Sunday, December 27, 2015

A thousand splendid plays

Today, I accomplished my thousandth recorded play on Board Game Geek. It has taken me five years to accomplish this feat since I started tracking my plays on December 21, 2010; I had 2 plays in the final ten days of 2010, 75 in 2011, 221 in 2012, 150 in 2013, 206 in 2014, and 346 (and counting!) in 2015. I don't know how many plays I would have tracked in years previous to 2010, but I would not be surprised if I had far more than another thousand plays in my lifetime up until I started tracking, given a rough estimate of two plays per week (roughly a hundred per year) for the decade from 2000 to 2010 and then all of the games I played in the decade before that. At any rate, I'm (perhaps unreasonably?) proud of this accomplishment and the landmark that it represents for me as a board gamer. (Maybe I can even get a special microbadge on BoardGameGeek!)

I realized in early November that I had a distinct possibility of hitting the magic mark of a thousand plays before the end of the year, which would mean hitting that target close to within five years to the date of that first tracked play. As it happened, my thousandth play was with the same friend with the same game as my first play with the same result: a brutal loss in two-player Citadels. This circumstance might seem normal at first glance, but it was particularly unusual since I had not seen him in the five years between those plays, since he and I have lived several provinces apart that entire time; it just worked out that my thousandth play worked out perfectly for the symmetry and the story.

What follows here is a collection of reflections, statistics, and lists that are of interest primarily to people like me who are also board game geeks - and believe me, I am nowhere near the top of that scale (though I am certainly more advanced than many). I have spent some time looking at some of the trends contained within those thousand plays and compiling some lists both for posterity as well as for my own analysis, and I have been pleasantly surprised by what I have learned, which is that I am very satisfied with my progress as a board gamer over the past five years. I have interspersed a few lists in the midst of the heaviness of the text, so I hope that you can find a way to enjoy this analysis, whether you know the games or not.

***

Top played games (number of plays in parentheses):
1. 7 Wonders (60)
2. Race for the Galaxy (36)
3. Pandemic (30)
4. King of Tokyo (29)
5. Dominion (25)
6T. Agricola / Splendor (21)
8. Innovation (19)
9T. Hanabi / Lords of Waterdeep / The Resistance (16)

***

I am very well-rounded in my board gaming, as I have an H-index of 14. In the original sense of the term, an H-index is a measurement of the quality of scholars by how often the number of papers they have published have been cited by others; in the world of Board Game Geek, an H-index is the number of games that have each been played that same number of times. A larger H-index usually indicates that a gamer has broader tastes and experience than gamers who play certain games repeatedly; it's generally seen as a positive trait amongst gamers, as it displays both a dedication to playing different games as well as a broader spectrum of familiarity with games as a whole. In my case, my current H-index is 14 (as I have played fourteen games at least fourteen times), though I am very close to an H-index of 15 (2 plays) and even 16 (6 plays). It would take a bit to get much higher than that, but I could probably be up around 20 by the end of next year if I continue my rate of plays on the games in my top 25 most played.

I have recorded plays of 250 unique games during these thousand plays, which was not intentional, even though it makes the math a lot easier. My most played game - 7 Wonders - takes up only 6% (60) of my total plays, so I was interested to see how top-heavy my list might be in terms of playing games repeatedly, and I was encouraged to see what I consider a respectable balance between familiar and fresh games. As a portion of my total plays, here are my numbers: my top 10 unique games take up 27.3%; my top 20, 41.3%; my top 25, 47.2%; and my top 31, which includes all games I have played at least ten times (referred to as "dimes" in BGG-speak), sits at 53.5%. I have another 23 nickels (games played between five and nine times) that comprise 145 plays; another 203 plays amongst the 79 games that I have played between two and four times; and then 117 games that I have played only once. Those 117 one-time plays mark 46.8% of all unique games played, which might seem like a lot at first glance; it is, however, is a misleadingly high number, however, as 71 of those games were part of the 100 games that I played for the first time in 2015. (As a slight aside, I would estimate that between half and two-thirds of the games with a lower number of plays -one to four - will climb on my overall plays list.) I'm relatively happy with this balance of plays overall, though I am fully aware that I have a lot of games to play a second time.

***

Dimes (between 10 and 15 plays): At the Gates of Loyang; Battle Line; Carcassonne; The Castles of Burgundy; Chrononauts; Citadels; Dixit; Eminent Domain; Flash Point: Fire Rescue; Fleet; Forbidden Island; Galaxy Trucker; Glory to Rome; Le Havre; Kingdom Builder; Pot O' Gold; Saint Petersburg; San Juan; Star Realms; Ticket to Ride: Europe (20)

Nickels (between 5 and 9 plays): 7 Wonders: Duel; Alhambra; Among the Stars; Anomia; BANG!; Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game; Bohnanza; Camel Up; Catan; Cosmic Encounter; Dutch Blitz; Five Crowns; Fresco; Glass Road; Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot; Istanbul; Jaipur; Patchwork; Ra; Scoville; Things...; Tikal; Village (23)

***

Also, perhaps not surprisingly, I realized that I am far more likely to play games I own and to purchase and/or own games that I want to play; of my top 25 games played all-time, there is only one I do not own - Dominion, which I gave away over a year ago because I knew I would still have easy access to it and also because I knew that I would either want to own all of the expansions or have none of them. Of the 54 games on which I have at least five plays, I currently own all but six, and only one of those six was a game I never owned - Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game, for which I was involved in a play test of an expansion (and thus racked up the plays). Those 48 games make up just over a third of my current collection of 129 games, though I am continuing to refine my collection through reduction and to play the games I own more often; after all, what's the point in owning a game I don't or won't really play?

I was interested to see how my plays ranked by weight, which is a user-generated aggreggate measure on BGG that indicates roughly how complex a game might be. It's not a perfect measure, but an interesting one to analyze nevertheless, particularly as I find my own tastes gravitating toward heavier games all the time. I have 52 plays of games that rank between 3.5 and 3.9, most of which come from Le Havre and Agricola with a combined 33 plays between them. I have a further 104 plays of games that rank between 3 and 3.5, a third of which come from Race for the Galaxy with 36 plays. Another 164 plays come from games that rank between 2.5 and 3.0, and then the plays just got too annoying to count after that point. Although those three categories include just over 30% of my total plays, I am still satisfied with my percentage of more complex games so far, as it has increased significantly in the past year. Several of my most-played games fall in the 2.0 to 2.5 category, which likely features my highest percentage of any weight range since I am often teaching games and playing with gamers with less comfort and/or experience with more complex games. With that said, however, I would not be surprised to see that percentage of more complex plays rising in the next thousand plays.

***

Twenty games that would have (in some cases significantly) more plays if I had started tracking plays as early as Board Game Geek was established (in 2000): Apples to Apples; Bang!; Bohnanza; Carcassonne; Corsari/I Go!; Cranium; Dutch Blitz; Five Crowns; Kaiser; Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter; Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot; Portobello Market; Rook; Sequence; SET; The Settlers of Catan; The Settlers of Catan: The Card Game; Starfarers of Catan; Thurn and Taxis; True Colors

Ten games that would have (significantly) more plays if I tracked plays on my computer or phone: Carcassonne; Dominion; Galaxy Trucker; Kaiser; Lost Cities; Race for the Galaxy; Rook; San Juan; Splendor; Star Realms (10)

***

I had also considered evaluating my plays based on metrics like genre or family of game (ie. party, complex, historical, etc.) and by mechanic (deck-building, worker placement, etc.), but I ran out of a mixture of time, interest, and ability to differentiate easily between some of those elements. I did, however, take the time to look at some of my favourite designers and how much I had played their games; I chose six, though I could easily have chosen more. My most played designer, unsurprisingly, was Antoine Bauza, with 87 plays, thanks mainly to 60 on 7 Wonders. Uwe Rosenberg, of complex games like Agricola and Le Havre, had 75 plays across 11 games, while his fellow German complex game designer, Stefan Feld, had only 28 plays across 11 games, with 13 of those coming from The Castles of Burgundy (though many more are yet to come). Carl Chudyk of swingy strategic card games had 39 plays, mostly from Innovation (19) and Glory to Rome (15), while fellow American Donald X. Vaccharino had 37 plays, mostly from Dominion (25) and Kingdom Builder (10). The other designer I could not leave out in this somewhat perfunctory analysis was the grandfather of German games, Reiner Knizia, who came in at a surprisingly low 24 plays on five games; then again, I do have many of his games on my Want to Play list, so that number will certainly go up in the next thousand plays.

With that, I feel that I have sufficiently analyzed my first thousand plays, except to consider what might happen for my next thousand plays, an objective which, if I continue the pace I set this year, I will meet in three years rather than five. In my next thousand plays, I look forward to increasing my H-index by playing my favourite games more, as well as to add more expansions to those games (many of which I already own, still unplayed). I look forward to playing many of those games with a lower number of plays more often, particularly the games with a little more complexity. I look forward to trying new games, as I have almost as many games and expansions on my Want to Play list right now (203) as I have unique games I have played over the past thousand plays. And I am excited to play more games of my own design; 1.1% of my first thousand plays (11) were of games I created, but I have a feeling, given the ideas that I have brewing, that that percentage might go up for the next thousand. But perhaps the best part of the next thousand plays is that I have already started them off well with a victory in Jaipur to avenge that unfortunate loss in Citadels; one down, 999 to go!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Fandom Awakens

I realized after viewing The Force Awakens on opening day that I had been engaging in a bit of revisionist history for the past few years, as I had been mistakenly stating that I had never enjoyed Star Wars, which that just was not true. I thoroughly enjoyed Star Wars as a child and a teenager for what it was - a fun space adventure. I remember watching the trilogy for the first time and enjoying the experience enough to invest in reading the (then emerging) expanding collection of novels set in the "Extended Universe", starting with Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy that started the whole ball rolling. The adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, Mara Jade, Jacen and Jaina Solo, and many other characters brought a fullness and freshness to the Star Wars universe that made up for the kind of depth that was lacking in Lucas' original trilogy. I was always a true fan of Star Trek, but Star Wars had a rogue-ish irresponsibility that was hard to find in Trek save for certain movies.

When I was a teenager, Star Wars started to come back into vogue. I remember watching A New Hope and Return of the Jedi in theatres upon their re-release in 1997 with new footage and not really caring about their apocryphal changes at the time (though now I realize how important it really is that Han shot first), but rather that I was watching Star Wars on the big screen; I don't know why I missed The Empire Strikes Back, the best of the bunch, but I enjoyed the other two. I fondly remember Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, a game for Nintendo 64 that took place between Empire and Jedi, and I remember being legitimately excited to see Episode I: The Phantom Menace two years later. I lined up for hours (in the era before cell phones!) to see the late show on opening night on May 19, 1999, and the atmosphere was electric; this, after all, was the first new Star Wars film in sixteen years, and I got to be a part of it!

Then it started to play, and I was greatly confused by what I was watching. Why did we care about Anakin as a kid? What was all of this talk about midi-chlorians and the Galactic Senate? And why was a CGI alien doing blackface? There were a few thrilling moments - the pod race in particular - but by the time the film came down to its climactic all-CGI battle between the Gungans and the droids, I fell asleep. My youth pastor was a rabid Star Wars fan, so he convinced me to see it again one Sunday after church, and I was even more nonplussed as to why this movie was worth watching again. I remember little of the film to this day other than Jar-Jar Binks, Darth Maul's red two-ended lightsaber, and the fact that it turned me off of Star Wars for the next decade and a half. I skipped out on Episodes II and III, and I didn't feel like I missed anything at all, and I began to reframe my personal history as never having been a fan of Star Wars as a result of that disillusionment.

Star Wars was just not a part of my life anymore other than a fond memory from my childhood, so when The Force Awakens was initially announced, I was mostly ambivalent to its imminent release. I started to gain a bit of interest with some of the early casting announcements - particularly the return of several members of the original cast - but I still remained unmoved by its impending release. But then something started to awaken in me in the weeks leading up to December 18, as I started to get a little excited about seeing the new movie at some point over the holidays; it still was not going to be a priority, but I knew I had to see it. Then a friend posted that she had a ticket for 9:45 in the morning for IMAX on opening day, and I knew that I had to go see it then. I was not surprised to see several people I knew in the theater, and neither were they surprised to see me; I suppose my nerd cred is alive and well, after all.

[Note: I have tried to avoid spoilers, but some points included here might be spoiler-adjacent, so be warned.]

From the opening fanfare to the closing credits, I was enthralled by The Force Awakens, and I am not surprised to see it receiving rave reviews across the board (81 on Metacritic). Director J.J. Abrams captured the feel of the original trilogy perfectly in almost every area of the movie, and it is easy to overlook Lucas' prequel trilogy as an aberration and to see this as the true continuation of Star Wars. Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix (one of the internet's finest television commentators) wrote his thoughts after viewing the film, and I'm inclined to agree with him in several areas, particularly in how the incorporation of new characters allowed Abrams to explore familiar territory in fresh new ways, much as he did in his re-envisioning of Star Trek in 2009 (but with far fewer lens flares and parallel universes in this instance). All three new recruits - Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron - have outstanding moments, as does new droid BB-8, though Ridley and Isaac (one of my favourite young actors) are particularly magnetic throughout their performances.

The old guard, particularly Harrison Ford as Han Solo, bring a much needed grounding to the action, and the decision to bridge the gap between old and new works very well here (much more so than 1994's Star Trek: Generations, which attempted to accomplish a similar task but with far less successful results). The movie is action-packed, self-referential, funny, and simple to understand, and it is also a visual treat. Moreover, the decision to free itself from the constraints of the established Extended Universe in considering them non-canonical has allowed the Star Wars universe to grow in new ways in this movie, and I commend Abrams and fellow screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt for the decisions they made (as well as the decisions they did not make). It is, in short, the Star Wars movie that everyone has waited over thirty years to see, and it lives up to its expectations and even exceeds them.

It is almost difficult to view and review this as a film because of the reverence toward its characters and subject matter; much like The Passion of the Christ, the story and characters are too treasured by people to see the movie with much objectivity. With that in mind, there are, however, some legitimate criticisms to be had of the movie. It is at times too evocative of A New Hope, to the point that it is overly predictable and it feels like Abrams was going through a checklist. There are some instances of stilted dialogue and "acting" by yelling all the time, mostly by John Boyega, and the plot is at times a little too thin (again evoking memories of the original trilogy). There is a lack of consistency with some characters, and also some inexplicable traits such as accents that distract from the dialogue intermittently, but it is to Abrams' credit that these issues do not overshadow or unduly influence the force of the film as a whole (pun definitely intended).

I cannot understate the significance of what Abrams has accomplished with The Force Awakens. He has undone a decade and a half of damage and reinvigorated a franchise with an open canvas for future adventures (not to mention making billions of dollars in the process). The fact that there is talk that The Force Awakens might be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year and that it was just added to the Critics' Choice Awards Best Picture nominees after they were announced is evidence enough that it has breathed new life into Star Wars on a critical level. On that note, I would not be surprised to see it make the list or to be snubbed, as I can see there being a strong narrative pull either way. In its favor is the fact that Star Wars was nominated almost forty years ago and that The Force Awakens will have a very passionate contingent of fans; going against it is the fact that I am not sure how many of those fans are members of the academy who will choose it over the other films of the year, particularly its most direct competitors, The Martian as a science fiction film, and Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed as nostalgic reinventions, as all three are better films than The Force Awakens. But no matter what happens at the Academy Awards, The Force Awakens has re-established Star Wars not only commercially but also critically.

I am now legitimately excited for the true sequel to The Force Awakens, the as-of-yet-untitled Episode VIII (not so much for next year's cash-cow standalone spinoff, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), largely because of the man behind the story and the cameras: Rian Johnson of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, and three of the best episodes of Breaking Bad (season 3's "Fly", the season 5 premiere "Fifty-One", and the second-to-last episode in which everything went insane, "Ozymandias"). Abrams' role was to re-establish the viability of the Star Wars universe, but Johnson's will be to authenticate it and to make it more mature. Johnson is known for his characters, and I think that he will be able to guide both old and new characters into this uncharted territory. Abrams has left a lot to be explored, and I have little doubt that Johnson will be able to create a narrative arc that might rival the gravitas of The Empire Strikes Back.

So now I feel like I can reclaim my lost enjoyment of Star Wars. No longer do I feel the need to justify some unspoken nerd code by denying that I enjoy Star Wars for what it is: a rollicking fantastical space opera. I still have issues with the franchise, to be sure, particularly in how it either treats itself or coerces others to treat it more seriously than its content naturally allows, but I am now willing and able to overlook those concerns in the wake of enjoying the movies. Star Wars is, in many ways, a childish film in its appeal, and Episode VII has allowed me to return to that lost childhood and to enjoy Star Wars again, and that is perhaps the greatest review I can give to The Force Awakens.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Longest Night

This is the fourth consecutive year in which I have struggled my way through December and the inexorably approaching Christmas season. In those recent years, December has featured a mix of sickness, underemployment, and existential malaise, and this year has been no different. I posted some thoughts back in December 2012 - the first year of this pattern - during a week in which I seemed to be very introspective; I'm dismayed by both how unrefined my writing style seems now and by how many of those same sentiments I still could share today. I am struggling with feeling unprepared for Christmas both emotionally and practically, and we recently had to change our holiday travel plans because both my wife and I felt like we just could not make it through Christmas without some restful time at home first.

I am finding myself in a particularly sensitive spot tonight on the longest night of the year, as I am also missing our community at the Forge (church) in Victoria and the Longest Night service in which we gather in a small group for a time of contemplation to observe the feelings of loss and pain that often come with the season. But my struggle this year is different for another reason: sure, I'm still working through underemployment and grieving some of the losses and challenges that come with that, but this year, I am really experiencing grief in the wake of the loss of one of my best friends, Jordan, to cancer earlier this year. For the past two months, he has been constantly on my mind since three days in the first week of November marked his (would-have-been-thirtieth) birthday, the anniversary of his diagnosis, and the half-anniversary of his death in May.

Some memories over these past two months have been shallow, whereas some have been very deep, but they have been consistent in their persistence and their presence. Just over a week ago, I was at my wife's work Christmas party; I walked downstairs and was immediately overwhelmed by a flood of emotions as I realized that it had been only the year before in that very room that I had had a conversation with another of my best friends that Jordan's cancer was terminal.

In another arena of life, I have been able to enjoy a board game Advent calendar this year (including promos for 24 different games!), and yesterday's expansion was for The Castles of Burgundy, a game that Jordan and I discovered together; my first thought upon opening the new "Cloisters" was that I wished that I could play it with him. Even as I am writing this post to remember him, I am drinking a Vanilla Coke mainly because that's what he chose to drink when he came to my house. I miss him all the time, and it does not feel like it really ever gets any easier that he's gone; if anything, it feels as though there is more of a hole there with the more time that passes.

Grief is such a weird thing. It can't be quantified or qualified or codified; it can't be suppressed or submerged or contained. There are times in which it remains relatively dormant, and times in which it demands your full attention. It refuses to be defined, and it bursts out of you no matter how hard you might try to ignore it. It is constantly present in its season, but somehow it's almost always a surprise when it hits you. And I'm realizing just how much this season of my life is being shaped by this experience of grief for the loss of my friend.

There are a lot of different facets of his death that I am grieving. I am grieving for his family - his wife, children, and siblings, and parents - and his friends and community and how his absence is affecting all of us. I am grieving for the journey that he endured last year over Christmas and how hard it was for him to know that he was facing his last time with his family. I am grieving that I cannot share superficial things with him like my thoughts on 7 Wonders: Duel or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I am grieving that I cannot share the deep parts of my soul with him in a way that only he could understand. In a sense, I am grieving the loss of the part of me that died with him and the future of our friendship that never will be.

The last time I experienced grief like this was a decade ago, when I had two close friends (Mike and Dwayne) who passed away within a month of one another in the summer of 2005. I had only been blogging for a year by that point, so my prose is quite different than it is now; I am providing links as a connection for those who are curious about my journey or who may have been part of it at that point, but I do not necessarily recommend reading through my posts from November and December of that year. I started to read through them, but they are, quite frankly, embarrassing both in their composition and their unabashed vulnerability; their value to me now is as a way to see where I was and to see how I worked through that period of intense grief.

Taken as a whole, my writing in that period collectively demonstrates that I was very emotionally raw and that my blog (for better or worse) was the best (or only?) way that I knew how to process some really deep stuff; 2005 was also pre-Facebook, so a blog was the only way to disseminate information to people. But although I am somewhat ashamed of my writing from that season, I am glad to have it there because it reminds me of who I was, who was there with me, and how I inspired people around me through what I was writing.

I have had several encouragements over the past week to write about my experiences, and so I am writing this post with much the same purpose as those posts a decade ago, as I know many of the people who read my posts are enduring similar hardships and grief in the midst of this joyous season, including missing Jordan. I hope that my openness in sharing my experience of this season of grief might help release you from feeling the pressure to act as if everything is okay or to glide past your grief; rather, I hope that you can find the time to settle into it, as I am trying to do, believing that your grief will guide you through this season.

Whenever you are able to take the time over the next week for your Longest Night, I encourage you to be intentional about making space for your grief, whatever form it might take, and to take the time to live and breathe and grieve and to do whatever you need to do to give yourself the space to feel the weight and release that grieving can bring.

As for me, I am taking the time tonight not only to write this post, but also to play a game of The Castles of Burgundy - with the new "Cloisters" expansion, of course - in part because of what Jordan wrote on the inside of the box lid when he gave the game to me before we had any idea of what would happen in the year to come. (It was also the last game we played together on our visit in February; it seems fitting that he won.) I am choosing to take this game, as well as the grief that it helps me to process, as part of that blessing, and I would not have traded anything for those years of friendship, including this experience of grief.

I know that this season, as well as the seasons of friendship that I had with Jordan, are an integral part of who I am and will be, and I am glad for that, even though it's really hard at times. I take a lot of solace in the fact that the days will only get longer from here after this, and that I don't have to stay here - and neither do you. Thanks for sharing in my Longest Night, and I pray that you are blessed as you experience yours.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reflections on Survivor: Cambodia (Second Chance)

Note: Spoilers for Survivor: Cambodia abound, so be warned!

Survivor: Cambodia had an unforgettable hook from the start: each participant, all former non-winners, was voted in from 32 possible candidates. The fact that none of the possible players had won was a first for a "favourites" season, as it meant that all of the players were eager to have their shot. Each player who took part had a built-in "Second Chance" narrative that pushed them through the season, along with the knowledge that they were chosen by the fans. It provided an imperative for the players that has rarely been seen in Survivor, save for the few seasons that have included a significant portion of the cast that are returning players; for reference, those were All-Stars (8); Micronesia - Fans vs. Favorites (16); Heroes vs. Villains (20); Caramoan - Fans vs. Favorites 2 (26); and Blood vs. Water (27) before this season.

Cambodia (AKA "Second Chance") is part of the resurgence that has occurred in Survivor since the general lull that occurred from seasons 17 (Gabon) through 24 (One World), and it continues the trend that seasons with returning players are far superior to those without. With the lone exception of Cagayan (season 29), each season since the first Fans vs. Favorites (16) with all-new players has ranked among the worst of the series in terms of strategic gameplay (though none were worse than Nicaragua, season 21), which makes sense from a game theory perspective. New players are more likely to make mistakes and not to understand strategic moves and to be learning the game, which is why returning players have a distinct advantage and seasons in which they do well are inherently more compelling, which this one was. The weather and the challenges were among the most strenuous in Survivor history, almost every vote was a blindside, and almost each player had a meaningful narrative arc - including the pre-jury boots. The "second chance" theme was captivating, and the players lived up to their reputations and provided what was arguably the best strategic season ever.

Part of what appeals to me about Survivor is that it almost always provides something interesting to see, whether in the form of innovations in gameplay or strategy, physical prowess, or personal growth and the satisfaction of seeing how narratives develop over the season (or multiple seasons). There are some seasons that drag, and instances in which the show has felt a little tired, but for each of those negative moments, there are moments like what happened in the season finale last night, which provided another incredible Survivor first: a case in which, thanks to the use of immunity idols that there were no eligible votes cast at Tribal Council with six players left. What followed was one of the wackiest Tribals ever, with the eventual result that one person essentially had to decide whether it was themselves or another player who went home. It was so unconventional that Probst actually had to spend a couple of minutes explaining what happened to the studio audience and the viewers at home. It was a surreal sight, and it will certainly be idolized (pun intended) in Survivor lore as a defining moment of the season and the series.

The final immunities, tribals, and the jury were equally impressive and entertaining, and the final result was satisfying, as Jeremy (rightfully) won with a unanimous 10-0 vote over Spencer and Tasha after a surprisingly reasonable jury in one of (if not) the best Final Threes (or Twos, for that matter) of all time. I know this statement reeks of recency bias, but I would argue that Cambodia ranks among the top five seasons of all time, and that Jeremy ranks among the best to be named Sole Survivor; I'm tentatively placing him on par with Tyson and Cochrane for consideration in the top five winners of all time. I will fully develop both of my lists (seasons and winners) soon, but for now this is EW Survivor expert Dalton Ross' take on ranking the seasons, which I find interesting though not entirely accurate from my perspective. I also am anticipating that this will not be the final chapter for some of these players, as there are a few narratives that feel like they might be incomplete; that, however, will be up to how much the producers decide to continue to feature returning players, and particularly those who have already played twice (for the record, if you had not guessed, I think they should).

But in spite of how amazing this season was - or perhaps because of it - I am a little less than excited for the next season. Survivor: Kaoh Rong will feature an entirely new cast of contestants, and from the teases provided last night, I'm a little dubious about the overall quality of the participants. Probst's tease that next season is the most brutal yet and that there will be several medical situations (as there were this season) is both intriguing and concerning, as it might mean that the game itself and those instances might be the main reason for watching, rather than the players and/or their strategic play; then again, I'm sure they will lend authentic drama to the proceedings, which may make for good television even if it's not great Survivor.

Kaoh Rong is also the the first time that Survivor has reused a theme like dividing by age, gender, race, or vocation with a repeat of  "Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty" (though they have reused strategic themes like Exile Island, Redemption Island, and Blood vs. Water with mostly positive results), which might indicate a bit of tiredness in the franchise. Then again, Cagayan was the previous season to feature the same theme, and it produced (at least) half a dozen meaningful players, four of whom returned for Cambodia, including both runners-up. So as usual, the success of (or antipathy toward) will be determined by the quality of the players, and it remains to be seen where the next cast will rank. Considering that only one of the past seven seasons to feature all new players provided any kind of meaningful strategy (Cagayan, and two if you include Russell Hantz' brilliant and unfortunately unrewarded play in Samoa in season 19), I'm anticipating that it will provide a bit of drudgery to go back to watching players make silly mistakes and weak strategic decisions, though I'm hopeful that post-merge play will be interesting even if the pre-merge play is mostly a snoozefest.

I do wonder occasionally how much longer Survivor can continue this late-series renaissance, as several of the last eight seasons - equivalent to only a quarter of the series in total - have ranked among the series' best. It seems as if the franchise will continue its pattern of alternating all-new seasons with seasons with returning players in order to bring some freshness into the game, but my hope is that they do continue to dig into the past to bring back some more familiar faces; with still over 200 choices for contestants who have not played a second time, that should not be hard. The game itself still has a lot of life, and the twists provided by the producers are as entertaining as ever, so it seems like the future of the game depends mostly on finding entertaining and capable contestants and letting them play their games. Then again, whatever happens, I'm still on board with Survivor, and I'm looking forward to the new season in February 2016; in the meantime, maybe I should go back and finally watch some of those early seasons in their entirety before completing my final rankings of seasons and winners...

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Track-by-track: Coldplay's A Head Full of Dreams

I have listened to Coldplay's new album, A Head Full of Dreams, a handful of times, but I decided that I needed to sit down in real time and write out the thoughts that have fleetingly coursed through my head over the past week of intermittent listening. I've done this just a couple of times before with bands I know well (Muse's The 2nd Law in 2011 and U2's No Line On the Horizon in 2009), but I think it's an interesting way to evaluate an album at a deeper level. I'll include some of my concluding thoughts at the end, too.

Album Presentation: From the moment you see the cover, you know you're in for a return to the colourful flavors of Mylo Xyloto rather than the mellow drab though deep moroseness (and occasional EDM-inspired track) of Ghost Stories. I don't think this is a good move at all, as Mylo Xyloto was a mostly incoherent mess of ideas and inspirations and a half-finished album, whereas Ghost Stories is a moody masterpiece and easily the most underrated album in the band's catalog (along with X&Y) as well as one of the all-time classic break-up albums. It's already not a good start for the album, and that's even before listening to it.

The other thing that seems clear is that the band is attempting to make a conscious connection to one of the all-time (if not the all-time) greatest album, The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The use of Indian-style psychedelic imagery on the cover, including the band's name in Hindi, make that abundantly clear, but in case you missed it, here's the back picture of the booklet, which will likely subconsciously remind you of a certain iconic album cover. Okay, so you may be a British foursome with several other parallels to the Beatles, but this is a little much - even for Coldplay.


Anyway, on with the track-by-track evaluation.

1. A Head Full of Dreams: The track starts with the same dreamy kind of intro as the lead track from 2011's Mylo Xyloto, "Hurts Like Heaven". Then the track hits its groove, which is eerily reminiscent of U2's 2009 track "Magnificent" (though not anywhere as good). Martin's signature vocals pipe in soon thereafter, and we're on our way into the album with a disco beat behind us. This might be one of the most fundamentally Coldplay tracks ever: breathy vocals; dreamy, almost undecipherable, but positive lyrics; then a transcendent chorus with a group of childrens' voices echoing in the background. I think this would be fantastic in a big arena, and we're off to a solid start.

2. Birds: The disco is done, but this poppy track has a great bass groove, even though the song is mostly forgettable. I have heard it several times and I still couldn't sing it at all. Futhermore, I have no idea what this song is about, but it sounds and feels as though this track was a b-side rejected from Mylo Xyloto. There's not much here to appreciate, but at least Coldplay is making it clear that the general sadness of 2014's Ghost Stories is behind them. Then, the song concludes with a sudden stop which makes you wonder why it was included in the first place.

3. Hymn for the Weekend: And now for a lesson in hip-hop with Queen Bey. Beyonce's voice is the first musical thing we hear before a kickin' groove cuts in. Then comes Martin, who might be the whitest hip-hopper ever, and his lyrics are a little clunky and awkward over the groove at times. But then comes the bridge and the chorus, and Beyonce takes him to school and saves the track repeatedly, though she is surprisingly underused; her presence also underscores the weakness of Rihanna's performance in Mylo Xyloto's "Princess of China". And even though the language of "drunk and high" is mostly a metaphor, it still lends some authenticity to what I believe is Coldplay's first true party track and a worthy, though flawed, addition to the Coldplay canon.

4. Everglow: Wow, that slowed down quickly. I expected to wait another track or two before hitting the slow ballad section of the album. This track seems like it belongs on Ghost Stories, which derived most of its inspiration from the break-up of Chris Martin's marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow; it just doesn't really fit here thematically or musically. It's not a bad song, per se; it just does not provide anything new or interesting, and they've done this kind of song with much more effectiveness in the past ("Fix You" from X&Y comes immediately to mind).

5. Adventure of a Lifetime: As if the last track didn't happen, this track launches immediately into a melodic line that evokes Indian music, likely to go along with the album's cover art and theme. We're back to the disco groove with a bass line that is reminiscent of Chic and Daft Punk, and it works with Martin's lyrics this time. This is the lead single, and rightfully so, as it one of the most accessible songs of the album; even still, I probably wouldn't rank it in the top 20 (maybe even 30) Coldplay songs, which tells you where this album might end up in my ranking. And I don't know what's going on with their production, but this track along with several others on this album and several on Mylo Xyloto had a strange mix in which Martin's vocals are almost unintelligible because of the balance and not because of their lyrical content.

6. Fun: The first few chords provide an immediate kickback to 80s pop ballads before Martin comes in with another "the relationship is over and in my past" track. Okay, I get that his "conscious uncoupling" has been a big deal in his life, but I was really hoping that he had processed most of his emotions on the underrated Ghost Stories. Tove Lo pipes in near the end of the track, mostly to the effect of wondering "who is that woman singing in the background?" and prompting a quick Google search to find the answer. By the time the song gets to its overdrawn finale, it's a welcome finish; Martin repeatedly chimes in, "Oh, didn't we have fun?" No, not particularly.

7. Kaleidoscope: With the first half of the album finished, Coldplay makes another strange choice: a spoken word piece overlaying what would have been an interesting instrumental track in the line of "Life in Technicolor" from 2008's Viva La Vida. This is the kind of track that is usually best saved for live performances, so it feels strange to be included here. Then the poem concludes with the line, "Each has been sent as a God", officially cementing Coldplay's attempt to make this their Sgt. Pepper's; spoiler alert - it didn't work.

8. Army of One: Back to the hip-hop with another great groove; who knew that Coldplay had this many great grooves in them? This is one of the album's better tracks, largely because it feels both "Coldplay" enough as well as different enough to warrant its existence. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the next single, because it works really well.

8b. X Marks the Spot: Then, with barely a moment's notice, Coldplay does that annoying thing in which they insert a track in the middle of the album. It worked on Viva La Vida (even though they did it three times), but here it just feels odd. This is another hip-hop track, but it's much more laid back; the groove works, but it's a strange inclusion nevertheless.

9. Amazing Day: Slowing it down again with a track that evokes Sam Cooke and 60s soul, at least until Martin comes in, which is when it becomes a very Coldplay song. This is one of my favourite tracks on the album largely because of its homage and that it evokes the best of Coldplay's soft ballads over the past decade and a half.

10. Colour Spectrum: Now we get the instrumental track that "Kaleidoscope" should have been, several tracks too late. It includes layering of several of the vocal tracks from previous songs, but it doesn't provide much on its own. What I don't understand is why this track wasn't combined with "Kaleidoscope" or "X Marks the Spot" (or both) to make one spacer track in the middle of the album. Also, what is really annoying and pretentious about this song is not so much the song itself, but the fact that it is titled this:

11. Up&Up: Beyonce appears again, although much more subdued, in this slow-ish ballad. This is one of those Coldplay songs that kind of works in the context of the album, but I can't imagine it being very interesting or listenable on its own. It ends the album on a positive note, but it's hard not to compare this track to the similarly titled and much better "Up With the Birds" from Mylo Xyloto. Like "Birds" (which I think is an interesting titular juxtaposition), this track feels like a b-side from that album, and although it mostly works here, it doesn't really feel necessary.

Conclusion: After a close evaluation, I am realizing that, much like Mylo Xyloto, this is a fairly disappointing album. Of the album's 12 tracks, three ("Kaleidoscope", "X Marks the Spot", and "Colour Spectrum") are essentially throwaways, and so the "real" nine songs total around 39 minutes, which would not be as big of a deal if Ghost Stories had not been similarly abbreviated. Of those nine "real" songs, four feel either out of place or tired or too much like what they have done before. The five that are interesting and/or worthy additions to Coldplay's repertoire are the songs that are inspired by hip-hop or dance, which indicates to me that that's where they should have gone for more of the album. Coldplay's history is full of limited edition b-sides, and there would have always been time to release a more introspective EP as a follow-up.

There are a lot of possible explanations for this underwhelming album. Maybe they felt like they had something and they rushed to push it out in the wake of last year's underwhelming Ghost Stories. Maybe they didn't have the steady hand of a seasoned producer like Brian Eno, with whom they worked on Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto. Maybe they are still working in an album system and they needed to push something out, and since they thought had a full album when an EP and b-sides would have sufficed, they just put this out. Or maybe this is just what they can do now, and this is the best we can expect from Coldplay after six previous albums and likely almost as many b-sides over the past fifteen-plus years.

After I finished writing this piece, I found this review from Stereogum that sums up a lot of what I felt about this album: it's full of grand ambitions, but ultimately subpar songs. The reason Sgt. Pepper's worked for the Beatles was not because of its ambition or its packaging; it was because it featured brilliant song writing. This album, quite bluntly, features mediocre songs that will not rank in the heights of Coldplay's stellar catalog. I could perhaps see one or two songs growing on me, like some of the tracks from Mylo Xyloto have, and improving in their performance over time, but I don't think there's anything here of particular note unless you're a fan of Coldplay.

Coldplay's grandeur and status as "biggest band in the world" is really only exceeded by U2, but the reason that both albums released by the bands in 2014 (Ghost Stories and Songs of Innocence, respectively) worked so well is that they humbled themselves and peeled back the layers of their own persona to reveal something emotionally vital underneath. U2 (and Bono especially) have learned how to limit that tendency on their albums and how to allow it to come out in concert, and it seems as though Coldplay is still learning the lesson that less is more. They walked the line on Viva La Vida but stayed grounded; they crossed the line repeatedly on Mylo Xyloto (starting with the title that seems no less ridiculous now than it did four years ago). Nevertheless, there were still enough authentically good songs on Mylo to forgive them for their indulgences and enough reason to believe that, beneath all of the aura of "Coldplayness" that there was something significant still waiting to come out.

A Head Full of Dreams leaves little indication that there is much - if any - artistry or subtlety left, and I think it's probably the band's worst album (behind Mylo Xyloto, to which you have likely gleaned that I was at best ambivalent). I hope that, like its predecessor, that it will improve over time, but I'm skeptical about the chances of that happening. Moreover, Martin has indicated that there is a more-than-fleeting possibility that this is Coldplay's last album, which would be a disappointment since it's just not very good, and despite the evidence to the contrary over the past few years, I am still holding out hope that there's still something worth hearing from Martin, Buckland, Berryman, and Champion. I am still hoping to see them in concert on this tour, since I have not yet seen them live, and I can always hold out hope that the show will redeem the album and that I will come to appreciate it over time. Until that point, however, I will have to keep digging into Coldplay's back catalog to find songs that are really worth my time, as well as trying to better appreciate these half-hearted Dreams.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Rocky Journey, Part IV: The Legacy of Balboa

This is the final post in a series in which I am watching through the entire Rocky series and recording my thoughts on each movie, culminating in the current cinematic release, Creed. If you missed the first, second, or third entries, they can be found herehere, and here, respectively. Today's entry focuses on the legacy of the Rocky series, starting with a brief look at that other Stallone boxing movie - 2013's Grudge Match - as well as several dimensions of the legacy of the Rocky series as a pop culture phenomenon, on Rocky as a character, and on a personal level.

Grudge Match: 

Okay, so it's not part of the Rocky series, but it does feature Stallone back in the ring one final time, so I chose to watch this movie as part of the follow-up to watching the other seven Rocky movies. I heard that Stallone was reticent to make this movie, since he thought it would tarnish the legacy of Rocky, and it is to his credit that it does not; not because the movie was good (which is really is not), but because Stallone legitimately creates a new character and does not go back to playing Rocky. Henry "Razor" Sharp is a different character inside and outside of the ring, and I was pleasantly surprised to not feel like I was watching a comedic version of Rocky and that Stallone's portrayal had a bit of nuance, which stood in stark opposition to Robert De Niro's over-the-top opponent to Sharp, Billy "The Kid" McDonnen, as well as the rest of the movie.

The problem is that despite an entertaining (though very predictable) premise, Grudge Match is just not a very good movie. The character arcs of the two fighters are obvious early on, and Alan Arkin doing his "senile grumpy old man" and Kevin Hart doing his "chirpy black guy" routines have both been done elsewhere with far more effectiveness. The final fight is (expectedly) a little slow, considering that both the fictional combatants and the actors portraying them are significantly past their primes, but its conclusion is moderately satisfying. There are a couple of knowing in-jokes that refer to Rocky (and likely one or two that I missed that nod to Raging Bull, De Niro's boxing masterpiece), but I think that Rocky Balboa made those same jokes with more pathos and humour. I can see why this movie was made and why the studios thought it would make money (it didn't), but it's a mostly forgettable story that has thankfully faded into oblivion rather than affecting Rocky's legacy.


Rocky as pop culture phenomenon: 

I wrote a bit in my first post in this series in regard to the interesting placement of Rocky within the timeline of American cinema in the mid-1970s. It was the top-grossing movie in the year between Jaws and Star Wars, and it was one of the earliest blockbuster franchises of its cinematic generation (which arguably lasted from the collapse of the studio system and the end of the Blacklist in the early 1960s until the rise of independent studios and the corporatization of Hollywood in the mid-1990s). Rocky, along with predecessors like The Godfather, proved that male-oriented dramas were worth big money, as well as the fact that sports movies could be more than just cliches. Of course, the sequels did little to continue to prove that assertion, as they became increasingly derivative, but such is life when money is involved.

Perhaps the most significant part of Rocky's pop culture legacy is as the father of the boxing movie genre. There were boxing movies before Rocky, to be sure, but it is not much of a stretch to say that without Rocky, there would not be a "boxing movie" genre, per se. As Bill Simmons wrote on the release of The Fighter five years ago, there were 35 boxing movies in the 35 years between Rocky and The Fighter - an average of one per year! - and we've had still more since then, including Hugh Jackman and robot boxing (2011's Real Steel), Jake Gyllenhaal (2015's Southpaw), a couple of MMA films like 2011's Warrior that seem to have taken the spirit of the boxing film to heart, and of course, Creed. As Simmons points out, pretty much every major male actor plays a boxer at some point; I think there is a bit of a gap in recent years, as I cannot think that DiCaprio, Damon, Depp, or Pitt have played boxers, although I'm sure they were offered those parts at some point (Damon did play a rugby player in Invictus, so he still did his time in the sports movie world). It's a rite of passage for actors in their early 30s, and Rocky is arguably the main reason why.

Rocky as a character:

Beyond the legacy of the series, there is the legacy of Rocky, the character, who was named the #7 hero of cinema on the American Film Institute's 2003 list of 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains (although the fact that Luke Skywalker does not appear on the list does bring its legitimacy into question). Rocky started as a lovable mook who worked as a loan shark, just trying to hustle his way through life and get the attention of that shy girl who worked at the pet store, and the series worked best when they brought Rocky back to those points of humility (like when he was destroyed by Mr. T's Clubber Lang in Rocky III) in meaningful and organic ways. That's why Rocky II, Rocky IV, and Rocky V don't fully work as movies; either the circumstances of Rocky's humbling feel forced or inauthentic, or he's just not an underdog at all.

What's interesting to me is that Rocky feels very real as a figure in sports history; I know he's a fictional character and that he never actually won the title, but he is one of the most influential figures in boxing in some ways. This became really clear to me in the short interaction between Balboa and Mike Tyson at ringside before his fight in Rocky Balboa; it just feels like Rocky is a part of boxing history, as does Apollo Creed before him. I know it might sound strange to say this, but I think that it speaks to Stallone's intelligence and skill as an actor that Rocky is so iconic and significant in this respect. Granted, Stallone has been nominated for and won more Razzies than any other actor in the history of the awards (35 years), and his performances in Rocky IV and Rocky V were (deservedly) nominated for Worst Actor, but it should be noted that his performance in 2006's Rocky Balboa was deservedly snubbed, as he brought a lot of pathos to the aging pugilist. Stallone may or may not be nominated for an Academy Award for Creed, his first since Rocky in 1976, but regardless of what happens, he has redeemed himself and the character of Rocky with this recent performance.

The legacy of Rocky on my life:

This, for me, is the crux of this conversation - the personal dimension of Balboa's legacy and how these movies have affected me. It's not that I've watched and rewatched these movies many times, and I'm not a huge fan like Bill Simmons or many men who grew up watching Rocky; in fact, I have little reason to be drawn to these movies that were released before my time that represent an almost foreign style of filmmaking to what I experienced in the mid-1990s. So why does Rocky matter to me, and what is it that appeals to me as a fan of film and as a person? After watching all of the movies, I'm actually still not sure, since (for the most part) they're really not exceptional (or at times even that well-made) films.

I have considered many options as to why I wanted to return to the series at all and why I wanted to spend time and energy not only watching the movies but exploring them in depth and at some length here, and I came up with a few distinct possibilities. Perhaps it's the fact that I watched them when I was younger and that there's something about the nostalgia of watching the movies that matters to me. In part, it is the iconic place of the movies that has driven me to conduct an evaluation of them and to see whether that reputation is legitimate (which I believe it is). Perhaps it's the appeal of the underdog narrative and the interest in seeing how Rocky and faces and overcomes his struggles. Perhaps it's the fact that I am a sports fan and that the sheer athleticism of the character and the films overrides the gaps in plot and character development, and I get to experience something of significance every time I watch Rocky in the ring. It's most likely certainly not because I'm a boxing fan, because I'm not in real life, even though there is something that primally pulls me to watching two men beating the stink out of one another.

But at the risk of sounding tautological, Rocky matters because he has mattered to me in the past and because he still matters now. There was something that Rocky inspired in me through many of those different elements when I first watched the movies as a (junior) teen that was then re-ignited in my early 20s and has now again been rekindled with Creed in my early 30s, and I think that fundamentally it comes back to seeing Rocky not as a superhuman hero but as a man. It's rare that we get to see a character like Rocky age over the course of four decades; in fact, I can't think of any other character in film that has had this same kind of trajectory. Rocky, from the beginning, has allowed me (and others) to see something of myself, and it is his humanity that has drawn me in time and time again, and that I am looking forward to sharing in the future.

Conclusion:

I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey through the entire Rocky series, both as a fan of sports and a fan of movies, and I thought I would conclude this journey with my final awards for the series.

Best production (visuals, sounds, effects, cinematography): Creed
Best screenplay: (tie) Rocky and Creed
Best character development: Rocky Balboa
Best individual performance: Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Best boxer: Apollo Creed
Most quotable: Rocky IV
Overall rewatchability factor: Rocky III
Ranking, from worst of the series to the best:
7. Rocky V; 6. Rocky II; 5. Rocky IV; 4. Rocky Balboa; 3. Rocky; 2. Rocky III; 1. Creed

So I think it should be obvious that I'm hoping that Creed does not mark the end of the franchise, but the beginning of a new chapter for Rocky and Donny, and that I get to keep on being part of Rocky's journey. And in the meantime, we can remember these words of wisdom from the Italian Stallion himself:

It is, indeed.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

A Rocky Journey, Part III: The Redemption of Rocky

This is the third post in a series in which I am watching through the entire Rocky series and recording my thoughts on each movie, culminating in the current cinematic release, Creed. If you missed the first or second entries, they can be found here and here, respectively. Today's entry focuses on the final two entries, 2006's Rocky Balboa and Creed, currently in theaters.

Rocky Balboa: I was very excited to see Rocky's 2006 comeback on the big screen since I was too young to have seen the other Rocky movies in theatres, and it did not disappoint. Stallone has admitted in interviews that he was negligent in filming Rocky V and unhappy with the final result, so I imagine that he spent the better part of the decade and a half after Rocky V thinking about what he could and should have done, which is why Rocky Balboa feels so complete and satisfying. Stallone incorporated ideas he had had for Rocky V into this movie, and though it does occasionally stumble into the territory of schmaltz or kitsch, it never stays there long enough to be a noticeable problem. (A quick side note: Because of the placement of words on the poster, I had friends who thought that the movie was called "Rocky Balboa Christmas", which, in their minds, was the worst idea for a movie ever. I don't exactly disagree, but I know I would still watch it anyway.)

A lot has happened since Rocky hung up his gloves: Adrian passed away from ovarian cancer; Rocky runs his own restaurant at which he entertains patrons with his old boxing stories; Paulie is still working at the meat packing plant; and Robert is all grown up and working in finance in downtown Philly without having much of a relationship with his father. Rocky is understandably a little down from how life is playing out, but he's making it through his days, as the film shows at some length. What I found really interesting is how Stallone makes a point of bringing back characters from the first Rocky film: Spider Rico, the first fighter we see him knock down; and Little Marie, the girl he escorted home. His fatherly relationship with Little Marie and with her son drives much of the dramatic action of the first half of the film, and it's quite interesting as a parallel to his relationship with his own son. Stallone is deliberately and obviously working to redeem himself and Balboa, and it works.

Then, one night, everything changes for Rocky: ESPN runs a computer simulation that pits Rocky against the current unpopular heavyweight champ, Mason "The Line" Dixon, and Rocky starts thinking about a comeback. Over the next few scenes, we are treated to a series of dramatic dialogues and monologues that rank among the best of Stallone's career, as well as a scene with Paulie and Rocky that almost justifies Paulie's continued presence in the series. The fight is arranged, and the formula gets into motion, starting with what is arguably trainer Duke's best inspirational speech yet:


This is followed by the inevitable training montage, which is possibly Stallone's most impressive yet. I don't care how many steroids Stallone had to take to make this movie happen; the fact that he is able to do these things at all at his age (close to sixty) is impressive.


Stallone makes the decision to frame the final fight as if the audience is watching on pay-per-view, and it works a little too well; I remember having to consciously keep myself from standing and cheering when I watched it in theatres. The boxing itself is impressive, and Stallone is an ox in the ring. The fight ends, and Rocky has gotten rid of the "stuff in the basement", as, we imagine, has Stallone. The main criticism I have of the movie is that Tarver's acting is subpar and that Dixon is just not a compelling opponent for Rocky. I suppose that shouldn't matter, since Rocky's main opponent is himself and his age, but it does take a little something out that Dixon is not as impressive as any of the fighters Rocky has faced earlier in the series. Still, the movie succeeds overwhelmingly despite the couple of minor hiccups and emotionally forced moments along the way.

Final Decision: Stallone wanted Rocky to go out right, and he did. Rocky Balboa captures the magic of the first film and masterfully redeems Stallone as an artist while providing a worthwhile final chapter for Rocky's story (as a boxer, at least).

Creed: After the finality of Rocky Balboa, I (like many others) had assumed that we had heard the last of Rocky, so when I heard that a young director (Ryan Coogler of 2013's Fruitvale Station) was working on a reboot of sorts with Michael B. Jordan, one of the best young actors working in Hollywood, starring as Apollo Creed's son, Adonis, I was immediately excited. Then came the trailer, which only stoked my excitement for the film. The only thing that could have dampened my excitement was if the film were to get a lukewarm reception, but Creed has already earned some buzz and attention in the midst of awards season; as I discovered after watching it, it's all deserved, and it's not just about the name.


This film is not romantically nostalgic like Rocky Balboa; instead, it is fresh, vibrant, and it allows us to experience Philadelphia again from the street from a different perspective - in this case, African-American instead of Italian-American. "Donny" Johnson quits his job in LA and moves to Philly to have Rocky train him as a fighter. Rocky is resistant at first, but he eventually relents and becomes the equivalent of Mickey from his own past as he trains Donny to fight. Donny and Rocky train together and bond inside and outside of the ring, and Donny forms his own relationships and has to overcome his own struggles as he moves toward the climactic fight while Rocky is confronted with some hard choices as well. It sounds formulaic and rote, but it never feels stale or retreaded, even though a lot of the plot is predictable. But unlike previous Rocky movies, the routine nature of the progression is used as an advantage, rather than an obstacle to be ignored or overcome through sheer adrenaline, as director Coogler uses our familiarity with the genre and character to allow the subtle moments to carry the emphasis rather than the shifts and movements of the script.



There are two keys to the success of the film: the first is Jordan's complete surrender to the character of Creed, which he accomplishes with resolute certainty; I was not surprised to hear that he chose not to use a stunt double and to learn all of the boxing himself. The second key is Stallone's best performance ever as a more mellowed, sage Balboa; he is no longer the arrogant mook or the sad-sack romantic he once was, but he is wiser and more reserved in his old age. Stallone knows that Balboa has had his day; this is Creed's story, and Stallone wisely takes a step back to allow Jordan to dominate the film. Both actors are served well by their respective choices, and I would not be surprised to see either or both in consideration for several significant awards over the next few months. But I was also surprised to discover that Creed's opponents were boxers who were acting, as their acting seemed quite fluid and natural - so much so that I thought they were actors who were boxing rather than the other way around.

It can't be easy to create a sports film in 2015 that still feels fresh and new, but Coogler manages to do so with Creed. Perhaps it's because there have not been as many original sports stories in recent years, or because movies in general have been sorely lacking African-American heroes, but something about this movie transcends the trite cliches and becomes much more memorable. This is easily the best-looking film of the series in terms of cinematography, and it contains what are arguably the best boxing scenes put to film. But this isn't just a great Rocky film or boxing film or sports film; it's a great film, period. It will be remembered as one of the best films of the year, and I hope that Creed will have the same kind of resonance for future generations as Rocky does now.

Final Decision: Creed is the Rocky for this generation. It is an engaging, dynamic film that will stand the test of time one of the greatest sports films made.

Coming up: Reflections on the entire series and this exercise, as well as a bonus review of that other Stallone boxing movie with Robert DeNiro, 2013's Grudge Match.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

A Rocky Journey, Part II: Eye of the Tiger

This is the second post in a three-part series in which I am watching through the entire Rocky series and recording my thoughts on each movie, culminating in the current cinematic release, Creed. If you missed the first entry, it can be found here. Today's entry focuses what has now become the middle of the series: Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985); and Rocky V (1990), which I watched in a span of twenty-four hours.

Rocky III:  I don't think this is the best of the series (a title which belongs to the first Rocky), but if I had to choose only one Rocky movie to watch again, it would be this one. The movie doesn't waste any time, unlike its somewhat tedious predecessor: after the obligatory re-showing of the final fight of the previous film, the action starts straight away with "Eye of the Tiger" and shots of Mr. T's Clubber Lang interspersed with Rocky's title defenses. In the first half of the movie, the action moves quickly: a match with Hulk Hogan as wrestling champion "Thunderlips"; a public challenge from Lang; a training montage; the fight with Lang that Rocky loses in the third round by KO; and Mickey's death right after the fight. (As an aside: the first time I watched Rocky III was at a youth group church sleepover in junior high, and I remember a bunch of dorks sniggering in the background when Mickey died. They just didn't get it - the bums.) We are also treated to the first (but not the last) significant continuity error of the series when we see Mickey's headstone, which reads that he dies at the age of 76, which was how old he said he was in the first movie five years earlier. Moviegoers don't ask for much, but basic continuity should be common courtesy; then again, Rocky's possible impending blindness has not been mentioned since halfway through Rocky II, so I doubt that continuity is the determining factor of plot here.


The second half of Rocky III is almost like a wholly different movie: Apollo Creed shows up in Mickey's gym (with a very off-putting lack of backlighting, I might add), offering to train Rocky; the movie then shifts to L.A. and everything changes. All of the sudden, it's about the Rocky-Apollo bromance, running on the beach in short shorts and crop tops, zooming camera shots of well-oiled men performing athletic feats, Rocky feeling defeated and Adrian (and everyone else) shifting into "yell all of your lines to make it more emotional and motivate Rocky to win" mode; Rocky learning to juke and jive like Apollo, and really awkward racist interjections from Rocky's alcoholic brother-in-law Paulie. (On a side note, it really felt like his character had run its course by this point - we get that he's a loser who hates everybody different. How had Rocky and Adrian not committed him to rehab by now? How was he still allowed ringside when he was constantly drunk? These are the kinds of things that stick out when you watch all of the Rocky movies in close succession.)


By the time we get to the final fight, Rocky III has had more action than the first two Rocky movies combined; then Rocky gets back into the ring with Clubber and uses his tested method of winning: "make the other guy tired by beating you senselessly then catch him off guard somehow with a couple of punches and knock him out". It's as completely improbable as it was in the first two matches with Apollo Creed, but it works again here as Rocky knocks out Lang to reclaim the title. I did notice in this film that the boxing scenes seemed to be more violent and visceral than it had been with Creed in the first two movies; perhaps Stallone was upping the ante for the sequels, or I was just becoming more sensitized to it, but it did seem much more intense. After the title fight, the film ends with a slightly awkward denouement of Balboa and Creed preparing to spar as Rocky's way of paying back Apollo a favor for training him; the scene works here because the movie has been so intense, and because it means that all three movies have ended with Rocky in the ring with Apollo - a fun piece of parallel structure.

Final decision: I pity the fool who doesn't appreciate Rocky III as the essential Rocky movie. Like Rocky himself before the final fight with Clubber, this movie is trim, lean, mean, and it packs a powerful punch.

Rocky IV: Not only does Rocky IV not begin with the Rocky fanfare and the title of the film scrolling across the screen like the first three movies did (a travesty!), it then proceeds to showing not only the highlights of Rocky's fight with Clubber, but the entire coda that featured Rocky and Apollo preparing to spar; it's a very strange choice - even more so than showing almost the entire first Creed-Balboa fight at the beginning of Rocky II - but this is an admittedly strange movie. I was actually trying to think of what the pitch would have looked like, but I can't imagine that it went much past Stallone saying "Rocky IV is about..." and the studio executives saying "YES!" Just trying to explain what happens in this movie is weird: Rocky wants to retire (again) as the champ; an obviously steroided Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago, comes to America to challenge him; Rocky buys a house robot; Apollo decides for some reason to fight the Russian, even though he has been out of boxing for years; James Brown does a flashy Vegas dance number, Apollo and Drago fight, Apollo dies, and Rocky decides that the only way to get back is to give up his title, go to Russia, and fight this behemoth. That's only halfway into the movie, and the plot and conflict graph is all over the place. And why does Apollo need to die, anyway? Wouldn't having him incapacitated or in a coma for awhile be enough? It really seemed like a waste of a great character to have him killed like that in the ring, since it doesn't add much to Rocky's motivation to fight Drago.


We are treated then to a series of montages, including the most awkward in the series so far (which is saying something) to "No Easy Way Out", featuring Rocky driving and reflecting on almost every significant moment from the series so far. Between the initial scenes and this montage, something like 15 minutes of the movie's very lean 90 minute run time is eaten up with old footage; it's almost like the plot for this movie was too thin to sustain an entire movie (which it is). Rocky goes to Russia to train by chopping wood, running through snow, and lifting logs, Adrian joins him and spurs him onto the final fight, along with the still-alcoholic and awkward Paulie and Apollo's old trainer Duke. I loved Mickey - I think he might be the best character in the whole series - and Apollo was great as a trainer, but Tony "Duke" Evers is by far the most inspiring trainer that Rocky ever had. Seriously, just watch this speech and tell me you're not motivated to fight a giant Russian:


The fight begins, and it's as ridiculous as expected to be. Rocky, with the unfriendly crowd booing him, is getting pulverized by the Russian, who has a 60 or 70 pound advantage on Rocky and purportedly punches with force of 2150 pounds per square inch. Early in the fight, he sends Rocky soaring across the ring, and that's only the fifth or sixth most ridiculous point in the fight.  One interesting note about the realism of the fight, however: I discovered in reading about the filming of the fight that Dolph Lundgren severely injured Stallone with his punches, meaning that Stallone had to be hospitalized for eight days as a result. In the movie, the two trade increasingly exaggerated rallies, with Rocky clearly losing badly, but he gains confidence when he cuts Drago. Somehow, despite the beating he has taken, Rocky keeps boxing, wins over the crowd (including the Gorbachev-lookalike Premier), and finally knocks Drago out before ending the Cold War with an impromptu rousing speech. It's all so completely over the top that it actually works as a movie on the force of sheer adrenaline, much like Rocky's inexplicable performance in the ring, which ranks up there with the most improbable sports upsets of all time.

Final Decision: Rocky IV works despite itself: sure, it's thin on plot, character, and content, but its heart propels it to a treasured place in the Rocky series. And if nothing else, it has given us this faux-documentary that captures the tone of the film perfectly.


Rocky V: I had deliberately avoided until this movie until now because of its dubious reputation, but in the interest of completion, I made myself watch it for this project. Now I know that it has earned its reputation, as this is truly the worst movie in the series; the acting is terrible; the plot is contrived; and the final fight is underwhelming, to say the least. The problems start from the very beginning with a continuity error and a dubious plot choice that drives the film forward. Although the movie is set directly after Rocky's fight in Russia, his son has aged several years; I do understand Stallone's attempt to create conflict by having his son be older, but it is a jarring juxtaposition with the previous movie. Balboa's press conference (held in an airport hangar?!) is hijacked by the promoter George Washington Duke, a hackneyed caricature of infamous boxing promoter Don King who helps drive the plot of the movie. Duke has his sights set on his fighter, Union Kane, getting a title shot at Rocky, who until he abdicated his title to fight Drago was the Heavyweight Champion. Rocky, however, will not be cleared to fight because of the brain damage caused in his fight with Drago, and he retires. Duke won't take no for an answer, and so the conflict starts- well, one of them does.


In the meantime, Paulie made a poor decision with the Balboa's finances (surprise, surprise), and Rocky has been fleeced of all of his money by a shady accountant, meaning that the Balboas have to move back to Philadelphia after auctioning off most of their possessions, save for one: the gym that Mickey left to Rocky's son, Robert, who has to relocate to a new school and faces issues of his own with the school bullies. Suddenly, a new young boxer named Tommy "The Machine" Gunn (real-life boxer and obvious non-actor Tommy Morrison) petitions Balboa to be his trainer, only to be sidelined by Duke's reappearance. Duke goes away for the moment, Rocky agrees to train Tommy, and the conflicts begin to really swirl: Robert with the bullies at school; Robert competing with Tommy for Rocky's affection; Duke trying to get Rocky to fight; Rocky and Robert's broken relationship; Rocky fighting for self-respect; Adrian and Paulie left with nothing to do except occasionally yell at Rocky; et cetera.  It's all kind of a mess by the time it comes to Tommy rejecting Rocky for Duke, defeating Kane for the title, and then returning to Philly to call out Rocky (for the which the timeline is very confusing - did this happen directly after the fight? If not, why is Tommy still wearing his ring outfit? Or is he? It's all very unclear). Rocky and Tommy have a street brawl, Rocky wins, avoiding the assault charges (or any consequences whatsover), and the movie ends the series (or so was thought at the time) with a montage of images over the final credits.


I was surprised to see a number of positive reviews from critics for this movie, but I suppose it makes sense that there would be some sympathetic voices after the bombast of the previous two iterations. The critic in me wants to continue to treat this movie harshly, but the artist in me sympathizes with what Stallone was trying to do in re-humanizing Rocky by putting him back on his home turf. The fact that Stallone's attempt is bogged down by poor acting and a mess of plot makes it a little more difficult to appreciate his efforts, but I can see how some of the decisions he made would be defensible for the sake of Rocky's story. I suppose the legacy of this movie was helped significantly by Rocky's return, since it meant that it could be regarded as an awkward middle movie rather than serving as the final word on the series, as it did for fifteen years.

Final Decision: Rocky V is a disappointment and easily the worst movie in the series (slightly ahead of Rocky II), but it's not entirely a loss. I doubt I would ever feel the need to watch it again, but I'm glad I saw it at least once, if only for this scene:


Coming up: Rocky's triumphant return to the ring in 2006's Rocky Balboa, including some of the best dramatic dialogues and fight scenes of the series, as well as his return to training a fighter in Creed and my overall thoughts on the series.

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