Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2013: The Year in... Television!

Andy Greenwald wrote a great article at Grantland a while ago about how Breaking Bad's final few episodes may well have been the last gasp of the monoculture, and that television, despite its universality and ubiquity, is even smaller than it ever has been. Gone are the days of a few shows entirely dominating the dialogue, and there are arguably more options for television viewing than there ever have been, and thanks to services like Netflix, they are increasingly dissociated from any sense of time. Indeed, it seems odd to even think of television on a yearly calendar at this point, given that the running dates of programs are now themselves fractured and de-regulated.But, for now, I will endeavour to review the year that was for me in television.

Comedy


2013 wasn't a great year for comedy on TV for me - or maybe it's just far more difficult for a new show to work its way into my already crowded repertoire. I spent a decent portion of the first part of the year rewatching Arrested Development (one of my favourites), but there also was not a lot of really great new funny stuff to enjoy. I actually find that I rarely follow a comedy week-to-week, and that I am much more likely to watch several episodes in short succession. Here are some brief thoughts on the comedies I watched in 2013 (in alphabetical order).

Arrested Development (Season 4) - I was excited though apprehensive about the return of Arrested Development after so long, but it turned out that I had nothing to be concerned about; in fact, Season 4 was the best comedy of the year, and it may have (like the first three seasons did in their time) again changed the way in which I view comedy. The only drawback was the occasionally distracting nature in which it was necessarily filmed without everyone together, but boy did it crackle when they were actually in scenes with their co-stars. It took a few episodes for it to really start coming together, but by the time Tobias' episode came around, AD was back in full form. I can't wait for the inevitable follow-up, whether it's Season 5 or a movie.

Community (Season 4) - It was actually slightly better than I thought it would be, given that series creator Dan Harmon was not present for this season. There were two or three good to very good episodes, five or six middling episodes, and four or five kinda not great episodes, but definitely not the level of ineptitude I had expected. It was serviceable as a placeholder for Harmon's return in Season 5, which has already provided a pantheon episode in "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" and a fantastic bottle episode the week after, and I've already enjoyed the first few episodes more than all of Season 4.

Family Tree (Season 1) - Christopher Guest's mockumentary about a man (Chris O'Dowd) systematically unraveling his family's past is everything you'd expect from Guest and his usual suspects: dry, witty, awkward, subtle, and often hilarious. This was easily my favourite new comedy of the year, as I had to pause every episode at least once because I was laughing too hard to hear the next line. Unfortunately, it will be the series' only season, as HBO canceled it yesterday. I can't even count on the cable networks anymore.

Futurama (Season 7.5) - The (supposedly) final season of Futurama was among the series' best. (I say "supposedly" because I fully expect Netflix to foot the bill to create more episodes, particularly since all of the principals writers, artists, and actors involved with the show state that they have more to do in that universe.) There were a couple of uproariously funny episodes (particularly "Assie Come Home"), and at least two episodes, including the "finale" "Meanwhile..." that rival some of the best heartfelt episodes of Season 4. Each cast member was featured prominently in the whole of Season 7 (ie. these 13 episodes and the previous 13 aired in 2012), and the show just never felt done (save for the unfortunate degradation of the

Go On (second half of Season 1) - I was really starting to enjoy Go On, and then it got cancelled and replaced with much worse sitcoms. Good call, NBC: let's get rid of a show with a great concept with two established stars, a showrunner with street cred, a well-seasoned supporting cast, adn the possibility of guest stars almost every episode (including a surprisingly hilarious Terrell Owens) to put on Sean Saves The World. Matthew Perry and John Cho had great chemistry, there were some funny supporting characters, and it seemed like it could have worked long term, if not for NBC's stupidity in cancelling it. Maybe NBC felt that it was too much like Community, and that they couldn't fit it in the schedule with Community returning. I'd probably pick this one up for cheap and rewatch it, especially over Season 4 of Community.

New Girl (Season 2/3) - New Girl took up the mantle of "funniest show on TV" in 2013, and it earned its stripes. Week after week, it was the zaniest, most entertaining sitcom, and it continued to hit new highs as it entered its third season. But, just like any sitcom that hits its peak, it needs to find ways to keep it fresh as it continues in Season 3 - especially grounding Winston as a character.

Comedies to catch up on sometime: As always, I have a few shows that slipped through the cracks this year. I'm still deciding if I want to try to catch up on Modern Family and whether I really want to invest in The Mindy Project. Sometime soon, I'll watch the Joe Schmo Show's most recent incarnation, The Full Bounty, and I will catch up on both seasons of Veep and the last two seasons (!) of Parks and Recreation.

Other comedies I want to try out sometime: And of course, there were a few new shows that I waited to see how they would do before investing in them. The new comedies from 2013 that are waiting in the queue for my attention are Golden Globe winner (?!) Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Drunk History; Hello Ladies; Moone Boy; Save Me; and Super Fun Night. I expect that most of them won't have much staying power, but I'm willing to try them out anyway.

Drama


It was a year of endings, new beginnings, and great satisfaction and disappointment. I was happy to clear out a couple of shows, including one that I will never watch again. I was surprised that most of my dramatic watching was more of the "guilty pleasure" variety; maybe I just did not have the ability to handle any more intensity while Walter White was still out there doing his thing. At any rate, here are my thoughts on the dramas I watched this year (in mostly alphabetical order):

Breaking Bad (Season 5.2) - What else is there to say about this show? The final eight episodes were, as a whole, one of the most thrilling sequences of any narrative ever. Although it seemed to drag in episode 4 ("Rabid Dog"), the next two episodes were among the best of the series. BB was incredibly satisfying, which is more than I can say for...

Dexter (Season 8) - Wow. I knew it was not going to be great, but there was no way to expect this level of ineptitude. The season started out interesting enough with a few intriguing character developments and yet another serial killer foe for Dexter, but took a turn for the insipid after the fourth episode. It became a woefully underplanned mishmash of reason-less events and ridiculously conceived plot changes, and the finale was not only ridiculous in its execution, but it insulted fans of the series who had stuck with it to the bitter end. The fact that the finale aired a week before Breaking Bad's only further solidified just how bad it was. The show should have stopped after Season 4 or 5, when the concept really had run out and before Dexter battles yet another serial killer and his inner demons. (Wouldn't it have been amazing if the show had announced the renewals for Season 6 but then shocked viewers by having it end suddenly, revealing that the Season 6 pick up was all a ruse to lure us into a false sense of security?) Just a terrible, terrible conclusion to a show that should have been better; of course, it's funny that it wasn't the moral content, but the quality of the final season that finally made me ashamed to watch the show.

Justified (Season 4) - The producers deliberately moved away from the "Big Bad" model of the previous two seasons to a central mystery inspired by D.B. Cooper, and the show was better for it. This was the season that really expanded the world of Harlan and the entire cast of characters really settled into their roles. This season was exciting, funny, dark, and twisted: everything I want to see in a show like this. Now that BB is done, this is my favourite drama on TV.

Homeland (Season 3), House of Cards (Season 1), The Newsroom (Season 2) - I grouped these three together for a few reasons: they are all guilty pleasures to a degree; they share a similar style and could even exist in the same universe; and I still have not finished two of the three (Homeland and The Newsroom). I can't really say that they're "good", even though they are of high quality, and I enjoy them; they each have significant flaws and oversights and little foibles along the way. I'm not sure if I will pick up the last half-season of Homeland, just because I'm not sure that I want to watch it as a campier version of what it could have been (although knowing the events of the finale have helped revive my waning interest). I'll probably watch Cards Season 2 to start, just to see where it goes, though I'm prepared to drop it if it goes too far over that campy edge on which it teetered in the last third of Season 1. And I know I will watch the rest of The Newsroom and perhaps enjoy it more with the knowledge that it will end with Season 3.

Dramas from 2013 I plan to watch sometime: And, of course, there are a few dramas I need to catch up on, some of which have been in the queue for the better part of a year. The really interesting thing to me is that most of these were first seasons, which means that it could be the start of a new generation of shows for me. The four new shows I'd like to watch are The Americans; Broadchurch; Orphan Black; Top of the Lake; and I still need to watch all of Mad Men, including this year's Season 6, sometime.

Other (Reality shows, science fiction, etc.)


There are a couple of shows I watched that defy the basic comedy/drama division, so here are the other shows I watched in 2013:

Doctor Who - My wife and I started watching it once it hit Netflix, and we made it through four and a half seasons in a few months. I know a lot of people who watch it, so I have a strong social pull toward the Doctor, even though there are episodes that I find interminably tedious and/or poorly-executed. Overall, I'm enjoying my ride in the TARDIS, and we'll keep on going until we catch up. Then we'll probably go back to finishing up Star Trek: The Next Generation (My wife is kind of a nerd, apparently) before moving on to our next Netflix project: Friday Night Lights.

King of the Nerds - This was easily my guilty pleasure reality show of the year. Take nine nerds in their twenties, put them in a house together, and make them compete in nerdy activities to determine who can sit on the "Throne of Games." It was completely silly, fun, and awesome. Where do I sign up?

Survivor - The two editions aired this year (Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites 2 and Blood vs. Water) demonstrated that there's a lot of life left in this show, even after 27 seasons. Both shows relied heavily on returning players, both incorporated new twists, and both were won by wily returnees (Cochrane and Tyson). Survivor is nowhere near done, and I'm excited to see where it goes next.

Looking back and looking ahead


So, that was my year of TV in 2013. There were 15 shows I watched, with another 5-10 on my catch up list, which seems to be my current watching rate given the past couple of years. If I had to make a top 5 list for 2013 right now, it would include, in order from fifth to first: Family Tree; Survivor (Caramoan and Blood vs. Water; Arrested Development; Justified; and Breaking Bad. Only two of those are returning in 2014, so my list will likely look a lot different in 2014, which has already started off very well.

Sherlock Season 3 was enjoyable, though nowhere near as good as its predecessors. Community's first five episodes of Season 5 have all but entirely erased the bland flavour of Season 4. And Justified looks to be back in prime form only a few episodes in. Add to that the number of dramas entering their second seasons, the return of Louie in May, the premiere of FX's Fargo in April, and the return of Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad in prequel spin-off Better Call Saul in November, and 2014 looks to be a possibly better year overall.

Friday, January 24, 2014

On School Safety

Schools are different places now than they were even a decade ago. Within recent months, I have read articles about schools banning the game tag, banning use of all balls to play at recess, and a parent in Ontario trying to have oak trees removed from the school's property due to the possibility of allergic reactions. If you want to have a spot of fun, try reading the comments on one of those types of articles. Some commenters are more erudite, many are far more coarse (depending on your reporting site), but the general gist of the arguments are the same when distilled to their simplest forms.

The discussions tend to vacillate between a few fairly typical arguments that can be summarized into one of a few basic categories such as: "why is this crazy person trying to hurt all of the other kids by depriving them of ______"; "why can't schools just accommodate all students with any sort of special needs, regardless of how severe they are"; "that student/parent is going to have to learn to live in the real world someday so they may as well start now"; or, perhaps most ignorantly, "I don't think I should have to change to accommodate a student who can't __________."  I believe , however, that there are some nuances that should probably be explored beyond those relatively simplified statements, and I believe that a case study will help that happen.

The case of Elodie


The latest article I read in the National Post concerns the case of a Grade 1 student with a life-threatening dairy and egg allergy, and how her mother has now filed a human rights complaint based on how she was treated. The mother, Lynne Glover, alleges that her daughter, Elodie, had her rights infringed upon in the way in which the school treated her allergy by not doing their best to create an allergen-free environment. She points to the school’s continuation of a lunch program that included dairy and cheese products, the isolation of Elodie from other students at lunch to avoid contamination, the general lack of communication of Elodie’s condition to the parents of her classmates (she claims that they received only one notice), and the provision of treats like hot chocolate to all students as examples of the school’s supposed negligence.
She does acknowledge the administration did attempt to make some accommodations for her daughter’s “invisible disability,” such as offering to provide dairy-free hot chocolate or putting allergy warnings on syrup at a pancake breakfast. She further compares her daughter’s condition to the school’s prohibition of peanuts and tree-nuts as evidence that her daughter was discriminated against, as other students with similar disabilities receive preferred treatment, in her view, which is why she has filed the complaint with the human rights board. She has also alleged that her daughter's right to life has been challenged, as Elodie has already had nine anaphylactic events by the age of six.

My perspective

I agree with Glover to the extent that the school likely could have done more to care for Elodie, and that some of the actions were to an extent inconsiderate or even dangerous; for example, Glover states that students still gave out chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and it would have been quite easy for the teacher (or even for the entire school) to simply not allow for chocolates (or perhaps any other candy) to be given out by anyone. The school, at the very least, should have worked with the parents of Elodie’s classmates to increase sensitivity, even if they could not fully provide an allergen-free environment.
But I diverge from Glover’s assertions significantly after these concessions. The school simply could not accommodate Elodie’s needs without infringing significantly on the other students and their families, and I do not think they should have had to, as her needs fall outside of both the accepted realms of social acceptability and reasonable practicality, as I will outline later. Furthermore, there is no infringement of Elodie's human rights, as there (as far as we have been told) was no abuse of Elodie, her freedoms, or her privileges other than those necessary to ensure that she did not undergo an anaphylactic attack. Glover, although she states otherwise, is being unreasonable, and although it is unfortunate that she will have to make significant changes in order to accommodate Elodie's needs, it is not the school's problem that they could not meet them. I do think that my perspective needs further unpacking, though, so let's examine why the school did not have the obligation to accommodate Elodie in my view.

Social Acceptability and Reasonable Practicality


One of the primary factors in my opinion is the place of social acceptability in this discussion. Glover's comparison to the ban on peanuts and tree-nuts is ludicrous not because of the ramifications on health or human rights, but on the criterion of the social acceptability of the existing attitude toward those substances. Banning peanuts and tree-nuts has been common practice for over a decade, and it is socially acceptable to expect other parents and students to eliminate peanuts from their consumption, depending on the severity of the allergy. It is easily possible to eliminate peanuts and tree-nuts from one’s diet (although I do remember one student who for dietary and behavioural various reasons could only derive protein from peanuts), so it is acceptable to expect parents to make that adaptation. It is not socially acceptable to expect similar concessions for any other allergens on a widespread scale at this point, although there are a few on the horizon: seafood; fragrances and scents; and red dye number 5 all come to mind. It is hard for me to foresee that the attitude toward some severe allergens, such as dairy, eggs, or gluten, will ever be such that it would be socially acceptable to expect others to accommodate one student in a school.

The other significant factor is the reasonable practicality (or practical feasibility, or however you want to phrase it) of taking such an action at all. It is quite simply not feasible to ask all of the parents in a class, much less an entire school, to make accommodation to meet the needs of one student, regardless of how severe those needs might be, unless given significant enough reason to do so. This might seem like an argument against providing safe environments for all students, but it's really just a statement that some people have needs that lie outside of reasonable practical application. For example, it is reasonable to expect schools to accommodate students, staff, and community with physical disabilities by installing ramps, elevators, etc., and it is unreasonable (not to mention socially unacceptable) to not make those accommodations. It is not reasonable, however, to expect the school to, say, offer extracurricular sports in which that student could participate, or even to expect that all services of the school would be accessible to that student. The school does have the responsibility of creating equivalent services as much as possible, but they do not have to be identical. In Elodie's case, it seems unreasonable (despite Glover's protestations otherwise) to expect a wider dairy and egg free environment.

Fragrances

 
Let's look fragrances as an example. Strong fragrances and scents are commonly banned as sensitivities to scents are increasing in the general population, and it is widely accepted for schools and other public institutions to be "scent-free" or "fragrance-free". Perfumes and colognes are not necessary, and it is now socially acceptable for students or teachers with that sensitivity to expect a certain amount of accommodation. But say, for example, that a student had an extreme anaphylactic allergy to all scents, including all body washes, soaps, detergents, and shampoos. It would not be reasonable to expect that an entire school community be asked to accommodate such an extreme situation (which is essentially what Glover has asked of her daughter's school). The reasonable solution is for that, in co-ordination with the school district and government, to find an alternative and reasonable equivalent solution to accommodate the needs of that student.

I, for one, although I do not have a diagnosed allergy, am very sensitive to scents, and I often get light-headedness and headaches when I am exposed to scents for even a short period. My father has a similar reaction, so we always avoided scents in our house, and now my wife has to be very careful about what fragrances she uses. I also make sure that friends and co-workers are aware of my sensitivity, so that they, say, don't light incense when I'm coming over, as an example. But, at the same time, I am conscious of the limits of my social influence and how socially acceptable my requests may or may not be. I would not approach a random stranger about their scents in the mall; not only is it not socially appropriate for me to do so, but it is not necessary, as I can avoid them. Malls are a great example, actually, as they often contain any number of bath and body stores in which products are sold with significant scents; my option is to either endure it or to not go by those stores or into malls. Now, I do understand that while my condition is a mild annoyance, Elodie's condition is life-threatening, and so the two are not directly comparable. But I still have to accommodate for situations outside of my control and act reasonably given the circumstances.


The responsibility of each party


With the concepts of social acceptability and reasonable practicality in mind, it is important to determine the responsibilities of each party involved in order to determine the possible solutions to this situation. There are three primary parties here connected to Elodie's care: her mother, the school (including the teachers), the school board, and the provincial government. Glover, as Elodie's mother, is responsible for the primary care of her daughter, and is responsible for helping find a suitable environment in which Elodie can remain physically, emotionally, socially, and psychologically healthy. She attempted to do that at the school, but in her determination the school was not meeting the criteria as she determined them to be (which is not necessarily as they are). She will now be caring for Elodie at home until suitable conditions can be found, so she is taking on the most responsibility right now.
The school is responsible for creating a safe environment for Elodie along those same criteria, which I believe they did to the best of their ability, with the few aforementioned possible mistakes. Although they were not able to create an environment that met Glover's criteria, they did meet (and I would argue at times exceed) their requirement to help keep Elodie safe. The fact that Glover chose to remove Elodie was her own decision, not the school's, and the school, as it seems, is not responsible for this situation. The school board is responsible for keeping the school and its employees accountable, which it seems that they have. That leaves only party remaining: the provincial government.


The government


The government is responsible for ensuring that there are accommodations for Elodie's education, whether that is in a school environment or not. They are ultimately responsible for helping all other parties and mediating any conflicts between those parties, as is happening now. They are also responsible for evaluating the school board and their accountability processes, as well as ensuring that all laws are followed both in the schools and in the judicial appeals process. In short, it's a very broad mandate, as there are many levels of government involved in even one case like Elodie's, and it turns even relatively simple issues like this case into very complex entities. Their responsibilities are further complicated by ideology, whether it is libertarian or conservative (not that those are necessarily opposed) or whatever other beliefs might affect the implementation of their decisions on individuals. So let's simplify things as much as possible.

The government is responsible for helping ensure that there is viable, affordable education for each child as set out by the established parameters and guidelines of time, content, and methodology, and for making sure that any disruptions to any of those facets are treated appropriately. What the government is not responsible for is providing education in exactly the way each parent would like for their child. For example, some parents might like to have more time spent in the arts, but not every school chooses to engage those subjects beyond the provincially-mandated minimums. The easiest way to deal with a shortage of arts would be to find a school that does focus more on the arts; of course, if such a school were not to exist, then the options are either to choose private education or to work within the system to encourage the government to change if that is not possible. The additional services that private schools offer are essentially the services that the government does not feel that is reasonable to offer in all schools, and though I often differ with the government on those assertions, I do respect their right to set them as they see fit (so long as I have the right to not like them and to make my dislike known). In this case, the government might look at establishing an alternative school for students with extreme needs like Elodie's or providing applications for funds for home schooling or for tuition for private schools that can accommodate Elodie. While none of these solutions might seem optimal, they would still be reasonable given the circumstances. And it is the government's responsibility to find or otherwise establish reasonable solutions.


The conclusion


After all of this deliberation, it might seem anticlimactic to arrive at what was more or less my initial point: that  Glover's position is untenable and unreasonable and that the school is ultimately innocent of the accusation of violation of Elodie's human rights. If my comments seem a little libertarian, it's probably because they lean that way, though I do often find myself still in strong consideration of social conscience (and I abhor the idea that the two ideologies are necessarily opposed). It will be interesting to see how the government responds not only to Glover's official complaint, regardless of its validity. The provincial government, in conjunction with the municipal authorities and school boards, will have to work at finding a solution that works for all parties, and it seems that that process will not be simple or straight forward.

On a personal note (lest you consider me a soulless automaton), I do empathize with Glover and her difficulties in finding suitable situations for Elodie. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for her knowing her daughter's challenges, and I cannot even begin to think about the fear she must feel every time Elodie has had an anaphylactic attack. I think it is terribly unfortunate that the situation is such as it is and that Elodie's needs cannot be accommodated by the school, and I concede that I might feel differently were it to be my child's health and safety in question. Still, I cannot condone her equation of this situation with a human rights issue, and I think that it is reasonable that she should find other avenues of caring for her daughter. I can only hope that all parties involved are cooperative and collaborative in helping her find a solution, rather than considering the matter closed because Elodie is no longer in the school. I do know how difficult making these accommodations can be from the perspective of a teacher, and I truly hope that Glover can find a school that is able to care for Elodie in way that meets her needs and that is reasonable and sustainable.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Oscars 2013: Early Commentary and Predictions

It's that time again: time to predict this year's Oscars! The nominations were announced yesterday, and there are six weeks until the awards on March 2. As always, here is the summary of how I have fared over my years of publishing my predictions:

2004: 7/9, missed Picture and Original Screenplay
2005: 7/9, missed Picture and Supporting Actress
2006: 5/9, missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature
2007: 6/9, missed Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay
2008: 8/9, missed Actor
2009: 6/9, missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay
2010: 7/9, missed Director and Original Screenplay
2011: 8/9, missed Actress
2012: 6/9, missed Director, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature

So, over nine years of prognosticating, I have an accuracy rate of 60 out of 81, or 74% across the board, and aside from Picture and Original Screenplay, I'm happy with my success rate. Breaking it down by category, it evens out a little bit over the past nine years, as I have accurately predicted 7/9 correctly for each category except for the aforementioned Best Picture (5/9 correct) and Best Original Screenplay (6/9).

The overall picture


In all, it seems like it will be an interesting Oscar season. The best historical comparison (other than last year) might be 1975, which featured a blockbuster film with special effects (Jaws), a dark dramatic ensemble comedy (Robert Altman's Nashville), an epic period film (Barry Lyndon), an edgy satirical thriller (Dog Day Afternoon), and the winner, the stark character-driven drama One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It's remarkably similar to the types of films from this year, and like the past several years (2009-2012, with the exception of 2011), it was part of a great string of years of film (1972-1977); just consider The Artist like The Sting in 1973, and the comparison works a lot better. At any rate, this is a good year for the Oscars and for cinephiles like myself, and it should be a good competition over the next six weeks.

Overall, the nominations actually seem mostly balanced and accurately reflective of the year that it was at the movies. There is a mostly healthy mix of movies with critical and commercial favor, and very few unjustifiable omissions (though some are necessary to validate the process, as I argued a month ago). Analysts will point to a number of under-recognized movies, but some of those never had the real juice to get more than a token nomination or two (Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Rush), some were movies that seemed like Oscar fodder but were seen for the kind of pandering fare that they really represented (Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County, and Lee Daniels' The Butler), and some were genuine surprises (Inside Llewyn Davis, maybe Blue Jasmine with only three nominations). What it really all amounts to is that 2013 was, like 2009, 2010, and 2012, a good year for movies, and that in a good year that it is really not an easy task to pick the best five (or nine) of a category). Here are some of my initial thoughts on the races this year.

Best Picture


There are nine nominees again for the third year in a row, although they can be divided (roughly) into three categories: the "just happy to be there and get more people to see this movie" category (Her, Philomena, and Dallas Buyers Club); the "movies with enough critical or commercial success to secure a nomination, but not to win" (Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Captain Phillips); and the frontrunners that actually have a chance of winning (Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years a Slave). As I mentioned earlier, it's a little surprising to see a couple of the nominees here, but it seems difficult to argue that any of the nominated films should not be there.

It will be a three picture race, each of which represents a different element of Oscar-ness. Gravity is the only Picture not nominated for Screenplay (which is accurate), but it represents the movies as an experience; my hunch is that it will be awarded elsewhere. 12 Years a Slave is the "important" movie that is indicative of the significance of the cinema as artistic and historical discourse. And then there's American Hustle, the movie that best perhaps balances critical and commercial and popular acceptance, the kind of defining work that is almost always awarded with an Oscar, and should be the prohibitive favourite, except for one factor.

The biggest thing going against American Hustle is not its own content, nor anything to do with this year: it's recent history. Consider that last year, the Academy passed over a significantly somber epic film about slavery (Lincoln) to award a plucky, character-driven, dark comedy set in the 1970s involving con artists, polyester pants, and a lot of humourously placed F-bombs (Argo). It's an eerily similar echo this year between Slave and Hustle, and I think that Hustle would win in almost any other year, save for the fact that Argo won just a year ago in response to needing to "lighten" up a bit. Hustle could still win, as it has the feel of an "edgy" Best Picture and there might be backlash to Slave as the established Oscar-type movie, but my early gut feeling is that Slave is going to pull into the lead.

Main Creative Awards


Director: Unlike last year's snub-fest, this year's nominees seem to all be "deserving" of the nomination, and there's no one really on the outs. I was disappointed to not see Spike Jonze get a nomination for Her, as it would have validated his comeback, as well as the complete artistic control he exercised over the only true science-fiction nominee of the year. But the crew includes a couple of auteurs who have been/will be awarded in other ways (Payne and Russell), the ever-present Scorsese, and the two who will contend: Steve McQueen, the young auteur who finally made a film that the Academy could nominate; and the clear leader and eventual winner, Alfonso Cuaron, who directed Gravity within an inch of its life. Cuaron is established in Hollywood, has been regrettably passed over for nominations in the past (2006's Children of Men), and represents a segment of directors from Mexico and South America that has been growing in stature and influence in the past decade.

Screenplay (Original and Adapted): Eight of the nine Best Picture nominees are represented here, but there is one of the Best Picture frontrunners in each category, so it's a fait accompli. John Ridley will win Adapted Screenplay for his work on 12 Years a Slave, and David O. Russell (along with his co-writer Eric Warren Singer) will win a well-deserved Original Screenplay award for American Hustle, although it will also be acknowledgement of his body of work over the past four years (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle have all been nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and they have a total of 11 Acting nominations. I don't think anyone has ever had this kind of a run, ever).

Animated Feature: This should come down to a battle between the super-popular Despicable Me 2 and honouring Hayao Miyazaki's career and retirement with a win for The Wind Rises. Miyazaki has won before, but I think that The Wind Rises will win this year.

Acting Awards


Actor: This is easily the hardest category to call this year. The fact that the actors not nominated (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Forest Whitaker, Oscar Isaac, and Joaquin Phoenix) could have just as easily comprised the list of nominees is telling about just how incredible this year's competition has already been. In the end, it turned out that they had their balance of star power, racial and age differences, newcomers and established Oscar stars. Bale is here on the sheer ballsiness of his performance, and Dern is the token veteran nomination. The wild card is Ojiofor, though I think this is not where Slave will receive its laurels. The real battle is between the two big stars who both delivered iconic roles and managed to overcome their personas to create memorable characters. Will the voters go for McConaughey and validate the so-called "McConaissance", or will they finally give a long overdue award for DiCaprio for his darkly comic work? It's a toss up at this point, but I think they might go light after honouring "serious" work in the past few years. This

Actress: Although the nominees were all very predictable (the only "surprise" was Emma Thompson's omission and Amy Adams' inclusion, though Adams definitely deserves it) and in some ways this award seems all but locked up for Cate Blanchett, there are still some things to consider here. Adams has her fifth nomination in nine years (!), but this is her first as a lead, and I don't think it's her time yet. Streep is out, since she just won in 2011, and not everyone liked her scene-chewing. That leaves Blanchett to compete with fellow former winners Bullock and Dench. Bullock is the only one of the three to have won Best Actress, but if Hilary Swank is any lesson, the Academy is more than willing to award incredible performances regardless of how recent the last win might have been. Dench and Blanchett both won for Supporting performances (Dench in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love and Blanchett in 2004 for The Aviator), so history's not a factor. It will come down to whether the Academy chooses to give Dench the one last award she arguably deserves. Blanchett is the favourite, but Dench (or even Bullock) could sneak this one out with a strong campaign over the next month.

Supporting Actor: This might be the easiest category to pick, as Jared Leto is the clear favourite for Dallas Buyers Club. There's not even really any other possible winners, as Abdi is the outsider and Hill, Fassbender, and Cooper all seem to have lots of work left in them.

Supporting Actress: It comes down to the two front-running pictures, here represented by Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) and Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave). That Lawrence is considered only a year removed from winning Best Actress speaks to her incredible performance (which, like Bale's and the entire movie, speaks to the raw power of Hustle, which overcomes its shortcomings to become something much greater than its parts), but I think that this is the kind of year in which this category will go to a newcomer, as it often does. Nyong'o is that kind of fresh face that can be anointed, so count this one for her.

Other Awards


Original Song and Score: Original Score seems destined for Gravity because everyone listened to it so intently. Original Song - AKA the most inscrutable category of the Awards - is almost as easy to pick this year. Although Pharrell Williams has had an incredible year, I think he'll come up short to the juggernaut that is U2. They lost out, deservedly, to Eminem's "Lose Yourself" in 2002 with the bland "The Hands That Built America" from Gangs of New York, but this year's "Ordinary Love" is an incredible song that voters will not be able to deny. It's U2 at its late-career best, and Bono and company deserve the recognition not only for their work in this film but for how they have worked with film over three decades, whether in creating concert experiences on film (Rattle & Hum), pioneering 3D technology (U2 3D), contributing creatively to writing films (The Million-Dollar Hotel), or even just having their songs featured prominently in movies. It's time for U2 to fill in the O in their EGOT.

Technical Awards: I fully expect that these categories will be dominated by the three front-running films, with a couple of unexpected surprises. I was surprised that American Hustle was not nominated for Makeup and Hairstyling, though, as appearances were so important to that entire film. Gravity will win Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki because the film was so incredible but also as recompense for his snub for Tree of Life in 2011, and Gravity should also win Visual Effects. More on these awards closer to the date of the Oscars.

Wrapping it up


I have only seen two of the nine nominated films: Gravity and American Hustle. On my list to see, then, are most of the rest of the major nominees: 12 Years A Slave, Her, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, and perhaps Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club if I have time. I also need to fit Inside Llewyn Davis in there, as I'm a huge Coen fan, so I figure that I have to average one movie a week over the next six weeks to see the majority before the end of February. The good thing is that I'll actually be enjoying most of these films, as many of them come from some of my favourite filmmakers and star some of my favourite actors. To the cinema!


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Simplify.

I have the privilege of having a birthday at the beginning of the calendar year, so I get to go through the process of New Year's resolutions as well as thinking about the year of my life to come all at the same time. Every year (more or less), I think about what my goals are for the year to come, and I often write them out in some sort of entry here. Last year, I was exhaustive in my approach as I divided my life into thirteen basic categories, and I concocted a scheme in which I divided my goals for the year into resolutions (definite goals), intentions (orienting myself that way, but not disappointed if it doesn't happen), and aspirations ("if it happens, great").

As I started to review these thirty-nine statements (!) recently, I realized that almost none of them actually happened, regardless of whether they were resolutions, intentions, and aspirations. In fact, I moved further away from some of those goals than I ever had been in the past, particularly in the last quarter of the year, and although none of them seem silly, necessarily, they at least seem inaccessible for now. I think I needed to have it be that complex for this last season, because I have started to realize that I need to change the way I do things - which brings me to this year.

Simplify.


As I have been thinking about the year that was in 2013 and the year that is to come in 2014 for me, one word has stuck out above all others in regard to vision for my life: "simplify." That's it. That's my goal, resolution, intention, aspiration, affirmation - whatever else you want to call it - for the foreseeable future. "Simplify." is the lens through which I am looking at life in this season. It's funny and ironic, because I wanted to make it more than just one word. I thought about "identify", "modify", and other iffy "-ify" words, but in the end, the one word that resonated was, simply, "simplify."

Of course there are things that I would like to accomplish over the next twelve months, but I do not feel the need to have to elucidate them all or to even think about them. I still have a not-insignificant to-do list of errands and projects, some of which have carried over from the thirty-nine statements from 2013, but my focus is not on that list. It's on the process of simplifying my entire life. If something fits and has a future, that's great. If it's now part of my past and I leave it behind, that's great, too. Part of this process is that there's no "no-brainers"; almost everything can be up for grabs.

Why am I simplifying?


A significant part of why I am simplifying is that I have too much clutter in my life, and too much that is distracting me from the things that are most important: my relationships with Jesus, my wife, and others; my physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being; and having joy, purpose, and meaning in my life. I have let things build up for too long, like a fog that has crept in slowly but that now fills almost all of my immediate vision. I have not been doing well over the past few months, and part of what I need to do is to let things go and to simplify everything to come back to those important things.

I was thinking about this idea of simplifying a week ago, and I decided that I needed to pray about it. When I stopped to talk to Jesus about it, a couple of really cool things happened. First of all, I saw this CD cover, of The City Harmonic's new album Heart, which has had an incredible impact on me in the past four months; it's one of those albums that reveals something new every time I hear it. Take a glance at the cover.

Now look at it again. Do you see it now? I didn't for several months: the image of Jesus on the cross is watermarked in the background. When I simplified things and stopped and really looked, he was right there. Huh.

As I continued praying, Jesus showed me a picture of me crawling around in thick fog. He was speaking, and I was trying to find him, but I couldn't see him in the thickness of the fog around me. Then he said, simply, "stand up." In my vision, I stood, and I quickly realized two things: the fog was only waist-high; and he was right there, in front of me. The answer, it turned out, was actually quite simple, even though I was making it complicated. Jesus was there, just waiting to be seen, just like the album cover.

What does it mean to simplify?


The question that I have had to work through is what it means to simplify, whether it means getting rid of everything I own or deleting all but fifty of my Facebook contacts or quitting everything I am doing or some other equally drastic measure. The good news is that that's not what I have to do. This simplification process is about losing unnecessary baggage overall; it will include reducing some personal possessions and deleting social network connections and leaving activities, but I do not have to be legalistic about it. My goal is to not only trim the fat from my life, but to lose some weight and to refine my muscle (to extend the analogy).

Whatever it is that I am simplifying - whether stuff or people or involvements - I am going through a similar process that involves asking myself some key questions. Is this still a meaningful part of my life? If I were to get rid of this item (or delete this contact or stop this activity or...), would I miss it? Do I see this being part of my future, or is it just part of my past? Or, is this part of who I thought I could be or would be or should be at some point, and I just need to let it go based on who I am now?

How will I simplify?


The next question is the practical ramifications of how to implement this simplification process, as there are a lot of different facets to this process. I have already started in a couple of areas, particularly the ones that are a little easier. I have spent some time going through my collections - board games, video games, books, etc. - and I am happy to not only be ridding myself of some of the items that I will not use, but also to be receiving value for them in return (more on that in a future post). I am consolidating my contact lists from various sources and starting from there. I am prioritizing some of the tasks that have been on my "to-do" list (some for years) to be able to simplify my lists going forward. But those are the (mostly) easy ones to do.

I find that leaving an activity or organization that I love to be a part of is much more difficult, even if I know I need to do it, regardless of how long I've been investing myself into it. I find it much more challenging to be as ruthless when I'm dealing with this level of simplifying, unlike attorney and entrepreneur Bob Goff, who encourages people to quit something everything Thursday, as he does. I am evaluating everything closely, and reminding myself that there is no such thing as a "no-brainer." I have already had to make one hard decision, as I resigned as a general manager in a legacy hockey pool in which I have participated for 8.5 years. I needed to leave it behind for now as part of my simplification, even if just as a beginning to the rest of the process.

The results of simplifying


This isn't the first time that I have gone through my life with this kind of extensive rigor. The other periods in my life that have been similarly intensively reflective and subsequently transformative took place over the course of a month or so, and they both came at the conclusion of a period of life and immediately preceded significant transitions to a new chapter. I do not know if there is similarly something new coming for me in the future, but I do know that I need to take the time and space that I have now to do this while I can in order to be prepared for whatever is to come. I know from my experience that although this process seems difficult at the time that I am always glad to have gone through it afterward. It's going to take a couple of months to make it through, and I will second guess myself and I will need to come back to this post and that one word - "simplify." to help remind me what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it, and how it will happen. And then, one day, I'll look back and be glad for this simplifying process and laugh at how it all unfolded.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2013: The Year in Board Games!

2013 was an interesting year for me as a board gamer. I feel in some ways that I took a step back from the hobby due to my external circumstances, but I think it will be better for me in the long run. To use a sports analogy: if 2011 was my first year, when I didn't play full-time but stayed mostly in the minor leagues to hone my skills (ie. I started to really become interested in board games) and 2012 was my rookie year, when I joined the roster full-time and established myself as a bonafide board gamer, then 2013 was my "sophomore slump", the year in which I didn't quite live up to the promise of my previous two years. Like many erstwhile young players, I can't quite explain it, but all I know is that it happened, and I just need to move onto the next season and not let it drag me down. I acquired and played fewer games in 2013 than I had in 2012, and I generally did not spend as much time or energy on board games (mostly because I had less of both). Perhaps it was a good thing, but I really wished I could have gamed more this year. Still, I am happy the progress that I made in the hobby, and I still feel very established as a board gamer. My tastes became more refined, my collection is better suited to my tastes both through addition and subtraction, and I am enjoying the games I do play more than ever. So with that in mind, here is my entirely too-long-and-self-involved overanalysis of the board games I played in 2013.

Games Played


I played a lot less than I did last year: 150 total plays compared to 232 last year, but about 10 of those were on Christmas break. The only months in which I played close to the amount I wanted to were March and November. I know part of the issue was that I was sick off and on for much of the year, and also that during the summer months that I was extremely busy with work and volunteering, so I just could not play as much. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of my favourite games from 2012 stayed at the top of my list in 2013, particularly as I had just received new expansions for both for Christmas last year from my wife. Here are some of my reflections on the games I played in 2013.

Favourite games in 2013, by number of plays:

Honourable mentions (ie. games I played several times in 2012): Le Havre (6), Saint Petersburg (5), Carcassonne (4), The Castles of Burgundy (4), Dominion (4), Lords of Waterdeep (4)
4T . At the Gates of Loyang (9) / King of Tokyo (9)
3. Pandemic (with On the Brink expansion) (14)
2. Race for the Galaxy (15)
1. 7 Wonders (16)

Eleven games I added to my "repertoire" in 2013: That is, games that I played enough times to feel comfortable playing and even teaching: At the Gates of Loyang; The Castles of Burgundy; Egizia; Hanabi; King of Tokyo; Last Will; Le Havre; Lords of Waterdeep; Love Letter; No Thanks!; Village (all but Le Havre were new to me this year)

Five other games I tried for the first time in 2013: Agricola: All Creatures Great and Small (2P); Android: Netrunner; Eclipse; Small World; Twilight Struggle

Five games I did not play nearly enough of in 2013:  Agricola; Cosmic Encounter; Galaxy Trucker; Innovation (which I didn't play at all, somehow); and Power Grid.

Changes to my collection


My collection fluctuated more this year than last. After I added a lot of games last year (20 and 9 expansions), I sold or traded a number of those to make room for new games, meaning that my overall collection actually did not grow, per se. I was a bit choosier this year, as I added only ten games and several expansions directly to my collection, including five "bigger" games and five small or medium games (ie. usually card games with a much lower cost). I was actually able to enjoy most of the games that I purchased and it felt great to clear out some of the riff raff.

For the first time, I Kickstarted board games, including three big games (with expansions), two medium-sized games, and one micro-game. I have not been able to play any of the games yet, as some are yet to arrive and I am still geographically separated from others (ie. they're sitting at a friend's house on the mainland), but I'm excited about all of them. I think that Kickstarter will likely continue to be a good source of getting games on the cheap, and I really like the process of waiting for a game (oddly enough). Here are some brief lists of how my collection changed in 2013.

Ten games I added to my collection in 2013: At the Gates of Loyang, Barons, Egizia, King of Tokyo, Last Will, Le Havre, Lost Cities, Love Letter, No Thanks!, The Resistance

Expansions I added to my collection in 2013: 7 Wonders: Leaders and Wonder Pack; Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm; Saint Petersburg: New Society and Banquet; and a lot of expansions for Carcassonne (Catapult, Tower, River II, Cult and Siege, The Mini, Minis x6), as I was concerned with the availability of expansions with the switchover to a new publisher.

Games I Kickstarted in 2013: Among the Stars: The Ambassadors (includes expansion); Coin Age (due April 2014); Council of Verona; Eminent Domain: Escalation (includes expansion); Flash Point: Fire Rescue (+ 3 expansions); and RARRR! (due April 2014)

Five Kickstarters I'm kicking myself for missing when they were on: Belfort: The Expansion Expansion, Coup, Cult Classic, Fleet: Arctic Bounty, Keyflower: The Farmers

Eleven games I traded, sold, or gave away in 2013: aBridged; Colossal Arena; Hare & Tortoise; Jurassic Jumble; Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter; The Lord of the Rings; Master Labyrinth; Modern Art; Starfarers of Catan; Torres; Trivial Pursuit: 90s Time Capsule Edition

Games I would buy


What would a year-end post be without thinking about the games I would buy in the year to come? I know there will be a few Kickstarters that will probably come up during the year that will disrupt my plans, but I have some pretty good ideas as to the next games I would buy, since I have already played many of them in the past year or two. I know I won't be able to pick up all of my top ten, but here are my thoughts on the next few games and expansions on my radar.

Top ten games to buy overall (regardless of size or cost): Alhambra Big Box; Battle Line; The Castles of Burgundy; Fleet; Galaxy Trucker: Anniversary Edition; Hanabi; Jaipur; Kingdom Builder (Big Box); Lords of Waterdeep; and Village

Ten expansions I would love to buy (in order of preference): King of Tokyo: Power Up!; Innovation: Figures in the Sand; Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts; Ticket to Ride: Europa 1912; Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs. Imperium; Race for the Galaxy: The Brink of War; Dixit: Odyssey; Dixit: Origins; Dixit: Quest; Last Will: Getting Sacked

Ten small to medium games I would buy: Battle Line; Fleet; For Sale; Hanabi; Haggis; Hive; Jaipur; Jump Gate; Morels; Tichu

Ten big games I would buy: Alhambra Big Box; The Castles of Burgundy; Caylus; Dominion: Intrigue; El Grande; Galaxy Trucker: Anniversary Edition; Kingdom Builder (Big Box); Lords of Waterdeep; Princes of Florence; and Village

Ten big games I would buy without trying: Belfort; Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Core Worlds; Fresco; Glass Road; Hawaii; Keyflower; Ora and Labora; Stone Age; Tigris and Euphrates


Games I want to play


On BoardGameGeek, I currently have 142 games on my "want to play" list. About a quarter of those are games I own or have access to, but that still leaves over a hundred games (and expansions) on my radar. Many of those games will fade from my attention, particularly as I continue to try new games and learn more of what I like and do not like, but I will still probably need to cull this list a bit; after all, considering that I only tried about fifteen games for the first time in 2013, it would take me the better part of a decade to clear out this list entirely.

I did try to prioritize my plays this year, but I ended up trying only five of the twenty games from my "want to play" list from the end of 2012 and only four of fifteen from my revised list at the end of March 2013; I'm taking my success rate as 9/20 altogether for the year (as compared to 5/10 from the previous year), which is still lower than I would like. I realized, in reviewing last year's list, that I needed to revise it, so I'm starting over with a new list rather than carrying all of those games over to this year's list. I'm omitting my Kickstarter games, since that's kind of cheating, as well as games that I know I will have the chance to play soon because someone else owns them (namely Dominant Species and Terra Mystica). So here are my thoughts on games I want to play.

Fourteen games released in 2013 that I would like to play: Amerigo; Augustus; Bora Bora; Bruges; Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Firefly: The Game; Forbidden Desert; Glass Road; Mascarade; Quarantine; Rampage; Rialto; Spyrium; Trains

Games coming in 2014 that I want to try: Impulse; Space Junk; Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts (an all-new branch of expansions!); and two dice games based on two of my favourites, Roll for the Galaxy and Pandemic: The Cure.

Top twenty games to try in 2014: Belfort; Bora Bora; Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Core Worlds; Coup; Firefly: The Game; Forbidden Desert; For Sale; Fresco; Glass Road; Hawaii; Hive; Jump Gate; Keyflower; Morels; Ora and Labora; Stone Age; Tigris and Euphrates; Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar; Zooloretto

Goals for 2014


Other than my list of games to try this year, I have a few other goals that I would like to achieve with my board gaming.

1. Record 300 plays total. That would double my total from this year and average out to 25 plays per month. I think I can do it.

2. "Nickel and Dime" the games in my collection. I would like to record at least five plays for all games in my collection, and at least ten for my favourites. If I don't play them at least that often, maybe it's time to get rid of them.

3. Clear out (at least) ten games from my collection. I figure that there will be at least that many games that I won't play and that just need to go. I already have a decent idea of the games that I need to sell, so I'm starting on this goal right away.

4. Add a dozen quality games to my collection. Including my Kickstarters that are yet to arrive, that was how many I added this year, and it seems like a good pace to be able to actually enjoy my games and not spend too much money either. I have not differentiated between bigger and small games, so I could see that this number might be a big higher if I pick up a couple of card games. But I figure that one game a month is a reasonable goal.

5. Increase my repertoire of playable games by fifteen. I suppose it makes sense that if I acquire a dozen games that I should be able to play them all, plus a few more to boot.

6. Play all of the games on my top twenty to play list. This will be the year that I finally play Zooloretto, and hopefully Jump Gate (though I will have to order that one specially), as well as the other games on my list. My task should be made easier by the recent opening of a board game café in town, as they have an incredible selection of games to try. Two per month - no problem!

7. Blog more about board games. I have written some of these mega-summary posts over the past two years, but I haven't really written much else about board games. I would like to try to do that this year, whether it's just some thoughts on a new game or two or maybe even a full review.

8. Work on designing a game. I have an idea that has not really been done yet; I just need to spend some time working out the mechanics and the specifics, but I think I might be able to get it done within a year or two if I really put the effort into it.

So that's my year in board games for 2013. I would love to hear back from you. What were your top games of the year? What are you looking forward to in 2014? And most importantly, which of these games do you own so that I can play them?

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