierce's story line went from lovable buffoon to outright villain, and I'm not sure the change was fully justified. Still, his role in Dungeons and Dragons and then his "bequeathings" were duly hilarious.

6. Ben Chang (-3) - Chang was reduced to a student, but that just allowed the writers to have him around more for yelling random things ("Snap!"). He might not have made it into the study group, but he was memorable, if a bit mentally unhinged.

5. Jeff Winger (-4) - Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Winger went from the de facto narrator of the show to a semi-outsider and even a villain at some points, and in the process he lost a lot of the sensitive side that endeared us to him in Season 1.

4. Shirley Bennett (+4) - The writers figured out how to use Shirley as a sarcastic commentary right away, and she has at least one line an episode that was utterly hilarious. The whole Chang baby storyline was a little forced, but she definitely did the best she could with it.

3. Troy Barnes (+3) - Troy moved away from being a jock to becoming a man, and the inner conflict between his past and his present nerdery proved to be one of the season's more interesting underlying plot lines.

2. Annie Edison (+6) - Abed commented during paintball that "She's kind of awesome today"; truer words may never have been spoken. Annie went from a stereotype to a comic force, and her freakout over her pen ensured that we would never look past Annie again.

1. Abed Nadir (+1) - Abed took over his rightful place as the show's best character early in Season 2, and he did not relinquish his title. Aside from his Christmas episode and a couple of other blips, Abed actually became one of the group's more grounded members, and he was the most consistenly entertaining.

Romantic Encounter Power Rankings


7. Troy (Random girl in "Anthropology 101", Mariah the librarian) - Not much happening for Troy this season.

6. Annie (Jeff, Rich, Abed as Han) - The show dispelled the silliness of the "will they or won't they" tension between Annie and Jeff by mocking it in "Paradigms of Human Memory". Then she had an unrequited crush on Rich, and her only "real" kiss was when Abed was playacting as Han Solo during the paintball game. Rough romantic year for Annie.

5. Abed (Mariah the librarian, Special Agent Vohlers) - Abed gets points for his unique relationship with a secret service agent.

4. Pierce (The Tiny Man from his drug hallucinations, Wu Mei) - Pierce did get engaged, even if it was a brief farce, so that bumps him up the rankings.

3. Jeff (Annie, "Gwynnifer", Quendra, Britta) - Most of Jeff's romantic encounters were unrequited (Annie) or off-screen - at least until his ongoing secret series of trysts with Britta was revealed by Abed.

2. Britta (Markus, Paige, Lukka, Jeff) - Is anyone else weirded out that Britta had the most romantic interests this year? Of course, one was her nephew, one was a straight woman who thought she was a lesbian, one was responsible for genocide in the Balkans, and the other was Jeff, so she kind of Britta'd it anyway.

1. Shirley (Chang, Andre) - Shirley's two relationships formed much of the story arc for the second half of the season; besides, she didn't remember her encounter with Chang, so that's a double win.

Supporting character power rankings


With the primary characters well-established by Season 2, it gave the show a chance to really begin to explore the many different personalities that populated the background of Greendale. I was quite surprised, actually, that many of these major players did not appear until near the end of Season 2, but several of them made an immediate impression.

NR: Officer Cackowski, Male Nurse Jackie, Quendra, Alan, Dean Spreck

10. Pavel - "I get mad cold, bros!"

9. Rich - "I thought I was spesssshullll..."

8. Andre - Shirley's ex-husband returns with a great sweater.

7. "Annie's Boobs" - "Monkey got my spoon."

6. Vicki - "Vickiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!"

5. Garrett -"It's like God spilled a person."

4. Fat Neil - The hero of Dungeons and Dragons.

3. Starburns - Another victim of the (political) system.

2. Leonard - "Let's go kick some taint!"

1. Magnitude - "Pop pop!"

Professor power rankings


There were not many professors this season, but the ones they did have were memorable. Here are the rankings for the season:

4. Professor Sheffield ("Competitive Wine Tasting") - Abed showed him who was the real boss.

3. Professor June Bauer ("Anthropology 101" and others) - From drinking her own urine to making a super weapon out of tools to rapping with Troy and Abed to speculating on the ending of Inception with Stone Age tribes, Professor Bauer was one of the best.

2. Professor Sean Garrity ("Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design", "Competitive Wine Tasting") - From Professor Professorson to showing Troy the pain of having no pain, theater professor Sean Garrity was the best new professor of the season.

1. Professor Ian Duncan ("The Psychology of Letting Go", "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples", "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas", "Early 21st Century Romanticism", and others) - We need more Duncan? Let's put him in teaching Anthropology. Brilliant.

Overall Professor power rankings:

10. Doctora Escodera (S1)
9. Admiral Slaughter (S1)
8. Coach Bogner (S1)
7. Professor Holly (S1)
6. Professor Michelle Slater (S1)
5. Professor Sheffield (S2)
4. Professor June Bauer (S2)
3. Professor Whitman (S1)
2. Professor Sean Garrity (S2)
1. Professor Ian Duncan (S1-2)

Best end tags


Since many of Troy and Abed's best moments came in the end tags, I decided to replace their category with this one to open it up past the two of them. Here are my five faves from Season 2.

5. Abed enters cartoon reality ("Accounting for Lawyers") - Troy believed...for a second.

4. Anthropology Rap ("Anthropology 101") - It repeated the first real viral moment of the first season and added Betty White.

3. "Fiddler, Please!" ("Competitive Wine Tasting") - "It's hard to be Jewish in Russia!"

2. Troy and LeVar Burton ("Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking") - "More fish for Kunta.

1. Puppy parade ("Cooperative Calligraphy") - Was there any doubt?

Best meta-moments and cameos


Community became even more "meta" in Season 2. Here are my favourites, along with a few honourable mentions.

HM: Abed's film ("Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples") and documentary ("Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"); Abed finds the meaning of Christmas ("Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"). While "meta" within the context of the show, I think the other listed episodes do a better job of commenting on the show and the sitcom form itself.

5. Abed tries to force a wedding on Jeff and Britta ("Anthropology 101") - In response to all of the drama from the Tranny Dance, Abed tries to up the stakes for "Season 2" using classic TV tropes, causing all of the group's drama to come spilling out.

4. Troy and Abed's election coverage ("Introduction to Student Politics") - The ticker at the bottom of the page is brilliant.

3. The bottle episode ("Cooperative Calligraphy") - I sure didn't know the term "bottle episode" before this, but I sure did afterward.

2. Abed becomes "Chad" on Cougar Town ("Critical Film Studies") - Not only does the episode itself serve as homage, but Abed tells the story of becoming Chad on Cougar Town before the actor who played Danny Pudi appeared on CT later in that season.

1. "Six seasons and a movie!" ("Paradigms of Human Memory") - As if the brilliance of running a clip show of scenes that were not in the actual show were not enough, Community adopted Abed's mantra about The Cape as its ultimately unexpectedly prescient hashtag for the remainder of its run...as long as the movie gets made at some point.

Best homages


The homages this season might have been the best of any season of Community. I had to expand my Top 5 to a Top 6, and then I still had three more honorable mentions beyond that.

HM: Mean Girls ("Aerodynamics of Gender"); The Right Stuff ("Basic Rocket Science"); The Lord of the Rings ("Anthropology 101", "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons")

5. My Dinner with Andre / Pulp Fiction ("Critical Film Studies") - Abed's birthday party works in two homages simultaneously and seamlessly.

4. Mockumentary sitcoms (The Office, Parks and Recreation) ("Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking") - Brilliant.

3. Those Claymation Christmas specials ("Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas") - Capturing the look and feel of those classics was impressive.

2b. Star Wars ("For a Few Paintballs More") - Complete with Abed as Han.

2a. Spaghetti Westerns ("A Fistful of Paintballs") - So many classic tropes.

1. Zombie movies ("Epidemiology") - Maybe the best homage of the show, period.

Favourite moments

  • Annie chloroforms a dude. ("Accounting for Lawyers")
  • Abed delivers a baby in the background ("The Psychology of Letting Go")
  • All of Shirley's sarcastic asides, especially in the first few episodes - "I'll make your ass sense."
  • The KFC space simulator ("Basic Rocket Science")
  • Troy and Abed's Halloween costume (Ripley and the Xenomorph from Aliens) ("Epidemiology")
  • The puppy parade ("Cooperative Calligraphy")
  • The original blanket fort ("Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design")
  • The twist ending(s) to Jeff's Conspiracy Theory class - "You can't conspire with everyone! Then it's just doing random crap!" ("Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design")
  • Annie as Caroline Decker from Corpus Christie ("Mixology Certification")
  • "Kettle corn! That's a fun-time snack!" ("Asian Population Studies")
  • Chang as Brutalitops ("Advanced Dungeons and Dragons")
  • "You selfish jaded ass!" - Britta defends BNL to Jeff ("Early 21st Century Romanticism")
  • "You can't disappoint a picture!" - Troy on meeting LeVar Burton ("Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking")
  • Everything about Troy and Abed's commentary on the student election ("Intro to Political Science")
  • Jeff's audition tape for The Real World ("Intro to Political Science")
  • Abed's Pulp Fiction birthday party ("Critical Film Studies")
  • "My emotions. MY EMOTIONS!" - Troy in acting class ("Competitive Wine Tasting")
  • Abed proves that Angela is the boss ("Competitive Wine Tasting")
  • "Six seasons and a movie!" ("Paradigms of Human Memory")
  • Paintball ("A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For A Few Paintballs More")

Best episodes


The show really hit a groove in this season, so I felt the need to increase my Top 5 episodes to a Top 10 just to squeeze them all in - and even then I still had to do Honorable Mentions. Fully half of the season's episodes are included here, and I think most of these would be in the Pantheon of best episodes of the series.

HM: "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design"; "Cooperative Calligraphy";

10. "Critical Film Studies" - My Dinner with Andre meets Pulp Fiction meets Cougar Town. Somehow it works.

9. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" - Abed takes a journey into a magical Claymation Christmas wonderland.

8. "Basic Rocket Science" - The study group simulates going into space with some product placement help from the Colonel.

7. "Intro to Political Science" - Greendale holds a student election.

6. "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" - Abed films Pierce's bequeathings.

5. "Paradigms of Human Memory" - The clip show of clips that weren't in the show.

4. "For A Few Paintballs More" - Greendale fights back against the evil Empire of City College.

3. "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" - Jeff and company play D&D

2. "A Fistful of Paintballs" - Paintball gets the Western treatment.

1. "Epidemiology" - A zombie movie in 22 minutes.

Final Thoughts


Season 2 of Community has always been my favorite, and I think it will still likely end up that way after I finish the series. I think it had the best balance of character development, meta-commentary, and situational comedy, and I routinely return to it first. There are no episodes that miss out entirely, and even the lower-ranked episodes are still better than most of the rest of the series. If Season 1 showed what the show could be, Season 2 showed what it was, and this season is largely my reason for ranking Community as my favourite comedy of all-time.

Monday, October 03, 2016

In or Out?: 2016 Awards Season Edition

It's official: we have now entered the beginning of awards season. People are already asking me about whether there are any good movies coming out this fall and what might be this year's Oscar favourites; I suppose that a dozen years of publicly prognosticating the awards may have lent me a bit of screen cred in this area.

Many of this year's potential Oscar movies have already screened thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival, and there are already prospective lists around the internet based on possible (and perhaps probable) outcomes. Of course, at this point, everything is speculative, considering that there is a confluence of commercial, critical, and academy reception that has to all come together in order for a movie to be successful in its quest for nomination - and then there is all of the internal campaigning that has to go exactly right at the right time in the right way with the right people.

Kyle Buchanan of Vulture - one of my favourite Oscar prognosticators - has already started writing pieces about the nature of this year's uncertain awards season, and more recently about what has started to happen to start having the race take shape. He actually posted his first Oscar Futures column of the season last Friday as I was starting to write this post, so it seems that I have already internalized the timing of awards season.

The one thing that most commentators seem to agree on - other than the relatively uninspiring slate of possible nominees - is that this race is wide open in a way that rarely seems to happen; of course, there is the distinct possibility that it could (and will?) end up being just as predictable and tedious as almost any other year, but this is a little late in the year for things to be so wide open.

Storylines of this awards season


There are a number of really intriguing storylines that will feature as part of this year's awards race over the next six months. I think the dominant story will be the carryover from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of the past two years, and the question of whether the outcry over the lack of diversity among nominees in recent memory - as well as the changes that have been made to the membership of the Academy as a result - will actually result in changes in the nominations. There are a number of movies featuring diverse themes, settings, and actors, so it seems likely that this year will feature several non-white nominees, but this season will be a significant test of the Academy's character.

One of those movies is Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, which was initially christened as the frontrunner for this year after Fox Searchlight (one of the most successful studios in the Oscars over the past dozen years) purchased the distribution rights for $17.5 million at Sundance. The movie is itself now the subject of controversy and intense scrutiny as a result of the revelation of rape accusations toward director, writer, and star Nate Parker in college.

Parker was not found guilty, but his current co-writer was, and Parker has had some difficulty in approaching the subject in public comments, particularly as he just recently discovered that the woman involved committed suicide afterward. The entire issue has raised some very interesting questions not only about race but about the rape culture of Hollywood, and there are some very valid concerns raised on several sides of the issue about the validation of the film - which also features violence toward women as a theme - by watching it or nominating it for major awards.

There are some other interesting ramifications of this year's awards, as well, though none are nearly as significant as the issues of race or rape: the increasing separation of blockbuster culture from Academy recognition; the continued rise of hard science fiction as a critically validated genre; and the recognition of truly independent films (as opposed to those greenlit through the studio's independent system). Some of these issues and trends arise every few years, it seems, but it does seem as though there is an interesting confluence this year, which may make up for the somewhat snoozy class of films that are in the running.

The films in the conversation


From my initial survey of a number of the Oscar-tracking sites, I was able to come up with a list of thirty-four films that are "in the conversation" for major nominations at this point. I did not include animated films unless they would be expected to be in the running for awards other than Best Animated Film, and I chose not to focus on the technical categories either.

Of course, it is quite likely that a number of - if not a majority of - these movies will not receive the critical or commercial appreciation necessary in order to secure nominations (or even a nomination), so the final list will likely include around ten films that receive multiple nominations and another ten or so that split up the remaining nominations - usually a couple of writing nominations and a few acting nominations - amongst them.

Chances are good, if the last few years are any indication, that at least one major nominee has already been widely released, and that even though most of the eventual nominees have already been screened, there will be at least one nominee that comes as a significant surprise to the community at large due to a late surge in campaigning.

I have taken the full list of 34 films - there may, of course, be more or fewer as the season goes on, but for now there are that many to start - and categorized it according to its buzz and expectations using boxing categories  - flyweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, and heavyweight; the higher the class, the more likely it will feature prominently in the conversation for more major categories.

For each film, I have provided the release date (wide, if possible), the director, a very brief description of the film, and in some cases some thoughts on the film's possibilities for nominations. Then I will deliver my verdict for my personal prospects of viewing the film: in or out, giving reasoning and/or degree of interest when possible.

Flyweight


These are smaller, mostly independent films that might contend for an acting award or maybe writing if they do well. Several of these movies have at least one strong candidate already working the circuit, but they are the kinds of movies that will come and go very quickly in the public consciousness.

20th Century Women (Dec. 25) - A comedy-drama that has mainly gained interest due to Annette Bening's presence and possible nomination. Director Mike Mills was responsible for the surprisingly entertaining Beginners in 2010, so it might be worth watching. It might be the kind of movie I would watch on Netflix sometime, so I'll call myself out.

American Pastoral (Oct. 21) - A crime film based on a Philip Roth novel with a mild Oscar pedigree. Ewan McGregor is getting some attention, and he might get his first nomination. Unless this breaks out big at the box office, which is not likely (though not impossible), I don't see it really contending. I will reserve final judgement until it's released, but for now I'm out.

Elle (Nov. 21) - This French film from director Paul Verhoeven got a lot of attention at Cannes, and it figures to be part of the race for Best Foreign Film. It has a hot-button topic - rape - and the possibility of a redemption narrative for Verhoeven, the director of cheesy late 80s science fiction and Showgirls, among other poorly critically received films. It doesn't really seem like my thing at all, so I'm easily out.

Hacksaw Ridge (Nov. 4) - Most of the attention toward this WWII movie is about Andrew Garfield's performance and the fact that Mel Gibson directed it. I'm probably out.

LBJ (TBD) - The Oscars have a history of rewarding scene-chewing performances in historical dramas (see Bryan Cranston in last year's Trumbo), but they have an equal history of ignoring them if they do not work (say, Bill Murray as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson). Harrelson might garner some attention as LBJ, but either way, I'm probably out.

Maggie's Plan (May 20) - Comedy-dramas about relationships and broken and blended families occasionally break out, but they usually have a far higher pedigree than this, and there's usually at most one per year. This seems like more of a contender for the Independent Spirit Awards and the snub lists for hipster critics who are trying to go beyond the most obvious snubs. Out.

Lightweight


These are higher profile films that have a somewhat outside shot at an awards run. They're not that likely, but they make their presence felt in the conversation by releasing during the season rather than earlier in the year.

A Monster Calls (Dec. 23) - This hybrid of real-life drama and fantasy looks fascinating, but the Academy does not have a track record of rewarding these kinds of movies in the past (Big Fish, Pan's Labyrinth). I doubt the Academy will go for it, but I'm in.

Bleed For This (Nov. 4) - The Oscars have a mixed history regarding boxing films, but it has been a few years since one has gained the widespread attention of the Academy (The Fighter in 2010), so we might be due, especially after the mostly-snub of Creed last year. This one looks to check off a lot of the boxes - based on a true story, themes of disability, a possible redemption/young star narrative for Miles Teller, a supporting actor in Aaron Eckhart who seems like he could be due for a breakthrough - but it all depends on whether the movie actually delivers or not. Count me in.

Nocturnal Animals (Nov. 18) - Psychological thrillers rarely seem to get noticed by the Academy, so I don't really expect this one to be any different. It might get some attention for some performances, and some of that attention may also be diverted to performances other films (like star Amy Adams in Arrival), so I doubt there will be much here to see. Out.

Miss Sloane (Dec. 9) - The pedigree here comes mostly from lead Jessica Chastain and from the topic of gun control. It could be interesting, but political thrillers tend not to be nominated. As for me, I am probably out.

Rules Don't Apply (Nov. 23) - The main draw here is Warren Beatty's return to the screen and behind the camera for the first time in almost two decades as Howard Hughes. If this hits, it could become a major player. As for me, I'm out.

Welterweight


I needed a category between lightweight and middleweight, particularly for movies that seem like there is not a clear path to the Oscars. I think these films will hit big or not at all, but each have several points of consideration.

Allied (Nov. 23) - Robert Zemeckis directs this thriller / romance about two assassins (Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) who fall in love on their mission to kill a German official during World War II. Zemeckis has not had much awards success in the past fifteen years since Cast Away, other than some attention to Flight a few years ago, but he still has enough collateral respect from Forrest Gump that his movies get at least a bit of attention come awards season. I'm probably out, but I could be convinced to be in if it gets some buzz.

Collateral Beauty (Dec. 16) - Another intense interpersonal film that relies heavily on the Oscar pedigree of its actors (Will Smith, Kiera Knightley, Helen Mirren) for its buzz. It could garner some attention, but likely not mine - I'm out.

Gold (Dec. 25) - Writer-director Stephen Gaghan's first film in over a decade has Matthew McConaughey starring as an adventurer in Borneo. It's not the usual Oscar fare, but Gaghan's resume of Traffic and Syriana, along with the McConnaissance, is getting some buzz, and I'm getting a Blood Diamond kind of vibe myself. I'm not sure if Oscar will dig it, but I'm in.

Hell or High Water (Aug. 12) - This western crime-heist film has gotten a lot of good reviews over the past month, so it's definitely in the conversation. It has been a few years since a western has gotten attention from the Academy, and writer Taylor Sheridan was unjustly ignored for Sicario last year, so this might get some attention this year. Either way, I'm in.

Jackie (Dec. 2) - It seems probable that Natalie Portman will be nominated for her portrayal of Jackie O. in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, but a lot more will have to line up for this movie to get anything more than that one nomination. As for me, I'm out.

The Jungle Book (April 15) - I was initially surprised to see this movie on some of the lists, but it makes some sense for it to be here. It made a lot of money as a huge worldwide hit, it is based on a well-loved property, and it got mostly positive reviews. I could see it being a visually-striking "family" nominee in the tradition of Hugo or Life of Pi, and it could possibly get a lot of technical nominations. I was not really in (hence why I have not seen it yet), though I might yet capitulate if it pops up on Netflix. Call me mildly out for now.

Live By Night (TBD) - Ben Affleck has a good history with getting acting nominations when he adapts books to the screen as crime thrillers, but this is the first period piece he has adapted. It is being listed as a serious contender for now, but there's a lot left to be seen about this film - including its release date. I'm in; Affleck has earned my unconditional attention for now.

Queen of Katwe (Sept. 30) - Yet another film based on a true story (is it just me, or does there seem to be more of those than usual this year?). In this case, the story is about a young Ugandan woman played by Lupita Nyong'o (in an unfortunately rare live-action role) who gets trained by a man (infamously snubbed Selma actor David Oyelowo) to become a world-class chess player. This might actually be a middleweight film, depending on how it's received. This could be this year's Seabiscuit, The Blind Side, or War Horse - a heartwarming family friendly movie that gains enough critical acclaim to warrant a nomination. There are, of course, many other examples of these kinds of movies that don't break through. Either way, I'm a tentative out for now, but I could be convinced by the pedigree of the two leads.

Middleweight


Now we're starting to move into the category of films that are generating some heat. These movies are popping up in conversations about the more significant categories - Acting, Directing, Writing, Picture. They're nowhere near locks, but they're a little bit more sure than the welterweights.

Arrival (Nov. 11) - Canadian director Denis Villeneuve had one of last year's better films and bigger snubs in Sicario, but the buzz is already abundant about his new sci-fi thriller Arrival. Sci-fi has never won the big prize, but it has gotten far more attention from the Academy since they expanded the field of Best Picture nominees several years ago. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker star, and this movie could have a shot at some real Oscar attention. Either way, I'm so in.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Aug. 12) - The possible success of this film at the Oscars will determine to what extent the Academy has incorporated diversity and new voices and suppressed the power of the older voting bloc, to whom this movie appeals perhaps more than any other this year. I expect that Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant will contend for acting nominations, but it could break through to Best Picture. Not for me, though - I'm out.

The Founder (Dec. 16 limited, Jan. 20 wide) - This is another "based on a true story" film, but this one seems like it's not intended to be nearly as happy-go-lucky as the others. Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, the man who stole McDonald's from the McDonalds, and Harvey Weinstein is hoping for big things from this movie after rescheduling it from the end of the summer. Keaton himself is in the midst of a career resurgence after starring in two consecutive Best Picture winners and almost winning Best Actor for Birdman, but the buzz on The Founder is that it's just not that great of a film. This might be the test of Harvey's ability to work the Academy. I'm probably out.

Hidden Figures (Dec. 25 limited, Jan. 13 wide) - If it seems like there are a lot of these inspirational movies based on true stories, it is because there are. This one could be interesting, particularly in light of the backlash to #OscarsSoWhite: three African-American women are instrumental to America's success in the space race in the 1960s. Out.

Lion (Nov. 25) - There's Best Picture buzz about this true story about an Indian boy who is adopted by Australians and who later finds his family using Google Earth, kind of like Slumdog Millionaire meets Philomena; both of those films were nominated for Best Picture, and it seems like this one might be, too. I could be convinced to see it - especially if that happens - but for now, I'm out.

Loving (Nov. 4) - This is another "true story" with its genesis coming from racial conflict; this time it's a legal battle over interracial marriage in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s. Director Jeff Nichols has been widely admired for years, so he could break through here, and there could definitely be nominations for acting, writing, and possibly even Picture here. I could be convinced to be in, but I'm out for now.

Manchester By The Sea (Nov. 18 limited) - Director/writer Kenneth Lonergan has had limited attention from the establishment in the past, so it seems like he might be due for the kind of "auteur breaking through" narrative that happens every so often (like when P.T. Anderson was recognized for There Will Be Blood in 2007, or the Coens for Fargo in 2006). Lonergan's intense relational piece is being recognized for its performances, script, and direction, and it would not be a surprise to see it be nominated. I'm a conditional out, but probably in if it gets a lot of attention this year.

Moonlight (Oct. 21) - In any other year, this indie film would either be lost in the shuffle or perhaps a candidate for "the small film with a dedicated fan base that gets a nomination" (think Amour, Philomena, Room or Brooklyn from recent years). Because of the relative lack of major studio films dominating the scene this year, it's already being considered a strong contender for five or six major categories. It deals with both race and sexuality, so I would not be surprised to see it getting a lot of attention this year. I'm not a natural in, but this might be a movie that I end up seeing if it becomes notable.

Passengers (Dec. 21) - Science fiction has succeeded in recent years at the Oscars (Avatar, District 9, Gravity, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road), so there were high hopes initially for this new space-voyage film from Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game). Its buzz has faded lately, but my suspicion is that its awards attention will depend on its critical reception, but also on how Arrival fares in November. Either way, Jennifer Lawrence may receive attention for a nomination for her part, and I am in.

Heavyweight


Here they are - the biggies. These are the Oscar-busters, the movies that have already begun to make their mark, and that may come to define the Oscars this year. Of course, any one of them may fade away into obscurity depending on the mix of reception it receives, but I would not be surprises to see most or all of these being announced as major nominees in January.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Nov. 11) - Any new Ang Lee film automatically gets Oscar attention due to his two Best Director awards (for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi), and this one is no different. There could be some very interesting thematic explorations here, including the effect of war on soldiers and the role of the military in the American identity, and it seems like this is primed for a long life in the awards conversation. I'll call myself in based on Lee's past, but I probably will not make a priority of it.

The Birth Of A Nation (Oct. 7) - As mentioned earlier, this film has the biggest window of possibility of any film in this category and possibly of the entire season: it could become a front runner, or it could be ignored entirely. Either way, I think it will factor into the narrative of the next few months quite significantly. I am not sure what to think about my own interest in the film, but I do think it will be worth seeing, so count me as in, even though I have some serious concerns.

Fences (Dec. 25) - Denzel Washington seems poised to become the latest "leading man turned director" with his adaptation of this Tony-winning play; Beatty, Redford, Costner, Gibson, Clooney, Affleck, and Pitt (as producer, at least) have all made the transition, and I would not be surprised to see Washington join their ranks. This is another good bet for a film that will help overturn the #OscarsSoWhite narrative, and it's a good bet for a number of major nominations. I'm not in by nature, but this is another one that I could be convinced to see.

La La Land (Dec. 2) - Damien Chazelle's modern musical has been anointed as the film to beat after its boffo reception at TIFF, and stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are already almost being considered locks for nominations. I would be a bit more bullish on its chances had Birdman (2014) and The Artist (2011) not won in recent memory, as this movie treads some of the same territory as those films, but then again, there has not been a true musical that has won since 2002 (Chicago), so there is some heat here. I enjoy the stars, and Whiplash was one of the best films of the past few years, so I'm in.

Silence (Dec. 23) - Martin Scorsese adapts Shusaku Endo's novel about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan to spread Christianity; in other words, exactly the kind of movie you would expect him to make after the hedonism of The Wolf of Wall Street. The question is not whether this will be nominated; it's how many nominations it will receive and whether Andrew Garfield and/or Liam Neeson will receive nominations. After all, five of Scorsese's last six films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street) have garnered a total of 42 Oscar nominations, including five for Best Picture and five for Best Director, and 14 Oscars, including Picture and Director for The Departed. I see no reason that that trend will not continue, and I am definitely in.

Sully (Sept. 9) - Another true story that is based on the Miracle on the Hudson, when pilot Sully safely landed an airplane on the Hudson River. It does not have a lot of buzz right now, but it does have Tom Hanks as star and Clint Eastwood as director, both of whom have a history of success (and also of being snubbed) in those categories. I don't know if it will pull through with Oscar nominations, but I'm out either way.

Conclusion


As I sorted through the nominees, I was trying to see what - if any - trends there were among this year's group of films. The main trend, which does happen in most years but seems more egregious this year than in most, is that almost half of the movies are based on a true story; there are usually a lot of biopics in the mix, but this ratio seems excessive.

In terms of topics and issues presented, there are seven films that prominently discuss or feature race as a core issue, which I think is really valuable. It seems much more likely that the Academy will not be able to mostly ignore race as it has in the last two years - other than a Best Picture nod for Selma and a writing nomination for the four (white) writers of Straight Outta Compton - with that many movies contending in which race is an integral part of the movie.

It is a mostly dramatic slate (as usual), with only a couple of outside possibilities for comedies and one musical in the mix. There are two science fiction and two fantasy films in the list, one adventure and one western, five thrillers, three war films, one sports movie, and the rest are either biopics or intense interpersonal dramas (there are eight or nine in the latter group by my count). At least seven films have significant political overtones (but most nominees do in some way, shape, or form).

It really seems as though this year will be a much "quieter" and introspective year, kind of like 1996 (The English PatientFargo, Jerry Maguire, Shine, Secrets & Lies, Sling Blade) or 2008 (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire). Of course, the Oscars do not really do "quiet" well, often preferring to reward more ostentatious movies even when they are more rare in that year's field of nominees.

There are a couple of strong possibilities for the different stereotypical narratives that emerge in this season, from the indie films that break it big to the auteurs who finally get recognized to the actor with a comeback performance to the ingenue who makes herself a star, but it will take a bit of time to sort through which films will occupy which spaces.

In regard to my personal tastes, I'm in on a third, tentatively out on about a fifth, and out on the rest (roughly half of the total). Many of the movies for which I am in would be in that category regardless of their prospects at the Oscars, but I will admit that there are quite a few films for which their external degree of success will contribute to - or even significantly determine - my interest.

I should say, also, that although I do not expect that this year to be that memorable and I don't necessarily have a lot of intrinsic interest in this year's films, that I think it might well be an intriguing season and that there might be some very good films that come out of this year's crop. I'm not quite as keen on this year's movies, but it's oddly refreshing to have a year in which it feels as though I can do more exploration of some fresher movies, rather than sensing a compulsion to "have to see" the prospective slate of nominees.

I will post later on in the season once it has had some time to take shape, but for now, I'm going to continue to keep an eye on the conversation and to try to see a couple of the films that are already out, with Hell or High Water sitting on top of that list. As always, I'll see you at the movies.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Board Game Update Q3 2016

I'm three quarters of the way through the year, and this is arguably already my best year of board gaming - even if I did not play another game for the remainder of the year (which is certainly not going to happen). I'm excited about some of the possibilities not only of the rest of this year, but those going into the year beyond, especially as I continue to press further into the world of game design. Here's what happened for me over the past three months of board gaming.

Update on year goals


Goal #1: 366 plays for an average of one play per day. In order to meet this goal, I would have to be at 275 plays for the year at this point; I am currently at 321, which puts me on track for 428 total plays if I keep up the pace until the end of the year (and there's little reason to think that I will not). I think it's safe to say that this goal will be met and exceeded somewhat spectacularly.

Goal #2: Complete a 10x10 challenge. I'm currently at 51%, although since many of my remaining plays are on shorter games (Battle Line, Citadels, Mottainai), I should be able to make a run at fully completing my challenge for the year. I will have to play a lot of Alhambra and Eminent Domain to get it done, but I can do it.

Goal #3: Play 25 of my Top 30 to play. I'm up to 15/30 played for the year. Of the remaining 15, I think that five are out of the question due to availability, five are unlikely, and the other five are likely, putting me at 20/30 for the year. It's not quite where I had hoped to be, but I'm happy enough with my progress.

Goal #4: Play at least one game with my wife per week. I think it probably still averages out to once per week, but our gaming is a lot less consistent during the school year. I'm still saying that I'm on track for this goal, though.

Goal #5: Reduce my Want to Play list to 150 games by the end of the year. After adding more than two dozen to my list in this quarter, I'm back up to almost 200 on my list with another thirty still on my "maybe to play" list. I'm beginning to think that I am my own worst enemy.

Goal #6: Play all of my complex games at least three times. I'm up to 4/20 accomplished. For now, I'm considering it a win just to have played them all at least once, much less three times.

Goal #7: Host one game night per month. I have not hosted any bigger game nights over the last few months, but if I count instances in which more than one person comes over with the express purpose of playing a game, I still meet this goal.

Goal #8: Blog once per month about board games including my quarterly review posts. I did not blog about games at all since my last quarterly update (though I had one post started in my drafts folder), so I am a little behind right now on this one.

Goal #9: Be more careful with Kickstarters. I backed three KS campaigns in the past quarter, two of which were expansions for games I already had, so I'm confident in completing this goal. Besides, it has been awhile since I was really disappointed with a game I received from Kickstarter, so by that metric, I'm accomplishing this goal.

Goal #10: Have Pot O' Gold published (or at least well on its way to production). It's coming along, one step at a time.

Games played


I had an eventful summer with 119 plays, compared with 69 in the same period last year. I was close to establishing a new record for a quarter - it still stands at 122 plays in fall 2015 - but I am nevertheless pleased with the games I played over the past three months.

I did really try to focus on playing a number of the expansions from games I own, so I was happy to be able to knock seven of those off my list. Of course, there are still another 18 on that same list, so I still have some work to do on that front.

Most-played games this quarter: 
1. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (6)
2. Coup (6)
3. The Game (5)
4. (tie) 7 Wonders; The Castles of Burgundy (4)

Most-played games in 2016 to date: 
1. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (15)
2. Pandemic (11)
3. Orleans (10)
4. T.I.M.E. Stories (Asylum, The Marcy Case, A Prophecy of Dragons expansions) (9)
5. (tie) Carcassonne; The Castles of Burgundy; Flash Point: Fire Rescue (8)

All-time most played games:
1. 7 Wonders (64)
2. Pandemic (42)
3. Race for the Galaxy (38)
4. King of Tokyo (31)
5. (tie) Dominion; Splendor (26)

Games played this quarter from my Top 30 to play: (Traders of) Genoa; Luna; Targi; Tigris and Euphrates; Tournay (5)

Other new games played this quarter: Arboretum; Battlestar Galactica; Beyond Balderdash; Bunny Bunny Moose Moose; Empire Builder; Forbidden Desert; The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction; Mombasa; Morocco; Ricochet Robots; Tides of Time; TransAmerica; Uno; Valley of the Kings: Afterlife; World's Fair 1893 (16)

New expansions played this quarter: Alhambra: The Thief's Turn; Flash Point: Fire Rescue - Dangerous Waters; Flash Point: Fire Rescue - Honor and Duty; Fresco: Modules 4,5, and 6; Kingdom Builder: Crossroads; Kingdom Builder: Nomads; Takenoko Chibis (7)

Favourite new games played this quarter: Luna; Mombasa; Morocco; Targi; Tides of Time

Want to play


I gave in this quarter and I added more games to my Want to Play list; many of those games had been on my radar previously, but I had resisted the temptation to add them to my list. I finally relented to actually adding to my list, even though it jumped back up over 200 entries when I did that. I also realized that I had six expansions in my own collection that I had not yet marked as WTP, so that helped accentuate the jump, too.

Of course, I still have another thirty games on my list of games that I'm thinking of adding to my Want to Play list, and I almost always add more games in the last quarter because it tends to be a high release point in the year due to several conventions that happen.

Games added to my Want to Play list: Acquire; Animals on Board; Bear Valley; Blood Rage; Burgle Bros.; Carson City; Colosseum; Cottage Garden; Dead of Winter; Eldritch Horror; Food Chain Magnate; The Gallerist; Jambo; Jump Drive; Las Vegas; Lords of Vegas; Lorenzo Il Magnifico; Monkey; Power Grid: The Card Game; Tiny Epic Quest (20)

Expansions added to my Want to Play list: Cosmic Encounter: Eons; Galaxy Trucker: The Big Expansion; Galaxy Trucker: Another Big Expansion; Galaxy Trucker: The New Models; Imperial Settlers: 3 is the Magic Number; Imperial Settlers: Atlanteans; Imperial Settlers: Why Can't We Be Friends?; Temporum: Alternate Realities (8)

Games removed from my Want to Play list: None

Top ten upcoming games to play: Codenames: Pictures; Colony; Cottage Garden; A Feast For Odin; Jorvik; Jump Drive; The Oracle of Delphi; Power Grid: The Card Game; Solarius Mission; Spyfall 2

Twenty more upcoming games on my Want to Play list: Covert; First Class; First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet; Fresco: The Card Game; La Granja: The Dice Game - No Siesta!; Great Western Trail; Key to the City: London; Liguria; Lorenzo Il Magnifico; The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire; Nova Cry; Oceanos; Sail Away; Terraforming Mars; Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails; Tyrants of the Underdark; Via Nebula; Victorian Masterminds; Vikings on Board

Changes to my collection


I ended up not getting rid of a lot of games over the summer, mostly because I had hit the point at which I had cleared out most of the obvious choices in the previous nine months, leaving me mostly with games that I wanted to play again before deciding their fate.

I did, however, make some meaningful additions to my collection, mostly through local purchases and trades (along with a couple of Kickstarters that arrived). At least three long-standing items from my wish list are now in my collection, and I also picked up a couple of well-regarded complex games for very cheap.

Games acquired: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small; Alien Frontiers; Belfort; Biblios; Flip City; The Game; Geek Out! Pop Culture Party; The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction; Monkey; Morocco; Takenoko; Thief's Market; Valley of the Kings: Afterlife (12)

Large expansions acquired: Cosmic Encounter: Dominion; Flip City: Reuse; The Grizzled: At Your Orders!; Takenoko: Chibis (4)

Small expansions (promos) acquired: 7 Wonders: Leaders - Esteban; Hanabi: Bonus Tiles; Orleans: Die Riese Nach Tours (3)

Kickstarters ordered this quarter: Nerdy Inventions (Jan); Star Realms Year One Promos (Dec); Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black (June)

Kickstarters still on order from previous quarters (with expected arrival date): Innovation Deluxe (January?); Quests of Valeria (Feb); Villages of Valeria (Sept)

Wish list


Even though I acquired a number of items from my wish list, it's still at the same level it was at the beginning of the year, thanks to the many items I have added to my wish list as the year has gone on. I am finding, however, that I am more able to discern whether I really need to own a game or not, and that I am removing from (or just not adding to) my wish list as vigorously as I have in the past.

Games added to my wish list: Cottage Garden; Jump Drive; Targi

Expansions added to my wish list: 7 Wonders: Duel - Pantheon; Cosmic Encounter: Eons; Orleans: Trade and Intrigue; Temporum: Alternate Realities

Small expansions added to my wish list: Targi: The Action Tokens

Top ten games I would buy right now: Castles of Mad King Ludwig; Codenames: Pictures; Fields of Arle; Gravwell; The Great Heartland Hauling Company; The Grizzled; Roll for the Galaxy; Targi; Tides of Time; The Voyages of Marco Polo

Ten more games I would strongly consider buying: Aquasphere; Concordia; For Sale; Haggis; The Manhattan Project; Medieval Academy; My Village; Russian Railroads; Shakespeare; Vikings

Top ten expansions I would buy right now: 7 Wonders: Babel; Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small - More Buildings and Even More Buildings; Galaxy Trucker: Missions; Race for the Galaxy: Xeno Invasion; Ticket to Ride: Europa 1912; Tokaido: Crossroads; Tokaido: Matsuri; Village: Inn; Village: Port

Fifteen new expansions I'm excited about this quarter: 7 Wonders: Duel - Pantheon; Cosmic Encounter: Eons; Imperial Settlers: Aztecs; Istanbul: Letters and Seals; King of New York: Power Up!; Kingdom Builder: Harvest; Kingdom Builder: Marshlands; Orleans: Trade and Intrigue; Pandemic: The Cure - Experimental Meds; Star Realms: United (4 mini-expansions); Temporum: Alternate Realities


Looking forward to Q4


Kickstarters arriving! - There are often delays in Kickstarters, so I am hoping that the two that were due to arrive last quarter will arrive before the end of the year, along with my expansion for Star Realms from the Hero Realms Kickstarter.

The final three months of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 - We are on the home stretch with a maximum of six plays left in the game over the last three months in the "worst year in the history of humanity". I have a feeling that there is at least one big plot twist left in the game, and I'm looking forward to the next several plays to see what happens.

Getting back into game design - I have not done much design in the past few months, though I did have an idea for yet another game to add to my development list. But I now have a functioning game design group that meets regularly, so I hope that will make a difference to my progress on my ongoing projects over the next year.

Play With Your Food - Our SaskGames fundraiser for the local rescue mission culminates in a 24-hour gaming marathon on October 15-16. I might be a little excited about it.

Spiel '16 (Essen) - Spiel, the gaming convention that takes place in Essen, Germany every October, starts in just under two weeks. It is the big release time for most game companies, especially the European ones, so dozens of new games hit the market after sometimes up to a year (or more) of anticipation. Some of my favourite designers are releasing new games this year, so I'm looking forward to reading reviews and to seeing the games trickle onto the shelves of my favourite game stores (whether local or online) in the next few months.

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