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.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Pan-nerd-a's Box

I was playing some games with a friend recently (surprise, surprise), and I pulled out one of my long-time favourites, San Juan, the card game version of the now-classic game Puerto Rico. I had been wanting to play it lately, and it was only after I picked it out to play that I realized that my inspiration was the unfortunate fact that San Juan and Puerto Rico have been in the news in recent weeks.

Just before we played what turned out to be an enjoyable round of the game, I was curious as to whether I had kept the scoresheets from previous rounds. I lifted the plastic insert out to see that I had in fact perfectly preserved my history of the game, as I had kept the scoresheets from every round that I had played since I acquired the game, including the span in which my wife won nine games in a row (!) when we first played it.

But I realized something else as I looked at the scores I had recorded: I had played the game far more than the 16 plays I had recorded on BoardGameGeek. I had, in, fact, played the game 33 times previously, and this was my 34th play, rather than my 17th. That change would vault San Juan from being tied for my 25th most played game to being my 5th most played game, which certainly seems more in line with my experience of the game.

In most of my earlier recordings of my plays on BGG, I did not include any details about scores, players, locations, or even the number of games played in one sitting for shorter games like San Juan. The BGG app I had at the time was not very effective - if at all - for recording such details, and I was just learning what kind of information I would want in the future, so I wasn't including most of that information in my plays. I do not often go into my BGG history to add or change details, but in this case, I knew I could easily go back and change the details of those plays because I had the scores in front of me.

So I was now left with a very nerdy dilemma, as I also knew that adding those plays into my history would also affect the progression of my board game H-index - the number of games I had played a particular number of times - which I had spent many nerdy hours tabulating and calculating back in June. Sure, I could add these newly discovered plays in for true accuracy, but then I would be opening up a Pandora's Box of nerdiness - a "Pan-nerd-a's Box", if you will. You can probably guess what happened next.

The Pan-nerd-ica opens

I spent the next hour and a half after that realization refiguring my H-index with the new information in order to determine how it changed: which games were on the list at each level, when games were added or dropped from the list, and how much earlier I would have achieved each level of my H-index as a result. There were a few changes to my revised H-index list: a couple of games entered or re-entered at different points; the dates shifted earlier at a few points; and one game - Saint Petersburg - no longer appeared on my H-index at any point.

But many of the qualitative observations I made in that exhaustive post at the end of June remain very similar. The games on my H-index still tend to be shorter, more accessible games that still have a significant strategic element, with a few fillers and a couple of more complex games thrown in for good measure. There was still a palpable shift in 2016 when I started paying attention to this metric and I started being more deliberate about playing the games that would advance my H-index. 

After making the adjustments with the re-evaluated plays of San Juan, it seemed as though I still had one other game to play once before achieving an H-index of 21, so I was happy that now my parallel H-index timelines had converged and that I could move forward in peace...until I had another realization: if I had done this mis-recording for San Juan, it was possible that I might have similarly mis-recorded my plays of other games. The Pan-nerd-a's Box creaked open a little further...

Standardizing my "plays"

I soon realized that most of my previously ignored plays were of simple two-player games with minimal set-up and quick and easy replay that tend to be incredibly easy to set up again after playing and quick to replay due to the lower player count. In part because the games are so short, I had figured at the time that it would be easier and perhaps more consistent with longer games to record just one play of the game even if there were multiple rounds of play, but I now realize that this adaptation was not consistent even within the shorter games, and sometimes even within the records of the same game.

At that point, I spent another hour and a half going through the history of my plays and working to standardize the whole list as much as I could, with the goal that my play history would all be recorded the same way after the process was complete. That meant that a "play" would be recorded as the period from set-up to scoring, whereas I had often previously included multiple games in one "play", as I had with San Juan.

In the end, aside from San Juan, about fifteen other games were affected by my re-evaluation of my plays. Most were only minimally changed, with games such as Blokus Duo, Eminent Domain: Microcosm, Friday, Hanabi, Hey, That's My Fish!, Jaipur, King of Tokyo, and Sushi Go! each having only a play or two added to each list. A number of other shorter but strategic games made some not insignificant jumps in play count as a result of these changes.

I added a few plays of Battle Line, which also affected the progression of my H-index. Hive and Lost Cities jumped several plays each. But even games that I only started playing last year, such as The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game, OctoDice, and Patchwork jumped anywhere between two and five plays due to even recent inconsistencies in my recording of plays.

Two of the three biggest jumps in play count also ultimately affected my H-index. Splendor jumped by six plays to retake its top five spot in my all-time rankings. Star Realms, which I thought had seemed low at only 14 recorded plays, jumped up seven plays to 21 to join the list. But the biggest jump came for The Game (2015), a fun filler that went from 11 to 21 to join my list, since most of my plays had included multiple games of the simple fifteen-minute card game.

(As an aside, it did not appear that 7 Wonders or Dominion - two of my most-played games in my first two years of recording plays - were affected by this disparity, which I found slightly surprising at first; then again, my early records do not include any I information beyond the game and the date, so it's possible that I still missed a play or two. I guess I can live with that, though, as I can only deal with the data I have. But I digress.)

Determining my "true" H-index

Of course, these further adjustments to the plays of these games mandated that I go back once again and re-evaluate my history to determine my true H-index even further than I had already calculated with the adjustments from San Juan, which then took another few hours. (I'm not sure what's more surprising: how much time this whole process took, or how little I noticed the time it took because I enjoyed it so much.)

After re-evaluating the aforementioned adjustments, there were a few more small alterations to my H-index; some of the dates were pushed back even a little earlier, a couple of games disappeared from the list at a couple of points, and I discovered that I had already achieved my H-index of 21 (as opposed to being one play short), thanks to newly counted plays of The Game, Jaipur, San Juan, and Star Realms. (They replaced Glory to Rome, Kingdom Builder, and Lords of Waterdeep on my list.)

I am now, with my newly figured H-index, currently only six plays short of achieving an H-index of 22, which was one of my board game goals for the year. With my adjusted totals, I now have eight games that have 21 plays each, so that goal will be easy to accomplish - as it seems that future H-index levels will be made easier thanks to these added plays.

The future of my H-index

At the point at which I wrote my previous post after my initial evaluation of my H-index (a discussion which has now been rendered obsolete by these new additions), I had also included a section in which I had identified eighty games as possible future entries into my H-index. Of those eighty games I had listed, four - as aforementioned, The Game, Jaipur, San Juan, and Star Realms - have already factored into my newly figured H-index, so I decided to redo this list as well.

I finalized a list of seventy games after removing a few and adding in a few games after the summer, so here are the games that I think are most likely to be added to my H-index at some point, listed according to their relative weight (party/social, filler, short strategy, family/strategy, and complex) and the likelihood of joining the list (very likely, somewhat likely, and possible). It should come as no surprise that I own all but eight games on this list, and seven of those are likely to be purchased as soon as I can manage.

Five games that will likely re-enter my H-index at some point: At the Gates of Loyang; Glory to Rome; Kingdom Builder; Lords of Waterdeep; The Resistance

Ten next most likely games to enter my H-index: 7 Wonders: Duel; The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game; Codenames; Eminent Domain; Istanbul; Kingdomino; OctoDice; Patchwork; Tiny Epic Galaxies; Villages of Valeria

Social/Party Games (10)

Very likely: Codenames; The Resistance (2)

Somewhat likely: Anomia; Coup; Dixit (3)

Possible: Apples to Apples; Codenames: Pictures; Dutch Blitz; Eggs and Empires; Get Bit! (5)

Filler/Light Games (15)

Very likely: Biblios; Ingenious; Lost Cities; Patchwork; Rook (5)

Somewhat likely: Hey, That's My Fish!; Hive; NMBR 9; Red7; Sushi Go! (5)

Possible: Can't Stop; Coloretto; Flip City; For Sale; Monkey (5)

Short Strategy Games (15)

Very likely: 7 Wonders: Duel; The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game; Eminent Domain; OctoDice; Tiny Epic Galaxies; Villages of Valeria (6)

Somewhat likely: Friday; The Grizzled; Harbour; Mottainai; Oh My Goods!; Paperback (6)

Possible: Century: Spice Road; Chrononauts; Samurai (3)

Family/Strategy Games (15)

Very likely: Istanbul (1)

Somewhat likely: Between Two Cities; Pandemic: The Cure; Saint Petersburg; Scoville; Ticket to Ride; Europe; Takenoko; Tokaido (7)

Possible: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small; Cacao; King of New York; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Machi Koro; Medieval Academy (7)

Complex Games (15)

Very likely: At the Gates of Loyang: Galaxy Trucker; Orléans (3)

Somewhat likely: Cosmic Encounter; Glass Road; Le Havre; Imperial Settlers; T.I.M.E Stories; Village; Viticulture (7)

Possible: Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Elysium; Macao; Notre Dame; Roll for the Galaxy (5)


I am now satisfied that my list of games played is much more in consistent throughout my recording history and more reflective of how much I have played certain games relative to one another. I don't think it really matters that I played some games several times in a sitting; what matters is how many times in total I have played each game, regardless of the circumstances and timing of those plays.

It's kind of ridiculous to realize that only two short years ago that I celebrated my thousandth play and wrote about it extensively here - and yes, I realize that my additions from this post have invalidated those findings, but I have decided that I am not going to go back and alter any previous updates or analytical posts about my plays.

I have decided now that I will not go back and rework my play history any further, as I am now much more settled with where things are at and confident that my play history is now standardized as much as it can be, so I am certain that any future milestones, such as 2000 plays (which is now squarely in my sights for early January or even late December at my current pace of playing games, thanks to these extra six dozen plays I just added in) or any future progressions of my H-index will be authentic at the time.

And so, to conclude, here is my updated list of my most played games, which now reflects my new play counts:

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)
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 / Lords of Waterdeep / Star Realms (21)
25. Istanbul (19)
26. At the Gates of Loyang (18)
27. The Resistance (17)
28. Eminent Domain  / Galaxy Trucker (16)
30. Alhambra / Codenames / Saint Petersburg (15)

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Turner Games Q3 Update

It's funny how the season that in theory is the least busy in my schedule - ie. summer, when I am typically not actively employed - ends up being the busiest and the fullest time of the year in some respects. I would still consider it to be a successful few months of gaming, as I managed to play a lot of games between July 1 and September 30 - even after starting a new job at the end of August - although I did not achieve nearly as much as I wanted to on my game designs or in my writing about board game.

I did, however, write a couple of posts on the Regina Game Forge page in August about my progress (or lack thereof) on my designs: Arrested Development, which was about the emotional challenges of game design; and Time Stories, which was about having too much to do in design and too little time in which to do it. I am also quite excited about getting back into some design in the coming months. But for now, I'll take some time and review what happened over the past few months of board gaming.

Goals for 2017 - Update!

1. 400 plays during the year, including 30 plays in each month. I am still very much on track for this goal with 100 plays this quarter and 315 plays through 9 months for a projected total of 420 plays, which will likely be higher since the last quarter of the year tends to be very productive in terms of plays.

2. Play 100 new games during the year. I am just barely behind pace for the year with 72 new games played, although I have also played 12 new expansions as well. I think I can get this one done just on games alone, so I'm still going to try and push for this goal.

3. Play 20 of my Top 25 to PlayI have stalled out at 13 played from this list since the end of July, so I'm going to have to prioritize the five I know I could play (due to access), as well as finding a way to access two of the other seven. I think this might not happen after all, and I may have to be more strategic about my list next year.

4. Play 10 out of my 20 leftover Top to Play games. I have played only three from this list at this point, so I'm thinking I might not make this one - and then, of course, it looks like I will add a few more to this list at the end of the year, too.

5. Play 20 out of my Top 25 to Replay. I have replayed only two games from this list so far, so I'm guessing this one will not happen, even though I want it to.

6. Increase my h-index to 22. I came up just three plays short of 21 at the end of the quarter, so I should hit it very soon. It will only take another ten plays of certain games to hit 22 before the end of the year, so it is still very doable - as long as I prioritize playing those certain games.

7. Attend a convention. Here's hoping it happens this fall!

8. Publish Pot O' Gold. It's still in the works, but it's not going to happen this year.

9. Finish the prototype of First Past the Post. Accomplished in Q2 and redesigned in Q3.

10. Start a game design / review website. went live on May 5, so this is accomplished!

Games Played

Games played this quarter from my Top 25 to play: Cottage Garden; Lorenzo il Magnifico (2)

Games played this quarter from previous "Top to Play" lists: Glen More (1)

Other games played this quarter from my "Want to Play" list: Animals on Board; Century: Spice Road; Chariot Race; Eight-Minute Empire; Eight-Minute Empire: Legends; Inis; Lords of Vegas; Mystic Vale; NMBR 9; Potion Explosion; Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age; Ulm; Vault Wars (13)

Other new games played this quarter: Can't Stop; Codenames Duet; Fabled Fruit; FUSE; Plato 3000; Time Pirates (6)

New expansions played this quarter from my "Want to Play" list: Kingdom Builder: Marshlands; Race for the Galaxy: Xeno Invasion; Stone Age: The Expansion; Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black (4)

Other new expansions played this quarter: None

New party/social games played this quarter: Codenames Duet (1)

New filler games played this quarter: Can't Stop; FUSE; NMBR 9; Plato 3000 (4)

New light strategy games played this quarter: Century: Spice Road; Eight-Minute Empire; Eight-Minute Empire: Legends; Fabled Fruit; Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age; Vault Wars (6)

New family games played this quarter: Animals on Board; Chariot Race; Cottage Garden; Lords of Vegas; Mystic Vale; Potion Explosion; Time Pirates (7)

New family strategy games played this quarter: Glen More; Inis; Ulm (3)

New complex games played this quarter: Lorenzo il Magnifico (1)

New mega-complex games played this quarter: N/A

Favourite new light/medium games played this quarter: Can't Stop; Century: Spice Road; Codenames Duet; Cottage Garden; NMBR 9

Favourite new strategy/complex games played this quarter: Glen More; Inis; Lorenzo il Magnifico

Games played most this quarter:
1. Kingdomino (7)
2. King of Tokyo (6)
3. Biblios (5)
4. Tiny Epic Galaxies (4)
5. Can't Stop / Oh My Goods! (3)

New games played repeatedly this quarter: Animals on Board; Can't Stop; Century: Spice Road; Inis; Mystic Vale; NMBR 9 (6)

Other games played repeatedly this quarter: The Castles of Burgundy; Codenames; Coloretto; Hanabi; Innovation; Istanbul; Race for the Galaxy; Samurai; Takenoko; Viticulture (8)

Games replayed from my Top 25 to Replay List this quarter: None

Other games replayed (for a second time) this quarter: Captain Sonar; Early American Chrononauts; Honshu; Kingdomino; Terraforming Mars (5)

Expansions replayed (for a second time) this quarter: None

New games to reach three plays this quarter: Alien Frontiers; Can't Stop; Kingdomino; Roll for the Galaxy; Samurai (5)

New nickels (five total plays) this quarter: Biblios; Coloretto; Kingdomino; Monkey; Oh My Goods!; Temporum (6)

New dimes (ten total plays) this quarter: Tiny Epic Galaxies; Viticulture (2)

New quarters (25 total plays) this quarter: The Castles of Burgundy; Hanabi (2)

Most plays this year:
1. Istanbul / Kingdomino (8)
2. Jaipur / King of Tokyo (7)
3. Carcassonne  / Pot O' Gold / / Villages of Valeria / Viticulture (6)
4. Biblios / Oh My Goods! / SeaFall / Splendor (5)
5. Fleet / Hanabi / Monkey / Pandemic: The Cure / Rook / Takenoko / Tiny Epic Galaxies (4)

All-time most plays as of the end of this quarter:
1. 7 Wonders (69)
2. Pandemic (44)
3. Race for the Galaxy (42)
4. King of Tokyo (41)
5. Splendor (31)
6. Carcassonne (29)
7. Dominion / Hanabi (26)
9. Agricola / The Castles of Burgundy (25)
11. Flash Point: Fire Rescue (23)
12. Innovation / Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 / Pot O' Gold (22)
15. Citadels / Fleet  / Kingdom Builder / Lords of Waterdeep (21)
17. Battle Line / Glory to Rome / Jaipur (20)
22. Istanbul (19)
23. At the Gates of Loyang (18)
24. The Resistance (17)
25. Eminent Domain / San Juan (16)
27. Alhambra / Codenames / Galaxy Trucker / Saint Petersburg (15)
31. Orléans / Star Realms / T.I.M.E Stories (14)

Want to play

Games added to my "Want to Play" list this quarter: Agra; Altiplano; Atlas: Enchanted Lands; Azul; Caverna: Cave vs. Cave; The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game; Clank! In! Space!; The Flow of History; The Gaia Project; Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle; Harvest; Indian Summer; Merlin; Monad; Montana; NMBR9; Nusfjord; Pandemic Legacy: Season 2; Pandemic: Rising Tide; Photosynthesis; Queendomino; Reworld; Transatlantic (23)

Party/social games added this quarter: None

Filler/light games added this quarter: NMBR9; Queendomino (2)

Light strategy games added this quarter: Atlas: Enchanted Lands; The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game; Harvest; Monad (4)

Family games added this quarter: Azul; Clank! In! Space!; Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle; Indian Summer; Pandemic: Rising Tide (5)

Family strategy games added this quarter: Caverna: Cave vs. Cave; Photosynthesis (2)

Complex games added this quarter: Agra; Altiplano; The Flow of History; The Gaia Project; Merlin; Montana; Nusfjord; Pandemic Legacy: Season 2; Reworld; Transatlantic (10)

Expansions added this quarter: Between Two Cities: Capitals; Cities of Splendor; Core Worlds: Revolution; Eminent Domain: Oblivion; Isle of Skye: Journeyman; Mottainai: Wutai Mountain; Oh My Goods!: Longsdale in Revolt; Oh My Goods!: Escape To Canyon Brook; The Fellowship of Marco Polo (9)

Games and expansions removed from my "Want to Play" list this quarter: Alea Iacta Est; Firefly: Out to the Black; Insidious Sevens; Liguria; London Markets; Nautilus Industries; Nippon; Sail Away; Seven7s; Signorie; Spyfall 2; Subdivision; Tower; Tyrants of the Underdark; Via Nebula; Wasabi!; What's He Building In There? (17)

Changes to my collection

Games acquired this quarter: Back to the Future: An Adventure Through Time; Concept; Eight-Minute Empire; Honshu; Innovation Deluxe; Kingdomino; Mahjong; Mega Man Pixel Tactics: Red; Mega Man Pixel Tactics: Orange; Monad; Quixo; Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age with Mediterranean Expansion; Samurai; Space Alert; Tides of Time; Tiny Epic Quest (17)

Large expansions acquired this quarter: Alien Frontiers: Factions; Alien Frontiers: Outer Belt; Innovation: Artifacts of History; Innovation: Cities of Destiny; Kingdom Builder: Marshlands; Lanterns: The Emperor's Gifts (6)

Promo (mini/small) expansions acquired this quarter: 7 Wonders: Leaders - Phryne (Alternate Art Promo); Alien Frontiers: 2017 Promo Pack, Expansion Packs #2-7, and Faction Packs #1-4; Codenames: Authors and Games; Core Worlds: Alternate Art Heroes; Core Worlds: The Stronghold; Finca: El Razul; Imperial Settlers - Aztecs Common Cards; Imperial Settlers - Ruins; Imperial Settlers - Storage Tiles; Isle of Skye: Adjacency Scrolls; Isle of Skye: Themenplattchen; Istanbul: Caravan Leader; King of Tokyo: Fish Market; Medieval Academy: Galanttry and Magic; Star Fluxx: Robo-Doc; Star Realms: Rescue Run; Terraforming Mars: Small Asteroid; Tiny Epic Quest: Quest for the Golden Mushrooms; Xenon Profiteer: Tactics and Profiteers (29)

Games and expansions liquidated from my collection this quarter: Bananagrams; Gone Viking!; Keyflower: Key Celeste (promo); Scrabble Slam!; That's Life!; Valley of the Kings (6)

Games, expansions, and promos pre-ordered (other than Kickstarter): Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 (Nov); Terraforming Mars with Hellas and Elysium and Venus Next expansions (Nov)

Kickstarters that arrived this quarter: Alien Frontiers: Factions, Outer Belt, 2017 Promo Pack, and 10 expansions; Innovation Deluxe; Tiny Epic Quest (3)

Kickstarters ordered this quarter (with target arrival date): Flash Point: Fire Rescue - Tragic Events (Nov); Mint Delivery and Mint Works (May); The Networks (May) and The Executives expansion (July); Star Realms: Frontiers (with 9 expansions) (Dec)

Kickstarters still on order from previous quarters (with expected arrival date): Hardback and Paperback expansion (Oct); Ladder 29 (Oct)

Games added to my wish list this quarter:The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game; Queendomino (2)

Expansions added to my wish list this quarter: 7 Wonders: Cities and Leaders Anniversary Packs; Eminent Domain: Oblivion; Isle of Skye: Journeyman; Oh My Goods!: Longsdale in Revolt (5)

Small (mini/promo) expansions added to my "Want in Trade" list this quarter: Imperial Settlers: Golden Route and Declaration of War; Orléans: Drawbridge; Thief's Market: Narrow Alleyway; Thief's Market: Purported Curse; Thief's Market: WUT (5)

Here's the updated shelfie for posterity:

In the Queue

This is a new section in which I am attempting to break down some of my yearly goals and to quantify and qualify some of the immediate goals of playing or replaying various games in my collection and from my lists. I hope this might make it easier to see my progress on some of those lists or goals (or lack thereof) and to see progress on a smaller level than on a yearly basis.

I am interested to see how/if this works to help motivate me and how it might change some of my intentions over the next quarter. Its presence may change very little, or it might change a lot; finding out is most of the fun. Either way, it gives me a few more lists, as well as some games to target over the next three months. In all cases, I have done my best to make the goals achievable by choosing games that are available in either my collection or the collections of others.

New games to play from my collection: Back to the Future: An Adventure Through Time; Incan Gold; Mega Man: Pixel Tactics; Monad; Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age; Space Alert; Tiny Epic Quest (7)

New expansions to play from my collection: Core Worlds: Revolution; Fresco: 8, 9, and 10; Galaxy Trucker: Another Big Expansion; Innovation: Artifacts of History; Innovation: Cities of Destiny; Innovation: Figures in the Sand (6)

Top ten games to pull off the shelf and replay: Cosmic Encounter; Eminent Domain; Le Havre: The Inland Port; Ora et Labora; The Princes of Florence; Ra; San Juan; Tides of Time; Tikal; The Voyages of Marco Polo

Top games to play: Burgle Bros.; Carson City; Caverna: Cave vs. Cave; CO2; Dungeon Petz; First Class; Kanban; Lisboa; Pandemic Iberia; Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu; Vinhos (11)

Top (non-owned) complex games to replay for a second time: Concordia; The Gallerist; La Granja; Grand Austria Hotel; Great Western Trail (5)

Top small/medium games to buy: Cacao; The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game; Codenames Duet; The Grizzled; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Queendomino (6)

Top large games to buy: Roll for the Galaxy (+ Ambition); Shakespeare (+ Backstage)

Top small expansions to buy: 7 Wonders: Leaders and Cities Anniversary Packs (2)

Top large expansions to buy: Between Two Cities: Capitals; Cacao: Chocolatl; Cities of Splendor; Imperial Settlers: Aztecs; Pandemic: The Cure - Experimental Meds (5)

Looking forward to Quarter 4

Essen/Spiel - Although I will not get to go to Germany for Spiel since it happens in October (at least as long as I'm a teacher), I still get to enjoy all of the buzz and new games that are released in time for the biggest gaming convention there is, even though many of them will not arrive on this side of the Atlantic until the new year.

Play With Your Food - The 24-hour board-game-a-thon that concludes our annual fundraiser for our local homeless shelter takes place on the third weekend of October. This will be my third year participating, but my first in which I will have a job to go back to after the weekend, so I'm interested to see how it goes.

Terraforming Mars with expansions - I have pre-ordered the base game as well as the current and upcoming expansions for one of my favourite new games of the past year, Terraforming Mars, so I am very excited to play Venus Next sometime in November!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Q3 2017 Pop Culture Update

This summer was one of the driest in history for our region, which made it really hard to keep a garden alive and growing. We still got some good produce and some good canning and freezing out of our garden, but there was just as much (if not more) that our garden was not able to produce as a result of the unrelenting heat. At the same time, it has also meant that we had to spend less time and effort than we are used to on maintaining and processing everything from our garden.

The metaphor applies to my experience of pop culture over the past quarter. Aside from a couple of new movies in early July and a bunch of new albums in September, it was also a fairly dry season in terms of new pop culture. I used a bit of that time to do some catching up - although, as usual, not as much as I would have liked - but it was really nice to not have to spend a lot more time and energy on keeping up with things, just like it was nice to have a bit of a break from the garden.

What I experienced

Baby Driver - In short, I really enjoyed it.

Black Mirror (Series 1-2) - I finished the first two series of this twisted technological contemporary Twilight Zone and loved them; now I just need to finish the third batch of episodes before the new episodes are released.

Doctor Who (Series 10, BBC) - Although I think that Peter Capaldi is my favourite Doctor, I think this was his worst season. There were a couple of great episodes - the two-parter featuring the Monks in particular - but mostly this season was a miss, which is unfortunate. I am very

Dunkirk - One of the greatest theatre movie experiences I have had in a long time and one of Nolan's best films. Rewatchings and awards season will help to cement its legacy, but I think it will be regarded as one of the best films of the year.

New music - There was a lot of new music to hear, but the albums that I listened to the most were Stavesacre's MCMXCV, MuteMath's Play Dead, and the Foo Fighters' Concrete and Gold. More on them later, but suffice to say that I enjoyed them all - but not nearly as much as I loved listening to U2's new songs, of course.

Shauna Niequist - I read Bittersweet and Bread and Wine - both of which resonated significantly with me - so I look forward to reading her other books.

Revisionist History (Season 2) - Malcolm Gladwell's podcast returned for season 2 with a renewed focus on racial inequality, and it was better for being more personal. It's a must-listen for

Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) - I started with Annihilation in preparation of the upcoming film directed by Alex Garland, and I just kept on reading from there through one of the more interesting "weird fiction" series of recent memory.

Spider-Man: Homecoming - I probably enjoyed this more than I should have, but I really liked how it rebooted Spider-Man and made his story into a high school movie. Also, Michael Keaton was amazing.

Also: Chuck Klosterman - XSplit

What I missed

Broadchurch (Season 3, BBC) - I'm sure I'll catch it on Netflix sometime.

The Dark Tower - Ditto.

New music - As I mentioned, there was a lot of new music this last month, so I missed a few albums, such as The Lone Bellow's Walk Into A Storm, The Killers' Wonderful Wonderful, Macklemore's Gemini, and The National's Sleep Well Beast, among others.

The Stone Sky - I only became aware of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy when The Obelisk Gate won the 2017 Hugo, but I am looking forward to reading the whole series, including this final book that was released this past quarter.

The Tick (Season 1, Amazon) - Peter Serafinowicz brings back the titular blue hero in another live-action adaptation. SPOOOOOOOOOOOONNNN!

Wind River - Taylor Sheridan's directorial debut received some strong reviews, so I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Also on my radar but missed: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Season 2, Sundance); Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; War for the Planet of the Apes

What I skipped

The Deuce (Season 1, HBO) - Although David Simon is a draw, I just don't need to watch this particular show about porn in '70s New York.

Marvel's The Defenders (Season 1, Netflix) - I'm still holding to my decision to avoid Marvel's small screen projects.

New summer TV shows - Nothing new and exciting like Stranger Things in 2016 or Mr. Robot in 2015, despite some contenders: Ozark (Season 1, Netflix); Snowfall (Season 1, FX); Will (Season 1, TNT).

In the Queue

The ongoing list of the top items in my pop culture queue, which is updated every quarter (often from items that I have missed). An asterisk (*) indicates a new addition to the list.

Movies: Get Out; LoganManchester by the SeaMoonlightO.J.: Made in America; Wind River*

Television top five: Black Mirror (Series 3)*; The Handmaid's Tale (Season 1); Sherlock (Season 4); The Tick (Season 1)*; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 3)

Television backlog: Broadchurch (Season 2-3); The Hour (Season 1-2); Master of None (Season 1-2); Morton and HayesTop of the Lake (Season 1)

Television projects*: Curb Your Enthusiasm; Parks and Recreation (Season 5-7); Star Trek: The Original Series; The West WingThe Wire

Television to investigate: BoJack Horseman (Season 1-4); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Season 1); GLOW (Season 1); Great News (Season 1); The Man in the High Castle (Season 1-2); The OA (Season 1); Superstore (Season 1-2); The Young Pope (Season 1)*

Video Games: Chrono Trigger (DS); Earthbound (SNES); The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D (3DS); Pikmin 3 (Wii U); Splatoon 2 (Switch)*

Non-Fiction Books: Brené Brown - Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection; Bruxy Cavey - (Re)union*; Shauna Niequest - Present Before Perfect*; Matthew Paul Turner - Provocative Faith; Ann Voskamp - The Broken Way and One Thousand Gifts

Fiction Books: N.K. Jemison - The Broken Earth trilogy*; Kim Stanley Robinson -Mars trilogy

Looking forward to Quarter 4

Andy Weir - Artemis (November 17) - Weir's new novel - his first since The Martian - has not been released yet, and it has already been optioned for a movie version by Lord and Miller.

Blade Runner 2049 (October 6) - Natch.

Downsizing (December 22) - Alexander Payne's new movie about shrinking people could be fun satire.

The Good Place (Season 2, NBC, September 28) - Season 1 was a delight, and I'm really looking forward to more philosophy

Molly's Game (November 22) - Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut.

Mr. Robot (Season 3, USA, October 11) - I caught up in the off season, so I'm looking forward to being part of the zeitgeist as it unfolds this time.

Phantom Thread (December 25) - The new Paul Thomas Anderson movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his final role.

Star Trek: Discovery (Season 1, CBS All-Access, September 24) - It has great reviews so far.

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch, October 27) - Now I just need to buy a Switch.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (December 15) - It's time for the Jedi to end.

Stranger Things (Season 2, Netflix, October 27) - I think I'm more excited about this than any other returning show this fall, so I guess that's that weekend shot.

Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers (September 27) - I'm not sure I like the new theme, but I'm always in for an interesting cast, and I think this one will be very interesting.

Thor: Ragnarok (November 3) - [Goes to watch the first trailer again.]

John Green - Turtles All The Way Down (October 10) - It has been far too long since we had a new John Green novel to read, and I imagine this will send me on a Green binge.

U2 - Songs of Experience (December 1) - [Goes to watch the video for "You're the Best Thing About Me" again.]

Also: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 5, Fox, September 26); Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 9, HBO, Oct. 1); Darkest Hour (November 24); The Death of Stalin (October 20); Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Season 2, Netflix, October 14); The Disaster Artist (December 8); The Killing of a Sacred Deer (November 3); Pitch Perfect 3 (December 22); The Shape of Water (December 9); Suburbicon (November 3); Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (November 10); Tin Star (Season 1, Amazon, September 29)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Top Ten Upcoming Movies (Fall 2017)

There's a certain lull that often occurs in the cineplex for two months of the year, between the release of the final summer blockbuster in early August and the onset of thrillers and Oscar hopefuls at the end of September. This year, that general lull was shattered by the somewhat unpredictable and definitely unprecedented success of It last weekend, though it still remains the case that my own sights shifted to the fall once I saw Dunkirk, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Baby Driver in the course of the last week of July.

There may, of course, be a few movies I catch later on Netflix - absolutely Wind River, definitely The Big Sick, probably The Dark Tower, and maybe War for the Planet of the Apes - but there was nothing else sufficient enough to draw my attention and attendance to the local screens in the meantime.

That will change, of course, when the fall movie season starts in October. The final three months of the year are often among the most fertile for me, what with their mix of thinky sci-fi, long-awaited passion projects, Oscar front-runners, and crowd-pleasing blockbusters. (Some movies, by the way, somehow find a way to fit into all four of those categories - namely Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival in the last four years, respectively.)

So I present my top ten movies I am currently looking forward to this fall, without the benefit of much awards buzz to infect my thinking - although the first Oscar Futures column went up earlier this week, so there is some minimal influence there already. Although, to be fair, I often find that I rarely end up watching "awards season" movies that were not already on my radar for some reason, and as a result, my "to watch" list is littered with movies that I felt I wanted to see because they were lauded during awards season but for which I had little intrinsic interest either before or since their time in the spotlight.

And now, with all that preamble out of the way, let's start with a movie that I have little desire to see at all, just because it would not feel right not to mention it, even if my only mention is disparaging.

(Dis)honourable mention

Justice League (November 17) - I could not go a whole post without mentioning this would-be world-beater, but neither could I muster the wherewithal to attempt to justify ranking it in my top ten (or at all, for that matter). I have little to no desire to see this movie, and I cannot imagine paying full price to see it in theatres after the incomprehensible Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the absymally adolescent Suicide Squad, and the somewhat pedestrian Wonder Woman (I know I am in the minority on that last one, but I stand by my dismissal of the movie on its own, as opposed to the cultural phenomenon it became).

Despite reports that Joss Whedon was brought in to fix up JL after Zack Snyder had to bow out for personal reasons, but it still seems to me that what Chris Ryan of The Ringer and The Watch podcast said about the movie upon the release of its first trailer will remain true: "it looks like Avengers, but a pile of..." Yup.

The Wild Cards

There were three movies that have intrigued me but that I just could not fit onto my list. They might be great - even Oscar bait - or they might not, but here are my three wild cards I'm keeping half an eye on over the next couple of months.

Darkest Hour (November 22) - Joe Wright (Atonement) has an interesting enough filmography to warrant some attention on his own name (Pan notwithstanding), but it's the transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill that makes Oldman the leading Best Actor candidate right now and may position this movie into a competition with Dunkirk for Best Picture.

The Disaster Artist (December 8) - I have not yet watched The Room, but it looks like this passion project from James Franco captures both the spirit of its source material as well as the zany kind of Ed Wood feel that it needs to have in order to work.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (November 3) - The Lobster was one of last year's most interesting movies, so I knew that I would be interested in the next effort from director/writer Yorgos Lanthimos. I really have no idea what this movie will be about, but it could be very fascinating.

10. Suburbicon (November 3) - It seemed like movie this would be a slam dunk - written by the Coens and directed by George Clooney - but as with other projects that the Coens have half-heartedly abandoned, it seems like it might not really work (at least from early critical reactions). It looks like there will be some interesting ideas here, and the lead cast - Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac - are definitely a pull for me, but I'll admit that my anticipation of this movie has dropped over the past few weeks.

9. The Shape of Water (December 8) - Guillermo del Toro returns to "prestige" film-making with a sci-fi romance with what looks to be some promising performances from Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon in particular. This movie got a great reception at TIFF, and I'm certainly interested to see how it plays out and whether it can gain the kind of momentum it would need to put del Toro into the Best Picture conversation he belonged in over a decade ago for Pan's Labyrinth.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (November 10) - I have not yet watched Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, even though it has often been recommended to me, but his attachment to this new film was enough to pique my interest despite that gap in my viewing history. I have now repeatedly watched this very hilarious NSFW Red Band trailer in which Frances McDormand repeatedly cusses out the entire police force of a small town, and I laugh more every time I watch it.

For the record, this is my early dark horse for a movie that might become a surprise Oscar contender and possibly even a Best Picture nominee if it is received well; I have a strong suspicion that McDormand will be nominated, and that Sam Rockwell might finally earn his first nomination for his role.

7. The Death of Stalin (September 8) - Armando Iannucci returns to the movies after his incredible stint on Veep (the show's first four seasons) with this slapstick satire set in post-Stalin Russia. It looks very funny, very historically inaccurate, and very profane, according to what is shown in this NSFW trailer.

6. Molly's Game (November 22) - Aaron Sorkin, one of my favourite screenwriters, makes his directorial debut in his version of the true story of Molly Bloom, a woman who ran a high-stakes poker game. Jessica Chastain is somehow still underrated despite her incredible performance in Zero Dark Thirty, and it looks like Idris Elba turns in some great work with that vaunted Sorkin dialogue.

5. Downsizing (December 22) - This quirky and timely comedy comes from Alexander Payne, so it has the pedigree for a strong run during awards season, as Payne's last three films - Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska - all received multiple key Oscar nominations including for Picture, Directing, Writing, and at least one for Acting, so the expectations are already high for this film. The trailer looks interesting enough without giving away much of the film, and Matt Damon looks quite winsome in his role. Also, the use of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" would have been the best use of music in a trailer this year if not for one of the entries later in this list...

4. Phantom Thread (December 25) - This is the purported working title for Paul Thomas Anderson's latest project, about which we know very little other than a very generic setting and theme - a fashion designer in 1950s London - and a star: Daniel Day-Lewis in his final role before retirement (or so he claims). Anderson is one of my favorite directors, but even if he wasn't, the fact that the last partnership between him and Day-Lewis produced There Will Be Blood is more than reason enough to bump this near the top of the queue - although surprisingly low, all things considered. Then again, I have some serious fan-boy geekery coming up in the top three...

3. Thor: Ragnarok (November 3) - After Kenneth Branagh's faux-epic Thor in 2011 and the interminable and very forgettable follow-up Thor: The Dark World two years later, I was out on the god of lightning. Avengers: Age of Ultron did little to assuage my disinclination, and even the promise of Hulk in the upcoming Ragnarok barely moved the needle for me. But that all changed when I saw the first trailer.

It's completely kookoo bananas, and I loved it from the opening chords of "Immigrant Song" (that aforementioned best use of a song in a trailer). Cate Blanchett in true B.A. form destroying Thor's hammer in leather pants. Hulk and Thor in gladatorial combat. Loki hamming it up. Jeff Goldblum (!) and those retro title graphics. It looks like hiring New Zealander Taika Waititi was the right move, and I am so in.

2. Blade Runner 2049 (October 6) - There are so many ways this could have gone wrong, but it looks like everything is going right for this long-gestating sequel to one of the best sci-fi movies of all-time. They have a great director (Denis Villeneuve), an intriguing premise, a great star (Ryan Gosling), Jared Leto (which I'm counting as a plus for now), grizzled Harrison Ford (who, other than the next Indiana Jones movie, must almost be finished his IP rehashing tour by now, unless they dust Witness off), and even music that emulates the original Vangelis soundtrack. And best of all, Ridley Scott is not directing - after all, the last great movie he made was the original Blade Runner, and that was 35 years ago.

1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (December 15) - I will be honest: this is not ranked this highly because of The Force Awakens, or even because it's Star Wars, even though the success of TFA and Rogue One have provided the series with a much-needed confidence boost. The Last Jedi would have ranked in the top five of this list anyway - maybe even the top two - but what puts it on top is the presence of writer and director Rian Johnson.

Johnson is responsible for the time-consuming thriller Looper, the neo-noir Brick, and the surprisingly entertaining and underrated The Brothers Bloom, but it was his work on Breaking Bad that really sold me on his cred. First, he directed "Fly", one of the best single episodes of the series, particularly at its release in Season 3, but then he directed the third-to-final episode "Ozymandias", about which it is not a stretch to call the best episode of TV ever. And then came the incredible teaser that set the stage for The Last Jedi to become The Empire Strikes Back for the new generation of fans.

I know Star Wars has had a rough go over the past year, especially in terms of internal turmoil. Rogue One had reshoots and succeeded in spite of them (or at least in spite of the interference from Disney that they appeared to represent). Lord and Miller were booted from the Han Solo prequel and replaced with Ron Howard. And, most recently, Colin Trevorrow (who should not have been given the reins in the first place) was replaced by J.J. Abrams for the follow-up to The Last Jedi.

But all of those decisions point to one fact (other than the seemingly obvious truism that Disney should be uneasy about giving billion dollar movies to relatively unproven filmmakers like Trevorrow): they believe in Rian Johnson's vision for The Last Jedi. There has not been a peep about issues with his direction, and I think that's because there's a possibility that this might be the best Star Wars movie yet, period. And perhaps the best part is that we will have to sit with its inevitably uneasy conclusion for at least two years, not fully knowing how whatever cliffhangers Johnson sets up will be resolved by the capable Abrams. Johnson has the biggest stage possible in pop culture right now, and he will not disappoint us, which is why I am most excited to see The Last Jedi over the next few months. It's time for the Jedi to end.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The rhythms of writing

For the second week in a row, I found myself in the position of feeling an intrinsic need to write as Wednesday rolled over to Thursday. It certainly was not a conscious plan to sit down and write, nor was it an urge that originated from any external locus or impetus; just an internally-driven sense that I had something to say, and that even if I was not sure what that something was that I had to say something.

This push - which in part has produced this very post - made me think about the idea of writing and rhythm and creative outbursts. It is, particularly for those who have journeyed with me for much or even all of Life of Turner (a quick aside: kudos to you who have stuck around for over thirteen years of this blatherskite), a well-worn topic in these parts, though I tend to think that the constant changes in my daily circumstances more than justify my repeated self-indulgence into this topic.

Besides, even though the territory might seem familiar at first, I often find myself encountering something new in these reflective escapades, which in my mind more than justifies the amount of time I spend considering and composing them. (Not that I feel the need to justify myself in most situations anyway, but it's a comfort to think that there is a reason that I should subject my readers to such repeated ramblings. But I digress...)

Finding the beat

It seems that every time that something in my life circumstances changes that I need to find a new rhythm - and I have had no shortage of opportunities to explore this trend in my adult life, which now very slightly supersedes in length (by a few months) the amount of time I spent growing up and living at home.

In my adult years since starting university back in the fall of 2000, I have had only two calendar years in which either me and/or my wife have not experienced some kind of not-insignificant life shift - moving, changing jobs, a change in relationship status; that number lowers to one if you include starting on a church leadership team as a similarly major shift (which I do).

My life, such as it is, has been one of constant adjustment and finding the beat, as it were, only to have those processes often disrupted summarily by the conclusion of a contract or a move. I have had some success in establishing some broader patterns at times, but the goal of a constant beat has been elusive at best.

Perhaps life is actually better this way, but I suppose that I have no "control" to which to compare my experience. All I know is change and adjustment, so I cannot claim to know what it would be like to not be in such a state of flux. After all, the one year in which I did not change jobs or move was my first full year of unemployment in several years, so it was still a period of life marked by transition and instability.

And so, I have found myself again in the position of adjusting to new circumstances - in this case, a new job. It has been a great start, and I am very excited about the early progress I have made in just a few short weeks, although I have found myself surprised at how tired I have been. I find that I am having to constantly remind myself that starting all of these new relationships and initiatives and getting to know a new workplace is inherently exhausting, and that it is okay that I am crashing at the end of the day (though I feel the need to more effectively use my "useless" time on relatively passive activities like TV or video games, because of course I do).

The act of starting a new job makes every day in some way a new creative process, particularly as I am often entering the worlds of people who have things well-established by now, and I am constantly learning how to negotiate within those worlds - and even more so by the collaborative nature of my job position. It is a great challenge with a high reward factor, but it does end up taking a lot of energy as a result.

The man who would be Thursday

All of which brings me to how odd it is to have experienced not only this intrinsic need to write in two consecutive weeks in the first two weeks of September, which are two of the most intensive weeks of the school year in regard to the output required, but also to have actually been able to do it in the midst of this mentally busy season. Moreover, it is especially odd that I have felt the release to be able to incorporate writing as a functional part of my schedule without feeling as though I have had to make much of a sacrifice to do so.

Although my writing on this blog have been a consistent part of my life for most of the past thirteen years, I have rarely imposed any kind of externally derived rhythm on my process when I have blogged. My often erratically spaced method of posting new content has been subject to my desire and my availability, sometimes resulting in very creatively fertile times (like, say, October 2015 through March 2017 or so) and sometimes producing dry spells (like most summers). I wrote when I could and didn't write when I couldn't - either through circumstance or circumspection - but it always seemed as though I was subject to the whims of my writing, rather than the other way around.

But I strangely and suddenly find myself (by the way, I think I have used that phrase more often in this one post than in the past year of posts - but I digress) feeling like I can - and perhaps should and need to - attempt to adhere to some kind of publishing schedule, which is, judging by my nascently emerging circadian writing impulses, on Thursday.

Maybe it is an effective way to be able to channel my creative energy and divert enough time and focus from my other creative enterprises into my writing; or maybe it's just that I really like routine and I naturally gravitate toward it. Either way, there's a comfort in knowing that I have a week to compose my thoughts and to chip away at an idea before making it publishable, without, of course, any external expectation or pressure to do so. And even though it has only been a couple of weeks, Thursday just feels right, so my hope is to continue the trend, even if only to keep my writing chops up and to get some long-gestating ideas out into the world.

I have a backlog of half-baked, sometimes half-composed posts that I can bring forward in the queue to publish, and I think I am looking forward to trying to say something - no matter how trivial it may seem - on a weekly basis. It seems likely that I may have an even greater proportion of posts on inessential topics like pop culture as a product of my writing process and time becoming somewhat more of an entertaining diversion in life rather than a creative necessity, but I think I am okay with that, since that is the season of life in which I find myself (there's that phrase again). 

I do, of course, have other creative outlets beyond my job and this blog that I am attempting to pursue - namely my board game designs and my writing about learning about game design sporadically at Regina Game Forge - but I am hoping that standardizing this schedule may, in fact, free me up to be more creative with those other projects that I often neglect. Creativity begets creativity, as it seems.

If I am successful in this publishing endeavour, it would arguably be the first time in my history of blogging that my output would be consistent and reliable from an external perspective, so I think I am really rooting for myself to carry through with this initial momentum. I really do not know what will come of this season and where it may lead in the future, in much the same way I have had little foreknowledge of where my previous seasons of writing might lead, but I am excited to try to post more regularly and to see what comes of this season. 

For now, all I can do is do what I can for now to keep the momentum going, and I hope - without making any promises to anyone, especially me - that I have the ability to find something within myself to say and to publish each Thursday, no matter how menial or meaningful it might seem. There are definitely some rhythms to be found in this season, and I'm looking forward to just tapping (the keys) along with the beat.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

The uncool of U2

It has been a great week to be a fan of U2. The band has been working on Songs of Experience, their fifteenth (!) studio album, for years, and in the last week, the album has become much more of a reality, with two new songs released as well as a release date: December 1, to coincide with World AIDS Day (a cause the band has championed for close to two decades with their partnership with the (RED) campaign).

After the band debuted "The Little Things That Give You Away" in May as the final song of the set on the first night of The Joshua Tree Anniversary tour and later played a song entitled "I Love You" on that same tour, U2 released a video of another new song entitled "The Blackout" via Facebook Live last week after sending members of the U2 fan club an intriguing piece of mail about a week beforehand.

This week, they released the official first single from the new album, "You're The Best Thing About Me", which received immediate praise from various outlets: Rolling Stone called it "lustrous", "gleaming", and "a joyous earworm"; Billboard called it "rocking" and "classic"; and although Pitchfork did not include any similarly exuberant or adulatory adjectives in their write-up, their announcement was pleasantly bereft of any of their usual snark or sarcasm, which essentially amounts to the same thing as Billboard's and Rolling Stone's exultations, when you consider the source.

Aside from my own inability to help but be unironically and unrepentantly overexcited by any new music from my favourite band - not to mention my inability to stop repeatedly streaming the two new songs - I have been very interested by the general tone of the news articles about the new single and how that tone has even shifted over the past week between the release of the two songs.

The Blackout

When U2 released "The Blackout" last week, it seemed as though most outlets of music (or entertainment) journalism had been on a conference call to decide on the general tone for a reaction to new music from the Irish foursome, as almost every news article I read (and I read most of them out of interest, even though they contained mostly the same information) hit the same beats in almost the same pacing with a similar undertone that I would describe as "grudgingly optimistic".

Most pieces mentioned the roll out of "The Blackout" in comparison to the infamous simultaneous release of the band's 2014 Songs of Innocence album directly into every user of iTunes; of course, the cosmic irony for me was that I had just moved at that time and my internet was not connected at home, so I was one of the few people who did not get the album but who actually desperately wanted it. (I ultimately had to use my Android phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot to be able to get the album on my iTunes - it took some work and time, but it was worth the agonizingly slow process.)

Now, to be fair, U2 deserved the criticism for their hubris - Bono has since admitted that they were far too ambitious in their release - and their botched roll out of the album likely directly impacted its sales, which were disappointing. It also makes sense that most articles would make mention of that escapade, since this is the first music to be released since then other than the single "Ordinary Love" which was written for the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (and which produced a great performance on the launch of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, on which the band again performed this week.)

But under the slight sense of sarcasm, there was also an undercurrent of a combination of respect, awe, and in some cases straight-up fanboying at both new songs. This is after all, a band that has been the "biggest band in the world" on at least three occasions, and who somehow continues to be creative and engaging well past the point that most artists' careers shift into greatest hits tours and albums of covers of other artists.

By the way, I refute the implication that this summer's 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree descended to that level of nostalgia; rather, I think that the tour is evidence of the continuing creative impulse of the band and their internal drive to reinterpret and recontextualize their canon in a new political climate. Now, if they were to tour Rattle and Hum in two years, I might be open to reconsidering my position...

The general tone of the articles was not unlike the recent reaction to the current "biggest pop star in the world" - Taylor Swift - who similarly released two new singles in the past weeks to mixed thoughts and reviews, including some people who seem to feel the need to not like her singles even though deep down they actually kind of want to like them. It's like there's this need from music journalists to have to distance themselves from artists who are popular solely for that reason, which is something that has been happening to U2 for three decades since The Joshua Tree sold 25 million (!) copies.

The peaks and valleys of U2

It's almost like artists are not allowed to be popular and cool, unless they cross a certain threshhold, like Bowie or Bruce or Prince; then again, each of them had a period in their careers in which they were neglected or disregarded, only to have popular opinion reverse itself again and allow them to be considered "cool" again. Then again, U2 does not care if anyone thinks they're cool. It has, after all, always been kind of cool for true music fans to regard U2 with a certain detached snobbery, with two notable exceptions.

The first such exception was 1987, when The Joshua Tree made them the biggest band in the world and was so well-received that all but the hardiest critics praised it, and again in 1991, when they deconstructed their own sense of cool with Achtung Baby, which was lauded to the point that Rolling Stone named it their album of the year over Nirvana's Nevermind, which actually finished third behind R.E.M.'s vastly underappreciated Out of Time, which featured their biggest hit, "Losing My Religion". (Rolling Stone, of course, is regarded by many other musical journalistic outlets with the same kind of geriatric disregard and ironic appreciation with which they have regarded U2 for most of their career., but the point still stands that Achtung Baby was still well-regarded at the time.)

The reality is that Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry are lifelong rock stars in their late fifties who are still finding ways to create interesting music and spectacle after over four decades in the business. The only sign they have shown of slowing down is that their albums have been released far less frequently than they were in the 1980s, but their output and public presence is still surprisingly consistent and creative considering the trajectory of their colleagues, and U2 has almost always eschewed public perception and done their own thing.

It has, of course, not always gone well for them to do so. Aside from the mistake in the release of Songs of Innocence, which obscured what was otherwise one of their better albums (IMHO), there have been a few such nadirs in the band's career. Their sophomore album October came in the midst of a personal spiritual identity crisis for the band, who were being pressured to choose between their career and their faith, and it also suffered from weaker lyrics in part to the fact that the lyrics were stolen days before their recording sessions.

Rattle and Hum, their 1989 follow-up to The Joshua Tree, became an ill-fated and somewhat self-indulgent album and film that flopped at the box office. Pop was a critical flop in 1997, and the PopMart Tour, despite making millions, was considered a loss because it cost so much to keep it on the road; the album has itself not aged very well. And most recently (other than Innocence), How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was critically disregarded in 2004 thanks to an awkward title and a lackluster latter half of the album.

But even those albums that are considered to be weaker still were worthwhile entries into U2's history, as they produced songs that either were hits at the time, that have been lionized or canonized by the band in the years since, or both: "Gloria" on October; "Desire", "Angel of Harlem", and "All I Want Is You" on Rattle and Hum; "Discotheque", "Staring at the Sun", and "Gone" from Pop (an album in which, admittedly, neither the songs nor the album have aged very well); and "Vertigo", "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own", and "City of Blinding Lights" on Dismantle - not to mention the various deep cuts on each of those albums that remain favourites of fanatics like me (I, for one, love "Love and Peace or Else" from Dismantle, "Hawkmoon 269" from Rattle and Hum, and "Wake Up Dead Man" from Pop).

Here's the other thing to think about when evaluating those efforts: consider what albums followed up each of those "failures" (a term I use loosely and only because of external consideration rather than my own classification). October preceded War, which features "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "New Year's Day", and "40". Rattle and Hum was followed by their best album, Achtung Baby. Pop preceded the release of The Best Of 1980-1990, which featured "Sweetest Thing", as well as All That You Can't Leave Behind, which kicked off with "Beautiful Day". And even How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was succeeded by No Line on the Horizon, which I think is still the lost masterpiece in U2's collection.

(I am not necessarily arguing that the ends of those albums justify the means of the previous efforts and the misses therein, but I do think that it bears noticing that times of artistic struggle have resulted in some of the best work of their career, and that bodes well for Songs of Experience, considering the backlash to Songs of Innocence. But I digress.)

The appeal of uncool

I think that part of the enduring appeal and success of U2 is that they have kept trying new things and that they have never gotten to consumed with their appearance. That's not to say that they have not been very self-aware about the way they present themselves and appear; it is not much of a stretch to think that U2 have probably been more conscious of that aspect of their career than almost any other rock artist, and it is a similarly effective argument to make that they have done more than almost any other artist to advance the technological aspects of a band's overall presentation.

The appeal is that U2 seems to do everything with a level of intentionality and vision that few artists - or politicians, for that matter - appear to possess, and that makes them seem uncool sometimes. But they've been that way their whole career, from when they were teens in Dublin until now, when they're almost in their sixties and still making meaningful music that resonates with a wide audience.

That earnestness is probably what initially drew me to their music more than almost anything else, and what continues to draw me in after two decades. The fact that the band had recorded most of Songs of Experience, but then felt the need to hold back its release after the shift in the political climate of the West in 2016 in order to make sure that the album fit the times into which it will be birthed is further evidence that they are still trying not to seem cool or relevant, but to say something of substance and significance and meaning on a personal and political level.

The lyric video for "You're The Best Thing About Me" concludes with a picture of a boy and a girl holding hands with the caption "A song of experience", and Bono has talked repeatedly about how this new album is not only drawn from the band's own experiences, but from the experiences that all of us have had over the past two years.

I believe, from what I have heard and seen so far, that, in the same way that Songs of Innocence drew on a sense of wonder and unpreparedness for the world in 2014, that Songs of Experience will reflect the ways in which the world has changed in just a few short years, and that it will not matter what anyone thinks, or whether the album is well received or not; what matters is that U2 have stayed true to themselves, and that's the coolest thing of all, no matter what Pitchfork might say.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Baby Driver: A Review

Baby Driver poster.jpg
Baby Driver is the story of a young getaway car driver who is caught in a web of capers and heists and who is trying to get out. It is the newest effort from one of my favourite directors, Edgar Wright, whose previous movies - Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The World's End - all rank among my personal favourites of the past as homages to their respective genres while also being innovative, hilarious, and often just plain fun - a characteristic that seems harder and harder to find in the ever-increasing world of franchise tentpoles and self-serious sequels. (I do still wish we could have seen his version of Ant-Man, though, even though I'm certain some of the feel of that heist movie ended up here.)

I will admit that I was likely predisposed to enjoy this movie based on my affection for all of director Edgar Wright's efforts, though I will simultaneously admit that my existing affinity for his previous nerdy films was also reason to wonder whether his antics would work within the construct of a more conventional Hollywood movie, cast, and narrative. And I will now gladly admit that I loved Baby Driver for what it was: a tightly wound sonic and visual feast of a heist movie with the right balance of action, charisma, comedy, and the killer tracks to make it work.

There are so many ways this movie could have gone wrong but didn't, starting with casting. There was every possibility that Ansel Elgort might have not been able to carry the sympathetically stoically cool character, but he does in a way that establishes him as a bona fide real actor; his look is (likely deliberately) evocative of Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and although I'm not projecting him as the next coming of the Tom, it's not as much of a stretch as I would have thought to mention them in the same thought.

The supporting cast is fantastic. Lily James is very believable as the waitress/love interest, and she holds her own in a few scenes against some heavyweights. Spacey, Foxx, and Hamm are all established leading men, but they all use their charm and presence to bring unexpected life to what otherwise may have been somewhat flat stereotypes. They each manage to be captivating without chewing their way through their scenes; these are three men who know how to do what they are being asked to do, and they do it incredibly well in character while still being magnetic in their roles.

I do understand the criticisms that some people had of the cast, characters, and the story, and I can see why some people would be more cynical of the movie and what it did. It did at times feel like it was on the edge of cliche, but I think that it never really traversed into that space without winkingly knowing what it was doing and embracing it as homage, rather than merely perpetuating tired tropes; perhaps nowhere was this more evident than when Wright used what is arguably the most truly cliched driving song - Radar Love - and still managed to make it feel fresh and interesting.

I know some critics will find the movie derivative and unoriginal, but I think that Wright strikes the balance between deference and discovery well. This is a great drive heist movie as part of a long tradition, but there are enough new elements and pieces here to make this entry memorable and meaningful to both generations past and present (and, I would imagine, future). Many will also point to 2011's Drive as the reinvention of the genre and deride this movie for being more "mainstream" than that one was, but I think both movies can - and should - coexist as different entries in the same tradition (which reminds me that I still need to watch Walter Hill's The Driver).

I have heard some criticisms about the setting of the movie - Atlanta- feeling kind of generic, but I think it works both for the style and the substance of the movie, and that some of the metaphorical resonance of the movie (which I think is there and that I'm not just trying to impose a "deeper meaning" on what is mostly just an action movie) comes from that setting; exactly what that is I'm not sure, but I do think that it functions as more than a convenient tax break for the filmmakers.

This is a sumptuous visual spectacle, with all of the tricks Wright has used in the past and more, but it's the aural element of the film that really sets it apart. Wright has used music to great effect in his past efforts, but he hits a new level with the soundtrack here. Not only does the soundtrack have stylistic significance, but it also manages to convey character and have emotional resonance within the context of the movie's action - plus, any movie that features Queen in a key scene is usually good with me.

Sure, there are other nitpicks to find with the movie, but it was just so much fun as an action movie with great set pieces and comedic interludes and such a treat to find something original and self-contained that I did not find myself questioning the internal logic or structure of the movie. It's a great thrill, and I will definitely let Baby Driver take me for a ride again.


Life of Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Canada License. Subscribe to posts [Atom] [RSS].