Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Top 5: TV omissions

Now that I have finally started watching Curb Your Enthusiasm only nine years after I was first exposed to it, and I'm absolutely loving it, to no one's surprise. After all, I own the first three seasons thanks to thrift shopping, so I knew I would like it. Plus, with my wife away, I finally have some time to enjoy it. I also have been stalled on watching through the original Star Trek series for several months, and I'm only a third of the way through the series, but I'm still determined to finish them all sometime. So with those two out of the way, my list of "I can't believe I haven't watched it" shows is getting...well, it's still pretty long, but the list of really unconscionable omissions is getting significantly shorter, at least. I'm down to five really unbelievable oversights in my viewing - shows I know I will really enjoy and that it is not reasonable at this point to not have watched through - along with a couple of "almost made the top 5" mentions. Here's my list.

Almost almost made it: Friday Night Lights Seasons 3-5 (2008-2011) - I just tuned out at the end of Season 2 and never picked it up again. At this point, I think I would start rewatching from the beginning with my wife, because that first season was amazing.

Almost made it: Bored to Death (2009-2011) - it has been on my radar since it premiered in 2009. I'm a huge fan of Jason Schwartzman, a moderate fan of Zach Galifianakis, and it's a great premise. I just haven't gotten around to it - no other real reason.

Now, onto the real top 5:

5. The West Wing (1999-2006) - I'm a big Sorkin fan, but I didn't know that until Studio 60, his project after West Wing. The thought of 156 episodes (over 100 hours) of story probably is the source of my hesitation, but I could always just stop at the end of Season 4 when Sorkin left. I even own the first season on DVD - how have I not watched this yet?

4. Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974) - Along with Fawlty Towers and Black Adder, I have a distinct lack of British comedies in my viewing. I'm sure I've seen or heard most skits, but it's time to watch the 45 episodes of the Circus.

3. Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) - The definitive sci-fi series of a generation of viewers, and I have only watched the initial mini-series. I own the first three seasons, so how have I not watched this yet?

2. Mad Men (2007-present) - Perhaps the definitive TV drama of the time, and I've only ever watched the pilot episode. This one is probably the most victim to the "shows I don't have time to watch because my wife won't watch them with me and I only have so much time to watch TV without her in a week and I already have too many shows she won't watch to fit this one in" syndrome. You know the one.

1. The Wire (2002-2008) - I know, I know, it's the "best series of all time". I'll get to it - maybe after Dexter and Breaking Bad finish off in a couple of months. At least it's only 60 hours of time...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Blockbuster fatigue

It has been quite a couple of weeks in blockbuster-movie-dom. Comic-Con has given fanboys a constant stream of news on mega-projects to come, including an announced Batman-Superman movie and more movies in the DC-verse, Marvel's Phase 2 (including Guardians of the Galaxy), and young adult novel-series-turned-hit-movies (Divergent, Catching Fire). This weekend also marked the first real widespread misfire of the summer, with three new "tentpole" flicks (RED 2, R.I.P.D., and Turbo) all losing out to a lowish-budget horror movie (The Conjuring) and a family holdover (Despicable Me 2). The relative failure of these three movies seemed very predictable; after all, two of the three rely on Ryan Reynolds (who is NOT a movie star - just listen to Bill Simmons), and the other on Bruce Willis, who is proving that his best days are behind him. It seems as if the studios did not actually ask who their audience would be for each of these movies, and they were not marketed well even if that had been clear. Each of the three might actually have had a chance at success if their release dates were changed to February-March or late September-October, but they had virtually no chance at success in the glutted summer movie market. Let's take a moment to examine this year's releases.
The hits have been mostly predictable, though there have been a couple of surprises along the way. Among the successes, there have been the comic-book mega-hits (Iron Man 3, Man of Steel); the family friendly animated films (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University); the big budget apocalyptic sci-fi successes (Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, Pacific Rim); the adult-oriented comedies (Grown Ups 2, The Heat, This Is The End, The Hangover Part III); the straight-up testosterone action movie (Fast & Furious 6); the low-budget horror surprises (The Purge, The Conjuring); and a couple of very pleasant surprises for dramas (The Great Gatsby, Now You See Me). Then there have been the misfires (which could arguably include The Hangover Part III, even though it made over $100 million): After Earth, The Internship, The Lone Ranger, White House Down, and the three from this weekend (Red 2, R.I.P.D., and Turbo). There are still eight more tentpole flicks to come, including The Wolverine, The Smurfs 2, Elysium, 2 Guns, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Planes, Kick-Ass 2, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, for a total of 27 blockbuster releases for summer 2013. That's a lot of big movies for 16 weeks.
I should mention that not all of those movies have the same audience - some are family fare, some are adult-oriented comedies - but most of the success of these blockbuster movies rests on 13-25-year-old (males) with expendable income and time. Now, I'm a little outside of that target market, but I am a great example of the kind of movie-watcher studios are looking for: cinemaphile, no kids, and willing to pay for the experience. I am a movie buff, and I love summer blockbusters; I have since I was ten years old when I saw Jurassic Park, Super Mario Bros., and Last Action Hero. Over the years, I have seen a significant portion of summer blockbuster releases, and I have my share of regrets in some of those choices, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the entire process of being a summer movie fanboy. But the sheer amount of releases exhausts even me, and I had to decide my "must-see in theatre" movies early so that I didn't miss them.
So far this summer, I have seen six movies in theatres, five of which would be considered blockbusters; I watched Iron Man 3, The Great Gatsby, Star Trek Into Darkness in three weeks in May, then I took over a month off before I saw World War Z, Much Ado About Nothing (the non-blockbuster), and Pacific Rim over the course of the past week and a half. The only blockbuster I really missed on the big screen was Man of Steel, which I still will see at some point. I will wait to see Monsters University and Despicable Me 2, as I don't feel the need to see those on the big screen, and I'll catch up with The Heat sometime in cheap theatres. I have only two more must-see movies coming out in the next few weeks - The Wolverine and Elysium; I had little to no interest in most of the other releases so far, but that didn't matter, as I would not have had the time for them anyway. I have put a lot of money and time into seeing movies this summer, and although I have enjoyed it, I'm glad that the season's almost over. There are a few movies that I will see sometime - Now You See Me chiefly - but what's interesting to me is that I often do not end up seeing the other movies I missed. In 2012, for example, my must-sees were The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Moonrise Kingdom, and Brave (for which I knew I would wait, and I did). I ended up watching Beasts of the Southern Wild at the end of the summer, but I did not see any other big movies - I just didn't have the time or energy to invest in the rest of the 25 blockbuster/tentpole movies - either during the summer or afterward. Then again, there weren't any movies I really wanted to see, either - although I could be talked into seeing MIB3 on Netflix at some point. But I digress, somewhat.
My story is an example of why I think so many movies are failing this summer: I think viewers are suffering from blockbuster fatigue. Vulture ran a couple of great must-read pieces in the past month about the current state of Hollywood blockbusters, including one in which George Lucas and Steven Spielberg - the grandfathers of the blockbuster with Star Wars and Jaws, respectively - comment on the damage that blockbuster culture has created, and one in which the author argues that The Lone Ranger is indicative of four endemic problems with current blockbusters. I would also argue that there are fifth and sixth problems: frequency and bombast. There are too many movies with too many big things going on. Another recent article on Vulture chronicled the history of the "money shot" in trailers, and I think that exemplifies these issues: there are too many movies being released, so the studios have to try to get that hook in any way they can. But I really think that the issue of frequency and fatigue is key to understand, so I did a little research.
I wanted to see how 2013 compared to previous years, so I looked at this year as well as blockbuster summer releases for five year intervals since 1993 (the first summer I remember going to movies). I looked for movies that had high budgets, high expectations, and significant marketing (though some inclusions might be debatable according to personal experience), regardless of final box office performance. There were 25 blockbusters in 2012, but what about years past? Here's what I found, from most successful financially to least:

2008 (23): The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, Hancock, Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda, Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Get Smart, Tropic Thunder, The Mummy 3, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Step Brothers, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Pineapple Express, Hellboy II, The Happening, Speed Racer, The Love Guru, X-Files: I Want To Believe

2003 (19): Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Matrix Reloaded, Bruce Almighty, X2: X-Men United, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Bad Boys II, Hulk, 2 Fast 2 Furious, S.W.A.T., Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, The Italian Job, American Wedding, Daddy Day Care, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Legally Blonde 2, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tomb Raider 2, Dumb and Dumberer

1998 (12): Armageddon, Godzilla, Deep Impact, Lethal Weapon 4, There's Something About Mary, Doctor Dolittle, The Truman Show, Mulan, The Mask of Zorro, The X-Files, Small Soldiers, The Avengers (1998)

1993 (10): Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, Sleepless In Seattle, The Firm, In the Line of Fire, Cliffhanger, Free Willy, Last Action Hero, Super Mario Bros., Dennis the Menace

As you can see, the number of releases has been steadily increasing over the past twenty years, as has the number of failures. In 1993, the only real failures were the last three listed, and that's because they were either bad movies or misunderstood (Last Action Hero will always be one of my guilty pleasures). People do see more movies now than they did twenty years ago, but that's probably in part because there are more movies to see. I would also be interested to know if the average adult with kids actually sees more movies, or if it's just that 13-25 age group that has fueled the increased viewings. Perhaps the increased number of failures is merely an indication of the saturation point of that age group, and the relative success or failure of a film is truly inherently tied into how many movies that age group can see, since most of the failures so far seem to have depended on capturing that market (with the exception of Turbo, which is just a poorly-timed family release).
What I also found interesting is that there has been a steady increase in the number of "mega-blockbuster" releases over the years - the kinds of movies that have extraordinarily high budgets and expectations. Of the 27 blockbusters in 2013, I would argue that a dozen of them fall into this category: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, Pacific Rim, Fast & Furious 6, The Lone Ranger, The Hangover Part III, The Wolverine, and The Smurfs 2. Most of these cannot fail, since they have an established audience; the only one to fail so far - The Lone Ranger - was not a huge surprise to many prognosticators. In 1993, by comparison, there were four movies in this category: Jurassic Park, Cliffhanger, Last Action Hero, and Super Mario Bros. This increase means that there is not much space for the "secondary" blockbusters to gather viewers, especially since their lifespan in theatres is shorter than it ever has been. The window for most movies in main theatres is a month, with another month or so at cheap theatres, and the improvements in home cinema mean that a lot of people don't mind waiting a few months to see movies that they didn't have time to see when they were in theatres anyway.
So what does all this point to? The fact that the Hollywood blockbuster system seems to be at a saturation point. Even its most available target audience is tired and cannot handle the current stream of movies. But if the last twenty years are any indication, the number will only increase, and there will be an average of two blockbusters for every weekend in 2018. I suppose it's not a bad thing to have choice, and it's not a bad thing for the market to decide if a movie is popular or not, so I can't really complain about the situation; I just wish that there wasn't quite so much junk out there. It's really more of an aesthetic argument as a movie-fan, rather than an economic or capitalist one; I would just rather have a higher percentage of entertaining movies that I actually want to see. Of course, the studieos won't stop, especially since international markets often more than compensate for shortcomings in the domestic cinemas. I'm not going to write off summer blockbusters; after all, I love them too much to stop enjoying them. They are fun, full of amazing visuals, and a great distraction. But I will continue to be choosier about the blockbusters I am able to enjoy, and I will continue to avoid 75% of the junk out there. After all, as long as there are people making movies about interdimensional aliens fighting giant robots or superheroes or the impending end of all humanity, I'm happy.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Top 5: Lego games I want to see

My wife and I have been playing a lot of Lego video games lately. It's pretty much all we have played over the past couple of months. We worked our way through Lego Batman and Lego Lord of the Rings, we started on Star Wars II (The Original Trilogy), but now we're into Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, with Lego Pirates of the Caribbean waiting for us (even though we're not huge fans of the franchise, we'll give it a shot) and a bit of time to track down the two Lego Harry Potter and Lego Indiana Jones games. It feels kind of silly to enjoy them so much, but it's a lot of fun to play them together and to discover all of the hidden secrets, along with the catharsis of destroying almost everything on the screen. I'm sure we'll pick up Lego Marvel Heroes sometime next year after it releases later in 2013, but it got me thinking about what pop culture properties I would enjoy having turned into Lego games. Here are my top 5, preceded by a couple of honourable mentions (ie. the two most likely possibilities that I felt the need to include so this post was not completely ridiculous).

a. Toy Story. Disney has already allowed the Pirates franchise to be Lego-ized, so why not Toy Story? I think it would be so much fun to play through episodes from each of the movies, and there are more than enough characters to make it work. Another possibility would be other Pixar properties - just imagine Wall-E or The Incredibles as Lego. Of course, knowing the marketability, Cars will be the first greenlit of any Pixar property.

b. Iron Man. It wasn't the greatest movie trilogy ever, but it was mostly enjoyable, and it had some great characters and scenes that could be easily Legofied. I think that the three movies would break down well into episodes, and it would be really fun if they could use actual voice clips like they did for LOTR.

And now for my actual Top 5 (well, 6. I couldn't leave one out):

5T. 80s Transformers. How cool would it look to have Optimus Prime and the rest of the Autobots in Lego form, not to mention the Decepticons? Dinobots, Constructicons, Shockwave and his animals - it would be incredible! You could easily have the story told from two perspectives, and the 1986 movie alone would make for a great part of the game. Think of Lego Unicron (just checked - it has not been satisfactorily done yet) and Lego Junkbots. As long as it's not based on the Michael Bay version...[shudder]...

5T. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. How has this not happened yet - the Lego already exists! Sure, it's based on the new animated reboot, but as if every child who was born in the '80s would not love this. They could use the plots from the original TV series, or the movie trilogy, or even from the new series - just give me some Lego Cowabunga!

4. Arrested Development. It's not nearly widely enough approved, nor anywhere near kid friendly, but just imagine the possibilities of scenes from the first season: Michael and George Michael trying to rebuild the banana stand; Gob trying to bust out of prison; Michael, Gob, and Buster fighting on the steps of the courthouse. And then the characters: Lego never-nude Tobias; Lego Carl Weathers; Lego Annyong; Lego J. Walter Weatherman (with a removable arm, of course). If Lego ever decides to pursue a more mature audience, look no further than AD.

3. Firefly/Serenity. The second most unlikely entry on this list, but it would be so much fun to play out some of the stories from the short-lived Joss Whedon series. Just thinking of the Jayne toque in Lego form makes me smile, and wouldn't Lego Reavers be the most terrifying villains ever? It has already been started, as someone has created Lego Serenity. You can't take the sky from me...

2. Futurama. I don't think a Lego Simpsons game would really work (though it has been rumoured for next year), but Futurama would be a lot of fun. They would not even have to replicate material that already exists; they could write an entirely new story, much like they did for the Xbox/PS2 Futurama game over a decade ago. And with production on the series stopped after this year, the creative team - including all of the voice actors - would love to have a way to continue the Futurama legacy. C'mon - Lego Planet Express would be amazing, and all of the extra characters in the universe would make it a really fun game.

1. Star Trek. Just imagine the different ways this game could be: each of the original six movies having a couple of episodes. Episodes from the original series summarized in Lego form. Even doing TNG episodes or movies or the new stream of movies - the possibilities are endless, and the tone of the games would suit Star Trek well. Please, Paramount, make this happen!

So which properties did I miss? Which franchises would you love to see Lego-ized? Game of Thrones? Breaking Bad? Terminator? Mushroom Kingdom? Discuss!

Monday, July 01, 2013

Expanding my horizons (Q2 board games update)

I have had an interesting couple of months of gaming. My collection has probably changed more in the past three months than it has in any one three-month period in the past two years, and it's definitely for the better. My plays, while low, have been very interesting, and I have expanded my horizons rather significantly in some ways. I have started to reconnect with board games again recently, and I am encouraged by the relationships I am developing as a result. And perhaps most unexpectedly, I have found myself thinking about how to post about board gaming more as my voice develops in the subject, and I have wondered how to share this hobby with others, particularly those who do not already share it. These kind of posts are great if you're already in the know, but they do not make a great intro to the world of board gaming; I hope to rectify this oversight and to start writing more about different topics in board gaming as I think about them. Anyway, here are my reflections on my past three months of board gaming.

Changes to my collection: My mantra over the past three months has been two-fold: addition by subtraction; and delayed gratification. Between sales, gifts, and trades, I have excised sixteen games from my shelves, most of which were games I would never really have played anyway. It has felt unreasonably good to have my shelves cleared and to be able to be happier as a whole with my collection, not having a lot of the games I don't and won't play hanging around. I have not added many games directly, as I bought two new expansions for 7 Wonders (Leaders and the Wonder Pack) and two thrift games (Apples to Apples Kids and Zèrtz) that are now in my collection. Hence, addition by subtraction: I get to focus more on the games I own by alleviating myself of the extras. The "delayed gratification" part comes in two ways: I have about $60 in credit to use as a result of that subtraction process; and I have ordered four games through Kickstarter that I will not receive until November: Among the Stars; Council of Verona; Eminent Domain; Flash Point: Fire Rescue. I'm sure my shelves will be full again as soon as I get them, and I know each game will add something different to my collection to make it even better.

Games played: My plays were a lot lower over the past few months - only 38 in total, which is about half of what I played in the same time period last year (73), but marginally less than my plays in the first quarter of this year (41). 7 Wonders was the only game that I played more than twice (at four times), and I had a lot of first and second plays. I got in plays of most of my favourites, but I definitely did more branching out in the past three months than I have in the past.
My twelve first plays of this quarter included: 1812: The Invasion of Canada; Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small; Android: Netrunner; Barons; The Castles of Burgundy; Chaos in the Old World; Euphoria (print & play version); King of Tokyo; Munchkin; Small World; Village; Wits & Wagers. With the five first plays from the first quarter included (At the Gates of Loyang; Eclipse; Egizia; Lords of Waterdeep; Lost Cities), that makes 17 first plays for the year. Of those 17, five are definite keepers (Castles of Burgundy, King of Tokyo, Lords of Waterdeep, Lost Cities, and Village), eight I need to play more to decide if they stick or not, and the others are one-offs (tried them, probably would not ever feel the need to play them again).
Still, if most of those eight hold up after a few more plays, I'm at a two-thirds success rate without any negative gaming experiences, as most of the games I would not play again are due to style more than anything.

Favourite games right now: The stalwarts Pandemic, 7 Wonders, Saint Petersburg, and Glory to Rome are there as always, but I'm also really excited about The Castles of Burgundy, King of Tokyo, Cosmic Encounter, Power Grid, and Race for the Galaxy as of late. I also need to play more Innovation and Agricola soon. I'm really looking forward to more plays of Caylus, Village, Egizia, Eclipse, El Grande, and Le Havre. So there are a lot of games I'm enjoying, as always.

Games to play:
From my refined list of fifteen games to play in the last three quarters of the year, I played three: Android: Netrunner; The Castles of Burgundy; and Village. But I have realized over the past quarter that my "want to play" list is shifting constantly as I try and play new games that I don't think I can even evaluate my progress on this list on an annual rate anymore; it has to be quarterly at this point. So I'm just looking at the next three months and the games I most want to try in those months. I have a list of twenty again, and it is significantly different than my list was just three months ago. Although I do not think there is any way I'll actually play all of those games, I think I need to include them all here for future reference.
Two of my Kickstarted games - Eminent Domain and Flash Point: Fire Rescue - were on my "top to play" list, so they will wait for the last quarter of the year (but I'll still keep them here in my top twenty right now anyway). The other eighteen games that make up that top twenty are: Augustus; Core Worlds; Dominion: Guilds (an expansion, but it still counts); For Sale; Fresco; Hansa Teutonica; Hawaii; In The Year of the Dragon; Jump Gate; Last Will; Love Letter; Ora et Labora; Ra; Stone Age; Tigris & Euphrates; Twilight Struggle; Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar; and Zooloretto. (Jump Gate and Zooloretto have been on this list the longest, by the way.) There are ten other games that intrigue me that I will be researching more in the next quarter, maybe even playing if I can track down a copy to enjoy: Belfort; Copycat; Glen More; Morels; Notre Dame; Seasons; Terra Mystica; Troyes; and Tournay. And then there are a few upcoming games that have not yet been released, including: Bora Bora; Bruges; Forbidden Desert; Glass Road; Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts; Roll for the Galaxy; and The Palaces of Carrara.

The next big development in the gaming world will be the announcement of the Spiel des Jahres in one week. My prediction is Augustus for the SdJ and Bruges for the Kennerspiel (the gamers' game), just to put it out there. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next week - and what hits the table in the meantime.

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