Sunday, February 23, 2014

Just Dance 2: Sochi Edition


After all the high-minded headlines about host nation Russia's deplorable human rights record, and after morbid speculation that the political volatility in the region might not see these Olympic Games pass without incident, ultimately the one controversy out of Sochi 2014 that got the most viewers up in arms was strictly sport-related. That is, if you can even consider figure skating a legitimate sport.

In ladies' figure skating, Russian teenager Adelina Sotnikova dethroned South Korea's Kim Yuna for the gold medal. Kim had come into these 2014 Olympic Winter Games with barely a record over the last two seasons (albeit one that included gold at the most recent World Championships), having gone into a sort of semi-retirement following her career-culminating Olympic victory at Vancouver in 2010. Summoned back to the ice for one last skate to defend her title, she proved she had lost not a step, and she led all skaters at the end of the short program, though only by the slimmest of margins—less than three tenths of a point separated her from Sotnikova in second place.

Up to that point, fifteen-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya had been pegged as the Russian favorite to challenge Kim Yuna. I didn't even know Russia had another female skater at these games. In the new team figure skating event, Lipnitskaya had skated both the ladies' short program and the ladies' free skate for Russia, which ended up winning by so wide a margin that, you figured, if they'd had a skater of Sotnikova's caliber in reserve, surely they could have had Lipnitskaya sit for one of the routines, so that a greater number of Russian athletes could have shared in the team gold. But, no, the Russians left Sotnikova riding pine and off the team, so little confidence did they have in her to not blow what ended up being a ten-point lead over Canada, which had entered without any strong representatives in the ladies' programs.

After Lipnitskaya fell in her short program, however, Russian hopes for a gold medal in the Winter Olympics' marquee event transferred to Sotnikova. Feeding off the energy of the home crowd, Sotnikova skated cleanly and powerfully, also managing to incorporate some eye-catchingly beautiful techniques, like the rarely seen one-handed Biellmann spin.

Heading into the free skate, Sotnikova was in striking distance of Kim. Moreover, as NBC's analysts pointed out, Sotnikova was planning a free skate with a technical base value of 61.43, to a mere 57.49 for Kim, the difference reflecting the much higher degree of difficulty of Sotnikova's program.

As little as I understood the scoring system for figure skating, I thought this meant that all Sotnikova would have to do was nail her routine in order to win the gold. It seemed to me that Kim was pinning her gold medal chances on the likelihood that Sotnikova was going to fall during the free skate. Relying on others' failures instead of on one's own ability is, in my book, a strategy unworthy of a champion. So, when Sotnikova ended up posting a whopper of a score for her free skate, I really hoped Kim would maybe call an audible or something and attempt to add another element to raise her base value. Instead, Kim skated her planned routine, and, although she skated it immaculately, she ended up losing the free skate by a substantial margin of more than five points (149.95 Sotnikova to 144.19 Kim). It looked like the difference indeed lay in the higher base value of Sotnikova's technical elements, and that was all there was to say about it. Or was it?

Even at the moment that Kim's scores were announced, before any of the scandalous accusations and online petitions that followed, there was something that left a bad taste in my mouth. The judges' scores suggested that there had been a clear victor, but that had not been evident to me. More than feeling that Kim got robbed, there was just something deeply unsatisfying about how the judges, who have too often been discredited to take seriously as authoritative, seem to almost arbitrarily elevate one winner in the absence of certainty.

On the one hand, Sotnikova had skated the discernibly more challenging program. She had performed more triple jumps, and her spins had been more impressive. On the other hand, there is something to be said of Kim Yuna's vaunted grace on the ice, as she really did strike me as the most elegant and polished skater of the night, exiting jumps with the same speed she entered them. Whereas all of Sotnikova's jumps looked every bit the daring feats of mustered athleticism that they were, Kim's every movement was sold with an effortlessness giving the impression that skating came as naturally to her as breathing.

Some have framed it as a contest between the technician, Sotnikova, and the artist, Kim, and, in this case, technique simply won out. Were it truly the case that Sotnikova's technical advantage outweighed Kim's artistic edge, I'd be inclined to stand by the result. The artistic component to figure skating is, honestly, the part I think makes it hard to take it seriously as a competitive sport. It's all so subjective, after all. And while, yes, we do judge works of art against one another and hand out awards to those deemed best, surely no serious filmmaker, for example, pursues their craft with an Academy Award as their ultimate goal, the way that a figure skater's four years of hard work and preparation are all for that Olympic medal signifying that a panel of judges appreciated your work more than they appreciated that of your peers.

But even if you were to factor out the highly subjective artistic marks governed by the "program components" score, which makes up one half of a skater's total score (technical elements making up the other), and on which Kim did very narrowly outperform Sotnikova (74.50 Kim to 74.41 Sotnikova), what was news to me, brought to light by this controversy provoking closer scrutiny of the judging system, is that even the way the technical elements are scored is highly impressionistic.

When a skater takes off for a jump, it isn't simply a black-and-white "nail it or blow it" score that results. Whether or not you blow the landing, you get the base value for performing your rotations. But then there's also a "grade of execution" (GOE) on top of that. This is where judges can award bonus points (up to +3) or deduct penalties (up to -3), depending on how well they think you executed the element. There are definite guidelines for deductions (e.g. -3 for a fall, -2 for a step out), but the rationale for awarding bonus points is far less precise (e.g. +3 for "superior technique or execution"), and, even where deduction protocols should be clear, judges largely score at their own discretion. This is where things get gray, and where, if you take a close look at Sotnikova's scores, the subjectivity of the scoring becomes evident even on the technical elements.

As Lawrence Yee, blogging for Yahoo! Sports, observes, Sotnikova had an incorrect entry on her opening element, which should be a mandatory -1. In fact, only one judge dinged her for a -1 for the element, and another entered in a 0 for GOE. The rest all awarded her bonus points, one of them even giving her a +3! Without arguing that that one judge was necessarily crooked, just the wild variance in the scores here undermines the legitimacy of the system itself. There was also the matter of Sotnikova stepping out on one of her landings—the one visible slip-up in her routine, which made it harder, even for viewers at home with no concept of GOE, to understand how she scored so far ahead of Kim, who had no errors. Sotnikova's stumble, impossible to miss, is typically a -2, but most of the judges only docked her one point.

Editorials have come out on both sides, either upholding the fairness of the results or crying foul, and I must say I've been persuaded by the conspiracy theorists. The case in defense of Sotnikova's humongous score tends to either 1) take the form of a "deal with it, this is figure skating" dismissal, or 2) come from people like Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski on NBC, who would obviously stand to lose if the public stopped buying into the seriousness of figure skating as a sport. Critics, meanwhile, point out that the judging panel included a guy who was previously suspended for trying to fix the Nagano 1998 ice dancing competition, as well as the wife of the director of the Russian Skating Federation. Whether these two judges actually acted improperly, the mere appearance of impropriety is, in this case, as damaging as the reality, and it's shocking, given history of corruption and clear conflict of interest, that these people were ever allowed on the judging panel.

Putting things in context, skeptics also note that Sotnikova's free skate score at the Olympics was more than 18 points higher than her previous best in international competition. Did she really improve so drastically in just three weeks? Well, it's worth pointing out that, when Kim Yuna won gold in Vancouver, her combined score was about 18 points higher than her previous best, so maybe there's just an Olympic bump for performing on the bigger stage. Still, Sotnikova's 149.95 in the free skate also happened to be the second highest score of all time, just barely off Kim's record of 150.06 from the Vancouver Olympics. In giving Sotnikova such a huge score, the judges were basically saying that, but for the one stumble, she would have had the greatest long program they had ever seen. And, even with the step out, she was more impressive than anyone else ever, save for Kim four years ago. That's pretty nuts.

Even so, I wasn't really convinced that the fix was in until I investigated further. In my opinion, the most impressive skate of the night had been given by neither Sotnikova nor Kim, but by Mao Asada of Japan. Having suffered some devastating mistakes in the short program, Asada was no longer in medal contention by the free skate, and so her scores were basically an afterthought. But I thought she absolutely crushed it with her free skate, and indeed she was awarded a new personal best score of 142.71, vaulting her ten spots into a sixth-place finish. What's notable is that Asada's base score of 66.34 on her free skate was by far the highest of anyone in the field. Sotnikova and American Gracie Gold were the only other ladies who had base values in the 60s—respectively, 61.43 and 60.64. And Asada skated very cleanly, with no errors as big as Sotnikova's step out. Yet her final technical score from the judges was a mere 73.03, behind Sotnikova's staggering 75.54. Asada even landed a triple axel, the hardest jump performed by any female at these games, which no other competitor even attempted, and still she couldn't beat Sotnikova on the technical score, despite Sotnikova having a much lower base value. So, for those that seriously believe that Sotnikova beat Kim by out-gaming her on the scoring system with a more technical routine, observe that Mao Asada had the most technical routine of all, yet she still scored below a girl who performed one fewer triple jump (Mao had 8, to Sotnikova's 7), whose program included no triple axel, and who visibly stepped out on a landing. Ultimately, gameplan can be more than canceled out by how judges choose to hand out bonus points, and we've already seen that they're all over the place on GOE.

We can even go back to the short program, which left Sotnikova breathing down Kim's neck—a pressure Kim almost never had to deal with during her period of dominance. Sotnikova had the lowest base value (30.43) of any of the skaters in the top four in the short program, yet her technical elements score, 39.09, actually ended up higher than Kim's at 39.03. Both skated cleanly. Again, it's those subjective GOE bonus points that make all the difference.

I haven't even touched on the program components scores—the artistic factor—for Sotnikova and Kim. Most of those claiming that the results were outrageous especially think that it was Sotnikova's components score that was absurdly inflated compared to Kim's. They say that Sotnikova exhibited the artistic sophistication of a teenager (which she is), while Kim delivered a regal master-class performance. Once more, that's all subjective.

After all that, I'm still not even saying that Kim Yuna was robbed necessarily. I thought Sotnikova's short program was spectacular, and her free skate was also very good but not without visible defect, let alone worthy of so many +3's as some judges awarded her. As for Kim, I was not a huge fan of her four years ago, when I thought her less ambitious than her rival Mao Asada of the triple axel. But the seemingly world-weary Kim Yuna of 2014 was strangely a vastly more compelling character to me. No more stupid James Bond routines as four years ago, I felt there was a real depth and maturity to her performance, not to mention she landed all her elements cleanly, the only skater to make it through both programs without any deductions.

For me, the winner was too close to call. The only way to call it, as the judges did, was purely subjective—those five points Sotnikova won by were not based on any objective technical superiority, no matter what anyone tries to tell you—and that's what exposes figure skating once again as kind of stupid. Even without necessarily disagreeing with the final result, I am able to declare the judges wrong. How, after all, can they be right when they're not even consistent, and the calls they make so often seem at random? And the system is beyond repair, because, at the end of the day, figure skating really isn't a sport in the competitive sense, as purely subjective scoring is going to pivotally determine any remotely close contest. Its recognition as a sport—the intense coverage of Olympic figure skating in the sports section—has never been based on any kind of logic, but persists because it is an institution, dating back to a less enlightened era, and it will continue to be for as long as people tune in to see it. The question is, how long will people continue to put up with this?

I turn to U.S. competitor Ashley Wagner: "This sport needs fans and needs people who want to watch it. People do not want to watch a sport where they see someone skate lights out and they can't depend on that person to be the one who pulls through."

Wagner, a non-contender, earlier came off kind of boorish and narcissistic, when she complained about her own scores being too low. But she has a point here, and I appreciate her being that person that says these things, thereby freeing up the more adored darlings of the same sentiment to take the high road with gritted teeth.

Wagner also suggested that the Russian skaters enjoyed home-ice advantage, which, perhaps likelier than conspiracy, could account for the inflation of Sotnikova's scores. It was probably hard to resist being swayed by the energy of that partisan crowd ("Look how she commands the crowd!" "Well, yeah... she's Russian"), which did not shy away from commencing a "Rus-y-a, Rus-y-a" chant even right as a clearly anxious Kim Yuna's scores were about to be announced. If home ice did make the difference, I suppose you could just chalk that up to a case of the "conditions"—not unlike weather or a competitor's health—simply favoring certain skaters that day.

Realistically, I don't see figure skating changing in any significant way. I mean, you could make figure skating into a legitimate competitive sport, but it would involve so many rules changes that, by the time you got there, it would be unrecognizable, and nobody would want it. No, people will get over this, then tune in again in four years to see the athlete-artists they love to watch, and when it blows up again, we'll just have this same debate once more, to no meaningful result.

For me, the more compelling narrative at these games was that of Russian short track speed skater Viktor Ahn (formerly Ahn Hyun-soo of South Korea), who, after having fallen out with a South Korean team that must have thought it was strong enough even without him, emerged to become probably Russia's true MVP at Sochi, unambiguously winning his new home country 3 gold medals and 1 bronze, while the renowned South Korean men's short track team left empty-handed.

Yeah... I predict, when South Korea takes over in four years as the next host of the Olympics, things could get real ugly. Well, only as ugly as they've always been. I mean, was it not only four years ago that the Russians were the ones crying conspiracy when the judges elevated U.S. men's figure skater Evan Lysacek to the gold medal over Russia's Evgeni Plushenko?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Land of the Free to Work Like a Slave

I moaned the other day about the more-than-two-month-long draught of holidays every year between Presidents' Day and Memorial Day in the United States. That was not merely the unmotivated laziness of a man lacking ambition. The paucity of holidays in the U.S. is seriously pretty outrageous and worth griping about.

As discussed, the U.S. government observes 10 federal holidays, but, since the government hasn't the constitutional authority to dictate when private businesses must officially close, there are only really about 6-7 holidays in the year for the majority of working Americans. Among developed nations, that is definitely on the low end of the spectrum.

Mexico lags all countries in number of federally recognized public holidays, with a mere 7, but those are all guaranteed paid holidays, when all workers, whether public or private, are entitled to take the day off with pay (or else employers must offer an enhanced rate of pay for their time worked that day). The U.S., meanwhile, has no such guaranteed holidays, so even if your employer does give you those 6-7 major U.S. holidays off from work, whether they'll pay you for those days off is another question. Paid holidays are a benefit or perk, and if you are one of the many temp or part-time workers in the U.S., the only money you're likely to make on a holiday is whatever you earn (at your regular rate) for working while others take the day off.

At the one job I've ever held where I had benefits, I received 8 paid holidays per year. That was an international company that had offices all over the world. With the exception of the UK office, which also observed 8 holidays, every other location enjoyed more. Most locations got ten or more paid holidays. The Hong Kong office led all with 17 paid holidays, including 3 days for Chinese New Year, 2 days for Good Friday, Easter Monday, the Birthday of the Buddha, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day, and the first weekday after Christmas. The Japan office had 16, including a bunch that, to an American, might sound totally random, like Children's Day, Greenery Day, Marine Day, Respect for the Aged Day, and Health-Sports Day. It wasn't just the Asian offices, either. Belgium got 10 days, and even South Africa got 13.

The UK has only 8 public holidays (with some additional in Scotland and Northern Ireland), which, like those in the U.S., are not legally guaranteed (paid or not) to private workers. But, making up for that, workers in the UK are legally entitled to a minimum of 28 days of paid leave per year—the most of any nation. The U.S., meanwhile, is the ONLY developed nation in the world that has no federally mandated minimum for paid time off.

To review, private workers in the U.S. have no guaranteed holidays (paid or otherwise), nor are they legally entitled to any paid vacation. Tell me that isn't disgraceful for a nation that would purport to lead the free world. And, for all our weary, wistful sighs on waking up that first day back to work after a holiday, most Americans have no idea how bad we really have it.

This perverse state of affairs is insidiously underscored in American car company GM's latest ad for its 2014 Cadillac ELR, which has been running constantly almost every commercial break during NBC's Olympics coverage:

The ad is not just obnoxious but downright Orwellian, and I'm disappointed in Neal McDonough (best known for his performance as Seamus McBison in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) for starring in it and spewing forth such offensive bilge:
Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe. They take August off. OFF. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that's why.

As those pulling the strings in this country have for generations, this sickening ad means to fool the American people into taking as a point of pride the slavish work ethic that they have effectively been impressed into by their phantom masters. McDonough, at best a stooge himself, here propagates the great American lie, that you get what you work for, or, perhaps worse yet, that believing something makes it so.

The notion that hard work is the key to success may well have been true in the hunter-gatherer days, but the reality is that the hunter-gatherers of yore probably put in fewer hours than you log each week. The problem is that, in today's society, you no longer own your hours, your labor, or your yield. They all belong to the machine, which then dispenses back to you an oftentimes arbitrary wage, calculated by inner workings inscrutable to the common man. And the machine has now been running for so much longer than any of us have been alive, most don't even think to question it. We assume that how it is is how it's always been and how it has to be, when, really, this isn't even how things operate today in other parts of the civilized world.

Core to the machine's operation is the foundational ethos of the American dream, which is also the greatest system of control perpetuated to manipulate the American people. You hear me complaining about not getting enough time off from work, and maybe I come across shiftless and selfish, not to mention whiny. But that remonstrative sensation one perhaps feels at one's own private wish that all weekends could be three-day weekends (at least) is not guilt but only shame. It is not natural but only conditioned, not your conscience but only the voice of Neal McDonough judging you by your allegiance to the American dream, as though he had the authority, and as though the dream were something worthy of your allegiance. Because shame and pride are but two sides of the same coin, and if you do not feel pride at GM's championing of your American work ethic (shared with the likes of Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Muhammad Ali (that last one a man whose luminous career spent taking blows to the head has now left him imprisoned in an inoperative shell of a body)), then implicitly you ought to feel shame that your personal drive falls short of your homeland's illustrious standard.

Thus, when you work your forty hours per week, you take your seven unpaid holidays, and, at the end of the year, you're still below middle-class, you don't cry foul and rise up to challenge the machine, because even thinking that the system is rigged would be un-American—shameful. No, instead, you let them convince you that Neal McDonough probably works three times as many hours, and if you really wanted that Cadillac so bad, you would work harder to earn it. Somehow, it's even easier to believe (and parrot back the belief) when it's your social lessers that are the ones whining.

At this time, it's fair perhaps to take another look at how paid time off works in practice in the U.S. Although the U.S. has no mandatory minimum for paid time off, my former employer, back when I had benefits, did provide 15 days (or 3 weeks) of paid vacation time, accrued monthly over the course of a year, while the average American, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, gets about 10 vacation days. Given 15 vacation days, and combined with 8 paid holidays (as I personally experienced), a private worker with good benefits might get about 23 paid days off in the U.S., which would still lag all the European nations' bare minimums but would be fairly in line with the Asian countries and with the rest of North America. But, again, that's above the U.S. average, which is closer to 16—dreadful. And about a quarter of Americans get no paid time off at all. Worse yet, it tends to be workers who make less to begin with—low-wage workers and part-timers without benefits—who receive less or no paid time off.

On that note, you might be inclined to put things in proper perspective and suggest, instead of griping about having fewer paid holidays than the rest of the world, that we give some consideration to our unemployed and our homeless, or even to those starving in Africa, and remind ourselves that we actually have it pretty good. But that's another system of control—the notion that there is some proper relativity to dissatisfactions, and that the comparatively greater hardships faced by others should somehow preclude us our own grievances. Again, it all comes back to shame, so often the instrument of choice among institutions that would presume to pull the strings of civilization. Well, I've never had a use for it, and I won't have it now. I am totally shameless, and I encourage you to be likewise!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What are all the major (paid) holidays in the U.S.?

The answer is, unfortunately, more complicated than you might think.

Let's start by referring to the designated U.S. federal holidays, as listed by their official names on the website:

New Year's Day - January 1
Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. - 3rd Monday of January
Washington's Birthday - 3rd Monday of February
Memorial Day - Last Monday of May
Independence Day - July 4
Labor Day - First Monday of September
Columbus Day - Second Monday of October
Veterans Day - November 11
Thanksgiving Day - 4th Thursday of November
Christmas Day - December 25

In total, there are ten federal holidays in the U.S. An eleventh, occurring only every four years, and only if it doesn't coincide with the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., is Inauguration Day.

So those are all the federal holidays recognized by the U.S. government. But, guess what, unless you work for the federal government, this information has no direct relevance to you. You see, the federal government doesn't have the jurisdiction to establish holidays for anyone other than federal employees and for Washington, D.C.

Otherwise, in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, states reserve the power to designate their own holidays, hence why, if you refer to many states' official calendars of public holidays, you'll observe that they don't line up exactly with the federal calendar. Many state government offices in California, for example, are closed in official observance of Cesar Chavez day on March 31. A number of Southern states observe a Confederate Memorial Day, although the specific date varies by state. The religious holiday Good Friday is also officially observed in a number of states. Meanwhile, Columbus Day, although a federal holiday, is not observed (or at least not as a paid holiday) in an increasing number of states, including California, where it was eliminated, along with Lincoln's Birthday, as a state holiday by the Schwarzenegger administration in 2009. The matter of jurisdiction is also why Washington's Birthday is legally known by a number of different names, depending on the state, including Presidents Day, Presidents' Day, President's Day, Washington and Lincoln Day, George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday, and George Washington's Birthday & Daisy Gatson Bates DaySome states also observe a Presidents' Day holiday at a completely different time of year, while a number of states do not observe any variation of Washington's Birthday or Presidents Day at all.

Of course, unless you actually work for state government, still none of that directly pertains to you. The reality is that, in the U.S., the government, whether at the federal or state level, does not compel private businesses to close on any specified days. In other words, there are no true national holidays in the U.S., at least none in the sense of public holidays that all citizens are legally entitled to get off from work.

That said, in practice, the majority of employers in the U.S. do observe a number of holidays, usually following the federal schedule as a guideline. You should refer to your company's website or employee information handbook for specifics, but, as I mentioned yesterday, there are 6-7 what I call "major" or "real" holidays. These are the ones that allegedly the majority of employers observe:

New Year's Day
Memorial Day
Independence Day
Labor Day
Thanksgiving Day
Day after Thanksgiving
Christmas Day

As you can see, six of those days align with federal (and state) holidays, and those are the days that, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, over 90% of U.S. organizations observe. The seventh, the day after Thanksgiving, is arguably not a holiday at all, but about two thirds of organizations close that day (or else offer employees some sort of bonus compensation for their service).

I came to dub these 6-7 the "real" holidays, because, in my years of working for various different private organizations, these were the holidays that I consistently either got off from work (paid or not) or else was offered overtime pay to come in. This was as opposed to "fake" holidays, like Valentine's Day or Halloween, which might be met with festivities, but which did not get me out of having to work and were consequently without value to me.

I categorized Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Veterans Day as "minor" or "semi-real" holidays. They were certainly real when I was a public school student and got those days off from class. But, in all my years working in the private sector, I never once was offered those days off (making them functionally "fake").

Presidents' Day is perhaps the only "semi-major" holiday. I've always gotten this day off, but apparently I've always been in the minority. Only about a third of organizations close operations that day—actually a slightly smaller number than on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and one that has declined over the decades.

As for Columbus Day, I consider that a "semi-fake" or "fake-ish" holiday, not only because it's controversial, but because, even when I was a public school student, it was inconsistent year-to-year whether I would get the day off.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What is the next holiday after Presidents' Day?

As with many Americans, my first thought, as I get out of bed that Tuesday morning after Presidents' Day, is always "When is my next holiday off from work?" Indeed, for most workers in the United States, the grim reality is that that Tuesday marks the beginning of the longest gap between any two holidays in the year. From Presidents' Day (or "Washington's Birthday," as the federal holiday is legally designated), which is observed on the third Monday of February, it's not until Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, that most Americans have their next holiday off from work.

If you're a student or educator, there is Spring Break, that week or two off from school that occurs around March to April. Otherwise, you have nothing to look forward to until May.

(On the bright side, Memorial Day is one of what I deem the 6-7 "major" or "real" national holidays in the U.S., meaning that the majority of employed Americans get that day off (or else are paid at a higher rate for coming in). I'll expand upon this tomorrow, but, for reference, Presidents' Day is only a "semi-major" holiday, observed by only roughly a third of employers. If you work in that "other two thirds" ghetto, then you've probably been waiting since New Year's for your next day off. Now that really sucks.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U) (Nintendo, 2012)

New Super Mario Bros. U Cover

Among fans of classic Mario, the never-ending debate has been over whether Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988, 1990) or Super Mario World (1990, 1991) is the greatest 2-D Super Mario game. Those games are both over two decades old, and even as Nintendo has lately returned to the template for its New Super Mario Bros. series, none of the more recent offerings have seriously challenged the classics for all-time status. The most recent iteration, 2012's New Super Mario Bros. U for the Wii U, has a hard time distinguishing itself, because the fundamental gameplay, frankly, offers no substantial improvements upon, or even differences from, that of the original 1985 Super Mario Bros. Of course, none of the 2-D sequels have ever really changed the core platforming mechanics (the anomalous English-language regions' Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988) excluded), and that's a compliment to the design of Shigeru Miyamoto, who so flawlessly nailed the running and jumping physics in that first industry-shaping masterpiece, which still holds up perfectly today, such that there has never been any room for improvement. And the New Super Mario Bros. games exist primarily to feed a nostalgic hunger anyway, so nobody should expect them to innovate in the way that Super Mario 64 (1996) and Super Mario Galaxy (2007) have (the 3-D platformers being the true successors to Super Mario World in the Mario franchise's flagship series).

So, for the most part, New Super Mario Bros. U feels familiar in a good way. The physics are still spot-on, the platforming managing to deliver both functional precision and exhilarating speed. It remains one of the most intuitive designs on consoles, although any moves that have been added to Mario's repertoire—the spin jump from Super Mario World and the ground pound, wall jump, and triple jump from Super Mario 64—immediately stick out and feel forced in there. They have their uses and their moments, but none good enough to alter my opinion that the game would be stronger overall without those elements. I feel the same way about the various Yoshis, and about the one new power-up, the Super Acorn, which transforms Mario into the gliding Flying Squirrel form. I mean, it's exciting whenever you come across them, because they change up the experience, but, in retrospect, I can say that the moments when I had them mostly just felt gimmicky and less fun than the basic Mario experience.

Since there's no improving upon the original Super Mario Bros. mechanics, subsequent 2-D games have distinguished themselves more so by their unique power-ups and level designs. The most interesting power-up in New Super Mario Bros. U is the rarely found Mini Mushroom, originally introduced in the DS New Super Mario Bros. (2006), which makes Mario much smaller and lighter, so that he can perform long, floaty jumps, as well as run across water and even up and down walls. It literally changes the physics of the game and also adds a few fun abilities, without ever feeling cumbersome like Yoshi or Flying Squirrel mode. Still, there's nothing in this game matching the creativity of Super Mario Bros. 3's offerings, which included Tanooki Mario, Frog Mario, Hammer Mario, and Kuribo's Shoe.

As for the level designs of New Super Mario Bros. U, I don't think I can recall even ten truly memorable moments from the game, out of a total of more than 80 courses in the main campaign. The ones that do stand out almost all come from Superstar Road, the bonus ninth world, which is only unlocked after beating Bowser, and, even then, you have to also collect all of the Star Coins from one of the first eight worlds in order to unlock a single Superstar Road course. It's a real shame that Nintendo has chosen to force players to do all that work in order to access these levels, because it means the majority of players will never even get to experience the best parts of the game. These are white-knuckle challenges that cut out the fluff and demand mastery of the distilled platforming basics of running and jumping with exact timing and precision. My favorite course in the game is Superstar Road-2 "Run for It," where the only ground is the coins that you have to turn temporarily into bricks by pressing the P-Switches located at regular intervals throughout the level. It's a manic experience, since you have to run non-stop, and there is no room for error, as you sometimes even have to jump off Paratroopas to get to the next temporary platform.

Besides the Superstar Road levels, most worlds also include a secret course, which, although usually well-hidden, luckily demands nothing additional to unlock. These are also among the more memorable levels in the game, including "Flight of the Para-Beetles" in Soda Jungle, a vertically scrolling stage, where the player has to use the flying Beetle enemies as mobile platforms. These stages are memorable because they are challenging and therefore tend to require several attempts, it's true. But they're challenging in creative ways. The more straightforward levels that make up the bulk of the campaign are pleasant, but there's nothing particularly to recommend them over the essentially identical experience of the original Super Mario Bros. I would much have preferred that New Super Mario Bros. U had included far fewer courses overall, but more with the same level of creativity as the bonus and secret stages.

Structurally, New Super Mario Bros. U is a mix of the best ideas from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Like Super Mario World, there is a single seamless world map, including many secret paths providing shortcuts, but the different worlds also have their own distinct themes (e.g. desert world, ice world, water world, etc.). As in Super Mario Bros. 3, there are Toad Houses, where you can play mini-games to earn power-ups or extra lives, and also enemies patrolling the map, who will initiate short battles when encountered. Brand new to the series is the character of Nabbit, a thief who steals from Toad Houses and then flees to stages the player has already completed. When you return to those stages, you're then given 100 seconds to chase him down, which is usually an enjoyably frenzied experience. The Koopalings and Bowser Jr. return, but, except for the last few, nearly all of the boss and mini-boss fights feel like the same fight. The final Bowser battle is the best in this game, but it's disappointingly straightforward compared to the fantastic finale to New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009).

The one major new feature that New Super Mario Bros. Wii introduced to the series was simultaneous multiplayer for up to four players. The signature feature of that game, it returns in New Super Mario Bros. U and is much the same. Players will definitely get in each other's way, and the game meanwhile provides virtually no means to directly aid your teammates. Even when it's not intentional, it is nevertheless inevitable that players will jump on each other at inopportune moments and end up costing people lives. Still, I would say playing cooperatively with others tends to make the game easier overall, since you can effectively blow through most situations by sheer force of numbers. There are very few obstacles in the game capable of wiping out an entire three or four players at once, and, as long as even one survives, the other players can quickly jump right back in, instead of having to return to the last checkpoint, as someone playing alone would have to upon losing a life. It's also definitely easier to collect Star Coins in multiplayer, since you can often simply jump off each other's heads to reach coins that, in single-player, one would have to skillfully wall jump or glide to reach. It's a nice trick, but it feels kind of like cheating—more a hack than something the designers actually intended. The novelty having worn off with the Wii game, multiplayer feels somewhat tacked on here, as though the game were designed chiefly as a single-player game, and they only tested multiplayer as needed to ensure that it didn't break the entire experience.

Even more tacked on is "Boost Mode," the one feature that takes specific advantage of the Wii U GamePad. Using the touchscreen, you can create temporary platforms or tap enemies to stun them. As with multiplayer, you could probably play through the entire game without ever utilizing this feature, and it would feel like just any other Mario game, but if you do take proper advantage of it, it can make the game considerably easier. The ability to manifest your own platforms at will especially helps with collecting Star Coins, and again it feels kind of like cheating. The worst thing about Boost Mode, though, is that it's implemented as a sort of "fifth player" mode, meaning that, in multiplayer, the player with the Wii U GamePad is relegated to only doing Boost Mode—tapping the touchscreen as some sort of formless guardian angel—while players 1-4, playing with Wii Remotes, are the ones doing the running and jumping as Mario, Luigi, and the Toads. Why can't they just let you control Mario AND Boost Mode with the GamePad in multiplayer? They're fine with letting you play as Mario with the GamePad in single-player, but, once into multiplayer, players 1-4 each need their own Wii Remote, while the GamePad is no longer allowed any functions except Boost Mode. I highly doubt it's a technical issue. Clearly, Nintendo did it this way deliberately to 1) encourage people to buy more Wii Remotes if they want to play multiplayer, or 2) force people to experience the GamePad's unique features (i.e. touchscreen), if they still want to play some form of multiplayer but can't afford to buy more Wii Remotes.

Rounding out the New Super Mario Bros. U package are a number of extra modes, including timed challenges and competitive multiplayer free-for-alls. These are actually not insubstantial and can extend the life of the game considerably, although they don't all accommodate multiplayer, which is kind of a bummer.

New Super Mario Bros. U may not be the absolute best 2-D Super Mario, and it's definitely not the most inspired. Still, the fundamentals are as enjoyable as they are familiar, and I wouldn't ever say no to a new 2-D Super Mario game that I can play cooperatively.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

Veronica Mars Season 1

In anticipation of the March 2014 release of the Veronica Mars film, I decided to finally work my way through all three seasons of the original television series. Considering that I contributed to last year's Kickstarter campaign for the movie, one might suppose I should have liked to know what it was I was handing my money to. I did watch all of the first two seasons during the show's original run on UPN, but it was always a series that I think I wanted to like more than I actually did. I was immediately a fan of Kristen Bell, of course, and I had a particular soft spot for the production, because it was filmed in my home county of San Diego (even if the only location I recognize is the Point Loma area street corner highlighted by the gaudy signs for "venerable" local institutions The World Famous Body Shop and Les Girls).


Still, I never quite understood the cult following for Veronica Mars. It wasn't a genre show, it wasn't really all that offbeat or quirky, and it didn't originally air on cable (not even basic cable). When the Kickstarter went up for the movie, however, I met it with the same sort of sincere enthusiasm as I might greet an old classmate I hadn't heard from in years; although I might never have characterized us as close, nevertheless I was happy for the chance to catch up. I also saw it as a good excuse to give the series another try to see if I would "get it" this time. I'm glad I did.

The Nancy Drew-esque premise of Veronica Mars, about a teenage private eye solving cases mostly revolving around her high school, can prompt snickers from adult viewers, much as it indeed draws skepticism among characters within the show concerning Veronica's qualifications, but the show is a good deal more realistic than, say, Monk or Sherlock, and, more than any other recent story, it seriously rekindled my boyhood dream of one day growing up to become a detective. Unlike a Sherlock Holmes or an Adrian Monk—aloof eccentrics, who solve puzzling mysteries by virtue of some inscrutable genius—Veronica Mars is a detective of the hardboiled variety. She does her own investigative legwork and isn't afraid to get her hands dirty either, routinely bending the rules—trespassing to gather information, blackmailing the corrupt into cooperating, or even occasionally having to taser her way out of a bad situation—to make her case, much to the ire of the local sheriff. The daughter of a professional private eye, she knows some tricks of the trade, and she does have access to a few gadgets and databases that ordinary citizens wouldn't. She's also intelligent, of course, but not inhumanly so, and she can get quite far toward solving a case just through a combination of attentiveness, resourcefulness, and intuition. Sometimes, she'll uncover a lead simply by knowing how to properly use Google to look up people online (the same way I might use Google to hypothetically investigate the background of any new person I meet!). These are the skills and qualities I like to imagine myself possessing, when I daydream about being a detective, and part of the hook of the show is trying to solve the mystery of the week alongside Veronica, and then telling myself that doing so successfully might mean I could do the real thing professionally.

The larger part of Veronica's work, however, and key to her effectiveness, is in how she handles herself as she hits the streets (well, figurative "streets," since this is San Diego we're talking about) to pump people for information. The casting of Kristen Bell in the title role is one of the all-time most perfect pairings of actor to character. It is all but impossible to imagine any other performer bringing creator Rob Thomas's winningly snarky protagonist so fully to life, nor have any of Bell's subsequent roles so tapped into her authentic blend of sass, charm, and unpretentiousness. Bell plays the teenage gumshoe with the necessary toughness to hold her own (and then some) against not only her classmates but often adults as well from the seedier parts of town, who might otherwise dismiss or try to scare her off. Like the detectives of hardboiled films, she narrates episodes with a typically cynical perspective. Even as it is set largely in a high school, the show is legitimately dark. The first episode establishes that Veronica had been roofied and raped prior to the start of the series. Death and murder, which happen with surprising frequency and suddenness, are never glamorized; rather, the crime is always despicable, the fragility of life sadly pathetic. Veronica's very entry into the world of sleuthing is initiated by her need to solve the murder of her best friend, the official investigation into which also tore her parents' marriage apart. Yet, amid all that, Veronica also operates with compassion balancing her sense of justice.

The show is very much carried by the character of Veronica and by Bell's performance, but other characters too are better-written than those you'll find in most teen (or adult) dramas. Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad boy from privilege, rather reminds me of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Like quite a lot of characters on Veronica Mars actually, he has some deeply unsavory, even monstrous traits, and even as he develops into a romantic interest for Veronica, the show never truly backs down from its portrayal of him as, not merely a teenager acting out, but a person whose vile aspects are a real part of who he is. Rather than being either a clear good guy or bad guy, he's just intensely passionate and swings back and forth from being someone you would never want to be associated with to being someone you really want in your corner.

Special mention must also be made of Ryan Hansen's performance in the minor supporting role of Dick Casablancas, Logan's even-more-vile sidekick. This is a character who advocates date rape, among all the other consistently inappropriate and offensive things that come out of his mouth, and, unlike virtually every other regular or recurring character on the show, he never has any redemptive moments. It's hard to defend a character like that—even when I found myself laughing at his jokes, it would fill me with a sort of shame—but, after a while, I came to appreciate how Hansen was always and totally in-character in the role of Dick. He delivers every line with absolute conviction to that character, and he has no "off" episodes. And, even though he's not a true villain, Dick is kind of the "anti-Veronica" of the show—the one nemesis she can never quite verbally overpower, as he instead always comes back and manages to snipe her to a stalemate.

Another great thing about the show is that, although Rob Thomas and team write all the characters to be quite witty, the characters don't sound alike. This isn't one of those shows where every character delivers at the same annoying tempo. Dick, the affluent California hedonist, doesn't talk like Weevil (Francis Capra), the Latino gang leader. And that brings up another noteworthy aspect of Veronica Mars: beyond having just an obligatory racially diverse cast, the show directly incorporates into its plot the class and racial tensions existing within and around a Southern California public high school—one of the few places where the lives of the wealthy white families that own the town might cross with those of the local poor and minorities. This sort of realistic social commentary is distressingly absent from the majority of high school dramas, and probably even less often found in murder mystery shows.

The first two seasons of Veronica Mars feature season-long mysteries, as well as secondary relationship arcs, but the bulk of the show is weekly cases. I enjoyed most of the cases, because I enjoyed following along with Veronica's investigative process, but be warned that these are 22-episode seasons, and the show is not as tightly serialized as the cable shows that are the darlings of today's binge-watching audiences. But the writing in the first season holds up, and the second season, though it initially rehashes some of the first season's business to lesser effect, is eventually even better. It's not something I was able to appreciate back when it first aired (probably because I was working 12-hour days and unable to devote too much brainpower to TV), but I now find the second season to be an extraordinarily well-crafted and complex mystery narrative, labyrinthine in classic noir fashion, yet where almost every thread cleverly converges in a finale that actually adds up perfectly.

Unfortunately, the show rather nosedives in quality with the third season, as the story awkwardly transitions to college (right as UPN transitions to The CW). High school is such a popular setting for television dramas, but, off the top of my head, I can't think of any worthwhile shows about college (never seen Felicity). And even great shows that begin in high school, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, stumble at the college season. Veronica Mars, sadly, doesn't buck that trend. For one thing, it's always contrived whenever all the high school classmates on a show end up at the same college or university, but it's even worse in the case of Veronica Mars, because one of the subplots of the second season is Veronica's determination to get into Stanford, but then, at the beginning of the third season, she's attending the fictional local university instead, and it's never even addressed why the plan changed. The behind-the-scenes reason, one supposes, is so they could keep the rest of the cast together, without having to go the even more ridiculous route of having everyone make it into Stanford. Problem is, the returning supporting characters become all but irrelevant in the third season anyway, so what was it all for? Weevil, the poor Latino character, who wasn't ever headed to college, especially becomes a very sad shadow of his former self, and that highlights the key problem that college is less interesting than high school simply because there is less diversity of social classes at the higher education level.

With the show still struggling to find a wider audience, the producers began (ultimately to no avail) to try different things, so season 3 features two shorter arcs instead of one central mystery, then finishes with a bunch of standalone episodes. The major cases, unlike in the first two seasons, have no deep personal connection to Veronica, and consequently she comes across as more of a jerk, whenever she butts into other people's business. Then there are some episodes of the "very special" variety thrown in toward the end (so, even as the characters are supposed to be progressing to college, the writing regresses to a more juvenile level), including a tie-in with the campaign of San Diego organization Invisible Children. The episode is neither great nor terrible, but if you follow Kristen Bell on Twitter, then you know that she remains Invisible Children's most outspoken celebrity supporter. Lest you think she is merely attaching herself to a visible cause for PR purposes, the origin of the relationship can actually be traced way back to Veronica Mars; Ryan Hansen's wife, Amy, who worked on the show, is sister to the organization's founder, Jason Russell.

You won't find it on the video-on-demand services, but the third season DVD set includes a short "pilot" pitching a fourth season, which would have skipped ahead years to Veronica working as a rookie FBI agent. A "Hail Mary" play to try to save the series from cancellation, the pilot features a different aesthetic, different setting, and different characters. It's interesting to ponder how a Veronica Mars take on the FBI might have stood apart from all the police procedurals that have been produced about characters in the agency, but I'm kind of glad that that fourth season never came to pass, and that the film will be going in a different direction and bringing back the original cast. A lot of Veronica's appeal in the first two seasons is in how she operates as a maverick in service to "the little guy"—her peers and herself—who can't depend on local law enforcement for justice. I don't know that I'd really want to see her working within the system and assigned to the same sorts of criminal cases that we see on every other show.

The first two seasons of Veronica Mars easily rank as the greatest series in the history of the UPN television network (yes, I'd rank them ahead of the UPN seasons of Buffy). Although I don't know, based on the disappointing third season, how many more times we can buy Veronica getting pulled into solving a deeply personal whodunit, I hope they can deliver at least one more good one for the movie.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, 2013)


Frozen isn't quite up there with the magic of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992)—we're not yet back to the days of a single Disney movie meriting multiple "Best Original Song" Academy Award nominations—but it is by far Disney's best animated musical since its Renaissance, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez's "Let It Go," performed by Idina Menzel, should be a deserved lock for the Oscar. The film may be loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Snow Queen (1845), which Disney had been trying to adapt for decades, but Frozen feels almost a project that grew out from around this one song as much as the song itself was composed specifically with Idina Menzel's vocal range and performance ability in mind. As Menzel belts out lyrics like "I don't care what they're going to say" and "Here I stand in the light of day," the soaring anthem to proud, even defiant self-affirmation is an instant classic, yet one keenly conscious of today's audiences and concerns, and it sounds destined to conquer Broadway.

Frozen's other theme song, "For the First Time in Forever," is rather generic—derivative of, but inferior to, past wide-eyed classics, such as "Part of Your World" (The Little Mermaid, 1989) and "A Whole New World" (Aladdin, 1992). Nevertheless, it's instantly hummable, and Kristen Bell, most often associated with a more ironic acting style and off-screen personality, sings impressively and with surprising warmth. The reprise, actually sung in counterpoint with Menzel joining Bell, is another high point in the soundtrack and in the film. Meanwhile, the comedic number "In Summer" features in probably the best musical sequence in the movie—a hilariously absurd and dynamic cartoon daydream. "Fixer Upper" has some irritatingly infectious verses, though I felt it was oddly situated—a lighthearted group number sung by the movie's most underdeveloped characters right as the story rounds its final turn toward the more serious—and probably should have been left as an outtake. The remaining songs are more forgettable and unlikely to achieve any kind of longevity beyond the immediate context of the film.

Songs aside, Frozen confidently points toward a return to Disney's glory days with massive box office, renewed cultural relevance, and a story that is grand, enchanting, and fun. For a good decade there, following 1999's Tarzan, Disney actually seemed tentative about trying to live up to its own animated epics, and so it entered into a phase marked by lighter and/or more experimental fare that, although generally well-received, never captivated imaginations on the same scale as it had during its '90s heyday. 2009's The Princess and the Frog, Disney's first calculated effort to reclaim its animation throne with another princess musical, was a good movie, but commercially it lagged behind CG productions from Pixar, Dreamworks, Fox, and even Sony. They took another stab at it with 2010's Tangled, which performed much better while also coming across more conservative, less ambitious—a charming but slight film.

Like Tangled, Frozen is another CG princess musical, but it is better in every way. The cast of characters is much stronger, the story is more engrossing, and it possesses far more distinct a visual identity among the glut of CG-animated pictures in theaters these days. Where the animation stands relative to the hand-drawn films of the past is difficult to quantify. The different techniques inform different stylistic choices which, in turn, produce different effects on the viewer. The great images of the traditionally animated classics, such as Sleeping Beauty (1959), as well as of mixed works like Beauty and the Beast, affect and arrest one in the manner of a remarkable painting. Frozen, which commits itself to a fully three-dimensional look (as opposed to using computer animation in service of a still 2-D look, a la Beauty and the Beast), is maybe more comparable to sculpture, although, much more so than modeling the characters, most of the artistry here seems invested toward the production design—in this case, the splendid castles and majestic winter landscape—and the viewer appreciates it accordingly more for its spaces than its images. I do find it less opulent and less striking than Disney's traditionally animated films of the '90s (and also more minimalist than contemporary Pixar films), which is the main reason why I still can't regard the film as a whole as on that same magical level. The "Let It Go" sequence, for instance, I found to be disappointingly sparse and, ironically, flat, compared to any of the signature sequences from the Renaissance era, or even compared to The Princess and the Frog. That is not to say, however, that Frozen is without great images of its own. The climactic shot of the two sisters is truly gorgeous—framing, poses, costuming, use of color—it's just masterfully done.

Frozen's weakest aspect is its story, which is on the conventional side, even though at times it seems to promise more. The character of Elsa, based on the originally villainous Snow Queen from the Hans Christian Anderson tale, is potentially one of the more compelling heroines in Disney's canon. She gets the best song, obviously, and her ice powers also make her, no pun intended, much cooler than her sister, Anna (or pretty much any Disney princess ever). If you were to poll a bunch of young children—girls AND boys—you would find that Elsa is by far the most popular character in the movie—the one whose toy the kids want. So it's disappointing that, for long stretches of the story, she's consigned to play the classic damsel role, a la Snow White or Princess Aurora—maybe not always in distress, but nevertheless presumably literally waiting around off-camera and doing nothing while less interesting characters journey to meet her.

If it's not quite in that highest echelon alongside the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Frozen is nevertheless Disney's best animated feature in over a decade—a movie that, at the very least, reminds viewers of the studio's great epics, and both restores confidence and whets the appetite for Disney's next animated musical.