Wednesday, June 26, 2013


So a seven-year-old tongue-in-cheek blog post about the board game Monopoly recently went viral (again), passed around on social networks, the blogosphere, and even major mainstream news sites as purporting to have uncovered a forgotten rule that would speed up play of the game considerably. The gist of it is that, when you land on a property and wish not to buy it, instead of simply moving on as we've all been doing, the banker is supposed to auction it off to the highest bidder. I don't know how well implementing the rule shakes out in high-level play, where I assume it is commonly known. Actually, among the most hardcore board game enthusiasts I know, Monopoly is fairly poorly regarded anyway as a case of broken design. As a normal human being, who has only ever turned to the game as an absolute last resort when faced with nothing to do in mutually awkward company, I'd happily invite any rule change that would make for a faster-paced and more social game. Or, as occasionally that jackass who gets overly serious over board games played casually with polite company, I can only imagine that the rule would benefit me, having far too often watched as some barely half-awake opponent disinterestedly passed on a property that I would have hungrily snatched up toward completing a monopoly. Indeed, the last time I played Monopoly, I remember being cruelly foiled by our group's ignorance of the official rules (or maybe just by it being a poorly designed game).

* * *

It was 2001. Our family was on its annual summer vacation in the Bay Area. We were having dinner with friends of my parents. After dinner, while the grownups, ostensibly reflecting on old times and catching up on the present, continued their conversation over mahjong in the dining room, the young people, having no interest in such things, were dismissed to the living room. It was awkward. At least, I felt it was awkward, as I'm pretty sure not one of us—me, my brother and sister, and the daughter of our parents' friends—wanted to be there. Well, I suppose the daughter, Alice, wanted to be there, to the extent that it was her home, after all. But none of us cared to be stuck in that situation, I'm sure, waiting for the party to break up, before we could all get on with our own lives. And, on second thought, maybe she wanted out of that house too. I have no idea. Anyway, for entertainment, Alice dug out her dusty game of Monopoly from her room. Asked whether we wanted to play, the rest of us just shrugged our shoulders. And so Monopoly it was, even though none of us had played it in years and the instructions were missing.

Now, I don't play a lot of competitive games, and, to that extent, I don't consider myself a very competitive person. But, when I do compete, it tends to be either all or nothing. Either I put all of myself into trying to win, or else I shrug my shoulders and invest only just enough so that no one can accuse me of not participating. Perhaps neither approach is very conducive to a fun group experience, and admittedly I'm not always a very fun guy to have around. But, as far as “all or nothing,” usually it's nothing, and I only give it my all when instructed to, or when there is something on the line. In this case, I'm not sure what was on the line, but, even so, in hindsight, we probably should have laid out some ground rules before getting into this game of Monopoly. Specifically, were we taking this seriously or not?

Alice explained the basics as best she could from memory, and certain house rules (e.g. the Free Parking jackpot) were agreed upon as we went along. At first, nobody really seemed into talking, and people only spoke as necessary to keep the game moving along. Of course, we could barely hear ourselves anyway over the boisterous chatter in the other room. They were having a good time now, but it was a poorly kept secret from the kids that my parents annually made the Bay Area trip primarily so that my mother could argue with her brother (my uncle), who lived there, over who was to be responsible for their mother (my grandmother). Well, I suppose the primary reason was so that we could visit my grandmother, who was also living (in a retirement home) in the Bay Area, but inevitably every meeting between my mother and my uncle turned vicious. Maybe that was why it was awkward for us kids (well, I had just graduated high school, and my brother university, but "kids" all the same).

But the night was not yet over, and neither was the game of Monopoly. Indeed, I for one was just getting started. I don't know what came over me, but something did change. At some point, I just paused, looked around me, and wondered what I was doing there. We had driven up to the Bay Area to watch my parents become further enmeshed in some terrible drama that truly had nothing at all to do with me. I had, by that point, mostly accepted that it was my lot to be, at best, a supporting character in other people's lives, but, even so, I suppose I had hoped to be part of a nobler story. There was no good role for me there in whatever ill-conceived Hollywood melodrama—no, more a trashy sitcom, if that even—that they were scripting for themselves, and yet I stubbornly refused to just recede into the background. And so, asking myself again what I was doing there, I answered that I was there to play Monopoly. And I was there to win Monopoly.

No, I would not be just some background extra, nor even a supporting character. Again, I'm not sure why, but I was suddenly determined that the story of the trip would be mine. I wanted, when everyone else went to their bedrooms and recorded that night in their diaries, that they would write, not about how such-and-such person had made such-and-such other person feel such-and-such feelings, but about how this guy had just delivered a dominating performance with the most brilliantly played game of Monopoly any of them had ever been so privileged to witness.

And so it was on. Or at least I was. The others seemed not to care at all about the outcome and were only going through the motions. But I didn't care that they didn't care. I was ready to compete, to win, to be ruthless. Even my tone of voice sharpened, and I made my frustration known any time people didn't snap to attention when their turn came up. In that moment, I knew with perfect clarity what I wanted, I was determined to have it, and nobody was going to stand in my way.

Unfortunately, I didn't really take into account that 1) I barely knew the rules of the game, let alone any solid strategies, and 2) in any case, Monopoly was not ultimately a game of skill but a game of dice.

Once I managed to secure both Park Place and the Boardwalk to complete my monopoly of the luxury blue properties, spending nearly everything I'd had to make it so, I felt victory within my grasp. But things only unraveled very quickly for me from there. On the next turn, my brother landed on Park Place, and I was ready for a huge payout. As it turned out, even factoring in his meager assets, he didn't have anywhere near enough to pay me. Landing on Park Place bankrupted him and forced him out of the game, but I got almost nothing else out of it. I was perplexed. It occurred to me that I had never before actually finished a game of Monopoly, and I didn't even know how one was supposed to win. The official rules were lost, so I couldn't look up the endgame conditions. I had thought the goal was to make the most money, but, in this case, I was beating my brother while making hardly any money at all. Even so, I was confident. It appeared to me that, with Park Place and Boardwalk under my control, I had in my possession essentially an “instant kill” monopoly that would bankrupt and decisively eliminate any opponent that landed on either space. I had just seen it happen, and I had only to wait for the same fate to befall the others.

Instead, on my next turn, I landed on Alice's orange monopoly, and since, once again, I had almost no money, I was suddenly the one who could not pay up. Maybe if I had converted my assets to cash, I would have had enough to pay, but I refused. It seemed to me that there was something terribly wrong with how things had played out. I should have had more than enough to pay in cash. I should have had plenty of money coming to me, still owed to me by my brother, whom I had bankrupted. Instead, buying Park Place and Boardwalk had not come close to paying off, in terms of actually earning me any money. And, because I had never received what I was owed, now I was the one unable to pay and about to lose everything. It didn't seem fair. It didn't make sense to me. I felt certain that there must have been something in the rules to protect me against such a ridiculous scenario, but conveniently we did not have the rules to consult.

I was furious. I told them it was outrageous. I declared Monopoly a broken and degenerate game. I didn't quite flip the board over, but I threw my money down and walked out of the room. I went to the bathroom to splash some water on my face. Yes, somehow I had gotten lost in something and ended up making myself, instead of the leading man of the story, rather more likely the antagonist. But I had a point, didn't I? In any case, Alice “won” the game, and maybe she deserved it, as much as anyone can be said to deserve a pile of fake money that literally already belonged to her. Our parents wrapped up their own game (or whatever the hell was going on over there), and finally we could call it a night.

So things hadn't quite gone according to my plan, but I suppose, in a way, I had gotten in the final word and put my own stamp on the night, having managed to expose the scam that is Monopoly. More than a decade later, I have not played the game since, I intend never to play it again, and I'd like to think we've all lived more comfortably ever since.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Blackface, "Gay Face" (Or "Gay Blackface"), Etc.

The entire objective in acting is to perform as someone other than your actual self. One's roles should be limited only by one's talent—their ability to convince the audience that they are the character they are playing as. So, if they can pull it off, I have no problem with, say, a straight actor playing a gay character, a female playing a male, or even a little person playing a character of normal stature.

It is only when one acts as a mocking caricature that the performance becomes offensive. A white person playing a black character is not intrinsically racist, but blackface carries with it too much historical baggage to be acceptable. But when it is done with proper respect to both the art of acting and to the races and cultures represented, then I have no objection to actors playing as characters of other races, including whites playing blacks.

"Yeah, like how they're always getting Japanese guys to play Chinese characters."

On second thought, I take it all back. People should just be what they are. (Japanese playing Chinese? Burns me up so bad!)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Does the slave choose?

Some of the older ladies at work were discussing "Meatless Mondays," which a San Diego school district had recently voted to institute for public school lunches. It was a surprise to hear my coworkers discussing such a relatively low-profile local political news item because... well, because, they being working class immigrants, I did not expect them to be so well-informed. That was my first lesson.

The second lesson was that you don't need to be a Ron Paul-esque rich white male to espouse libertarian views. To a woman, they were all opposed to the city enforcing Meatless Mondays in public schools. I was skeptical of their grasp of the dietary implications (and I myself would not claim any expertise on nutrition), but even those who conceded that going vegetarian at least one day out of the week might be beneficial to kids' health were opposed, on principle, to the government stepping in and making the decision for them.

"The choice should be ours," one lady defiantly asserted.

Yes, the problem was choice. (And, yes, perhaps quoting The Matrix Reloaded is not going to strengthen whatever point I'm about to make, especially as the quote probably isn't even relevant. I just like it as my go-to line on choice.)

The conversation shortly thereafter derailed into whispered discussion over whether specific coworkers not present qualified as obese. Before it sank to that point, I asked, just to make sure, whether any of them would ever choose to go Meatless Mondays, and if not, why not. I was genuinely curious to know what they thought. So many among those who pushed for Meatless Mondays for San Diego public schools were actually younger white folks with no kids. Meanwhile, here seemed to me a chance for an informative look into the views and opinions of those most directly affected by the recent vote: working class parents of minority public school students, who depend on free and reduced-price meals for much of their daily nourishment.

As it turned out, once again to a woman, they all stated that they would not go Meatless Mondays. I must say, however, that, this time around, their responses sounded more like sheepish rationalizing than the haymakers they were going for with such confidence before. Some were still insisting that meat was necessary for protein. For the rest, the prevailing argument was that people should eat what they like. Of course, by this point, we had lost sight of the fact that we were talking about their growing kids, not themselves. I suppose it would only have been consistent with their previously expressed opinions if they didn't believe in parents making their kids' decisions for them either, but, to be honest, I myself had lost sight of the kid angle, and so I didn't press on that issue.

In any case, the "do what you like" argument was something that had come up before. Specifically, I had challenged them before on their fondness for casinos, only to be met with "It's just fun. You should enjoy life. As long as you're not hurting anybody, it's okay."

This was a temp job at a manufacturing company, situated in the Filipino part of the city. The labor force for this and almost every other similar company, of which there are dozens in the area, is predominantly Filipino. And, to return to stereotypes and preconceptions, they loved gambling. They played the lottery every week, of course, but they especially loved visiting the casino every weekend. One lady even insisted that, if she ever won the lottery, she would retire and spend every day in the casino.

Previously, I had asked them to consider that, perhaps, if they spent less money on lotto tickets, then maybe they would have enough money saved up to live comfortably without ever needing to do anything so desperate as play the lottery. Likewise, if they simply saved their money, instead of blowing it at the casino, then maybe they would have enough savings that they would never have to do anything so desperate as gamble at the casino.

They assured me that they didn't go to the casino expecting to win anything. They were quite certain that winning was impossible. Instead, it came back to doing what was fun for them, which was casinos. And that was the thing I didn't get. The only point in gambling, as far as I knew, was to try to win money. So if you kept failing at that, then how could the activity possibly be fun?

When I inquired further, they interpreted that as criticism, and that was when they would always try to settle the argument by reasserting that it was their choice. Having fun was how they were choosing to live, and going to the casino was how they were choosing to have fun.

I asked them specifically what made it fun for them, and they seemed rather at a loss how to articulate concrete reasons. One lady offered "The blinking lights are exciting," but I'm not sure she was serious. Finally, they sighed, as though the loss were mine for not being able to appreciate the inexpressible, irreducible joy of gambling. Fair enough. After all, how does one quantify fun?

But I considered my own hobby of choice, video games. Video games also offer blinking lights, but they involve other elements as well: practiced skill, challenging oneself, the pride and satisfaction of seeing oneself progressing and improving at the game. Many games contain stories as well, which can be enjoyed as one enjoys a book or movie. Sure, anything achieved in the game is ultimately erased by the final "failure" that is the eventual end of our mortal existence, so, in that respect, my fun was just as pointless as my casino-loving coworkers'. But I was not interested in getting into an existential debate with a bunch of old ladies who were not native speakers of English (and I had only picked up a handful of Tagalog words, all of them referring to intercourse). The fun of the casino seemed, to me, so temporary. For the money, the fun of video games seemed so much more "real."

Back to choice, though, it really seemed to me that, although they were claiming that they were exercising choice in wasting their time and money at the casino, the fact that they themselves did not seem to know why they enjoyed it suggested to me that this was not truly a meaningful choice they were making. As I saw it, they were being taken advantage of.

Finally, I tried to draw an analogy to drugs. Hard drugs also offer, like the casino, pleasure that is extremely temporary and produce no benefit afterward but are, rather, actually quite damaging to one's health, much as gambling is damaging to one's finances. And drugs, being addictive, actually impair the user's ability to make any choice other than to keep up the habit. So, did they not consider, perhaps, that the casino could also be an addiction, and anybody who is going there literally every weekend may not, at that point, actually have the sound judgment anymore to meaningfully exercise choice? Instead, would they not only be acting as slaves to the addiction?

As I should have anticipated, my questioning, instead of provoking serious thought, only led to them thinking that I was a drug user, and quickly they were trying to lecture me on why using was a harmful habit with no good side (unlike gambling, somehow). Oh well.

It's something I've thought about many times, however, in my more philosophical moments, and the Meatless Mondays thing perhaps even better illustrates the argument. It is all well and good to insist that one should be allowed to make one's own choices on what to eat. But when you choose to go for the fatty delicious food, is that really a choice? Are you not merely acting as slave to your own cravings for food that you know is bad for you? It occurs to me that, given the "choice" between healthy food and junk food, perhaps it is only when opting for the former that one is expressing choice; the latter is impulse. It sounds odd, because, for the old ladies at work, and as perhaps most people understand the concept, "choice" meant being at liberty to decide for oneself how one was going to live. How can it be that, presented with a choice, there might only be one path that properly expresses choice? It seems a contradiction, does it not? That there should be only one way to choose? But perhaps "choice" is not truly about the freedom to pursue many different and comparably valid possibilities but, rather, about having the chance to do the right thing of our own free will, without some overbearing daddy figure stepping in to make all the decisions for us.

And I suppose, in that case, the old ladies' point would stay the same. They're just a bit late, I think, as choice has clearly already passed our obese nation by. Now hooked, we haven't any longer the strength of will to free ourselves from the bondage of deliciousness. Thus, it is left to the healthy-living voting contingent to shepherd us away from our own weaker tendencies. And, anyway, were my libertarian working class coworkers truly so opposed to Meatless Mondays, they could have made their protests known before it passed. That is the people's choice, after all.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Arrow (Season 1) (2012-2013)

CW's new show loosely based on the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow got off to a rough start. Frankly, I hated the first few episodes.

The premise is that billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), believed dead along with his father from a shipwreck in the Pacific, actually survived Castaway-style on a remote island, finally to return five years later to Starling City, now with a hard attitude and the badass vigilante skills to cleanse the city of the crime lords who sank him. His mother and sister are outwardly glad to have him back, but everyone else is still dismissive and resentful of the irresponsible young party-goer they continue to perceive him as. Nearly every old acquaintance he runs into rudely acts as if they were the ones who were suffering those last five years and that he is to blame. True, he was the one who invited along the sister of his then-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) (very loosely based on the comics' Dinah Lance (AKA Black Canary), as the show reimagines most of the comics characters as ordinary civilians... except when it doesn't, and that's when things get really weird and dissonant....), consequently not only cheating on Laurel with her sister but also unwittingly leading the sister to her death. Still, nobody seems properly sensitive to what Oliver himself has been through. Seriously, one character actually says to him, "You spend five years on an island, and I'm supposed to believe you've found religion?" Um, I've seen people convert after far less harrowing experiences, so why not? The entire show is drenched in this suffocating hyper-seriousness, as almost every character is unbearably mean, cynical, and never in the mood for joking.

Of course, Oliver himself is just about the worst of them. He's overbearingly self-righteous, especially in enforcing the old superhero rule of "must lie to your friends in order to protect them," but he won't hesitate to break that other rule of "superheroes don't kill." In fact, in the very first episode, he kills a guy specifically in order to protect his identity, which gives you a sense of his priorities. In his civilian persona, he plays to people's expectations as the billionaire playboy in order to throw off any suspicions that he is the vigilante in the news (who conveniently emerged on the scene at the same time Oliver returned to Starling City), but he's so aloof and self-loathing in his performance that I don't know how anybody could fail to see that he's a madman and/or hiding some deep, dark secret. I guess nobody catches it because they already also loathe him and think him phony. And because they're also nuts themselves.

The way that the world of Arrow's Starling City is crazy is similar to the crazy of the Batman movies, or maybe even more descriptively one could liken it to the Dick Tracy movie. It's ostensibly supposed to be a realistic setting, to the extent that, for example, the laws of physics are the same as in the real world. As are the laws of... well, law. It's the real-world laws of social reasonableness and sensibility that seem not in effect, as weird things can happen very suddenly and without context—like outlandishly attired figures going on crossbow rampages in a city that, as far as we know, hasn't ever seen such things—and even the ordinary people seem to suffer from personality disorders—characters routinely skip to making logical and emotional leaps with a rapidity that no rational human being ever would—but nobody within the show seems appropriately perturbed by how unreasonable everything is.

In the midst of that, what saved the show for me initially were the flashback segments covering the time Oliver spent on the island. We're not actually told at the outset what specifically Oliver went through that so changed him, and, as the flashbacks are doled out over the course of the season, we see that there's a lot more to it than "crime lords sabotaged his boat, and now he's back and out for justice." The island story is a trip unto itself, full of costumed characters, mercenaries, and double- and triple-crosses, and, even by the end of the season, it's not clear what any of it has to do with Oliver's mission in Starling City. What makes it compelling and not merely unbelievable like the Starling City stuff is that, in these flashbacks, Oliver himself actually comes across as a normal guy, who responds to the madness around him as a normal person would, completely nonplussed in disbelief and denial. When you introduce one normal person into a crazy situation, as opposed to just having everyone be crazy (but thinking they're normal), it completely alters the dynamic, not only within the show but with the audience as well, because now we have a surrogate to place us in the acknowledged madness, instead of us feeling taken out of a story that just seems too incredible. And the island story is frankly more interesting than the main story, replacing the usual CW relationship melodrama with fearsome characters who know exactly who they are and what they're after (even while leaving viewers guessing at their true allegiances).

As I started to get hooked on the flashback story, the main Starling City narrative also surprisingly improved. It never becomes any more credible, and the cases of the week are largely snoozers, but after rival archer Merlyn arrives at the end of the first half, Arrow suddenly becomes the most thrilling action show on television, with stunt choreography far surpassing anything in the Nolan Batman films, let alone anything else on TV. And Merlyn was, for me, the most awesome villain on any show all season. Reminding me a bit of Ozymandias from Watchmen, he'll go from wearing thousand-dollar suits to startlingly ripping guys apart without missing a beat.

The show also finally picks up a sense of humor, once Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) goes from being nearly a one-off, one-scene character to being a breakout de facto regular (and now an official regular for Season 2). Seemingly the only person in the world of Arrow who isn't obsessed with themselves and their own drama, this one supporting character alone carries an entire dimension to the show with her pointed observations that manage to ground both Oliver and the show itself whenever they start to take themselves too seriously.

It's not a perfect show by any means; it's uneven, full of blah characters, and too often unintentionally absurd. But when it delivers, the first season is as thrilling a show as you'll find on network TV, with better fight scenes than you'll find anywhere else, and twists that eventually surprisingly pay off the excessively heightened self-seriousness with legitimately major consequences.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Standing Apology

I'll be out of the country for three weeks, starting this evening. I've scheduled a few blog posts to go up automatically, so as to maintain an appearance of regular activity. In case anything I post in the next three weeks appears to be commenting, tastelessly or otherwise, on a news story that breaks at any time after this evening, understand that it was entirely unintentional, and, depending on Internet access over there, I may not be able to pull or edit anything truly inflammatory. So I'll just offer a blanket preemptive apology for anything offensive I might say here over the next three weeks. Actually, while I'm at it, I should probably extend that apology in the other direction as well, taking this opportunity to say sorry for anything I've said in the past. In fact, let this post be my standing apology for all occasions.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Office (U.S.) (Season 9) (2012-2013)

The ninth and final season of the U.S. version of The Office was a marginal improvement over the previous couple seasons. I felt the show had lost its charm some years back, even before Steve Carell had left. I think the last time I felt truly invested in the show was around Season 5, when Michael, Pam, and Ryan set up their own paper company to challenge Dunder Mifflin. I can't believe that was four seasons ago. From there, it was a long, labored decline, including such unfortunate developments as Jim's turn as ineffectual and unlikable co-manager, the entire James Spader run, and, most regrettably, the preposterous push for Andy Bernard to become some sort of Michael Scott stand-in. Season 9 made some ballsy moves, then, chief among them the near annihilation of the Andy character. This may have been less a gutsy move than the show having to operate around Ed Helms's movie career, but it was nevertheless dealt with in a way that was far more real than I had come to expect from the mockumentary sitcom.

As originally introduced, conniving yet oblivious, the Andy character was, I thought, a hilarious addition to the cast. Once he actually was promoted to being a series regular, however, and they decided that they needed to make him more of a pitiful nice guy, he became far less entertaining. It probably would not have worked to have him continue on as that quasi-antagonistic presence in the office—that's not a recipe for longevity for a sitcom character—but to have him flip around to playing the underdog also didn't ring true. And if I wasn't quite protesting the Andy-Erin romance angle, I certainly wasn't buying it either. So, to see the story completely turn on Andy in Season 9, and in a way that unambiguously painted him as the bad guy, just one season after he had seemingly beaten the odds to get his happy ending, was delightfully refreshing (even if, more than ever, I actually hated watching the character himself). Shame, though, that Erin and Pete both largely dropped out of the story almost as soon as Pete emerged as clearly the better man for her, as if that subplot had existed primarily to put Andy in his place, rather than to develop Erin and Pete.

Andy wasn't the only problem with previous seasons, however, and there were many more that Season 9 didn't fix. Toby, had he simply never come back after running off near the end of "Night Out" (Season 4, Episode 15), would have had one of the classic exits in TV history. He had a few more good moments after that, but, for the better part of the last several seasons, he was simply dead weight. By Season 9, especially with Michael no longer there to abuse him, this character had nothing left to offer.

Speaking of which, Nellie was, like Andy, another character that I found hilarious in her initial appearance, and still enjoyed when she continued on as a recurring guest, but who never should have become a regular. There was nothing more to say with that character that the show hadn't already said during her guest appearances, and every bit involving her in Season 9 was, for me, a miss.

Of course, by the end, most of the supporting characters were dead weight. Not only did they become less and less funny, but the more time I spent with them, the more I began to actively dislike them as people. Far from being a close-knit office family, these people were purely negative, both toward one another and in general, the exceptions being Erin, who was always cute, and Kevin, who could still consistently elicit a cheap laugh from me.

The series finale was appropriately big and emotional. I'm glad that The Simpsons is still running (not saying it's still the best show on television or anything), but otherwise I can't think of any show that has ever lasted as many as nine seasons that shouldn't probably have ended a lot earlier. The benefit of going on so long, however, is that, even if the show hasn't been great all along, the story collects a unique weight over the years simply by being in viewers' lives that long. It sounds silly as I write this, but, in a case like this, the viewer and the show kind of grow old together. If you watched The Office as it aired, that was nine years of your life, after all—a significant stretch of time for anyone. And perhaps, as you look back on past seasons and episodes, you'll be reminded of what major things were going on in your own life at the time. There's a particular sweetness to this finale, as the characters are able to look back and equally reflect on the weight of nine years.

Still, I couldn't help feeling that the Michael Scott farewell episode was better and would have made for the better end to the story. Certainly, it would have made for a good stopping point for the documentary, to end it with the guy you started it with. And, as much as perhaps they didn't want Michael, no longer a regular part of the show, to come back and overshadow what the remaining regulars had come to over these last few seasons without him, my feeling, as I watched each character's story wrap up in the finale, was that none of them had actually moved very far from where they had been at the time of Michael's departure, so I didn't really get the sense that there was more left to say for the other characters than there was for Michael. It also didn't make any sense to me that Michael would have been absent from the reunion panel, but oh well.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Freedom From Privacy

So the government is spying on us, you say? Listening to all our calls and reading everything we post to the Internet (even the things we set to "friends only," which does NOT include you, Mr. NSA!)? Surely this isn't so surprising. And, in any case, for most of us, it is delusionally egotistical to suppose that our private lives are interesting enough to hold the government's attention. Never mind that, logistically, there is just no way our government has the manpower to actually comb through every ordinary citizen's stuff, considering it's fairly well established that they wouldn't have the resources even to effectively monitor all sex offenders' activities. No, I imagine they're just scanning for certain key phrases ("Blackbriar" and all that) that would raise security alerts. Or, who knows, maybe there is some pervert getting paid (by you!) to read with relish your private Facebook status updates on your pathetic love life.

In any case, the news is discouraging on principle, not because it means the feds know all the embarrassing details of our lives, but because, however Obama may try to spin it as a necessary evil (and the official "deal with it" response has been about as blatantly and maddeningly anti-little guy as Microsoft's attempt to explain to consumers why the Xbox One must daily check in online (answer: because Microsoft has to look out for Microsoft)), the point is that our government has been lying to us all. Big time. Maybe many of us conspiracy theorists had seen enough spy movies to have known already not to trust the government. But even members of the liberal mainstream press are hammering the administration now. This is a broken relationship. As when your spouse cheats on you or a family member steals from you (or whatever—I can't think of a better example), though we may not have to stay angry at them forever, we can never again fully trust them, no matter how many apologies they make (and, in fact, Obama hasn't offered an apology).

As I see it, the only thing they can do now to halfway "make it right" is to give all of us access to that same information, so that everything is transparent and we're all on a level playing field.


Okay, everything I said before that I was serious about. This news is outrageous, and we shouldn't just get over it and accept Obama's call to calm down (at least until a Republican takes office, at which point let's blame that guy for everything we haven't liked over these last two terms, right?). Maybe this revelation won't have much practical effect on how we live our daily lives, as we pump gas, buy deodorant, etc. But if we stand for this, it's only a slippery slope to more really bad anti-little guy stuff.

And now, back to what I was saying about letting us spy on one another (well, it really wouldn't be spying anymore, since there wouldn't be any more secrets, only transparency), I actually had once, before any of this came out, what I thought would have been a brilliant idea for a service that I now realize would have amounted to violation of privacy on a massive scale. It would have vaguely combined Google Goggles and Facebook's Graph Search, although I had this idea before I'd ever heard of those things either. (And I should clarify, by "I had this idea," I mean I thought to myself, "Somebody ought to make this," not "I plan to and know how to make this.")

The basic idea was of an app that would tap into and interpret all the user-generated data on every social network in order to pull up info on anything we might observe in the real world. Initially, this would have been to assist with shopping. Increasingly, there are movements calling for more ethical production practices (e.g. no slave labor involved, eco-friendly), but nearly all of the most profitable companies, especially in electronics manufacturing and the garment industry, are still less than forthcoming about where stuff comes from and how it gets made. This is not information you're going to get off the tag or from the store. But what if, when shopping, you could scan the item with your smartphone (this was also before Google Glass) and get instant access to useful stats researched by people not standing to profit off the sale?

Of course, you can already do research prior to making a purchase by consulting customer reviews on merchant websites, but that's much easier for certain types of products than others. And how handy would it be if you could, right in the store, simply snap a visual of the item itself (yes, this would require a much more sophisticated version of what Google Goggles offers right now) and get the info then and there? And the info wouldn't just be from other regular consumers but from any informed blogger, or even just anyone who has shared a tip on Facebook. The service would intelligently sort the data to provide, beyond just quality reviews, details on production practices (to steer you toward ethical shopping, including providing user-suggested alternatives), pricing (including where and for what price specifically other people have seen the same item or an equivalent alternative), materials (whether it's all safe to use or wear), etc. And this info would all be drawn from what the people collectively have to say—perhaps the most effective oversight of all.

Even in the beginning, when people's contributions to the service would be indirect, all that stuff we post to social networks would constitute a wealth of data (as the NSA well knows) that, for the most part, isn't being put to best use as is (because you can't Google what's been shared on Facebook). But, as the service caught on and people recognized its usefulness, users would get into it the same way they get into all of these ego-stroking social networking services, and they would snap photos and microblog their quick opinions or tips on any item they came across throughout their day. At least, that would be the hope.

And this wouldn't just be for shopping. It would bring up data on food, flora, whatever—basically, anything that the app could identify and that anybody had ever written about online. And, in case you couldn't see where this was going, what if it could even visually ID and bring up info on people? It could, for example, alert you if the person in front of you were a sex offender. Or maybe the guy's not a criminal but just not a nice guy. Yeah, say you have a bad feeling about a date or an interview, you just look them up on the app and see not only their vitals and background but also if anyone has left a reference or tip about this person. And maybe the app wouldn't just be passively bringing up data, but maybe users would start actively leaving notes about other people as they interacted with them—like, say, "Note: this guy's a tool, and his wiener is small (ironically)."

Okay, so you can see where this idea could go wrong. It's also probably going to happen. Google Glass is already pointing us in that direction. It probably won't be the government's doing, but we also probably won't be able to expect them to have our backs and protect us against it. Rather, they'd be the first ones to try to control it for themselves, to no good end. Maybe the only real solution is just to give it to everyone equally after all. We all have secrets we'd rather keep to ourselves. Advantage, both in national security and in social circles, is gained from knowing other people's secrets when they don't know yours, while embarrassment is the result when other people know yours and you don't know theirs. Maybe we'd actually live more compassionate and freer lives if together we were all made to stand on the same side of shame, to recognize that each among us is flawed and makes mistakes, but, as we'd likely find out once everything is out in the open, no one's individual mistakes are bigger, worse, or more notable than most anyone else's. And if they are significantly worse, then those are probably the people who should be locked up, eh? And, once the playing field is leveled, we'd probably discover that it's the people in power I'm talking about, who keep the most outrageous secrets from the rest of us. (Well, maybe not worse than the psychos with the secret mass murder graveyards....)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

CHVRCHES - Belly Up Tavern, June 2, 2013

Chvrches at the Belly Up

 (CHVRCHES performing at the Belly Up, June 2, 2013.)

Opening for CHVRCHES at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach was London-based dream pop band Still Corners. Oftentimes, a band I want to see will be inexplicably paired with an opener that will seem very far off from the kind of music I came for. But Still Corners intriguingly treads roughly the same territory as CHVRCHES. Since I still had my trial subscription to Google Play Music All Access, I used it to load up their work on my phone as I drove to the venue. Turns out they've been around for a few years now and have released significantly more material than CHVRCHES, including two full-length albums. Live, they were not bad at all, albeit there was an eventually exhausting samey-ness to their persistently ethereal songs. Vocalist Tessa Murray stepped out in a glittery jacket to some applause, while random film clips (Apocalypse Now, black and white dance footage, what looked like home movies) were projected onto the background throughout their set. They were quite humble, not chatty at all. Comically, one guy in the audience kept yelling "I love you!" after every time Murray spoke, which she never acknowledged.

As their set wound down, Murray mentioned that they would have to clear out very quickly, and, after their last song, they hastily left the stage. But then, a minute later, Murray came back out, sans shiny jacket, to slowly pack up her keyboard. I understand that they're probably not big enough to have roadies for this kind of gig, but it was still an awkward moment.

After the customary break for setting up, Scottish synthpop group CHVRCHES took the stage. The hot band of the moment, they've only released one EP, Recover - EP, plus two singles no longer available for purchase (but still on their YouTube channel). In addition to those songs, they played a number of other songs off their upcoming debut album, due for release in September. It was all quite good, I thought. For me, what makes CHVRCHES more appealing and accessible than many other electropop acts is that, beneath all the synth, Lauren Mayberry really sings, rather than just droning on, and there are melodies—the songs feel like they're going somewhere, rather than just going on until they run out of steam.

I do like it better when I can familiarize myself with the material before hearing it live. It usually takes me several listens to fully appreciate a song, and, furthermore, much of the thrill of attending a live performance is the anticipation as you follow along and wait for them to hit your favorite songs and moments. Of course, many of the songs from the upcoming album had already been capped at previous performances and uploaded to YouTube, so they were not entirely new to me. And it was very exciting when CHVRCHES performed familiar and catchy signature songs "Recover" and "The Mother We Share."

Like fellow UK act Still Corners, they seemed pretty rough as live performers. Mayberry's dorky headbanging and dancing—more like shaking in place—was nevertheless adorable, and at least she sang well and made a few jokes. At one point, she introduced a song as one that they had debuted on YouTube just the week prior. I was anticipating "Gun" here, but then Mayberry said, "It's called 'Theme Song to Game of Thrones.'" A joke, of course—it did end up being "Gun"—and Mayberry thanked "the eight people in the audience who got it." At that moment, I felt suddenly deeply ashamed that I was able to follow along with everything she had said, since I follow their Tumblr and subscribe to their YouTube channel.

Martin Doherty took over as vocalist for one song, and he and Mayberry literally just switched places on the stage. It was a bit awkward, because most male vocalists I've seen have either played instruments while singing, or else they've been very sharply dressed. Doherty had no instrument and was dressed more like a DJ, wearing a baseball cap and sweater—basically, just a regular dude—so he looked oddly exposed up there. He also had almost the exact same dorky dance moves as Mayberry, although he moved around the stage and sang directly to the audience more.

They brought the night to a close with a cover of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" as the encore. This was actually one of the first songs they debuted online. Honestly, I didn't really dig it. I liked nearly all their originals, however, and I'm looking forward to their album in September.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Revolution (Season 1) (2012-2013)

I had high hopes for Revolution. Produced by J. J. Abrams and with a pilot directed by Jon Favreau, the NBC show debuted with a lot of hype. More importantly, this was the new project from Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural. Kripke hasn't had too many other credits to his name, but, during the five seasons he ran it, Supernatural was one of my favorite shows on television, and so I wanted to see what new project he left it for. Unfortunately, although Revolution's first season was more entertaining overall than Supernatural has been in Kripke's absence, it's not exactly a good show. It's also not quite a bad show, and not a merely inoffensive one (which is sadly what Supernatural has become). By the end of the season, I didn't feel especially strongly about it one way or another, and yet I also wouldn't say I was apathetic about it. I was intrigued to see where it would go, whether it could right itself and become a good show—I felt the potential was there, and still do—and, even as the show weekly failed to deliver any kind of payoff, I strangely felt compelled to keep watching.

This first season was all over the place. For the first half, it felt like a frontier serial fit for family viewing. I would tune in weekly to see what latest operation or heist the heroes would take on in this post-apocalyptic future, where fifteen years without electricity had resulted in the collapse of the U.S. government, leaving feuding dictatorships and militias the only law of the land. Early episodes provided some mild thrills, but the plots became progressively more contrived and the execution clumsier, and characters remained poorly written, especially the obnoxious teenage siblings that were ostensibly the driving focus of the show.

After a long break, during which I had all but forgotten that the show had ever existed, Revolution returned to television and, as if in acknowledgment that many elements had not been working, the second half featured some significant retoolings. It became a far more serialized story—no more operation of the week—and the show became far less interested in exploring the post-apocalyptic world and more in developing the mysteries of the blackout—what caused it and how it might be reversed. Young protagonist Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), still somewhat irritating but no longer as tiresomely wishy-washy, became more of a supporting character to her sword-swinging uncle, Miles (Billy Burke), and her estranged scientist mother, Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell). It was a better show, but only marginally so, and it still felt a long way from getting viewers invested in these characters, for whom the writers seemed distressingly without any plan or purpose, instead just making things up one episode at a time, having characters go through preposterous changes of attitude and allegiance, and killing some off for cheap thrills alone. And it seemed to inherit only the worst aspect of Supernatural: the atrocious confessional moments, when characters would pour out their feelings in soapy yet aggressively masculine manner by declaring, through overblown dialogue, what they thought of themselves, what everybody else was also supposed to think of them.

Well, Kripke also tried to carry on his Supernatural tradition of opening the finale with a comprehensive "previously on" segment set to a classic rock song. That was always a cheer-worthy moment during his seasons of Supernatural, as the clips would run through the journey the characters had undergone en route to the climactic confrontation to come. On Revolution, this sequence painfully highlighted just how errant and haphazard the season had been, as there were almost no scenes they could call back to from more than a few episodes ago that still held any relevance by the finale.

The one legitimately standout aspect of Revolution was David Lyons's performance as General Sebastian Monroe, the primary antagonist for most of the season. In flashbacks, we're shown that Monroe and Miles used to be best friends—Miles actually co-founded the dictatorial Monroe Republic, before deserting for reasons still not fully depicted—until, somewhere along the way, Monroe became power-mad and brutal. This may be a classic "power corrupts" premise then, but what makes Monroe an interesting character is that Lyons plays him as clearly a mentally ill person. We're told that Monroe "lost it" after Miles abandoned him, becoming increasingly paranoid and deranged, but Lyons goes above and beyond the material, fully committing to giving an unnervingly convincing portrayal of insanity, not in the typical over-the-top TV sense (which we see on this very show, in the form of the weepily psychopathic Rachel), but in the sense of a person who seems to suffer from a legitimate chemical imbalance that, in the real world, might be addressed with treatment and medication (or else end up on the streets, one of those unfortunate stuttering and agitated lost souls that litter our inner cities). One can imagine that, if only he could get treatment in the fallen world of Revolution, Monroe would be an okay guy, instead of the monstrous villain at the top of everyone's hit list. Instead, he seems in perpetual anguish and agony, even when his side is winning, as though he doesn't even really care about ruling the world, doesn't even especially want to live, but is too afraid to die and equates his power with his life, since his pursuit of power has already cost him everything else in his life.

I still have many issues with the character, but these problems are on the writers and not on Lyons. The big question is how he ever became the commander of the Monroe Republic in the first place. Even in the flashbacks to when pre-blackout Monroe was but a lowly sergeant, he doesn't seem the most mentally stable individual—not twisted, just shaky, but, in any case, not someone who could capably lead other men. We could suppose that Miles actually did most of the work, hence why Monroe unraveled so quickly after Miles left him, but, in that case, how has he managed to wage a war, or even to keep his command, without Miles directing at his side?

Revolution has managed to get a second season greenlit that it probably didn't earn on the quality of its first, but if we wrote off every show that had an underwhelming beginning, then I'd have missed out on some of my favorite shows, including The Vampire Diaries, Parks and Recreation, both Buffy and Angel, and even Star Trek: The Next Generation. Revolution's biggest problem is that it has so far instilled no confidence that the writers themselves are clear on what direction to take the story. That's not a fundamental defect but something that could be figured out by the second season, at which point it could potentially become a good show. There remains room and opportunity for it to fix itself, and I'm hoping it does.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Gears of War: Judgment (Xbox 360) (Epic Games, People Can Fly, 2013)

Gears of War: Judgment

The original Gears of War (2006) was the technological showcase game that, after a couple of false starts (Perfect Dark Zero, anyone?), marked the proper beginning to the 360/PS3 console generation. Now, as we finally seem within sight of the finish line for this console cycle, I would contend that Gears of War has been the series that has most defined the generation (only talking 360/PS3 here; Nintendo is kind of in its own universe). Maybe it hasn't sold as many units as Call of Duty, and maybe it will never garner altogether as many awards as the BioShock or Mass Effect series. But it practically invented—well, standardized, anyway—the third-person cover-based shooter, subsequently (consequently, I'd say) one of the most ubiquitous genres of the generation. Moreover, for three installments, it remained consistently the technological best-in-class (alongside its PS3 counterpart, Uncharted)—the games that Epic used to sell other developers on their Unreal Engine. Even if you've never played any of the Gears of War games, even if you've never even owned an Xbox 360, the influence of this series cannot be denied.

But how often is it that a non-annual franchise (or an annual franchise, for that matter) manages to sustain interest for a fourth installment within a single console generation? Even the developer seemed to lose interest; Epic handed the bulk of the development duties off to subsidiary People Can Fly (Bulletstorm) for this non-numbered entry. Cliff Bleszinski, Epic's lead designer and public face, even departed the company after Gears of War 3 (2011). And, while any series this popular is certain to see many more sequels, the first three games formed a definite trilogy, with the last one wrapping up the story begun in the first. So soon after the release of that third game, where was there left to take the story? They went the now semi-cliche route of a prequel/side-story starring not the usual main characters, which, to the cynic, can feel an awful lot like a final cash-grab, rushed to fill out the release calendar only because the market wasn't ready yet for new consoles. Having now finished the campaign, I can say that maybe Gears of War: Judgment is indeed that, but at least it's also still a technically well-made game that, in some ways, may even be the most enjoyable in the series.

Although People Can Fly perhaps had the opportunity, with this non-numbered release, to craft a more daring, more experimental Gears, they ended up going in much the opposite direction, dispensing with any even slightly gimmicky elements and instead focusing on refining the core action gameplay. There are no vehicle stages, no on-rails sections, very few objectives involving anything other than killing or surviving, and only two sequences that would even qualify as boss fights (although those two are far and away the best boss fights in the series). There's nothing resembling the "avoid the flesh-eating shadows" stage in the original Gears, or the ridiculous "Marcus and Dom have to lug around a bomb three-legged race-style" section of Gears of War 2. And, to be honest, I didn't miss any of that stuff. I didn't even notice, until my brother pointed it out toward the end of the campaign, that there had been none of those moments when the story would dictate that we split up. On paper, the omission of this Gears staple—rather, a staple of just about any co-op shooter—would seem to be a step back, but I think this was a case of a developer with a fresh set of eyes coming in and, after three installments, asking simply whether these obligatory inclusions were ever truly necessary in the first place.

People Can Fly opted to concentrate on putting together a purer shooter. The series already possessed the tightest mechanics of any cover-based shooter, yet somehow Judgment improves upon the design with just a few simple control tweaks. I never really questioned, for example, assigning weapon switching (including grenades) to the D-pad, but Judgment reassigns switching to one of the face buttons, while giving grenades their own dedicated shoulder button, and, I must say, it seems so obvious that I can't believe it took four games for anybody to think of this. The change does mean that players are able to carry fewer guns (down from 3 to 2), but, in practice, this mostly just means no longer having that last-resort pistol to go along with the typical assault rifle-plus-shotgun/sniper rifle load-out.

More prominently highlighted among the new features are the "Declassified" modifiers. Near the beginning of every stage, players are presented with the option to activate an additional challenge that will make the stage more difficult in some way. The idea is that the story is told through flashback, as the characters, on trial for some mostly irrelevant reason in an altogether forgettable story, narrate their own recollections of the events for which they are being tried. Some details having been redacted for whatever reason, it's up to the player whether to "declassify" them. Chrono Trigger this ain't, however, and none of your decisions have any repercussions whatsoever toward the progression of the trial or the story.

Declassified mode is instead just there to add a fun extra layer of challenge, which can take one of a couple different forms, depending on the stage. The most interesting are the ones that add environmental conditions (e.g. low visibility, heat warping, intense wind), as these alter the experience in a serious way and end up defining those stages. Also worth trying are the challenges that force you to use weapons that you might not ordinarily bother with. You might come away with a new appreciation for a weapon you had formerly dismissed, or if not, at least playing with an unconventional load-out (e.g. sawed-off shotguns plus shields) changes up the experience. The most common Declassified change, however, just adds stronger enemy types to the groups you'll encounter. Personally, I always at least attempted the Declassified challenge (in fact, if they had removed the option and simply made Declassified mode the default, honestly the only loss would have been a bullet point on the game's list of features), usually coming out victorious on the first attempt, and there almost never seemed to be anything special about these "extra challenging" enemies. The only exception was one stage where we were supposed to hold a hill against a pack of very aggressive brutes that kept overrunning us. After a few unsuccessful attempts, we finally turned off the challenge and played it the normal way, which proved to be pathetically easy, as the brutes were replaced with more conventional enemy types that we were able to gun down from a distance.

The most significant addition Gears of War: Judgment makes to the series is the new dynamic spawning system, which randomizes the enemies that you'll face through most of the game. The effect of this is felt any time you die and are forced to replay a stage; you'll find that, on the second attempt, the enemies may be different, perhaps wildly so. Maybe there will be snipers, or maybe there won't be. Maybe you'll have to contend with explosive feral dog-like creatures, or maybe you'll be facing mounted riders. Historically, I've never been a fan of randomly-generated elements in games (and it does seem random, rather than based on anything the player is doing), but it mostly works here, forcing you to play more in the moment, rather than formulating your game plan around what you know you'll be up against (either because it's not your first try, or because you consulted a guide). Whatever the game ends up throwing at you, in general, the groups of enemies you face tend to be far more diverse than in previous games. Even as you contend with guys shooting at you from afar, you may also be hounded by other foes charging you, who are themselves closely followed by shield-wielding giants. This all highlights how much the series has evolved since that first game that popularized cover-based shooter action. In the original Gears of War, you spent most of the game exchanging fire with enemies from behind cover. In the much faster-paced and more frenetic Judgment, I spent very little time sticking to cover, because it simply isn't safe anymore to just stay in one spot.

The random element does mean fewer memorable set pieces than in previous games, since the designers are ceding some amount of artistic direction in favor of unpredictability. Judgment also doesn't offer anything quite as large-scale and intricate as the multi-phase "Battle of Anvil Gate" from Gears of War 3, but it boasts a good half-dozen or so battles that actually match or exceed the action, if not the spectacle. Taking some cues from the previous games' arcade-y "Horde" modes, Judgment's campaign stages several sequences tasking players with defending a fortified position against waves of enemy forces. A timer counts down between waves, and players are able to use the time to plan out defensive strategies and set up auto-turrets against possible points of entry for the enemy. As the waves escalate in intensity, almost all of these battles begin with your team spread out and picking off enemies from the high ground, but then end with you and your allies closing ranks against swarming foes that are near enough to punch. I've mentioned previously my fondness for the barricade cabin from Resident Evil 4 as an unforgettable sequence evocative of the Battle of the Alamo, but these stages in Gears of War: Judgment are, in many ways, actually more perfected versions of that same idea, albeit without the inspired ambiance. Alas, I never found there to be much context for these battles in Judgment, and the settings seemed always to be no more than random unidentified and nondescript ruins atop a hill or cliff side. But the arc of the combat itself is executed to near perfection, and actually that goes even for most of the normal battles in Gears of War: Judgment; despite the random element, encounters are almost always paced for optimal intensity, getting increasingly desperate, before ending right on the brink of becoming overwhelming. It's remarkable how perfectly this game manages that sweet spot between a fight dragging on and it ending prematurely.

The story is one of the weaker aspects of Judgment. Previous games had always alluded to volumes of back story for the Marcus Fenix character, a veteran of a previous war, who began the first game in prison. Undoubtedly, we will one day see a series of prequel games delving into that back story. In the meantime, Judgment is clearly a one-off—more of a side-story, adding almost nothing of consequence to fans' understanding of the Gears universe and its history. At least new characters Sofia and Paduk make for interesting additions to the cast. In fact, they're easily the most likable, least obnoxious protagonists the series has ever had, which leaves one wishing Judgment had gone with a cast of entirely new main characters. As it is, the decision to feature Baird as the leading man is the game's greatest blunder.

I enjoyed Baird and Cole in the previous games, but they were always the B-team (or at least the B-team of the A-team). Primarily a comic relief duo, neither would have been believable as the leader of a unit, but Baird especially was always the whining loudmouthed pessimist, who absolutely did not want to be in the fighting if he could avoid it. For Judgment, he's been rewritten as a more collected character, but, for those who played the previous games, the change just comes across as the writers having a poor handle on an established character. Cole is even worse in this game. Previously, "Cole Train" had been a borderline-offensive racial caricature. Judgment downplays his attitude but replaces it with nothing else, leaving him uncharacteristically stoic through most of the campaign.

In addition to the main campaign, Judgment includes an additional act titled "Aftermath," which doubles as both an epilogue to the Judgment campaign and a lost mission from Gears of War 3. There had been a notable section in Gears of War 3 where the team split up, and it was never shown what Cole and Baird were up to as the game continued to follow Marcus instead. There had been promises of substantial campaign DLC for Gears of War 3, and many had speculated that that would include the missing Cole and Baird mission, but instead we get it now in Judgment. It's hard to tell how much, if any, of "Aftermath" is genuinely previously unreleased content, but, new controls notwithstanding, it does play more like Gears of War 3, eschewing Judgment's Declassified challenges and random spawning system. It also feels less segmented than Judgment, with more drawn-out engagements, larger arenas, and no arcade scoring system. And it contains the only memorably eye-catching sight in the game: a ship lodged in a skyscraper. There's even an on-rails segment. And "Aftermath" also closes the story on a total downer, in contrast with the fairly upbeat ending to the main campaign, but rather like the total downer of an ending to Gears of War 3.

Is Judgment the biggest, best, most badass Gears of War yet? Well, it's certainly the least momentous release in the franchise, the least artistically and technically impressive for its time. There are few moments as distinctly memorable as the best (or worst) set pieces of previous games. But Judgment is more a game to be enjoyed in the moment. One could argue that it's the least ambitious. Or perhaps, rather, it's the least pretentious, the one that best recognizes its own strengths and plays to them, delivering a lean yet meaty shooter for anyone who just wants to enjoy an action game. People Can Fly take a consistently satisfying formula, compress it into a few minutes of gameplay, and basically repeat that over and over again for the entire campaign. Judgment has much more of a classic arcade feel than previous installments, with none of the needless and historically poorly executed fluff. Mercifully gone are the days when you could get lost just trying to find the path forward during a lull in the action; now, you clear a room, then move on to the next one and do it again. It may sound shallow and repetitive, but the strength of the core mechanics keep it from ever becoming tedious. On the contrary, it does nothing but deliver over and over again what it knows you'll enjoy, rather like food that has been chemically distilled from its natural form into something maybe less balanced but more immediately satisfying and addictive. With food, that sounds unhealthy, but we don't play shooter games for health but for pleasure. Toward that end, if you were to play only one Gears of War—or, for that matter, only one third-person cover-based shooter—Judgment is the one I'd recommend.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tom Brosseau & Sean Watkins with Z Berg - North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe, May 31, 2013

Tom Brosseau Sean Watkins ZBerg North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe

Visited the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe for the first time Friday night to see contemporary folk musicians Tom Brosseau and Sean Watkins perform, with singer-songwriter Z Berg opening, plus special guest appearances by Sara Watkins and Brad Carter.

Given that I've already written about Z Berg's band JJAMZ twice on this blog, I suppose it should be obvious that I went primarily because of her. It was only because I follow her on Twitter that I was aware of the show at all. I fear at this point I'm beginning to sound like a stalker, but there's nothing wrong with an artist cultivating an audience of loyal locals in every city. Indeed, it seemed everyone but me was not only there specifically to see Tom Brosseau but was even possibly a personal friend of his.

The exceedingly small venue consisted of a tiny stage in a roughly 30-seat theater (most often hosting plays, according to the proprietor), a very small lobby/candy shop in front, and the dressing room in back (which is also where the bathroom is). It has apparently been in that spot for years (a Yelp review from 2007 mentions a Tom Brosseau CD release party), but it's pretty low-profile. I was a little disappointed at the candy selection, much-vaunted on Yelp, but which was actually fairly pedestrian ("fun size" Snickers, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers; individual Starburst; licorice, of course) but for the candy cigarettes. Clearly, no one would ever walk in just to buy candy; the theater is the operation. It got pretty hot and cramped, and the stage was barely elevated off the ground (so I imagine it would be hard to watch a play from anywhere other than the front row), but it's about as intimate a setting as you'll find for a show (outside of a private performance at someone's home)—a different experience, certainly. And the owners, an older married couple, were warm and proud of their establishment and their little community, although I felt a tad the "suspicious Oriental" in that crowd.

On with the show, Z Berg was, I gathered, a friend of Sean Watkins, who was, in turn, brought along by Tom Brosseau. She began with a cover of Hank Cochran and Patsy Cline's "She's Got You." She mentioned that it used to be her go-to for karaoke, until it got to the point that, every time she would sing it at a karaoke bar in LA, some guy would offer to take her to Vegas and make her a star. She followed that up with a series of, as far as I know, originals. She didn't discuss the music itself much, but it was quite a departure from what I'd heard from JJAMZ and The Like—still pop, but with a folk twist, and more stripped-down, of course, since she was performing alone. Compared to her strutting self from the JJAMZ shows, she definitely seemed more nervous on the small stage. As she performed, there were no winks at the audience; she kept her eyes focused on somewhere beyond the audience, as she likewise sang songs addressed to someone unspoken. My favorite was a wistful, slower-paced, more contemplative number going through the reasons why she could never come to love a nice guy who was, to her, "just a holiday" (somewhat like a gloomier inversion of "Never Enough," with the same result). Simultaneously deeply personal and universal, and carried all the way by Z Berg's soulful low tones, the mood of the song was as taking a quiet stroll about the town with the artist, only we would each also be walking alone. It was like walking alone together, if that makes sense. Check out a recording from a previous performance, uploaded to YouTube by Raymond Lew.

Paying more attention to the lyrics on some of those JJAMZ songs, I find her to be actually quite transparent and sentimental in many of them. "Suicide Pact" is about the deepest of friendships. "Poolside" and "You Were My Home" tell stories of young love and young ambition, seen looking back from a perspective of regret. Her solo songs were not, in that respect, altogether a departure. Similar in content—songs about failed relationships, described by the artist as her own "self-loathing"—they were more lyrically dense. If she was any more vulnerable here than with her band, it would not have been because she was revealing any more about her life, but because she was standing alone now, with only her guitar and her lyrics, understandably more exposed as an artist.

Addressing her nervousness, she mentioned that this was her first time performing by herself outside LA. She also mentioned that, every time she has done a solo set in LA, her parents have been in the audience. Her father is former Geffen exec Tony Berg, which leads one to wonder what kind of life she had growing up, all the talent and industry people that must have passed through that house. In any case, it was a sweet detail. It's interesting to see these different sides to her: the hungry singer-songwriter, who grew up immersed in the scene, and formed a band at 15 with other industry daughters; the frontwoman of a band of best friends, who can sizzle on the stage with that distinctly smoky voice, then step out for a cigarette and share laughs with random strangers; the still-hungry but also vulnerable 26-year-old artist, having lived through enough now well-aged romantic tragedies to fill an album or two; and the girl from a loving family, with parents with the love and the means to gift her with a life in and of art, however her career unfolds.

Family became kind of a theme for the night, carrying on through as Tom Brosseau and Sean Watkins took over for the main event. In some ways, it was a bit odd that these two were paired together as an act. They didn't actually perform much together, but rather traded off doing solo songs. They were even both promoting separate upcoming solo records. Sean had helped put together Tom's and provided some guitar and backing vocals. Meanwhile, Tom was mostly silent during Sean's songs, only chipping in the occasional vocal harmony.

Sean Watkins is perhaps best known as a member of Nickel Creek, which, despite their being from San Diego County, I knew only from a single appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien some years ago. I remember Conan mentioning that Nickel Creek would be performing, emphasizing to Andy that it was Nickel Creek, not Nickelback, at which Andy feigned disappointment that it was not going to be the oft-derided-as-derivative Canadian pop rock band. Or maybe it was Jay Leno and Kevin Eubanks. I don't really remember that well. (As an aside, I'm willing to admit that I've liked the occasional Nickelback song. I remember, when I was a freshman living in the dorms at UCSD, one of the students in the room across would constantly play "How You Remind Me" (2001), to which I took a liking. Yes, it was that and Afroman's "Because I Got High" that formed the soundtrack to that year of my life. Dreadful year. But I digress.)

Tom mentioned that, the first time he saw Sean play in LA, one song that stuck out was "Hello... Goodbye," from Sean's 2006 album Blinders On. Suggesting the unrehearsed nature of their set, Sean said he hadn't played the song in years and wasn't sure if he could remember the lyrics. Nevertheless, once Tom brought it up, there was no way he couldn't play it, and so he did. The song, barely a minute long as written, was my favorite of the night—a silly yet true slice of anyone's life that leaves you both laughing and heartbroken at the same time.

Tom related a number of stories, and yet I wasn't entirely clear on what his story was. Originally from North Dakota, he is now based in LA. Along that journey, he has apparently played at the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe several times over the years. He claimed that the tiny San Diego venue was his favorite anywhere, and, although the cynic might imagine that he says the same of Largo when playing in Largo, this was one case where the claim struck me as sincere.

The guy resembles one of those aged photographs of male celebrities from the 1960s or earlier—one of those Clark Gable or JFK types, handsome with the sort of chiseled features that don't seem to exist on men anymore, as though the genes for those features have been bred out of existence. But Tom Brosseau has those genes, I guess, because he looks like one of those old photos brought to life. To go along with that, he had a surprisingly soft, youthful voice, and perhaps an even sweeter personality. He seemed to know almost everyone in the audience (besides me, of course)—an audience that included Sean's sister Sara (also of Nickel Creek), whom Tom summoned up to sing a song with him. The Watkins' father was also apparently in attendance. Another special guest was actor and musician Brad Carter, fresh off brain surgery to treat a progressive neurological disorder that was causing tremors in his hands—obviously an inconvenience for a guitarist. Carter's surgery, during which he played guitar, was documented on Twitter and Vine and made headlines. Tom invited him to join them on stage for one song.

Perhaps the most special guest, however, was the last of the night. The North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe is proud to run the STARS "theater arts program for mentally challenged individuals." To close out the night, Tom invited one such individual in the audience to join him on stage for a performance of the folk standard "Goodnight, Irene." At this point, as impressed as I was with his songs (which were pleasant), I was even more impressed with Tom Brosseau as a human being—one of the classiest gentlemen I've ever encountered. As almost everyone in attendance sang along with the chorus as well, one got the impression that they had done this many times together over the years. On the whole, it felt like I was sitting in on a family reunion, and it was an honor to be able to share in that experience.