Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Oscars 2018: Early Thoughts

The Academy Award nominations are on January 23 - exactly six weeks away - and the prognosticators (like me) have been in session for at least that long already. The recent announcements of winners from several critics' circles, year-end best-of lists, a few awards ceremonies, and the nominees for the Golden Globes yesterday have mostly confirmed what many Oscar watchers already knew: that this is shaping up to be the weirdest movie awards season in years.

It was already going to be unusual with the specter of the weird way in which last year's Oscars ended - with the announcement of the upset of Best Picture winner Moonlight over heavy favourite La La Land occurring after the latter had incorrectly been announced as the winner - hovering over this year, but the events and revelations of the past few months have made the whole thing even stranger.

Several Oscar watchers have commented that all of the sexual harassment accusations and rapid and radical changes that are already starting to happen in power and authority structures as a result have already significantly affected the awards season race in several ways. Some of the films that might otherwise have been in the conversation have already been blackballed because of content, creator, or sometimes both, and there have been at least a dozen films that have been directly affected by the ongoing revelations.

But even films that have been affected are finding unprecedented ways to compete in this awards season. Wind River scrubbed Harvey Weinstein's name from its credits, and Ridley Scott ambitiously reshot Kevin Spacey's scenes in his movie All the Money in the World with Christopher Plummer in the role of J. Paul Getty while still intending to meet his original release date of December 22; Scott's film will release only three days late to the public, and the gamble has paid off with early returns, as both Plummer and Scott were nominated for Globes.

It's very possible that this may have been an odd year anyway, given the slate of releases, the lack of clear leaders, and the general consternation about the box office over the course of the past year, but the past two months have all but guaranteed that this year's Oscar race is going to be stranger than normal, which is part of the reason that I waited in posting my initial thoughts on the race.

On last year's early predictions

I wrote my early predictions post at the beginning of October last year, and it obviously way too early, as there were many pictures that had already dropped off that initial long list by the beginning of November. Then again, I did manage to include all nine Best Picture nominees - which also happened to be the group of films that dominated the nominations - in my long list of 34 films, so I consider that an accomplishment.

Another six films from that long list of 34 films received one significant (ie. non-technical) nomination each, including four whose only major nomination was for Best Actress. In fact, of all of the major nominations, only two came from movies that were not on that early list, which indicates how predictable this whole enterprise has become.

Then again, I realized that the early nature of my picks made it easier to include the eventual nominees, and I still was not exactly accurate with how likely I thought the nominations of respective films were. In the categories I used, those nine most-nominated films came from the following categories: Flyweights - 1/6; Lightweights- 0/5; Welterweights - 1/8; Middleweights - 5/9 ; and heavyweights - 2/6.

That means that seven of the top fifteen pictures in last year's race - at least as I had determined them to be ranked early on - ended up in those final nine nominees, which is impressive. Then again, the other four that I had listed as "Heavyweights" combined for only two technical nominations among them, which kind of feels like leading baseball in strikeouts as well as home runs - sure, the home runs are still a great accomplishment, but it feels kind of diminished in the broader picture.

Predicting the Pool of Nominees

The pool of films that will receive the majority of significant nominations is probably only about ten to twelve films deep, with another five to eight films that will receive a few nominations among them, making for a likely total pool of between fifteen and twenty films contending for nominations in the major categories (Picture, Directing, Acting, and Writing).

A cursory examination of the past eight years in which there have been more than five Best Picture nominees (which seems to be a reasonable sample size for comparison) revealed that the smallest pool from which the major nominations (ie. non-technical and non-genre-specific) was derived was twelve films. There were three years that featured pools of eighteen, twenty, and twenty-one films respectively, with those larger years featuring more films that earned one random nomination, so fifteen to twenty total films contending in the major categories feels like a safe number.

I ended up with fifteen films on my short list at this point, which I grouped into three categories according to their current status in the race (as far as I perceive it): the Favourites; the Contenders; and the Players. I also included a brief mention of the Outliers, another fifteen films that would make up the rest of the long list were I to create a list as big as I did last year and from which various nominees might be chosen. I also included five "Wild Cards" that probably will not produce any nominees in major categories, but whose respective cases for nomination provide some interesting discussion and possibilities.

Here, then, are my thoughts as to the films in contention and their relative likelihood of being nominated with six weeks to go before the nominations are announced on January 23.

The Favourites

Call Me By Your Name - This is a coming-of-age love story that has captured the hearts of many critics and that I fully expect to end up with six or seven nominations, almost entirely in key categories, including Picture, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, and two for Acting.

Dunkirk - Despite his commercial and critical success, Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for Best Director, and he has had only one film nominated for Best Picture (Inception in 2010). This feels like the year that he and his entire body of work will finally be recognized, and I fully expect Dunkirk to lead the nominations and for Nolan to win Best Director; it is even quite possible - maybe even likely? - that the film itself might become this decade's war film that wins Best Picture (the last one was The Hurt Locker for 2009).

Get Out - The fact that this low-budget satirical horror film from first-time director Jordan Peele has essentially become one of the locks for contention is all the evidence needed to demonstrate just how bananas this year really is. It might only get four or five nominations, but it should contend - or else it will be a huge snub and a reminder that #OscarsSoWhite is still very much a thing; then again, its contention is, in many ways, an ironic reminder in and of itself of that unfortunate imbalance.

Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig's directorial debut has been garnering rave reviews, and I would not be surprised to see it contending for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, and Supporting Actress. It has been continually gaining momentum as the season has gone on, and I think it has definitely upgraded itself to the status of a favourite with all of the accolades it has earned so far.

The Post - The most overtly political film of the year features Spielberg, Streep, Hanks, American history, the freedom of the press, and the Vietnam War, and it will allow a lot of interesting discussion about the present political culture of the US to be filtered through the lens of the past. It feels a little too big to fail, which might mean that it could, but all early reports are that it easily holds up to the early publicity and praise it has already received.

The Contenders

Darkest Hour - There is a lot of buzz about Gary Oldman's transformation into Winston Churchill in regard to a Best Actor nomination and award, but there is a possibility that this movie could contend for some other major awards. It might be a bit too conventional for the Oscars (which seems like a strange thing to say, but it might be true this year), and Dunkirk might steal a lot of its votes, but it's still a strong enough contender.

The Florida Project - Willem Dafoe's performance initially brought attention to this indie, but it has received enough attention that it might represent its indie kin with a few key nominations. It is also the most likely to be the film that is shunned (or almost entirely shunned, since Dafoe's nomination seems all but guaranteed) by the Academy.

Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson has mostly been ignored for the decade since There Will Be BloodThe Master earned three acting nominations, and Inherent Vice received a writing nomination, but this year could break his streak. This could also be the kind of film that many people love but that is mostly inexpicably ignored, like Silence in 2016 or Drive in 2011. Thread has gotten a lot of positive attention, so it just might manage to sneak in at the last moment.

The Shape of Water - I am legitimately surprised to see Guillermo del Toro's film being regarded so highly, but it has been received very well. There might be a bit of an "it's time" narrative happening as well, as del Toro was last recognized in any meaningful way for Pan's Labyrinth over a decade ago, and even that film was underrecognized both in nominations and in awards, as it did not even win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year. There is usually a sci-fi film nominated as well, so this would fit the bill.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - This indie is another example of a movie that might have otherwise been overlooked except for the current political climate. Martin McDonagh has had limited recognition for his previous movies, but this drama seems poised to be his official recognition by the Academy, in no small part because of Frances McDormand's performance in what may become her second Best Actress award.

The Players

The Big Sick - Kumail Nanjiani's comedy was well-received, and its narratives and circumstances might propel it to unexpected heights thanks to the current political context. It also has the benefit of being the most comedic film in the race, and the Academy often likes to find at least one token film to bring some levity to the proceedings. I had this rated higher earlier, but I think it's a little lower now.

The Disaster Artist - James Franco's movie about the making of one of the widely acknowledged "worst movies of all time" has already been identified as a fan favourite, and it might have the kind of narrative that would propel it to some key nominations. Hollywood, after all, loves movies about making movies, and this is easily the least political comedy in contention, so it might get attention as a way to not have to think about everything else that's going on.

Downsizing - In the eight years since Best Picture has expanded, there were only three years in which no hard sci-fi films were nominated, even though each of those three still featured a movie that was at least somewhat fantastical or sci-fi adjacent: Hugo in 2011; Life of Pi in 2012; and winner Birdman in 2014. So there's a decent chance that an actual sci-fi film will be nominated, and although it seems more likely to be The Shape of Water and despite the middling early reviews of the film, there's a more-than-zero chance that Alexander Payne's new movie could get a few key nominations; after all, his last three films have all been nominated, so you can't count him out. 

I, Tonya - Margot Robbie and Allison Janney have both been receiving raves for their performances in the Tonya Harding biopic, and it seems very possible that both of their narratives - young ingenue and established character actor, respectively - could end up in nominations and maybe even awards.

Wind River - If you had asked me two months ago, I would have ranked Taylor Sheridan's debut film much higher, but the fact that it deals with sexual assault and that it was originally produced by The Weinstein Company (an association the filmmakers have now scrubbed from the record) will probably lead to it mostly being ignored; then again, there could be a "nominate the performances, not the producer" movement that might help it out. I expect maybe one or two nominations at most. It probably belongs on the "Outliers" list by this point, to be honest, but I'm not quite sure what should go in its place - maybe The Greatest Showman.

The Outliers and Wild Cards

It seems as though this year might be one of those years in which there is a longer list of films from which the major nominations derive, as it appears that there are not as many of the big films that will dominate most of the nominations. If the pool of such films matched its height since 2009, there would be twenty-one films, which means that there would be films that have not yet been mentioned that would garner a nomination or two.

Some movies have moved into and out of contention over the past months, but here are the other fifteen films on the "long list" that I think might still earn a meaningful nomination from the Academy: All the Money in the World; Battle of the Sexes; The Beguiled; Breathe; Detroit; The Greatest Showman; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Last Flag Flying; Marshall; Molly's Game; Mother!; Mudbound; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Stronger; Victoria and Abdul. But I wouldn't bet on any of them getting more attention than a nomination or maybe two.

Then there are the true wild cards - the films that inexplicably remain part of the Oscar conversation and that may even garner some key nominations. Mad Max: Fury Road did it in 2015 and ended up winning six Oscars on ten nominations, and even Deadpool stayed in the conversation last year a lot longer than it had any business to (although seeing either Ryan Reynolds or the film's script be nominated would have been sublime). I am not suggesting that any of these films will necessarily be nominated, but I figured I would hedge my bets and describe the circumstances under which they could be nominated.

Beauty and the Beast - The original animated film was nominated for Best Picture in 1992, and although I don't expect this remake to duplicate that feat, it may have an outside shot at a couple of artistic and technical nominations. It will end up as the second-highest domestic grossing film of the year behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and that's still not nothing to the Academy.

Blade Runner 2049 - Although I fully expect this sci-fi epic to contend in almost all of the technical categories, I would be very surprised if it were to break through in the main categories after its tepid box office returns. This could be the time that Harrison Ford gets nominated for his "old man returning to a franchise" schtick, but I don't know that his performance was quite strong enough to do so. Roger Deakins might finally win his very long overdue Oscar for Cinematography, though.

Logan - The drumbeat for finally having a comic book movie nominated for Best Picture died down after Logan's initial success - and I doubt it will actually happen at this point - but a few technical nominations are reasonable. There's a small camp that is still promoting Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart as potential nominees for their final performances as their respective characters. I don't see either happening, but it does seem to be a weaker year for Actors, so Jackman might get nominated for The Greatest Showman if he does well, which could be construed as a nod toward his performance in Logan as well.

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - I really do not expect that a Star Wars movie will ever again be nominated for Best Picture, but if there was one that could be, I imagine it would be this one. Rian Johnson has a lot of street cred, and if Last Jedi delivers - and there's no reason to think at this point that it won't - it will get some attention in the home stretch.

Wonder Woman - Look, I was never on the "Wonder Woman for Best Picture" bandwagon, but I could see success for campaigns for Patty Jenkins for Best Director and Gal Gadot for Best Actress. I think the latter is much more of a stretch, considering the strength of the field, but it really depends on how much of a statement certain segments of the Academy want to make.

Early Best Picture Predictions

It seems like this might be the year in which we finally have fewer than eight nominations for Best Picture - maybe as few as five, depending on how much certain films galvanize their support over the next six weeks. I think Dunkirk will be the clear leader, but I'm really not sure what else will get a lot of nominations, as most of the other strong contenders are not the kinds of films that would usually garner much attention from the technical branch of the Academy. The Shape of Water could end up being the kind of film that is nominated for eight or ten awards largely on its technical prowess but that only wins one or two (or even none).

I think the Best Picture field will be seven films: Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Post, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has come on strongly of late. If it ends up being a field of eight films (the lowest previous mark), I think the next most likely nominee would be Phantom Thread, with Darkest Hour having an outside shot if it can get enough attention separate from Dunkirk.

In regard to Best Picture, Dunkirk seems to have a clear lane to victory at this point for a few reasons. First, it is an incredible cinematic achievement about which it could easily be argued that it is the best film of the year, and it is also the product of filmmaker whose work has been sorely underrecognized by the Academy. The field is relatively weak this year, and it seems like its two most likely competitors, Call Me By Your Name and The Post, might both be hampered by their similarities to recent winning films in regard to their likelihood of winning Best Picture (Moonlight last year and Spotlight the year before that, respectively).

There is also the fact that Dunkirk, more than any other major film contending this year, appeals to the Conservative wing of the Academy. Although Hollywood is often (fairly) accused of a left-wing/liberal bias, there is a not insignificant portion of the Academy that are politically conservative, and they like to vote for movies that represent their views. After the more liberal recent winners like Moonlight and Spotlight, it would not surprise me to see a war movie emerging as the winner, which is why I think Dunkirk is the film to beat at this point.

I do think that this conservative contingent ensures that genres like war movies and westerns are represented, in some cases regardless of their relative quality; it could easily be argued, for example, that True Grit and Hell or High Water deserved their nominations, and that American Sniper and War Horse did not, but it seems fairly clear that all of those movies likely benefitted from a red state bump. It is also why a movie like Stronger - the true story of someone involved in the Boston Marathon Bombing - has an outside chance at a nomination for Best Actor.


There are a few more awards to be announced, and each one will bring the race into more focus over the next few weeks. Most of the critics have chimed in, but the Guilds have yet to announce their winners, and those are far more predictive of the nominations and awards than any awards or year-end lists. That said, the nominations are open later this year, from January 5 to January 12, with the Golden Globes happening early in that week on January 7, so there is still a lot of room for films to shuffle around, as they already have over the past few weeks. (Phantom Thread, in particular, has trended waaay up.)

I think this year has the potential to be interesting in regard to seeing the shift that Hollywood is making to a new kind of an Academy that might be more merit-based than it used to be, and I think the shifts that have already happened in the relative positioning of certain films are already indications that the Academy might not be the same again.

In the meantime, there are a number of films that I am quite interested in watching, including a couple that have eluded me thus far. My personal list of top films to watch includes: Get Out; Lady Bird; Phantom Thread; The Shape of Water; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. If I manage to have the time, I would also like to see: The Big Sick; Darkest Hour; The Disaster Artist; Downsizing; and The Post. But the first priority, of course, is Star Wars: Episode VIII this weekend, so everything else will have to wait.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

An Advent of U2: Love

Love is kind of a big deal for U2; in fact, "One" might say that it's the biggest deal for them (see what I did there?). Love comes up again and again throughout their music - enough so that books have been written on the subject of "love" in U2's music. I still don't think that these authors collectively have reached the depths of how U2 incorporates love as a theme and an action, but many of those books have nevertheless affected the way I see their music and the theme of love throughout their songs.

One of my introductions to thinking about the themes of U2's music soon after I became a fan was a booklet that was distributed by our local IVCF group: "Faith, Hope, and U2: the language of love in the music of U2" by Henry VanderSpek. It's a great introductory text that's worth a read, even though it runs only through Pop, and does not include the five albums and significant chapters of U2's journey since its publishing.

I am not going to attempt to be nearly as exhaustive as any of those authors, but I did want to share a few thoughts on how I think U2 portrays love on this second Sunday of Advent. I think U2 sees love as an unconditional action and love for all of humanity, and that any other forms of love ultimately point to this broader sense of love as the main drive for all human decisions and actions. But let's start by acknowledging the band's attitude toward the more superficial "love" on which many artists choose to focus.

I've had enough of romantic love

It's kind of surprising, considering how much love figures into U2's lyrics as a theme, that they have not really recorded many true "love" songs; in fact, I think much of their attitude toward love as a romantic construct can be summarized in the lyrics of "Miracle Drug", a track from 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which is ironically their album that is arguably that is most focused on love, including the fact that the title came from a conversation that the band was having with Michael W. Smith (of all people) and that indirectly poses a question to which the answer is "love".

I am you and you are mine
Love makes nonsense of space and time, will disappear
Love and logic keep us clear
Reason is on our side, love

The songs are in our eyes
I see them when you smile
I've had enough of romantic love
I'd give it up, yeah, I'd give it up
For a miracle drug

U2 occasionally does deal with the notion of romantic love, but it usually tends to be juxtaposed with the pain of loss, grief, and heartbreak: the anguish of "With or Without You"; the saccharine sorrow of "Sweetest Thing"; the forlorn hope of "Song for Someone"; the confusion of self-destructive tendencies in the recent single "You're The Best Thing About Me". Romantic love is never straight-forward or easy, and Bono clearly expresses understanding of the depth of love as opposed to the possible superficiality of romantic love, as he sings in Dismantle's "A Man and a Woman": "I could never take a chance / of losing love to find romance".

In other examples, the idea of love in a romantic sense is tied up with images and metaphors that allude both directly and indirectly to what seem to be the three most significant feminine presences in Bono's life: his mother Iris, his wife Ali, and the Holy Spirit: "Lemon"; "Iris (Hold Me Close)"; and, of course, "Mysterious Ways". In each of these cases and more, the idea and the spirit of "love" is incarnated in the presence of women in his life, and it's much more than romantic or erotic love; instead, those relationships are meant to point to "true love".

In the name of love

It seems to me that love is considered by U2 as an abstract concept and that it is representative of the sense of unconditional "love for everyone", often called "agape" love after the Greek word used in the New Testament. Many of U2's most significant songs include deliberate references to this kind of love, both explicitly and obliquely (and sometimes ironically, as in Achtung Baby's "Love is Blindness").

"Pride (in the Name of Love)" uses the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration for loving humanity. "One" - considered by many to be one of the band's best songs and acknowledged by U2 as the song that saved them from splitting up - provides the language of a world united in "one love, one blood, one life" in the hope of healing together. And "Elevation" directly addresses "Love" as a personified character - "Love, life me up out of these blues / Won't you tell me something true / I believe in you" - which also echoes the repeated affirmation from Rattle and Hum's "God Part 2" that "I believe in love".

U2 definitely believes in love, and that belief has strongly shaped this new album, which contains the word "love" explicitly in the titles of its songs in a greater concentration than any one album in their career. Only about a dozen songs in their 14 albums actually use the word "love" in the title, and three of those are from Songs of Experience (four if you include the remix of "Ordinary Love" included as a bonus track): album opener "Love Is All We Have Left"; the psychedelic groove "Summer of Love"; and the expansive and inspirational arena anthem "Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way".

Some critics have accused U2 of being clichéd or trite with the former and latter songs; while I readily admit that subtlety is not necessarily Bono's strength as a lyricist, I tend to dissent from that line of reasoning. If it were any other artist, I might be inclined to agree, but the difference with U2 is that they have four decades of incarnating love both as an idea and as an action in the philanthropic and humanitarian work that cannot be separated from their artistic endeavours.

The members of U2 have talked frequently about how this new album was significantly shaped by events such as Brexit and the American election, and I believe that the biggest influence was likely in bringing them back to the idea of love as the one thing that can overcome all of humanity's problems and that can unite us in a time of great division.

Love, to U2, is not abstract; rather, it is incarnated in the actions of people and governments. They continue to give a lot of airtime to love, and I think they do believe that "there is no end to love", as they sang in "California" on Songs of Innocence. But I also think that they believe that love is the only solution for a broken world, and I think they fear that we're headed for the "or else" of "Love and Peace or Else".

I think, like many of us, that they don't know what to do about this world in its current state, but they know that they have a platform to express what they believe, and their belief is in love as a result of concrete action rather than "prayers and thoughts". They have certainly made me think about what it means to love others in this broad sense, particularly in this Advent season.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

An Advent of U2: Hope

The release of U2's fourteenth studio album, Songs of Experience, on Friday, December 1 guaranteed that I would be engaged in a constant battle with my wife's Christmas music for supremacy of the stereo over the next few weeks. But I realized that this juxtaposition of U2 and the season of Advent would make for an interesting series of posts, and that it might be worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on how each of the themes of Advent - hope, love, joy, and peace - are found in U2's music.

These are not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive thematic investigations into each of these four concepts, as there have been many books already written on the resonance of these ideas in the music of the Irish quartet. Think of these posts more like quick reflections meant to inspire further investigation of each theme throughout the week and the rest of the Advent season. With that in mind, it makes sense to start with today's theme: hope.

Conspiracy of Hope

Hope is found as a theme throughout U2's music, though I find it curious that it has never been included as a word in a title of one of their songs. (It did, however, feature as one the title of the short "Conspiracy of Hope" tour in which U2 participated in 1986 to support Amnesty International.) Hope is one of the band's most endearing qualities, as they are relentlessly positive (often irritatingly or cloyingly or confusingly so to many non-fans). 

The idea of hope comes up over and over through the way Bono talks, the causes he and the band support, and the lyrics of various songs. Each album contains several songs that are explicitly hopeful - enough that it would be hard to describe all of the ways in which hope permeates U2's lyrics here. But it's worth it to see how the idea of hope appears in different stages throughout their career.

Some of their most obviously hopeful lyrics are found in their first few albums, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than the chorus of "40", the album that closed 1983's War and many of their concerts. The band had been much more explicitly Christian in their first three albums, and ending an album with a revision of Psalm 40 only further cemented that reputation.

What I find interesting about "40" is the way in which U2 inverts the first few verses of the Psalm, with Bono singing "I will sing, sing a new song" before inquiring "how long to sing this song?" The idea of persevering with hope is juxtaposed with wonderment about how long hope has to be the driving factor for such perseverance, and these two lyrics in many ways sum up the very role of hope in the career of U2, both as musicians and philanthropists, having to balance the reality of a fallen world and the hope that it could be made better somehow.

But yes, I'm still running

The next few years were no less hopeful for U2 as they ascended to the heights of being the biggest band in the world. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire presented its concept of hope in the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and U2 still uses his name and cause as a rallying cry for the indomitability of the human spirit today.

The Joshua Tree is often listed as one of the most hopeful albums of its time, and many of its songs are inherently hopeful, but one sticks out above the rest: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". It's somewhat ironic that this is the song that turned many Christians away from the band, even though it is arguably their most iconic "gospel" song.

It's a recognition that this world cannot provide everything we need and that there is more out there for us to experience. It's an admission that we will never be satisfied by the things in front of us and a yearning for me. It's an expression of the hope that there is something more than what we see and of the perseverance that it takes to get there. It's deeply hopeful, especially in its most poignant turn of phrase:

I believe when the Kingdom comes 
then all the colors will bleed into one
bleed into one
but yes I'm still running.

It's U2 at its most hopeful, and one of my favourite U2 songs. Plus, it gave me this moment the only time I saw it performed live in concert.

Wake Up Dead Man

U2's darker trio of albums in the 1990s - Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop - were not without hope, although it was often masked and disguised by layers of irony and cynicism. One of the best examples of this inversion of hope is perhaps the last song of the era, Pop's "Wake Up Dead Man", which is written from the perspective of someone wondering about the presence of Jesus on Holy Saturday, the day between his death and resurrection. 

The song is itself a companion to and inversion of the narrative of Judas presented in Achtung Baby's "Until the End of the World", but it is strangely hopeful despite its desperation in considering a world without a saviour, even as it includes the lyric "listen as hope and peace try to rhyme". It was an aching, yearning, honest look at the pain of life, but it was still strangely hopeful even in its anguish.

Then, that interpretation of the song was justified a few years later, when the band explicitly paired the song with the inspirational "Walk On" during the Elevation tour. It made perfect sense as they tried to understand how a secular world could embrace hope and what it would mean to be hopeful in a cynical place, and it made perfect sense of the hope that underlay all of U2's efforts in the 1990s.

Don't let it get away

U2 did not stay in that cynical space, though; much like there was an unheralded transformation that led U2 into exploring the dark territory of the 90s, there was an equally unexpected return to form after the conclusion of those albums - kind of like they got it out of their systems. The band's 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind was lauded for its return to the band's previously explicitly hopeful form, particularly in regard to wearing its heart on its sleeve.

The album - and this era of the band - starts with opener "Beautiful Day", now one of the band's most iconic songs. It includes Bono singing "I know I'm not a hopeless case", perhaps in response to the criticisms he had received over the previous decade from people who did not understand what the band was doing.

ATYCLB is relentlessly hopeful, as is its follow-up, 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Bono often introduced "Miracle Drug", a song about having hope in medicine to find cures for previously uncurable diseases, with a short talk about how U2 believes in the future. Those two albums were also created in a time in which Bono was arguably his most vociferously hopeful in his humanitarian efforts like Jubilee 2000 and the (RED) campaign, and his hopeful heart was on display in his lyrics (and in the shape of the stage in 2001's Elevation tour).

I can see the lights in front of me

U2's three most recent albums - 2009's No Line on the Horizon, 2014's Songs of Innocence, and now Songs of Experience - are little more nuanced than those two albums from the early aughts, but one does not have to dig too deep to see wisdom of hope even in darkness in these newer efforts.

The second track of Songs of Experience, "The Lights of Home" (which I initially misheard as "hope") is perhaps the most immediately obvious as being hopeful. After the moody Zooropa-esque intro of "Love is All We Have Left", "The Lights of Home" cuts in rudely with its initial guitar and drums before Bono sings something that seems almost laughable, if you thought he did not actually believe it:

Shouldn't be here 'cause I should be dead
I can see the lights in front of me
I believe my best days are ahead
I can see the lights in front of me

I think he actually believes that U2 has yet to write their best song, which is part of what keeps them going as artists. But that's not the only expression of hope on this album; in fact, many of the new tracks express a hope that America can regain its direction and again become the embodiment of the ideas that U2 has long admired. "Get Out of Your Own Way", "American Soul", and "The Blackout" do so in the most explicit way, but the video for "You're the Best Thing About Me" also recontextualizes the song as a love letter to New York and America and reclaiming it as a place for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to break free.

I believe in Father Christmas

I have barely scratched the surface of how hope permeates all of U2's work; in fact, I think it would be quite easy to write an entire thesis or book on the subject. But what continues to draw me to U2 is their belief in the possibility of the best of humanity, while acknowledging that we often have to deal with the worst of it. Hope becomes that much more powerful when it is incarnated, much as we explore how it came to be in the person of Jesus in this Advent season.

With that in mind, it only made sense to conclude with the lyrics from one of the few Christmas songs U2 has released, a cover version of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's "I Believe in Father Christmas". It was initially written as more of a critique of the commercialism of Christmas, but I think it works as reminder of how we can remember hope through the songs of U2 this Advent.

They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'd be peace on Earth
But instead it just keeps on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth

I remember one Christmas morning
A winter's light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas Tree smell
And eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
They told me a fairy story
But I believed in the Israelites

I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart, let your road be clear

They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Great SF IP Race of the 2010s

"Peak TV" - our current age of hyperproduction of television shows - has continued to grow exponentially, with nearly 500 scripted series airing in 2017 and even more coming next year. It could be argued that this wave of IP hunting started in in the mid-2000s, when shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who revived properties from obscurity with an eerily prescient relevance, but it did not really seem to gain momentum until the end of the decade.

Then, near the end of the so-called "Golden Age of TV", AMC was looking for shows to eventually replace Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and HBO was looking for dramatic hits of their own. In 2010, AMC released The Walking Dead, HBO dropped Game of Thrones, and the next decade of television would come to be defined by those two shows and the style of tentpole IP television-making that they represent (and would inspire).

Now, Dead and Thrones are arguably the two biggest shows on television, and most of the early years of Peak TV has been defined by a preponderance of spinoffs, revivals, and reboots. HBO seems to have its next IP titleholders primed with Westworld - along with the five (!) spinoffs of Game of Thrones that are currently in development - but they're not alone in the race by a longshot. In fact, there is an argument to be made that IP defines television - and pop culture in general - in a way that is more overwhelming than it ever has been.

On the one hand, there's nothing really new here; after all, the 1970s were the original king of sitcom spin-offs, and using previous IP to kickstart a new property has been part of the blueprint of television since its inception. But with the sheer volume of content being produced and the number of new networks trying to establish themselves as players in the game - even Apple has gotten into the fray! - it feels like there is more focus on IP than there ever has been, and that producers are reaching further and further into the depths to find viable IP.

None of this is a surprise, but there are surprises in the kinds of IP that are being converted into television shows. There was no doubt that there would be another Star Trek at some point - and long time fans like me are glad that it truly is seeming to revive the brand (so far) - but there are many examples of IP that viewers did not expect to see rebooted, revived or brought to life in this particular medium: The Man in the High Castle; The Tick; Legion; Fargo; Daredevil (et al.); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency; The Handmaid's Tale; even Twin Peaks!

And that does not even account for all of the shows based on existing IP that are currently in production, a list that includes, among many others: Blue Crush; Bonfire of the Vanities; Brave New World; The Departed; Four Weddings and a Funeral; Galaxy Quest; Heathers; The Honeymooners; L.A. Confidential; Miami ViceRingworld; Single White FemaleStarsky and Hutch; Stranger in a Strange Land; Watchmen; Witchblade; and even A.J. Jacobs' book The Year of Living Biblically

But despite its already well-established heights, it seems as though the IP race reached another new level this week, as Amazon finally got their Game of Thrones (as Jeff Bezos is long said to have coveted): the rights to make television series based on the world of The Lord of the Rings, an arrangement which is not necessarily guaranteed to include The Silmarillion, as far as I understand. Amazon paid a reported $250 million just for the rights - not including the production costs - but there is little doubt that their investment will pay off when the show airs in a few years.

Now that Tolkien will be television, it seems as though all bets for inaccessible IP are truly off. Maybe Twin Peaks was actually the point at which that happened - honestly, who ever thought that any network would give David Lynch the freedom to do his thing on television ever again? - but now it's certain that truly any existing IP can become a television show.

So, with this brave new world of Peak TV in mind, here are some of the pieces of IP that I think might make interesting shows, along with a quick pitch as to why I think so and what it might look like as a series, including my ideal network for the show. My list ended up skewing heavily toward science fiction properties - perhaps because I have been enjoying several SF shows lately, or maybe because that's where I started and I just got on a roll, so I went with it.

Choose Your Own Adventure - I never would have thought it possible to turn the much-beloved CYOA books of my childhood into a functional reality as a series other than a basic branding, but imagine the possibilities here. A streaming service like Hulu buys the rights and creates a half-hour premiere based on one of the classic stories, only to end the episode with a question that presents viewers with an option. They tweet (or otherwise publicly respond) with their answer, and they produce the next episode based on viewer feedback, and it airs when it's ready. It would be possible to script some of the direction of the show ahead of time, but there would be a fascinating responsiveness in what might not work but would at least provide a fascinating experiment in serialized television.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham - I am somewhat surprised that this post-apocalyptic tale of genetic mutation, religious zealotry, and self-discovery has not yet been made into a TV show, as it seems like its mix of science fiction, teenage angst, and a big ol' mystery box would be the perfect launching point for a series. Combine that with six or so decades of being taught in English classes, and it's not hard to see this novel being turned into a series at some point in the near future on a network like FX (Noah Hawley can handle another show, right?), especially if the religious and political climate continues to seem to warrant indirect commentary.

Crystalis - Video games have rarely (or ever?) made the transition to other media successfully, but there always has to be a first. There were rumours and reports that Netflix was producing an adaptation of The Legend of Zelda series as far back as 2014, but I think it might be more effective to start with a lesser-known IP (although there are some fascinating possibilities with a Zelda series and how it might affect the series' canon). There are any number of obscure action-adventure games from the 8-bit or 16-bit era that could be used as the creative inspiration for a fantasy/sci-fi series - RygarFaxanaduIllusion of GaiaSecret of ManaThe Guardian LegendShining ForceBeyond OasisLandstalker - but I think that Crystalis might be the most interesting. A man wakes up from cryogenic sleep a century after a cataclysmic event to find that the world has reverted to medieval-style magic; he has to defeat monsters in the four corners of the world and find four swords to kill them. This has to be a Netflix show, right?

The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov - Asimov's galaxy-traversing eon-spanning tale of psychohistory was once awarded the best science fiction series Hugo Award over The Lord of the Rings, which is still hard to believe, but it stands the test of time, and it would work well as a limited series-style of show in which each season focusses on a different era of The Foundation with enough connective tissue between seasons to make it interesting. Let's give this one to Apple, so they can spend all of the money making it look the way it needs to look; for that matter, maybe Apple can develop a whole Asimov-verse, including the Robots series or other various off-shoots thereof.

Futurama - It did not make sense to add it to the list, but I could not leave it out entirely, since it still seems ridiculous that no one is bankrolling more episodes of this show. The cast and crew have said they are still ready and willing to make more Futurama, which their recent forays into podcasting and mobile games have proved, so why is no one paying for them to do so? Perhaps SYFY, who recently acquired the rights to the existing 140 episodes, will do so if the reruns achieve good viewership, but it's still very odd to me that in this world of Peak TV that this show has not already been revived...again.

Isaac Asimov's Robots in Time by William F. Wu - There were six books in this mini-series based on the Three Laws of Robotics in which a robot who knew he was going to be destroyed split himself into six parts and sent each part back into a different era of history to hide. There's a great hook here - time-travelling agents hunting robots - and the variety of historical settings (the age of dinosaurs, Ancient Rome, pirates in Jamaica, 13th century China, the Soviet Union in WWII, and Arthurian Britain) would give each season a distinct flavour and interest. This sounds like a SYFY show that might end up kind of a guilty pleasure.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - Another classic SF novel that seems like it would be primed for development into a limited series - perhaps even a BBC-style series in which each episode runs 90 minutes but still presents a serialized storyline. Let's give this one to FX, the undisputed king of limited series right now.

Race for the Galaxy by Tom Lehmann or Star Realms by Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle - Race for the Galaxy and Star Realms are two of my favourite board games, and it would be fascinating to see a board game become a narrative series (after all, Catan was just optioned as a movie). These two games have very well-developed universes - Race is based in part on David Brin's Uplift saga, and Star Realms has already had a novel published - which makes them great candidates for conversion to TV, although there are many other games that might be successful in such an endeavour. I have absolutely no idea who would develop such a property, but AMC has an unusually high success rate on weird concepts, so maybe they should give it a try.

The Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke - I only read the first book of the series - the award-winning Rendezvous with Rama, about an expedition to an enormous and alien probe - but I think this could make for a really interesting series, especially with the right visuals. I think this series might need a bit more space to breathe, so let's assign it to someone who does not have a lot to prove and little to lose - CBS All-Access, maybe.

Total Recall - Sure, there was a recent failed theatrical reboot of the 1990 Schwarzenegger hit - neither of which I have seen, by the way - but does it not seem as though that universe could use a gritty examination over the course of a television series? Maybe this would be a fit for The CW, but I don't know if I would watch it if it were on that network; I might have to rethink this one.

So, there you have ten suggestions off the top of my head (more or less) as to possible pieces of science fiction IP that could be mined for television development in the future. Sometimes, it's kind of fun to let a random thought experiment run away for a while and see where it goes, and who knows? I might be a showrunner in a few years when there are another three hundred shows on the air - or at least I could claim credit for one of these ideas if they ever became reality.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Review: Stranger Things 2

For a week in the summer of 2016, in the dog days after the real-life terror of the Republican National Convention, I, like most of North America, was caught up in the world of Stranger Things. I eagerly anticipated the show's second season, which had a pitch-perfect ad campaign before its premiere two weeks ago. I have had a week to allow Stranger Things 2 to settle after watching the finale, which was partly in an attempt to not have too many immediate hot takes on the show, but also because I just have not had the time to compose my thoughts in a post before now.

I know there have already been a thousand articles and memes and reviews that have been posted in the two weeks since the season's release - many of which I have considered in my evaluation of the season - but I do still feel the need to express my own thoughts on the season, partially for posterity and partially because I do not remember coming across all of the thoughts that I have had over the past two weeks.

I watched the season in three sittings, with three episodes in each sitting. I actually think that Netflix might have done better to release it sequentially in this manner, or perhaps in four segments with two episodes in each (which I know adds up to eight, rather than the nine episodes in the season, but I will return to that point later). I will be discussing the season as a whole, so be ye warned about spoilers.

Overall impression

I really enjoyed this season, sometimes (often?) in spite of itself, and I felt that this was a better sophomore season than I had expected, considering the meteoric heights of the first season, the short turnaround time for this season, and the drop-off that shows with a similarly audacious premise and presence in the zeitgeist have experienced (*cough*Heroes*cough*).

Although the second season does not reach the heights of the first season, it (mostly) captures what made the first season great, which is on one level following the lives of this group of kids and a few people in a random American small town, all the while avoiding the evil burbling beneath the surface. On a deeper level, the totality of Stranger Things is about nostalgia and innocence and adolescence and imagination and learning that the world is not what it is supposed to be, and I felt that Season 2 did capture much of that same feeling as the first, which is why it succeeded as a whole.

I thought that the show did a remarkable job of managing the development of its existing characters -  with a couple of exceptions - as well as integrating the new ones, and that the show's character development is still largely its strength. But despite what I would consider to be the overall success of the season, there were a few missteps along the way (as well as one significant one that I will discuss indepth).

So I thought that the best way to proceed would be to present and analyze what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses of Stranger Things 2, before concluding with some of my thoughts as to how the show could (and perhaps should) proceed for Seasons 3 and 4 and about the season and series as a whole to this point.

Strengths of Season 2

One of the greatest strengths of the show is its tone, as the overall flow and feel of the season (with that aforementioned exception) continues to focus on the kids, Hawkins, and the mysterious goings on at the lab. The homages to other properties, whether explicit (Ghostbusters), implicit (ET, Jurassic ParkRed Dawn), or even just implied (Aliens, The Goonies, The Terminator), continue to enrich the series without overtaking it, and they make it a richer text, especially through the casting of the two famous actors who almost deliberately evoke their previous roles in their performances: Sean Astin as Bob and Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens.

The show's greatest strength, though, is its characters, and many of them continue to shine in Season 2. Hopper is as strong - if not better - than Season 1, and among the kids, Dustin and Lucas really step it up this season. The pairing of Steve and Dustin for much of the second half of the season is surprisingly effective as a narrative device and hilarious, as their scenes provide some of the best moments of the season.

Most of the other new characters are integrated effectively as well: conspiracy nut and private investigator Murray; manic pixie dream redhead Max; and Will, who is effectively a new character after a very abbreviated stint at the beginning and end of Season 1 and who is one of the MVPs of the season.

Overall, Season 2 gave more of the same Stranger Things that made Season 1 one of the best shows of last year. The season (mostly) stays in Hawkins and builds on the world established so well in Season 1, and it seamlessly captures the same nostalgic feel as its predecessor, as well as toeing the line between horror and kitsch and comedy and science fiction and genuine pathos and emotion in a way that few shows or movies have successfully accomplished. If the first season is mostly Spielberg, I think the best way to summarize this season is John Carpenter meets John Hughes, and it was a ton of fun to watch.

Weaknesses of Season 2

There are a few weaknesses, as well, most of which seem to be connected either to the relatively short amount of time between seasons for a project of this magnitude as well as Netflix's seeming reluctance to impose any kind of restrictions upon its creators. They are relatively minor quibbles that I would argue are overwhelmed by the overall positives of the season (with that one exception), but I do still feel the need to record them here.

At times, this season continued the momentum of the first season a little too closely, as it started to feel a bit repetitive - although I would argue that it never quite crosses the line. Perhaps the most obvious example is how Joyce again transforms her house to figure out the puzzle, but the Duffers manage to make it feel slightly fresh - or at least interesting - with the inclusion of Bob (and Will) into the mix.

The pacing also suffers at times, with some story lines feeling rushed and others feeling like they were too extended. The first half of the season felt particularly slow in moments, but it did find its footing after a couple of episodes. It mostly felt like a couple of story lines needed another pass in the writer's room and they just did not have the time to get them to that final level; it's not that the pacing is bad, but mostly that it could have been better, particularly early on. For example, I really thought that they took too long to get to the core of the villain - the "Mind Flayer", another nod to Dungeons and Dragons - and that having a stronger villain revealed earlier would have been more effective for the overall arc of the season.

Although most of the characters were included well, there were a couple of misses on that front. Mike was unfortunately underfeatured in Season 2 (which perhaps makes sense after his starring turn in Season 1), and I missed ancillary characters like Mr. Clarke, who was one of the best parts of the first season. But the biggest miss was Max's older step-brother Billy, whose story was not worth the amount of time devoted to it despite the payoff of a great comic scene and a pivotal narrative scene in the finale; both felt like more of a way to justify Billy's inclusion, rather than being the natural conclusion of the character's arc, and he mostly felt unnecessary.

But one of the main problems I had with this season was, I think, one of the problems that the show has, which is also one of its greatest strengths: Eleven.

The Eleven Problem

Stranger Things has an Eleven Problem, and the problem is that Eleven is almost too good of a character for this show. She was perhaps the most significant reason for the success of Season 1, and I would argue that Eleven is really what makes this show transcend similar attempts at this kind of tone or plot.

It's actually not that often that a science fiction show is able to capture the zeitgeist as effectively and efficiently as Stranger Things did last summer; Lost was probably the best previous example, and before that, it was probably Heroes, which had a similarly rapturous start when it premiered, in no small part due to a charismatic character, Hiro. But Heroes soon realized what Stranger Things seemed to realize early on in this season: they had a character who was too popular and powerful not only for their own good, but also for the good of the plot, and they soon had to find ways to take Hiro out of the action in order to not have him just overshadow and overtake any challenges that came his way.

Now, Stranger Things is set up much more effectively than Heroes was, and Eleven is a much stronger character than Hiro, but the fact remains that the Duffers need to figure out how to deal with her moving forward. She is almost too strong for the circumstances, and they will need to find authentic ways not only to keep her engaged as a character but also to ensure that her powers do not overwhelm the possibilities of the narrative. They did, however, set out a blueprint - for better or worse - as to how her story might unfold with the one major mistake of the season: Episode 7, "The Lost Sister".

The Lost Sister

I am nowhere near the first to write about how the seventh episode of Season 2 did not work, and I probably don't need to spend a lot of time elucidating all of the ways it went wrong. I get that the Duffers were trying to do something different, and I think I see what they were trying to do, but, like the season's other weaknesses, I think it mostly just needed some more fine-tuning, a bit more time to develop, and a pass under Occam's Razor to keep the story lines as simple as possible.

I know the Duffers did a damage control interview in which they defended their decision to include this episode by saying that Eleven's story "completely fell apart" without it, but I don't buy that line of reasoning. It would have been easy enough to use her journey to visit her mother - which already separated her from the group and gave her a revelation about her own family history - as a catalyst for how she needed to change for the final scenes, given a small tweak or two (possibly the death of her mother as a result of the actions of the men).

But my issue is not with the content of the episode, as I think that it was really interesting to get out of Hawkins and to see Eleven growing and developing as a character. My issue is also not in the execution, even though I recognize that it seemed rushed and shoehorned into the rest of the season because it was. My issues are the timing within the narrative and the fact that the episode made Stranger Things feel more like a television show (I recognize that is an odd statement to make about a television show, but I think it will make sense with some explanation.)

It's very strange to me that this episode made it in this season at all, but especially at this point in the season, right after the most climactic reveal yet in the series, as it completely broke the flow of the narrative of the season. I did not notice it as much, since I took a break after the sixth episode, but even still, it felt disruptive and intrusive. This story would have been a great story arc for the start of the third season - especially if it were to be spread over a few episodes, rather than crammed into one - as there was very little from this episode that mattered to the narrative of Season 2.

My other issue with "The Lost Sister" was that it reminded me that I was watching a television show. Of course, I know on one level that Stranger Things is a show with episodes, but it really felt different than almost any other television show that preceded it. It seems as though, more than any one other show, that Stranger Things marked the shift to a new era of television as cinema thanks to the advent of streaming services. Not only did Season 1 not feel like television, but Season 2 was deliberately marketed as a sequel, like a movie.

The way that "The Lost Sister" completely changed the tenor, pace, and tone took me out of the immersion of the show, and even of my immersion in the style of the show that it had been until that point. I still think it would have been fine - arguably even necessary - to experiment with this kind of narrative departure early in Season 3 at a time when they could afford the kind of time away from a main narrative to introduce new characters in a new situation.

Considering Seasons 3 and 4

Stranger Things has, of course, already been confirmed for Seasons 3 and 4, and the Duffers have already indicated that these next two seasons will actually end the series (which I tend to think will be the correct decision). With that in mind, they have also already admitted that there are a few tropes that they need to avoid in Season 3, and I tend to agree that Stranger Things will need to become a different show in Seasons 3 and 4; given some of my previous comments about how the show did not feel like a television show, it is ironic that I think it is beneficial to look at the lessons from successful television shows to make some suggestions for the future of Stranger Things.

Television shows tend to run on story lines that last a season or two, and I think they have exhausted many of those ideas already. I think that the stories of Hawkins have run their course, so it's time to shift the show out of Hawkins. "The Lost Sister" already started doing that, and they might do well to continue to pursue the idea of exploring what is happening to Kali and to the other nine subjects of the experiment in Hawkins. I think that Hawkins will still be a part of the show, of course, but that it will be valuable to expand to the world beyond.

I tend to think, too, that there may be a need to up the stakes early in the season and to find a way to increase the urgency of the situation. One of the best ways to do that, typically, is to severely imperil or even to eliminate a popular character, and I think it would be effective to do so in this case, even if it seems like kind of an obvious choice as to how to ratchet up tension. The question of which character presents a lot more of a challenge, however, as most of the principal characters (the kids) are also largely the reason for the success of the series, and the deaths of few of the characters who are not the kids have the kind of emotional resonance that such a turn should have.

If I had to choose, I would suggest Jonathan as the target, as his unexpected death would cause effects in Will and Joyce as well as reconfiguring the Steve-Nancy dynamic that seems to have otherwise perhaps run its course. I think he's not a really interesting character - certainly less so than Steve - and there is also the fact that the actor who plays Jonathan recently got into trouble with the law over some ill-advised substances, making him somewhat more expendable in regard to a future on the show.

I think that the Duffers will also have to find more effective ways to divide the core group of four boys and two girls (including Eleven). I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think there needs to be a much more significant conflict that arises between them and that possibly has longer-term effects than simply bringing a new person into the group.

In order to facilitate such a conflict, it might be necessary to time jump a couple of years ahead, say to 1986 or 1987, in order to make the kids old enough to have such a conflict (perhaps due to a romantic relationship). Such a jump would place the action in a slightly different age - the era of home video games - and it might give the Duffers the breathing room to not have to worry about cranking out a season on a timeline that would be unfortunately similarly quick to that between the first two seasons.

But I think the main suggestion I have is for the Duffers to take the time to think about what the show is really about and to keep coming back to whatever they determine that to be. Their shorter run time has created a tautness in the narrative that I would argue has been crucial to the success of the show, and it seems to me that they cannot afford to deviate from the core of the show. I am assuming that the focus of the show will shift for Seasons 3 and 4 - and I think I have made a couple of compelling arguments that it needs to - but they need to keep it tight and not try to do too much, but rather to do what they do well - and they do do what they do well very well indeed.


From my list of issues and concerns with how the season unfolded, it might sound like I did not enjoy Season 2, but I in fact really enjoyed it - arguably as much as I enjoyed Season 1. My issues with the season, save for the inclusion of "The Lost Sister", are minor, and even that is a fairly forgivable decision in the grand scheme of Stranger Things. The overall feel of the show far outweighs its flaws, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time back in Hawkins.

I think there is still a temptation to make Stranger Things mean something - and perhaps it does actually tell us something about the world into which it was born and how it has changed even in time between the seasons - but I think that the best way to truly appreciate the show is for what it is: a nostalgically exhilarating and thrilling supernatural adventure seen through the eyes of innocent kids. I feel like spending more time thinking about what it all means within the world that the Duffers have built, or even what it means for the future of television, is kind

I feel similarly toward Stranger Things as I did to the novels Ready Player One and Armada by Ernest Cline: sometimes, it's just a lot of fun to get caught up in a world that is fun and nostalgic and unexpected and allow ourselves to get overwhelmed by it and to not think too much about where it went wrong (although the trailer for the Spielberg-directed movie of the former seems destined to dull some of my enthusiasm for its source material).

Stranger Things is a great story with great characters in a world that I have enjoyed spending around fifteen hours in, and I look forward to revisiting its world not only as it is, but also as it will come to be with the next two seasons of the show. And, at the end of the day, it's not the end of the world; it's just a television show.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Nickels and Dimes

It appears that I had not nerded out quite enough in my recent escapades into revising my play history on BGG and revisiting my h-index, as I had another revelation this weekend as I examined my play history on BGG: I have just now passed 100 "nickels and dimes". That means that there are a hundred different board games that I have played at least five times since I started recording plays.

Aside from my most recently played nickel (Cacao), I was not intentional about making sure I played games a certain number of times; with that in mind, the division of plays among the hundred nickels and dimes worked out ridiculously evenly. As it turns out, I have played 25 games twenty or more times; another 25 games between ten and nineteen times; and another fifty games between five and nine times.

As usually happens when I encounter an interesting statistical milestone like this in my gaming, I decided that I would take this opportunity to reflect on some of my gaming history and nerd out with some statistics and analytics based on the information I discovered about my collection and the games I have played.

Collection Status

I currently own 84 out of those hundred games I have played at least five times, which makes a lot of sense; after all, I am far more likely to own the games I want to play and to play the games I own. I previously owned another eight titles, most of which saw a lot more play in my earlier years of gaming than in recent years; they're not terrible games by any means, but I just found games that accomplished the same goals in a way I liked a lot better - that "fired" these games, according to the parlance of BGG. (For example, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King "fired" Alhambra for me, as it satisfies some of the same mechanics as a tile-laying game with an economic element.)

Previously Owned: Alhambra: Big Box; Among the Stars; Antidote; Bang!; [The Settlers of] Catan; Dominion; Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot; Thurn and Taxis (8)

That leaves only eight of the hundred that are not or have ever been part of my collection. Of those eight, two are legacy games I have played with friends and have no need to own myself (SeaFall and T.I.M.E Stories). Two are now on my wish list (Cacao and Can't Stop), and another two are games I often play with friends' children and that I could foresee adding to my own collection sometime to play with kids (Camel Up and Machi Koro).

One other game is on my "possible" wish list once I play it a few more times to see if it's really kid- and new-gamer-friendly (Magic Maze), leaving the only other game of the eight. That last game happens to also be the only game of the eight (and indeed the entire hundred) that I do not foresee playing ever again: Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game, which I played several times several years ago in short succession because we were play testing an expansion for the game. (As an aside, even though we finished the campaign for Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 and have no reason to play that particular edition again, I could see playing through it again at some point.)

Not owned or previously owned: Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game; Cacao; Camel Up; Can't Stop; Machi Koro; Magic Maze; SeaFall; T.I.M.E Stories (8)

What I find interesting as well is that that number of 84 games represents less than half of my total collection, which is currently at 193 games; that means that I own over a hundred games that I have not yet played as many as five times. I came up with a couple of reasons for that fact: first, I play more different games than I did in the past, so it takes longer for most games to make it to five plays. Second, I have not owned some games very long, so I have not had time to play them often (if at all). And finally, I often end up having to learn the games I own, which takes more time and energy than replaying games somewhat frequently - especially if there has been enough time since the previous play that I essentially have to relearn the game in order to play it again.

Percentage of Plays

As of the composition of this post, I have recorded 1,918 plays on BGG which are split among 439 different games, mostly since December 2010; I have since gone back and added ten plays before I started tracking my plays, but I only recorded games I knew I had played, along with the time or a rough estimate thereof. (This Geeklist contains other titles that might have made my list of nickels and dimes had I tracked those earlier plays).

Of my 1,918 plays, 1,356 are represented by the hundred games I have played five times or more. In addition to these hundred games, there are 22 games I played four times; 32 games thrice; 80 games twice; and another 206 once, for a total of 550 plays. (In comparison, my top sixteen games have been played a total of 515 times.) There are also an additional twelve plays of Unpublished Prototypes (including three of my own!) included in my total plays to make up the difference to 1,918.

These 1,356 plays can also be divided in an unexpectedly relatively even manner according to the relative number of plays recorded for different games. My top nine games (those with over 25 plays - a "quarter") have been played a total of 350 times; the next sixteen (between 20 and 25 plays) 353 times; the next twenty-five (between ten and nineteen plays) 332 times; and the next fifty (between five and nine plays) a total of 321 times.

Those numbers indicate a (rough) balance between games I have played in those different zones, although I do not think it is currently true that every four plays work out to have one from each of those groups. Many of the plays on the games I have played much more (ie. twenty times or more) came earlier in my play recording history, and I tend to play more new (and relatively new) games now, which makes a lot of sense; after all, even though I am playing more now overall, I am also spreading out my plays among a lot more games than I did six years ago.

Now, just for posterity's sake, here are the games that make up each of my current milestones, in order of how many plays I have recorded.

Quarters (25 plays or more)

1. 7 Wonders (69)
2. Pandemic (44)
3. King of Tokyo / Race for the Galaxy (42)
5. Splendor (37)
6. San Juan (34)
7. Carcassonne (29)
8. Hanabi (27)
9. Dominion (26)
10. Agricola / The Castles of Burgundy (25)

Dimes (between 10 and 24 plays)

12. Battle Line / Pot O' Gold (24)
14. Flash Point: Fire Rescue (23)
15. Innovation / Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (22)
17. Citadels / Fleet / The Game / Glory to Rome / Jaipur / Kingdom Builder: Big Box / Lords of Waterdeep / Star Realms (21)
25. Istanbul (20)
26. At the Gates of Loyang (18)
27. The Resistance (17)
28. Eminent Domain / Galaxy Trucker: Anniversary Edition (16)
30. Alhambra: Big Box / Codenames / OctoDice / Orléans / Saint Petersburg (15)
35. T.I.M.E Stories (14)
36. 7 Wonders Duel / Glass Road / Le Havre / Ticket to Ride: Europe / Tiny Epic Galaxies (13)
41. Dixit / Rook/ Village (12)
44. Biblios / The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game / Chrononauts / Forbidden Island / Patchwork (11)
49. Anomia / Viticulture (10)

Nickels (between five and nine plays)

51. Imperial Settlers / Lost Cities / Takenoko (9)
54. Between Two Cities / Cosmic Encounter / Coup / Dutch Blitz / Kingdomino / SeaFall / Sushi Go! / Tikal / Villages of Valeria (8)
63. Apples to Apples / BANG! / Blood Bowl: Team Manager – The Card Game / Bohnanza / Camel Up / Fresco: Big Box / Friday / Hive / Ingenious / Monkey / Pandemic: The Cure / Scoville / Tokaido (7)
76. Among the Stars / Harbour / Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King / Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot / Machi Koro / Thurn and Taxis (6)
82. Antidote / Cacao / Can't Stop / Catan / Caverna: The Cave Farmers / Coloretto / Eggs and Empires / Elysium / Five Crowns / El Grande Decennial Edition / The Grizzled / Hey, That's My Fish! / King of New York / Magic Maze / Oh My Goods! / Ra / Spyrium / Temporum / Things... (5)


I would not say that these are my hundred favourite games of all-time, but then again, these are the games I have chosen to play repeatedly over the years. I would say that almost all of them have ranked among my favourites at some point - even if just within their genre or their weight - or that they have at least held enough potential to consider being worth playing that many times.

I doubt that I will get rid of many of the 84 of those hundred that I do own, as only one or two are currently on my "evaluation" list (of games that might leave my collection), but I do think that there will be some shifts in the near future as other games I own are added to my list of nickels, as I own 34 of the 54 games I have played either three or four times, with another four on my wishlist. (I may even make it a goal next year that I have at least a nickel recorded on all my owned games.)

By the way, of the other sixteen games I have played three or four times but are not in my collection or on my wish list, eleven are games I previously owned, which leaves five games - Karuba, Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game; Small World; Stone Age; and Through the Desert - as the outliers; of those five, I could see owning one (or maybe two) and probably playing all but Small World at least once again, as I am just really not a fan of that particular game.

The percentage drops with my twice-played games, as a total of 48 games of 80 are either on my wish list or in my collection, and much more at once played games, with only 35 of 206 either in my collection or on my wish list. I am somewhat surprised, actually, that still sixty per cent of the games I have played twice are either in my collection or on my wish list; I suppose that fact indicates that even a second play of a game is an indicator that I could enjoy the game enough to play it much more.

Still, I used to be more able to determine on one or two plays whether I would want to add a game to my collection, but I have found now that it is increasingly difficult for me to do so. I often find now that I am not able to make such a distinction until I have played a game three or four times, so it is possible that my wish list and my collection are growing more slowly now than they once had. It's not that I do not know if I like a game on my first or second play; it's more that it now often takes three or four plays to determine whether a game is unique enough to warrant a place on my shelf and whether I would actually choose to play that particular game over other options.

(As an aside, I am wondering whether I am reaching my limit in the size of my collection in terms of the number of different games I own and whether they actually get played on a semi-frequent basis - but that's a topic for a different post.)

It's kind of funny, actually, as I would say now that recording a nickel on a game is actually a mark of a game I really enjoy. With over six hundred different games in my repertoire - 439 played, another 137 on my "Want to Play" list, and another fifty or so games on my radar (a few other unplayed games in my collection, as well as a number of games on my "maybe to play sometime" list) - getting a game to the table even five times can be an accomplishment, and the very fact that I return to a game even those five times demonstrates my affinity for that game.

Again, it seems odd to measure playing board games as any kind of an accomplishment, but I am genuinely proud of the fact that I have both breadth and depth in my play history. I do consider the fact that I have played a hundred games at least five times - and that I have played fifty of those at least ten times - an accomplishment as a board gamer, and I look forward to adding more games to these ranks in the future.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

New Music September 2017: Mini-Reviews

It is becoming more and more rare that I will get really enthusiastic about music or new bands, but it seems to happen every so often that there is a sequence of new albums released in short succession by artists I know and have loved that serves to remind me how much I still enjoy music and the process of incorporating a new album into my rotation. (Like many Canadians, I have, of course, also been spending some time fondly listening to the Tragically Hip over the past few days after Gord Downie's passing.)

The last time this kind of quick intake of new content happened before this past September was a two-and-a-half month span from March 31 to June 16, 2015, when there were new albums from Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, Dustin Kensrue, Mumford and Sons, Florence + the Machine, Muse, mewithoutYou, Of Monsters and Men - and that list does not include the Alabama Shakes album that I have since discovered and loved. All but two of those nine albums have permanently entered my listening rotation to some degree at some point, and one or two have emerged as true favourites.

In this past September alone, there were nine albums that piqued my interest to varying degrees, as well as some new material from some Irish band I kind of like; some of these were albums I knew I had to purchase or at least listen to intensively right away, whereas others intrigued me more as a way to check in as to where that artist was at. I decided to give some of my initial thoughts on each of these collections of songs, so consider this a group of knee-jerk mini-reviews. I have ranked the albums not in terms of my opinion of the final quality of the album, as that may take a few months to determine, but in how much interest I had in listening to it and exploring it and contextualizing it over the past month and a half.

Mild to Moderate Interest

10. Jack Johnson - All the Light Above It Too - The laid-back folk-pop troubadour released his first album in four years to little fanfare, but it holds up in comparison to his previous efforts. I did not notice any tracks that really stood out on the first few listens, but it does provide a nice mellow accompaniment to life. There's not much else to say here; if you like Johnson's particular brand of mellow surf pop, this would be a valuable addition to your collection. As for me, I'll probably keep it on my mellow Spotify mix for awhile and see if it seeps further into my musical subconscious.

9. Macklemore - Gemini -
Macklemore might be one of my favourite musical guilty pleasures, so I was definitely curious about his new album. Gemini is definitely more relaxed than his previous efforts, but there are a few standout tracks once the album gets going after a bit of a slow start. By track four ("Willy Wonka"), Macklemore eases into his natural rapid-fire delivery, and the pace picks up significantly for about five tracks - starting with "Marmalade" - before levelling off over the final few songs at the end of the album.

Unlike its predecessor, This Unruly Mess I've Made, Gemini feels more personal than political, and I would say it seems more joyful than his last album. It's a shift a tone that not only seems to be more in keeping with his general outlook on life and music but that I think helps him make better music. This album feels more free and fun than the last one did, and I think that's part of what makes his music enjoyable. I'm not saying he shouldn't be political, but I think that he can be both menial and meaningful, and this album seems to strike a better balance.

I also found it fascinating that the album was bookended by almost explicitly religious songs, and that Macklemore name-checks his faith in God in a positive way several times. I'm not sure where he is at in regard to his beliefs, but I do find it interesting that there seems to be a wave of positive spirituality in hip-hop. I would be really interested to learn more of his faith journey and what it means for him to live out his faith, as he considers it to be, much as I would love to hear a similar conversation with Kendrick Lamar.

8. The National - Sleep Well Beast - I had first encountered The National a decade ago when their album Boxer was named one of the best albums of 2007 by pretty much everyone, as well as a couple of songs appearing on Chuck. I listened to Boxer a lot in those first couple of years, but my interest was only intermittently piqued by the band's subsequent two efforts, so when I heard that the band had a new album that continued the story of all of their albums, I figured it would be worth it to at least check in to see how far they had come. I enjoyed Sleep Well Beast well enough, but not enough to keep listening to it if it doesn't really grab me in the next couple of listens.

7. Derek Webb - Fingers Crossed - Webb has long been considered one of the lone "prophetic" voices who emerged from the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry in which he initially cut his teeth. Over the past fifteen years, he has moved increasingly away from the cliches and trite truisms of CCM, and this new album arguably cements his transition into a David Bazan-like figure in regard to the way he expresses his perspectives (if he had not already established that trajectory). It's a compelling album and one worth listening to if you, like me, are questioning some of the ways in which people (especially Evangelicals) interact with the rest of the world. This is definitely an album I want to spend some more time with.

High Interest

6. The Lone Bellow - Walk Into A Storm - Brooklyn-based folk-country minstrels The Lone Bellow were one of my favourite discoveries a few years back, as their debut album helped fill the gap left by the premature end of The Civil Wars. Their new album provides more of their established formula of intertwined three-part harmonies that are melancholy yet hopeful. I really enjoyed my first few listens, and I'm looking forward to spending more time with this album in the future.

5. The Killers - Wonderful Wonderful - The Killers also fall into that aforementioned category of "guilty pleasure" for me, though it really only applies to about a third of their work. I would say that each Killers album features a few (pardon the pun) killer tracks, a few listenable songs, and then a few curiosities that leave me mildly perplexed as to the reasons for their inclusion. It's a mix that means that they are a perfect "Greatest Hits" and arena rock band, rather than one known for their deep cuts.

So I was not surprised at all by Wonderful Wonderful and the fact that the songs on the album fell into those three general categories. "The Man" is one of the band's best bangers, and there are a few other standout tracks ("Tyson vs. Douglas", "Run for Cover", and "Rut"), but there are also a number of fairly mediocre tracks and a couple of songs that have melodies that I honestly cannot remember even after several listens. But honestly, "The Man" is so great that I don't even really care that the rest of the album is mostly passable, and The Killers remain near the top of my bucket list for arena shows to see.

Very High Interest

4. Stavesacre - MCMXCV - Back in the late 1990s, Christian music label Tooth and Nail was releasing anything and everything they could: pop punk, shoegazer, ambient poptronica, death metal, and what I think might have been their best artist, Stavesacre, a before-their-time post-grunge pre-post-hardcore band headed by Mark Salomon, one of the most enigmatic singers and lyricists of his generation.

Stavesacre was one of my favourite bands in those early years of exploring music, but I don't know that I really got as much as I could out of their music; after all, there was an aspect of the life experience expressed in their lyrics and even in the gravitas of Salomon's distinctive delivery that I don't think I could actually understand as a teenager. Still, "Gold and Silver" from their 1999 album Speakeasy remains one of my favourite songs of all time, and I constantly find myself coming back to their early music, since it still holds up almost two decades later.

So, with that praise in mind, you can imagine my sheer joy at adding new songs to that well-tested existing catalog. The only way this album could have gone wrong is if it didn't sound like Stavesacre anymore, but that is certainly not the case. More than any other album I can recall in recent memory, this album sounds like it belongs to a different time. MCMXCV ("1995" to match the band's starting date, natch) is a throwback to their early days, and it's like the band never stopped recording. There are some great songs here, and I am really excited to hear how these songs grow and change over the next few years.

3. Foo Fighters - Concrete and Gold - I wrote about my history with the Foos at length last November after watching Sonic Highways - the HBO documentary series about the recording of their last album which revitalized my interest in the band - so I am not going to rehash it here, except to say that Concrete and Gold is another typical Foo Fighters album, which is mostly a good thing. They continue to be the torch-holders for the ever-fading rock 'n roll scene, and they are trying harder than anyone else to keep dads everywhere rocking out.

The album as a whole is more political than many of their previous albums, but I think the best tracks on this album are the ones that have more direct application to current world conditions. There are a few relatively forgettable tracks peppered throughout the album - none of which are "bad", per se, and any of which are still far better than those by many other rock bands - but there are also a couple of absolutely killer tracks on this album that immediately stand out as Foo classics: "The Sky is a Neighbourhood"; "Run"; and "Dirty Water" among them.

As I was considering which previous Foo albums this album most resembled, I at first considered their 2007 release Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace, as it has a similarly mellow feel throughout most of the album. But as I have listened to it more and more, I have recognized the DNA of their 1997 album The Colour and the Shape (which is still arguably their best album to date) spliced throughout this album. I think the best way to describe Concrete and Gold, actually, is that it has the emotional youthful angst of Colour as filtered through the experience of Echoes. And like those releases, I will be really interested to see how these songs age both on their own and as a package, and I am inclined to guess that Concrete and Gold is actually one of those albums that will get better with time.

2. MuteMath - Play Dead - MuteMath has long been my standard answer to the question (particularly from other music fans) as to which of my favourite artists is continually underrated and takes the titles of "the band that you probably do not know but to whom you should be listening". I have been a fan of MuteMath since before their beginning (back in the days when some of their members were part of the electronica-funk-rap hybrid artist Earthsuit in the year 2000), and their live show remains one of the best I have ever seen.

The band has changed all of its members except for lead singer Paul Meany over the years, so it's arguable that the MuteMath who exists now is not really even the same band any more, but the continued leadership of Meany has resulted in a clear trajectory that has resulted in Play Dead, which is easily the band's most synth-heavy and yet its most mellow album since their eponymous debut over a decade ago.

I have to admit that it's taking some getting used to this new album, perhaps because MuteMath has consistently ranked among my favourite artists for a long time. I tend to prefer the band's up-tempo work, and this album does not seem to include the kinds of frenetic pulsating pushers that were featured on previous albums. There are a couple of points ("Break the Fever", in particular) when it seems like the album will pick up the pace, but it doesn't quite get there.

But I think it's important to value the albums that artists release, rather than ruminating on what I might have wanted to hear, so I am spending more time really listening to this album to try to understand and appreciate it - and I am. This is one of those albums that is really making more of an impression on me each time I listen to it, and I think it might actually emerge as one of my favourites of the year and possibly of the band, which is saying something. This is a very mature and accomplished record, and I am really enjoying spending time listening to it.

1. U2 - "The Blackout" and "You're The Best Thing About Me" (from the upcoming album Songs of Experience) - Perhaps this is cheating, since U2's album will not drop until December 1, but it should come as no surprise that my September was dominated by the new songs released by my favourite band. I already extemporized extensively about U2's new songs in a recent post, but what has really struck me in the weeks since - other than the fact that the media blitz has started three months before the release of the new album, possibly to rehabilitate their image after the bad taste left by the iTunes debacle of Songs of Innocence - is that I really love having a new U2 single getting airplay on the radio.

And even though I know that the band and their visuals have become a bit cliché over the past four (!) decades, I could not help but be moved by their latest video, which is essentially a love letter to New York (a city in which Bono keeps an apartment), but also to the idea of America, as demonstrated in the shots of the Statue of Liberty and the closing recitation of the famous inscription on Liberty Island. The band still seems as creatively vital as ever, and I can't wait to hear the rest of the album.


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