Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Competitive Whining, Family Style

I slept at my mom's last night. Here are the very first words spoken this morning (no exaggeration):

Mom: I couldn't get to sleep at all last night.
Me: I have these small pains on the outsides of both ears, here and here.
Mom: Part of my tooth fell off while I was eating matzoh this morning.
Me: ... My right arm just fell off of my body.
Mom: I bet the dentist is closed today because it's Passover, too.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mini Vacation with Tal and Saarya

Tal and Saarya and I have returned from our annual Pre-Passover mini-vacation.

We go before Passover because a) it's still "off-season", so it's cheap, b) it avoids the Passover crowds, c) it's the perfect time of year for hiking in Israel, and d) it forces us to have our apt ready for Passover early, but allows us to go into Passover feeling refreshed rather than post-cleaning frazzled (at least in theory). The problems are a) it forces us to have our apt ready for Passover early, b) we sometimes hit the holiday of some other religion (such as Druze), and c) not everything is open before Passover (e.g. certain swimming pools and attractions).

Each year we stay somewhere different. This year we stayed at Rothschild Guest Hospitality (a strange name), which is a simple place to sleep on Kibbutz Hagoshrim on the Dan river. The owner is nice, the place is clean, comfortable, simple, and really inexpensive, though it comes with no breakfast. It's situated in the beauty of nature, surrounded by fruit trees and flowers.

Kibbutz Hagoshrim has a popular rafting business that was one of the highlights of our trip. Really lovely and ideal, though we couldn't get the raft to stay straight; it kept spinning around. The kibbutz is within hiking or driving distance of several entrances to the Dan, Snir, or other tributaries, but it contains within it the most beautiful short walk I've ever done in Israel, right below the hotel (the most beautiful long walk is the Tel Dan Nature Reserve). It descends into this fairy forest tunnel of bamboo, pine, and wood-slatted bridges criss-crossing over a stream. The earthy feel and smell reminded me of hiking in Scotland. The kibbutz has other amenities, such as a pool, a bar, a restaurant, paintball, some kind of flying activity, a gallery, min-zoo, etc, etc.

There is a hotel on the kibbutz in which you can eat your meals, but we self-catered from Supersol and a prepared food place in Kiryat Shmoneh called Tadmit (good food, although heavy). Unfortunately, we didn't take pictures: couldn't bring a camera with us on the raft, and then it was shabbat.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Reviews

Divergent

I tried, I really did. I couldn't finish it. I got about halfway through. This movie is Boring. I didn't read the book; I suspect that those who have read the book (if the book is better) might find it watchable and even enjoy it.

A girl Tris (Shailene Woodley) in a future walled-in Chicago, where everyone is forced to choose one of five "factions" for the rest of their life's work/society, chooses one faction even though she is judged to be capable of fitting into three of them (a "rare" trait, called "divergent"). The faction she chooses requires her to do physical combat training.

The first big problem is the complete lack of anything resembling tension. The movie presents itself as a dystopia with bleak camera shots, drab scenery, drab clothing, unsmiling heroine, etc ala The Hunger Games. But THG has a plot with tension: three-dimensional characters, hunger, poverty, war, a cast of enemies, the prospect of children killing each other yet the desire to avoid killing, and a real love triangle; this movie has none of that. Society seems to be working fine, nobody has problems, nobody is in love. The main characters jump on and off of trains, and some self-imposed leader tries to scare the recruits, but there doesn't seem to be a reason for it, or for caring about it.

The second big problem is how little sense there is in the setup. At least for humans. A) The five factions are not a sufficient number of factions for a real world to function. One of the factions (truthful people) doesn't even make sense (the people who tell the truth are lawyers (ha!)). Who builds the houses and takes out the trash? B) It makes no sense that human can be assigned into factions. Real humans are multi-talented, as are, apparently, all of the characters in the movie. And everyone gets to choose whatever faction they want, regardless of in which faction they were raised and regardless of what their test results were. Maybe it's all allegorical about how society boxes us into roles, but they get to choose! And the choice is free for anyone to make! The main character and some others are "divergent" but surely EVERY human would be divergent. What is this supposed to be solving? C) Why are the divergent people, who are obviously the MOST talented, the underclass? Why is there an underclass at all? D) What the heck is happening in the rest of the country while this going on in Chicago?

During the first hour of the movie there is dramatic music, dramatic camerawork, sudden tests of character, all of which has no dramatic tension and seems to serve no purpose. There's no particular plot, goal, or direction to the movie, other than Tris' trying to survive a series of basic training tests. I hear that there is a plot at the end of the movie, but I wasn't interested enough to make it there.

The LEGO Movie

This movie sounded like it would be a crappy commercial but turned out to be as smart and enjoyable as any Pixar film, with the same kind of snarky humor, characters, and action. LEGO's licenses allowed a slew of characters from other franchises to be added and skewed at the same time. Lots of LEGO in-jokes.

The visuals, all of which are made from LEGO pieces, even the explosions and water, are ubergeek cool. The end - which puts the entire movie into a new perspective - is a nice twist, though the movie's message is hardly original. While it doesn't cover any new ground in the movie-making industry, it's good entertainment.

Stage Beauty

This movie, loosely sourcing real events and people, is set about 50 years later than  Shakespeare in Love, at the very moment before and after women are allowed to perform on stage in post-Elizabethan England. This change spells the possible end of the career for male actors who specialized in playing women on stage.

The movie has a certain gloom and depressing atmosphere. While SiL was about the grand sweep and majesty of the stage and the eccentricity of Shakespeare, this movie is about two people (the male actor (Billy Crudup) who used to play women and the woman (Claire Danes) who once served him but is now going to replace him) trying to find their way with and around each other. It's nice, the story is dramatic and slightly romantic, but it's not spectacular.

Stuck in Love

This is one of those quirky, intelligent movies that are my cinema bread and butter. While not breaking any new cinematic ground, the acting and scenery are nice, the characters are beautiful and adorable, and the script is filled with literature.

Three writers - the father (Greg Kinnear) pining after his wife (Jennifer Connelly) who left him, the daughter (Lily Collins) about to publish her own novel, and the son (Nat Wolff) who needs some more life experiences in order to generate material for his own writing  - experience the joys and frustrations of relationships. The general plot is pure romcom; the only question is which relationships will end happily and which ones won't. For those that like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they like.

Has a great soundtrack, too.

Saving Mr Banks

A good movie, but by no means a great movie - it was actually a letdown, considering the two awesome leads (Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson).

It's the story of Walt Disney overseeing the creation of (the songs of) Mary Poppins while in the presence of continuous disapproval from the author P.L. Travers (who only agrees to give it a shot because she is short on cash), interspersed with flashbacks about the childhood of Mrs. Travers. The flashbacks reveal that Mary Poppins was a serious creation for a troubled girl with an alcoholic father, which lends some insight into the disapproval she feels while watching Mary turned into a comic adaptation with nonsense words and dancing animated penguins.

Like Shakespeare in Love, much of the enjoyment of the film comes from the bits and pieces of the work in development (i.e. hearing the songs of Mary Poppins); leave those out and the movie is simply ok. Travers is unhappy, Disney tries to be patient. According to Wikipedia, the real-life result wasn't so happy: Disney tricked Travers; she hated the movie and she vowed never to work with him again. In the movie, the ending is far more pablum.

Your Sister's Sister

Another romcom; the characters aren't quirky, but the situation is. A guy (Mark Duplass) who lost his brother is sent by his best (platonic) girlfriend (Emily Blunt) to a cabin on a lake for quiet time, only to find his friend's lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) is using it for her own quiet time. A bottle of tequila and one thing leads to another. And then the platonic girlfriend shows up.

It all sounds straightforward, but actions and interactions that happen in the first half are gradually revealed to have ulterior motives as the dialogue progresses. It all functions more as a play than a movie. The best aspect is the delivery, which is incredibly good; lines and sentences are spoken so naturally that they seem to emerge from the characters themselves, and not from a script (indeed, some of the dialog was improvised). Movies that achieve this have a way of involving the viewer in their scenes.

The denouement is not particularly strong, nor surprising, which is a pity. Worth watching.

The Spectacular Now

This movie starts as a good movie and gradually gets great. Sutter (Miles Teller) is a high-school party guy who drinks a lot, but his friends think he's a joke, his girlfriend dumps him because she wants more, and he wakes up passed out on a lawn to a friendly-faced girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley) from his class.

Unlike every college movie you know, there are no "standard types" in this movie. The party scene isn't a wild party with everyone having a good time, it's just a party. The same goes for the prom, the classes, graduation, the fight scene, the sex scene, etc. There are no ultra-bitches or bros here (actually, maybe all of the kids are a little too good). Sutter has a drinking problem that is front and center in the movie, but it's not dealt with in a spectacular confrontational scene.

What we have, instead, is the best portrayal of a transformation I think I've seen in a long time. Sutter starts the movie one way and very carefully, gradually, and painfully learns something about himself. The movie strays briefly into some emotional and relationship territory that I have never seen covered in other movies. The only "type" might be Aimee, the good girlfriend, but she is so fetching and played so well that it is hard to get upset about it. The acting is superb and the movie makes sense and means something.

I was trying to figure out what other movie Shailene was in until I realized that it was Divergent.

Temple Grandin

A tour-de-force performance from Claire Danes in the true story of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who (together with her mother's love and support) fought a woefully inept and dangerous medical establishment, society at large, and a male-dominated sexist old-boys' cattle industry to become a transformative force in ranching. Temple's story is amazing in its own right; Danes' portrayal is astounding.

The screenplay brings it all together with the essential stories of Temple's struggles through college and the development of her ideas for more humane treatment of animals (good for the cows, and good for business). The story is a bit scattered, but ultimately comes together. It's not too maudlin; the discovery and implementation is told simply and cleanly. Captivating.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

2013 Game Industry Survey Questions Online Now

The tabletop game industry includes companies as diverse as museums, box manufacturers, and advertising agencies, as well as major publishers and retailers. If your company makes or sells (or helps to make or sell or play) even one tabletop game for profit, we're interested.


Unlike previous years, Purple Pawn's fourth annual tabletop game industry survey is available online! The survey asks you, on behalf of your company, to answer a few simple questions about your company and what it experienced in 2013. RESPONSES ARE OPTIONAL. Answers will be aggregated and summarized, and provided to the public for free on Purple Pawn's website.
NO INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR COMPANY IS INCLUDED IN THE SURVEY RESULTS. The results include only aggregate information and do not specify ANY company or personal information. WE DO NOT SELL OR PROVIDE ANY COMPANY-SPECIFIC INFORMATION TO ANYONE. OUR COMPANY DATABASE, INCLUDING ALL CONTACT INFORMATION, IS NOT FOR SALE.
Past survey results: 201020112012
Click here to take the 2013 survey.
This survey will end on March 22 (update: extended to March 31). Results will be posted about a week after.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Idiotic Flap about Flappy Bird

Outside of moral considerations[1], a game can't be good or bad. Only a "game experience" can be good or bad. I would be among the first to say that different games are likely to be better or worse at providing good game experiences for a particular audience at a particular time.

I wouldn't enjoy a roll-and-move game about Powerpuff Girls with no player decisions on almost any occasion. Noone would enjoy playing it 24 hours a day for the rest of their life. But for SOME people (young children, PPG fans, drunk people) on SOME occasions (have never played the game before, slumber party, drinking party) a roll-and-move PPG game will provide a good - even great - game experience. Maybe there exists other games that - for the same people and on the same occasions - would produce as good an experience, or an even better one. But that is beside the point.

I understand people who don't like a game or encourage people to play different games. But some of the comments - from supposedly respected sources - about Flappy Bird are just stupid. Kotaku actually called the game a "terrible game". A game that was being played happily - frustratingly - by millions of people. Commenters on Kotaku's post exhort people to stop playing the game and journalists to stop writing about the game.

Think about that for a minute. People should stop enjoying a wildly popular game because the game Isn't Enjoyable? The designer should be shunned for creating a wildly popular Bad Game? Other people imply that the game's popularity is a result of deceit on the designer's part, or that he ripped off graphics and mechanics from other games (as if there were millions of different ways to draw a pipe using 8-bit graphics or there were not already millions of other scrolling platformers with similar visual design and mechanics).

Holy camole, Batman. The "wrong kinds" of games shouldn't be tolerated? Games can't be fun unless they take more than the "right amount" of time to make by a big development studio? And they have to provide the right levels, systems, graphics, sounds, and whatever else doodads are in your "design by the numbers" game design manual?

There is no "right kind" of game, because there is no right game. It doesn't matter if the game experience was fun only because of a stupid meme (for example, a game was seen being played by Brad Pitt in a recent movie). It doesn't matter if the game is only fun for two plays and then you're done. It doesn't matter if the game is only fun for certain types of people, or just a few people, or only one person. And it doesn't matter if the game is only popular at a particular moment in time. Want to play it? Fine. Don't? Fine. If you don't like the game, get on with your life, and let the people who like the game get on with theirs.

Even market or monetary success or failure is not proof of a game being good or bad. A game can succeed by accident or because it was published at just the right moment, was played by just the right people, or offers one new challenge that other games don't (as is obviously the case for Flappy Bird). Instead of hating on "undeserved success", try reflecting on the fact that a) life isn't always fair, and b) you could be making something instead of complaining about that.

Also see: Radiator, Polygon, Guardian,

[1] Such as a "game" about rape or murder.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Movie Reviews: American Hustle, The Hobbit 2, Inside Llewyn Davis, Frozen, The Butler, About Time

American Hustle: Loosely based on the real story of trying to catch crooked politicians and mafia people taking bribes in New Jersey in the late 1970s. A couple of crooks are the main characters; they get caught in an FBI sting and are in turn used to set up the bigger fish. The FBI guy who orchestrates this is desperate to make a name for himself.

Technically this is a very good movie: good directing, good acting, and the story is interesting and well done. However, everyone on the screen is a scumbag, which, in my book, is one of the cardinal sins of entertainment (and why, for example, I don't like Game of Thrones). I received no enjoyment from watching anyone win or lose in any scene and I kept turning it off. It took me four attempts to finish watching the movie, and I wish I hadn't. But Jennifer Lawrence is awesome, as usual.

Worth watching if you enjoy movies where all the characters are hopelessly immoral.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: I reviewed the first part of The Hobbit here. This is a middle movie, and as such it has no beginning and no end. The Two Towers also didn't have a beginning or end, and ended on a cliffhanger, but it felt more complete: there were three major battles, and two of them were resolved. Nothing is resolved in this movie.

Like the first Hobbit movie, this movie is not really the story of the book The Hobbit so much as it is the prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies. The story uses a few key locations, people, and sentences from The Hobbit in the movie, but then tells an almost entirely different tale with new characters and action sequences. The movie lived up to the technical achievements and so on of the other four movies.

Other reviewers have lauded this movie for being more exciting than the first Hobbit movie, but the action sequences are so ridiculous as to burst any sense of credibility. I don't mind a three thousand year old elf being a capable jumper and shooter in combat, but it is simply insane to jump from the head of dwarf in a barrel rolling down rapids to another dwarf head in a barrel and so on, without the slightest slip or missing a single shot. It is simply insane for a barrel to bounce out of the water and knock down orc after orc after orc with perfect precision, and - of course - for no harm to come to the dwarf inside. When you can no longer believe whats going on, you become detached from the action.

The sudden and bizarre love story between dwarf and elf, which suddenly occurs in a few minutes, was also ridiculous. And the entire sequence of the dwarves taking on Smaug is the most ridiculous yet. SPOILERS: That every piece of machinery would still be perfectly working after Smaug had been through the mountain for sixty years (or more?) and that it would all be fueled, and that all the gold would be ready to pour, and that there would be a giant dwarf mold ready to use, and that the dragon would be exactly in that spot, and, and, and .. And lastly, that they would think that molten gold would be able to harm Smaug to begin with. Oh please!

Suffice to say I found the story lacking, and the action unbelievable, and that detracted from the movie. It wasn't a REALLY bad movie, but it wasn't really good. You're going to watch it anyway, so it doesn't matter what I write.

Inside Llewyn Davis: From watching their movies, the Coen brothers would appear to be as arrogant as the characters usually played by John Goodman. They don't follow the conventional rules of storytelling, which is not necessarily bad. However, some basic rules always apply. This movie presents us with a character who - apparently - undergoes no transformation; his situation is unchanged. Although he manages at the end to prevent the recurrence of one small, particular minor annoyance, everything else, including his character, is no different. I'm all in favor of movies in which nothing appears to happen, but that's only because big things are happening under the surface. This movie is just a sequence of events.

On the other hand, it's a very well told sequence of events, and the music is lovely. This movie is about one week in the life of a folk singer at the start of the 1960s. He's good, but poor and starving and his singing partner just died. He makes a little money singing at the Gaslight club in NYC. He bums for floor and couch space from friends and has to make a trip to Chicago, but returns to NYC and the Gaslight club in the end.

Perhaps the fact that he prevents the recurrence of that one, small particular annoyance is symbolic of something, but if so I didn't get it. In spite of this letdown, the movie experience was fun and worth watching on the small screen for the great music and the well-directed scenes.

Frozen: The latest from Disney, this follows the story of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen as closely as The Hobbit movie follows the book of The Hobbit. Which is, essentially none. Actually, this story is more like Wicked. When two princesses are small, Elsa has the magical power of casting ice bolts, growing ice crystals, and freezing things at touch. Unfortunately, when she loses her temper or gets scared, she tends to do harm to those around her, including her sister Anna. So she is kept away from people and her power is kept secret, and Anna (who doesn't remember Elsa's power) is kept away from her.

Anna struggles to find out why her sister is so cold to her (ha ha). They grow up, Elsa has a temper tantrum and runs away to avoid hurting anyone, building a big castle in the frozen north (where she can finally be herself, the Ice Queen). Anna goes after her, because Elsa has also inadvertently frozen over the entire country. Can Anna win back Elsa's heart? Can Elsa live among people? Will Elsa hurt Anna? Will Elsa be hunted like a monster? And what of the two handsome men in Anna's life, the prince who woos her one evening and the brave, smart allecky ice seller who helps her find her sister; who will she end up loving?

The movie is very good from the moment AFTER the girls grow up until just before the resolution. The first part of the movie had me bored to tears, with stock little girls rushing reckless into wildness and danger (despite being warned), pablum songs, and pablum advice from a troll ("you must conquer fear!") Blah blah. The middle is interesting. One of the later songs between the sisters reminded me a little of Defying Gravity from Wicked. SPOILERS: The resolution has several problems, including a) the villain doesn't kill the heroine when he has the chance (and apparently the lack of morals) to do so, b) "love" solves everything, though it's hard to see how that works, c) getting rid of ice should not restore to health all the flora and fauna that was frozen under it and the boats that were cracked and sunk by it, and d) the oft-repeated trope of everyone applauding a villain's downfall despite the fact that only the heroine knew he was a villain. What, were they also watching the movie?

Meh.

Lee Daniels' The Butler: This is mostly the story of the black civil disobedience in the south in the 1960s, though it is hung around a) a black boy who grows up in the 1920s to become a butler for several presidents in the white house, and b) his son who takes part in the civil rights demonstrations.

It doesn't add much to the story of civil disobedience and the struggles blacks faced before the Civil Rights Act, but, like many other facts of history, it is a good thing to be reminded of them on a regular basis, and this movie does an ok job of it. The scenes of the white house are ok. The major part of the movie is the relationship between the father and son. The father thinks the best way to make progress is to be civil and subservient, while the son wants to confront oppression by sitting at whites only counters, facing danger, and going to jail. This not only annoys the father because he thinks his son is naive and a troublemaker, but it frightens him because it jeopardizes his job.

It's supposed to feel epic, like Forest Gump, I suppose, but it's not so epic because the important parts are in the 1960s and the denouement, which is handled very nicely. It's worth watching on the small screen, but not the best movie of the year.

About Time: I tried, but I couldn't make it through this movie. I love Rachel McAdams, and I love Bill Nighy. and I like time travel, but the guy in this movie with a superpower (travel back in time to relive life from that point onward) is a jerk and the movie makes no sense. In The Time Traveler's Wife, the guy can't control the power, and his situation is poignant. In Groundhog Day, the guy is initially a jerk but he learns to be a better man. This guy doesn't use his power for anything important; he just selfishly takes advantage of people (it's supposed to be cute) to avoid the jerky things that regularly come out of his mouth or to have sex with a girl multiple times. Ok, ok, on rare occasions he tries to help a family member, but he's still a jerk.

Worse is that the time travel "rules", which should at least provide a proper framework around which to tell the story, are broken whenever the scriptwriter feels like it, which is glaringly Bad Writing. He's not supposed to be able to move forward in time, women aren't supposed to be able to travel in time (and he shouldn't be able to "bring someone" with him), and he always travels back in time and then walks out of a closet, when he wasn't originally in the closet at those points in time. And what about his age? How old is he when he travels back in time? The whole thing is a mess.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

New Tichu Converts

I successfully taught Lisa's son and daughter how to play Tichu. The son is a gamer, the daughter is generally not. Tal and I, two experienced hands, played against the two of them. It was a slaughter, as in they slaughtered us.

I had two good hands out of about eight. The first hand was fine, but we didn't count it because they didn't have the rules down yet (one of them tried to use a standard straight as a bomb). On the six or so hands after that they gained on every hand, including making Tichus, until the score was something like 735 to 165 against us. I had nothing resembling a Tichu on any of the hands. Finally I had a good hand and called Grand Tichu (phoenix, 2 aces, 2 kings, a queen, a jack and a 7). I didn't make it, because the daughter had the dragon to get in, a sequence of five pairs, and then a triple to exit. So even though our team netted 105 of the points on that round, we still lost the round.

The good thing to come out of it was that they both loved the game, which is often helped by winning on your first play. The next day they in turn taught two of their friends how to play, and the scores were much closer.