Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Segways and Sakharof

Yesterday I rode up and down the beautiful Tel Aviv coast on a Segway. Now that I've been on one, it has given me new sensitivity to the plight of the less fortunate non-Segway riding population in our midst. I feel for you poor unfortunate souls, and I encourage you to remember that there are still valuable roles in society that your kind of people can fill. Fixing Segways, for example, or leveling roads and clearing away the debris from in front of my Segway.
Me (trenchcoat) and coworkers at Shlomo Lahat Promenade in Tel Aviv

If you want to know what it's like to ride a Segway, just imagine it: it's pretty much just like that, except less bikini-babes (what's wrong with you?) and you can't do jumping tricks with it like you can on a bicycle. You get to high-five random strangers as you float above them, however. After a minute with my robotic extension, I knew that returning to my previous human powered ambulatory legged-life was going to be a letdown, a momentum remundanity. Sheesh, I have to walk? This sucks.

We didn't do much other than ride up and down Tel Aviv's main coast, but the sun was shining, the waves were high, and the rocky promenade was gorgeous. It got chilly.

Sunday evening I had food and drink at Jem's beer factory, one of a number of new Israeli micro-breweries. This one was co-founded by a guy in my synagogue, but he wasn't around for me to greet. The evening's entertainment was an intimate performance by Berry Sakharof, whose name I was not familiar with but whose songs I knew from the radio. There's nothing like a professional performer closeup. Unfortunately, it's not my usual musical style; I would have enjoyed it more with either my daughter or step-daughter, who are familiar with him and Israeli music in general, to enjoy it with me.

Berry Sakharof at Jem's microbrewery in Petach Tikveh
That's two work-related outings in a week, which is two more than typical.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Session Reports; Movie Reviews: Hugo, The Tree of Life

Raanana session report (me, Ellis): Ticket to Ride Card Game, Steam

Jerusalem session report (Nadine): Endeavor, It's Alive

Movie reviews:

Hugo: A sweet movie about a French orphan boy that intersects lightly with the vaguely true early twentieth century story of the filmmaker Georges Méliès. Hugo is left to wander the crawl spaces of a French train station, passing his time winding the clocks (a job supposed to be done by his neglectful uncle who has disappeared) and trying to complete the automaton his father salvaged from a museum and was trying to fix before he died. Hugo is missing a heart shaped key for the automaton, and, wouldn't you know, it turns up around the neck of a cute girl his age who takes an interest in him. The girl is the granddaughter of a grouchy but sad watch and toy seller who takes Hugo's sketchbook on the automaton after catching Hugo stealing parts from his shop. There's more to this grouchy man than meets the eye. Meanwhile, a wily buffoon of a French station inspector parody is out to nab wandering orphans (to send them to the orphanage) in between shyly courting a pretty flower girl in the station.

Somehow everyone and everything magically fits together in the exact way that things don't in real life. But this is the magic of movies, eh?

The story is sweet, as I said, and lovers of cinema and steam-punk especially will love the movie. The automaton in the movie is actually based on three real automata that were built in the 1700s, which were actually incredible. The only thing I really didn't like was the score: the entire first half of the movie and much of the second is scored with that light French accordion music that is supposed to evoke period and romance, but which I find grating.

The Tree of Life: A movie that everyone either loves or hates with a passion. This is an art film, rather similar to the art films of the 60s or 70s, where there is little in the way of plot, the main flow (such as it is) is inter-cut with shots of the universe, nature, or life, and whispered voice-overs pound home existential questions or sharp emotions. The first part of the film is impressions of a happy 50s childhood - loving mom and some children - followed by the news that one of the kids died at age 19, followed by one of the other kids - now a man in his 50s - reflecting back on his childhood. The second part, the largest of the inter-cut segments, is about 25 minutes of evocative astronomical and biological film that roughly traces the origin of the universe, the Earth, and life. The third and largest part is more scenes from childhood, this time giving you the love-hate relationship that the boy had with his father and some other family dynamics. The last part is a surreal walk through the sand with various characters past and present affecting some kind of relationship, or not. At the end we flash back to the present and the man in his office.

Is it good? Obviously this depends on what kind of movie you want to see, how familiar you are with the art movies of the 60s and 70s, and how much you can take of pretension mixed with beautiful visuals and nostalgia. Yes, it's good. If for no other reason that the filmmaker tried to do something a little unusual, which should be applauded. In the case of The Artist, another highly stylized movie from last year, take away the beautiful style and you're left with some great acting but a mediocre rehashed plot. In this film, take away the beautiful style and you're left with some very evocative film-making. The scenes of fifties childhood are poignant and painful. Honestly, the second part (the evolution of the universe) didn't do much for me, and I count myself among those who don't see its point. The rest was captivating.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

10 More Movie Reviews

Game Change: Game Change joins the ranks of unnecessary made-for-TV movies about contemporary political events. Today, every public move and speech by a political figure is already on YouTube, individually or in compilation. We can hope to gain from a movie like this insight or revelation about their private life, behind-the-scenes; Game Change gives us some of this, but it's hard to know how seriously to take it since it's all one person's point of view (it's based on a book about the experience, but based on the experience).

This is the story of Sarah Palin's move from obscure Alaskan governor onto the national stage, the controversy and ridicule that attended her apparent lack of preparation and knowledge, and her eventual shift toward independence. The movie paints Sarah as truly ignorant and incapable, just as the left supposed her to be, while also humanizing her as deeply hurt by the mockery she endures for it. She was apparently well-loved in her home state; it's hard to understand how a governor could be as absurdly ignorant and incapable as this movie portrays; then again, it was just as hard to understand it in real life.

Julianne Moore is very good and very Sarah-like, of course, while Ed Harris is not very McCain-like at all. The rest of the people were unknown to me, so I couldn't say if they were accurately depicted. What I can say is that investigative journalism would have served us much better than this movie, and have been just as interesting and entertaining. Don't go out of your way.

The Descendants: Yet another in a series of George Clooney set pieces (Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, The American) with a simple story and little in the way of anything important to say. These films are entertaining, well-acted, and even artful and thoughtful. But at the end of each one I thought, "That's it?" They're like TV dramas.

George plays a guy returning to his family on Hawaii to deal with his wife who was in a boat accident and is now in a coma and to settle the immanent sale of a piece of family property. There is a little surprise early on, but none by the end. The eldest daughter is a movie-cliche: our first scene with her is "Miss Rebel", drugged up, sexed up, and rebellious, but this first scene is used only as a foil for the main character; for the rest of the movie she's the dutiful tag-along daughter and her rebellion is apparently forgotten. George is in fine form, as usual. Worth watching on an airplane ride. The score will make you fall in love with Hawaiian music.

The Decoy Bride: A small, low-budget Scottish-made formulaic sitcom, cute as these local low-budget movies tend to be. Famous bride and groom escape to Scotland to try to hold a wedding away from the press, and a local pretty but down-on-her-luck girl is used as a "decoy" bride to deceive the press. She ends up spending a lot of time with the groom, arguing with him (she thinks he's stuck up, he thinks she's low brow), etc, etc. Works, but barely.

Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen cannot cast anyone but himself as a protagonist in his movies, even when it's not him. Owen Wilson plays ... Woody Allen in Paris, trying to write a book while his rich pretentious fiance, her friends, and his soon-to-be in-laws make plans and go shopping and touring. While wandering Paris late at night, he catches a midnight car that takes him back into the early twenties and into conversation with his favorite famous authors ... not the authors, actually, but people with the names of famous authors who act like the books they wrote: a Hemingway who acts like a Hemingway novel, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, etc. This happens every night, while serving as a muse and revelatory process for him.

It's not a grand sweeping movie like some of his major movies, and we're all tired of Woody as protagonist. It's pretty clear where his relationship with his fiance and her pretentious friends is headed. But it's still fun to watch the caricatures on the way. It's best if you know at least something of the people being caricatured.

My Week with Marilyn: The story of Marylin Monroe's shoot in England with Laurence Olivier, which was a disaster from beginning to end - apparently Marylin couldn't act worth a damn, was always late for shooting, and suffered from a severe (and justified) lack of self-confidence, and Olivier was so appalled that he blew up constantly and wouldn't shoot movies again for a long period after. The story actually focuses on one of the minor directors (the "Third") involved with the shoot, who becomes Marylin's plaything and confidant during the shooting, much to his star-struck bemusement.

Michelle Williams doesn't quite look like Marylin, but she plays what seems to be a near enough approximation. It's fun to see a little behind-the-scenes about people you kind of know about, but again, it's hard to know how much is true. It's a fine movie, in particular Kenneth Branagh as the pateince-tested Olivier.

The Vow: A romantic comedy regarding memory loss with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum. Rachel is fetching as usual. An accident robs Rachel of her memories of her marriage and her flight from her family, returning her brain to the middle of her youth where she was still living with her family and engaged to someone else. And so she is now - again - still in love with this someone else and has no recollection of why she fled her family; her family are overjoyed about this, and the loser is her husband, who struggles between trying to help her get her memories back and having to let her go. Meanwhile, the past may just repeat itself.

This is actually based on a true story. It's well done, nice and romantic, and sweet in the right places. I think this movie continues a pattern of artist wives with hard-working sensitive husbands (c.f. The Time Traveler's Wife also starring McAdams, Ghost, etc)

Young Adult: Charlize Theron plays a formerly popular, now spoiled brat, who graduated high school some time ago and who, when she hears that a formerly popular high-school buddy has had a new baby, decides that what she needs in her life is him. So she goes back to her home town to destroy his marriage and win him over.

Having described the plot, I can't tell you if there's much more to the movie than you can get from the synopsis on IMDB. I read it because I got bored about half-way through the movie, as there was nobody to root for and not very engaging.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Hugo Morris Lessmore: This short won an Oscar for short animation; the link is to the entire movie on YouTube. Do you remember the opening montage scenes from Up? It's a little like that, but without the woman. It's a silent film, beautifully crafted.

Inception: I resisted watching this for some time because I'm tired of movies that suddenly reveal to you that what you thought was reality was actually a dream (within a dream). Dreamscape said all there was to say about this, or perhaps Waking Life, or any horror movie ever written.

Which is why I thought the beginning of the movie was boring. To my happy surprise, there is none of that nonsense in the rest of the movie, which, assuming you can follow it, let's us know in exactly what level of dreaming we are at all times. I admit that I cheated: I read the excellent synopsis on IMDB first, and thus found it very easy to follow the story. And what a fantastic story and movie it is.

It borrows some elements from other movies: Dreamscape, assembling the team scenes from Ocean's 11, coming to term with your wife's loss from just about any movie dealing with the subject. But most of the movie, and the way it's assembled, breaks new ground. The film is tight, the acting superb, the cinematography perfect. This ranks up with the best sci-fi movies of all time.

Withnail & I: This 1987 black comedy is widely regarded as a cult classic in Britain. It's the story of starving actors waiting for some good calls to come in, disgusted with life, and disgusting in habits, who head out to a vacation home of one an uncle for a change of scenery. Of course, they can't escape themselves, their poverty, nor their flagrantly gay uncle.

It's nearly all pointless and plot-less, and filled with what the British confusingly consider to be funny scenes, such as being disgusted, being disgusting, and being pursued by a pathetic middle-aged gay and portly uncle in the middle of the night. For all that, it's wonderfully acted and contains quotable lines nearly every minute. I didn't consider it entertainment, exactly, but it was interesting. More theater than movie material.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Shabbat Gaming

Eitan and Emily joined me for shabbat, which was nice.

Friday night I had a family over as well, and they had some sharp teenagers. It is now typical for Anglo teens to have heard of or played a few decent games - Settlers, Ticket to Ride, Tigris and Euphrates - at least in the communities I've seen. Which is odd because the games are only available in Israel in a few select places and even then only Settlers and Blokus. I know a few dozen families that can trace their game playing to me, but I don't know where the rest of them got it from.

After dinner the teens stayed to play RoboRally with us. I don't know who selected it, but we were six people and the teen boy was keen to play it. He really loved it, and he won, too. I'm still not sure how. I proceeded precisely and without interference towards my goals, while he got knocked around and fell into a pit. Only two rounds I didn't get the cards I needed and I rotated in place. But he beat me by one round.

The teen girl had a good time, but she didn't really grok the game strategy and so played (deliberately) random cards for a while. It was amusing, since these didn't do too badly for her. She says that she's better at other types of games.

Saturday I had Abraham and Sarah over for lunch as well. After lunch we played two games.

We started with Through the Desert (some of them said they might have played this once before but didn't remember it). It went well. Sarah and Emily both liked it a lot. Eitan started by cordoning off a large corner of the board without any opposition (16 hexes, plus the tiles in them). I floundered about here and there and everyone, especially Abraham and me, thought I was losing. My saving grace was that I had majorities in two colors; probably because the others forgot about the majority scoring at the end. I came in second with 58, one point behind Abraham.

Eitan then taught me, Abraham, and Sarah how to play Glen More, a game that's on my wishlist. I liked it a lot, and I hope to pick it up. It's a small box game from Alea that plays like a big box game (much like Louis XIV does). The game is build around a rondel, where every step on the rondel had a square building you can acquire, with new buildings replacing the ones taken.

Turn order is "whomever is in last position", so you can skip forward to a newly revealed building if you really want it, but you sacrifice some of your turns to do so. To balance this, you also lose three points for every building you acquire, so every building you take has to net you (on average) three points or more.

The buildings either give you cubes in any one of five colors, let you trade cubes for points or a commodity, give you cards, or give you workers and let you move your workers around. You can only place new buildings near your workers, so you have to keep moving the workers to the edge tiles; you can also move workers off the board. Every time you place a building, you activate the building and each other building touching it (in 8 directions). There are three scoring events, and each gives points based on the number of commodities, cards, and off-the-board workers that you have. Your score is based on the difference between how many of something you have versus the player who has the least of that something.

I concentrated on workers. Eitan got some great interim scoring going, repeatedly placing buildings to net him cubes and them convert them to victory points, so I thought I was losing badly. I ended up snagging a special scoring tile that doubled my points from workers off the board, however, so I made some back. In the end, I came in second place again, two points behind Emily. Abraham tried to take a minimal amount of tiles to avoid the -3/tile effect, but he didn't gain enough points to make that worthwihle.

An interesting game.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Raanana and Jerusalem Session Reports

Ellis in Raanana: Age of Industry

Nadine in Jeruslaem: R-Eco, Alhambra, Lo Ra

Eitan and Emily are coming for shabbat, and Abraham and Sarah will join us for lumch, so expect some games played over the weekend.

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