Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Movie and TV Reviews: Lady Bird, The Post, Molly's Game, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Westworld, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

See all of my movie reviews.

Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig's first outing as a director is a smashing success. I have complicated feelings about Greta, in that I admire her intentions in writing and playing in quirky comedies, such as Frances Ha. However, I felt that her movies were not quite there yet, not quite jelled. The characters were too unrelatable, and the plots too chaotic and off-putting. This is the first one she really gets right.

Christine is a teenager who calls herself "Lady Bird" for no discernible reason. The movie is basically an arc in the life of Christine and her relationship with her mother as she navigates the last year of high school in Sacramento. She makes and loses friends, fights, makes up, and fights with her mother, and tries to get into a college on the East Coast that will get her far away from her family.

I have been a big fan of Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement to Hanna to Brooklyn. She and Laurie Metcalf, as well as the rest of the cast, give perfect performances. If there is any flaw to the movie it is that it could have been more: more sweeping, maybe have another deep relationship arc in addition to the main one. But that's hardly a flaw. Worth watching.

The Post: Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg give us another newspaper drama, this one about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers that broke the story about how a series of US presidents and higher ups were all lying about the Vietnam War, pretending that the US was fighting to liberate South Vietnam when they knew all along that the war could not be won and the real aim was to broadly fight China.

It's a good movie, if not a great one. Roughly on par with other newspaper movies I've seen, including Spotlight and All the President's Men., but with a narrower aim. The main conflicts are a) publish or not? and b) can Streep's female character assert authority at the paper without making a major blunder? Streep plays the owner of the Washington Post, a position she inherited from her late husband, and a woman bullied by her all male board. She is seemingly willing to let them bully her until she finally takes a stand. Hanks plays the chief editor who is pushing to report a story while the government wants to sue them for espionage.

If you happen to draw a parallel between the historic ideals of freedom of press versus a tyrannical, corrupt president and anything happening today it's because we once trumpeted these ideals very clearly. Reality has a bias toward the truth, which any amount of modern obfuscation cannot truly suppress. And it is good not to lose sight of the ideals for which we stand.

Molly's Game: If it's been a while since you've seen a Sorkin picture, you'll find it is like riding a bicycle. You will immediately be expecting to see Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborne walk in from some corner of the screen.

This is the story of a woman who uses some incredible insight, people skills, and brass balls to end up running a high stakes poker game for important celebrities and executives, first on the West Coast and then on the East. The enterprise lasts until the feds and the mafia move in on her. The story is told from a series of flashbacks interspersed with her finding a lawyer and navigating her legal case. It is based on a true story.

Jessica Chastain does a fine job in the lead role. Everyone else does fine, except Kevin Costner who seems out of place as her often distant but high pressuring father. Regardless, it is a Sorkin story, which means witty, clever, entertaining dialog and characters who are ten times brighter and more accomplished than most people you will ever meet. Well crafted with great cinematography.

Goodbye Christopher Robin: The story of A.A. Milne, his wife, and his son Christopher Robin, how the Winnie the Pooh books came to be, and the effect they had on their lives. Spoiler: on the one hand the books are the most successful children's books of all time. On the other hand, they destroyed the life of Christopher Robin and his relationship with his parents. The movie actually gives us a slightly happier ending than the real life events.

Milne's wife is shown to be a bit of a shrew, with just enough redeeming moments to make her two-dimensional, but not really likable. Alan Milne is more sympathetic, although he blatantly and blindly uses his son poorly without much thought. It's all pretty tragic.

It's a decent movie for what it aims to be, somewhere on the same level as Becoming Jane or Miss Potter. It is well acted and lovingly directed and filmed. It tells its story well enough. But it's not a very important story or movie, for all that, and only the falsified, slightly happier ending gives the viewer any kind of comfort.

Westworld (season one): I saw a few episodes of Humans and couldn't get into it. I was a little concerned about the level of violence I heard about in this series (I won't watch Game of Thrones). Somehow, the fact that the violence happens to robots makes it easier to take, although the question remains exactly whether the robots are or are not conscious, so you have to decide that for yourself if the violence is watchable or not.

I am a huge fan of Evan Rachel Wood; she and everyone else do fine jobs. Unlike Humans, the stories are quite captivating, with a number of whodunits and what's going to happen nexts that got me hooked. The stories take place in the facility that creates and maintains the robots, as well as in the play world of Westworld, and they include scenes that occur as flashbacks from the robots' perspective, despite the fact that the robots are not supposed to have memories.

There is nudity, but respectfully done and never gratuitous. The sex scenes are all pretty unsexy.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (season one): The next series from Amy Sherman Palladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads), this one succeeds better than Bunheads did. Bunheads had a few great scenes, but it was too unrestrained in ridiculous plot and ridiculous dialog, which made it hard to relate to. This series only has one Bunheads-style conversation that set my teeth on edge in episode two. Thankfully that was the only one.

Midge is a perfect 1950s Jewish housewife who is supported by her husband and who in turn supports his occasional forays into standup comedy. He's not good at it, and one day he decides that she is not supportive enough of him and he leaves her. She then discovers, albeit reluctantly, that SHE is good at comedy. Cue a lot of denial, drinking binges, and attempts to make a go at standup comedy, all the while continuing to navigate her 1950s Jewish family, neighbors, friends, children, and still husband, all of whom remain blissfully unaware of her secret life as a comedienne.

It's not as good as Gilmore Girls, which had the great triple relationships between the three women, as well as their suitors, husbands, and the funky Connecticut town Stars Hollow as color. The supporting characters here are not as fun, there is no funky community background. But we have a few great scenes with a young Lenny Bruce. The best scenes are the ones where she does her Lenny Bruce style-standup, something which could not really have happened in the time period of the show, and so represents a kind of wish fulfillment on the part of Amy and for the viewers.

Amy's dialog is distinctive, and it's fun to hear. I just wish the show also had a teenage daughter.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Movie Reviews: Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi (spoilers), Battle of the Sexes, Wonder, Coco

See all of my movie reviews.

Battle of the Sexes: It feels like forever since I've seen a movie with real, engaging three-dimensional characters, instead of the one or zero dimensional characters you get in Disney and Marvel movies.

The story starts with some background on Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Riggs is an older former champion tennis player, a sexist but talented socialite, who is having difficulty with his family and looking for a new challenge. King is young and at or near the top in women's tennis, but disgusted that, while women's tennis draws the same ticket sales, the athletes get paid 1/8 what the men do, "because". So she starts her own league. Riggs challenges King to a battle of the sexes.

The trailers for this movie made it seem like Steve Carrell's Bobby Riggs was going to be a caricature of the real Riggs (who was certainly flamboyant). Thank goodness, Carrell, and his screenwriter and director, do a fantastic job in giving us a fully-fledged person that we can care about, even as he is, essentially, the bad guy. So, sucky trailer. Emma Stone does an equally fantastic job as Billie Jean King, as do several of the accessory and side characters, who are fleshed out in full glory (or at least as much as their screen-time allows).

The story lingered perhaps a little too long here and there on some scenes, like the initial haircut scene where she falls for her hairdresser (Carol did a better job with its similar love at first meeting scene). And maybe a little more time could have been added to the story to make it feel like a real epic. But never mind. This was a fun, fine, and satisfying movie to watch.

Wonder: From the trailer I wasn't expecting much for this movie, and in fact wasn't planning to see it at all. It seemed like a straightforward movie about a disfigured boy (Jacob Tremblay) being bullied in school, making and losing friends, and ultimately triumphing. Ho hum. So, once again, sucky, sucky trailer.

That story is, indeed, the backbone of the movie, taking up around 50% of the screen-time; if it was all there was to the movie, the movie would be as expected: not bad, but ultimately nothing special and predictable. But the movie spends the other 50% of its screen-time telling other people's stories, sometimes rolling back the same scene multiple times to view it from different points of view. We spend a lot of time with the sister, but also the mother, the sister's friend, the sister's boyfriend, and two other kids in the boy's class. And all of those stories are better and more original than the main storyline, making the movie so much more than just a story about a bulled boy.

The story is screenwritten by Steve Chbotsky (based on a book by RJ Palacio), the same screenwriter and author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I saw and loved that movie and wanted to read the book afterwards. The same thing happened with this movie: the movie is good, but you can see the left-out parts of the book peeking about here and there, and you really want to get more into depth with the characters.

Yes, the story is still a bit of a tearjerker, sentimental and emotional, but it is also narratively creative with some interesting, less predictable characters and story arcs. The main, predictable arc (basically told in the trailer) is raised up by being interwoven with the other stories, although it, too should have been better. Well worth a see, especially for kids and teens. Note: Chewbacca is in the movie, which makes it a candidate as an entry in the Star Wars canon, in my opinion.

Coco: Coco follows in the tradition of Moana, Brave, and Mulan in presenting not only a story of a hero's journey but a journey that is kickstarted, guided, and resolved in consonance with the literalization of a non-American cultural mythology. And I don't know how I feel about that.

A Mexican boy's (Manuel) family refuses to have anything to do with music because the great-grandfather ran off to become a musician, leaving his wife and child to fend for themselves. Naturally, Manuel wants to be a musician. It is the Day of the Dead, where everyone puts up pictures to the dead in order for the dead spirits to be able to (spiritually) visit, but of course a) there is no picture of the great-grandfather and b) Manuel doesn't want to have anything to do with his family. Manuel's idol is a famous musician, and Manuel learns, by accident, that this famous musician was, in fact, his great-grandfather. To compete in a music contest, Manuel steals a guitar from this musician's shrine and finds himself cursed into the land of the dead. Who are happily visiting the relatives who have posted pictures for them. The ones whose families have not posted pictures of them are unhappy. Manuel needs his dead family's blessing to get back to the real world, but they won't give it to him unless he promises not to pursue music. So he runs off to find the spirit of his great-grandfather.

Many of the themes, including the central theme, are reminiscent of the ones in the other movies I mentioned, and the movie also borrows some narrative elements from Up. It has a lot of "learning moments", which are familiar, and a few nice musical scenes. It leans heavy on appreciating your cultural heritage, by turning mythological aspects into real ones.

Which I find kind of bothersome. When mythology becomes fact, it is no longer a question of faith or practice or choice. While in real life there is no easy answer as to whether choosing to honor or not your dead ancestors makes you a good or bad person, movies like this imply that you have no choice not to believe in your family's traditional stories: If you don't, you are murdering or causing tremendous pain to actual beings who walk, talk, and feel exactly like any other living beings do. I'm not comfortable with that message. A mature individual recognizes that what we do to honor the dead and our traditions has nothing to do with the dead, but is about ourselves, our families, and our communities. Coco is aimed at children, sure, and this is just a children's story. But I thought that this movie was supposed to be sensitive to the cultures it was representing, not trivializing to them. You can't really have it both ways.

There are no glaring flaws with the movie, although a Mexican family rejecting all music for several generations seems a bit of a stretch. The movie is filled with pretty art, colors, and architecture which I presume represent both historical and modern Mexican culture. I'm not sure that modern children will appreciate the music, except the few numbers that are obviously meant to appeal to them. I'm not sure in what time period the movie is supposed to be; it must be modern, but no one has cellphones or computers. Is that normal for a modern, large Mexican town? Anyway, I liked it more than I did Moana, which I found derivative and boring. I'm sure that kids will enjoy it.

Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi: Star Wars once had something that was different from other sci-fi movies and worlds, something precious and important. Unfortunately, the makers of the current movies don't see that. Instead of making Star Wars movies, they are making modern sci-fi movies indistinguishable from other modern sci fi movies, with the iconography of Star Wars. Which is very painful to me. Chris Bateman bemoaned something similar after watching the Star Trek reboot, and I didn't get it, then. I think I get it now.

Update: see the end for thoughts after a second viewing.

The new Star Trek movies, the X-Men movies, the Marvel movies, the Ghost in the Shell remake, the Blade Runner movie, Looper, Valerian, Avatar, DC's movies, and many other sci-fi movies in the last 10 or 15 years  have a vast similarity to each other, in much the same way that all modern Disney, Pixar, and other American animated children's movie have vast similarities to each other. They may have different writers, directors, and casts, but they are all, essentially, dumbed down. The creators of these movies avoid complex messages, plots, and themes, throw in snarky slapstick between action sequences, fill the screen with copious action sequences at nearly the same points in the movie, present emotions and dialog that is one-dimensional and transparently representative of the characters, and hammer you with neat and simplistic moral messages in their denouements that are understandable and suitable for a 4 year old. Family is good. Be brave. Be true to yourself. Be loving to creatures, the natives, and the environment.

Star Wars 4-6 and 1-3 were not like that, at all. Well, okay, they often had one-dimensional emotions and dialog, but otherwise. Star Wars did not have tons of snarky dialog, except for Leia, and hers was not slapstick snark but a very specific kind of frustration snark. A Star Wars movie took itself seriously, because the movie was about space opera and adventure, not about instant entertainment. The message about choosing the good side of the force was given, not saved as a discovery for the end of the movie. The dark side of the force and the light side of the force were about our moral choices: people could contain both of these powers, but choosing light meant - by definition - choosing good, while choosing dark meant choosing to be selfish, and therefore evil. People could be ambiguous, but there were clear moral choices. Heroism was heroism: choose good and act on it. Every movie felt like it was part of a world that extended well before and after the movie: what you were seeing was a small part of a great epic, because the movie took time to show and make you feel time passing: Luke's daily routine on the farm represented years, his efforts on Dagobah months. The force presented an exploration of mysticism, not just firepower or "lifting rocks". The movies were NOT just sci fi movies with cool weapons and critters; they were NOT Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a close movie in structure, but just as far in feel as all the others.

The came The Force Awakens. The Force Awakens struck an iffy balance between Star Wars ala Lucas and modern sci fi movies. It felt, at times, too much like a Marvel movie. It was missing a lot of the feel of the Star Wars epic and the mysticism, it felt less like an epic and more like a sequence of events. But the characters, especially Rey, were compelling and the structure was well done, so I had hope it might move in the right direction after the makers received feedback from the fans.

Here be some spoilers, but nothing major.

This movie felt like a Star Trek movie with bits of Star Wars thrown onto it. For the first 25 minutes of the movie, I was in pain, holding my head in my hands aghast at the vast empty, non-Star Wars feel to the movie. Then we got to Rey and Luke, and it was filled with snarky scenes that were supposed to be funny, and I felt my stomach drop. It was supposed to be funny that Luke casually tossed the light saber over his shoulder? Really? It wasn't funny AT ALL, not only because it wasn't funny, but because it wasn't what Luke would do, even if he were disgusted by the force and everything it stood for. He would throw it away in disgust, perhaps, or at least show some emotional acknowledgement that this was his saber he had lost. Or ask some questions of Rey. Anything! The scene was a disaster, and I began to get a headache.

The main part of the movie is dull, with an hour long chase scene where nothing of consequence happens. Poe and Finn basically accomplish nothing in the entire movie. Instead, the entire enterprise of heroism is called into question, because, as one character puts it, we don't kill what we hate, we save what we love? What??? So heroes aren't heroes? It is implied not only that people can have both dark and light in them, but that dark isn't maybe so evil and light ins't maybe so good! What??? That destroys the entire freakin' metaphor! I don't want another vague morality movie that tells me that morality is relative. I don't want a treatise on how heroes aren't heroes, because they should follow orders. And I don't need a new lecture on how both sides are just as bad, and another on how we shouldn't treat animals badly (seriously, the movie took about twenty minutes of run time to tell us this).

The scene on the casino was a phenomenal waste of time; maybe it was supposed to be funny, but it wasn't, and it wasn't Star Wars funny. Even the pod race in TPM made more sense and had more meaning than this. And then we have a scene with Ren gratuitously without his shirt, a callback to the underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. The whole movie takes place over what? Three days? So no story development. Please repeat after me: a character learning something isn't character development. It's just learning. Marvel characters learn things, too, but that doesn't make them less cartoonish. Development takes introspection, depth, complexity, time, and sensitivity.

So yeah, I had problems. Not only in the first 25 minutes, but many times after.

However .... admittedly after the first 25 minutes, some of the scenes were really great, and even really Star Wars great. The Rey-before-Snope and the lightsaber battle afterwards were beautiful, because of the shifting nature of the alliance and the confusion that the characters felt in the process. And the battle over the salt fields with the red plumes were a beautiful thing to see. I liked the dynamic between Ren and Rey, and the Luke and Ren scene, too. I liked Rose, but I didn't like most of the scenes she was in. I hated the multiple BB-ex-machina scenes, even more than I disliked the C3PO nuisance scenes in ESB.

Seen from the non-Star War perspective, the movie dragged in several scenes in the middle, but it was at least as entertaining as any other modern sci fi movie, and better because of the interesting characters of Rey and Ren. But I despair about the future of the franchise. With the exception of certain threads and scenes, these are not Star Wars movies, and for that I mourn. I like these threads and scenes; I want them to be in better, far different movies.

Also ... more spoilers ...

Callbacks: So many scenes were callbacks to TESB and TRotJ: training the Jedi, including entering the "dark side" cave, Rey giving herself up to Ren to be taken before the emperor and snatching up the lightsaber, and others. The resistance flying head on into the marching first order elephant things. And, admittedly, ESB spent mosy of its time simply chasing after the Millennium Falcon.

Things I didn't have a problem with that others might: The above callbacks. The changes in the force, such as the mindlink and the projection. Yes, it's odd that previous generations of Jedi never did these things, but they seem like the kinds of things that they would do, and I'm cool with that. This includes the water actually traveling through the mindlink and that Luke projected an image was of his younger self.

Other minor problems: If this takes place only days after the last movie, how could the republic and/or first order be in any kind of different state than it was in the last one? What happened to the galaxy? Why do they keep calling them rebels, instead of the resistance? Pick one. Since when do bombs fall in space when you release them? Fall which direction? What happened to Snoke insisting on training Ren? Or Rey? What the hell was Snoke? He shows up larger than life, he seems to be stronger than the emperor, and then he just dies? Why didn't the new admiral Holdo just tell Poe what the plan was, instead of waiting until the evacuation? Why did she wait until nearly everyone was dead before light-speeding her ship into the enemy? If that's a thing, can't you rig a bunch of ships to do that and decimate your enemies more frequently

Update: Having now seen the movie a second time, my thoughts are adjusting a bit. The parts that I disliked the first time I dislike now even more: in particular the comedy and the BB8 scenes, which are as annoying as Jar Jar but take up even more screen time. There is a difference between conversational humor, which I can enjoy, and slapstick humor directed at the audience, which I don't. I'm further down on the arrangement of scenes and the pacing. I don't like any scenes with Hux. I don't like the plot about, or even the idea that, spaceships run out of fuel in this universe. I still don't like how the director taunts the audience by not paying off stories about Rey's parents, Snoke, the R2D2 map, Chewbacca's grief, and other things.

The parts that I liked before I like even more, which is also what happened to me with TFA. However, after the second viewing,  I'm feeling a bit better about the neutral parts of the story. I don't LIKE the story - both the good and the bad guys throw away the past, Finn and Poe are reigned in as heroes instead of being heroic - but I'm okay with that being the story.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

MagicGate: Toxic Misogyny Invades Tabletop Gaming

Tabletop gaming has always had its share of women-hate and male toxicity.

Sexes were historically separated from playing together for thousands of years in order to avoid licentiousness. This was simply an extension of the general separation between the sexes. By the 19th and early 20th century, at least in Europe and the US, the sexes had found ways to mingle by means of parlor games, many of which we would consider overly racy today (a great many of them involved kissing and/or groping, for example).

The last hundred years of tabletop games saw women relegated to "women's divisions" (in Chess, for example), "girls" games (aka pink and/or about makeup and jewelry), or even the kitchen in the belief that they don't have what it takes to play at a man's level. They often don't, if you exclude them from serious training opportunities, exclude them from playing against top players, diminish their desires, goals, and accomplishments, require them to deal with unchecked harassment, and require from them a fanatical devotion to play for endless hours with unwashed, excruciatingly rude, and sexist jerks. Despite this, there are always a few women who are able and willing to complete with many of the top men in any game.

I had hope that in our little corner of the world, harassment would get no worse than that, and hopefully better. While anyone of any sex might get killed playing Dominoes in a Jamaica coffee shop or throwing dice on the streets of Taiwan, tabletop games remain a relatively safe, family-friendly, and gender-mixing activity. Chess, Go, and Bridge have women's divisions, but the majority of their competitions are mixed and relatively safe. Wargaming is a men's club, but it's not toxic to women as far as I know. CCG and RPG events are/were known to attract mostly young male jerks, which scared off some women (see above) but I hadn't thought that these jerks' behavior rose to level of toxicity associated with Gamergate. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Women are not only harassed, but sexually assaulted at these conventions; the organizers and police are often unable or unwilling to help them. Apparently the CCG and RPG players who grew up  in their little boys' club are now adult enough to feel entitled and powerful enough to join the ranks of the male toxics, white nationalists, and "pickup artists", just like the Gamergate folks. And just as in Gamergate, douches post harassing videos and posts claiming that woman who complain about harassment are lying for the attention, as a result of which teeming hordes of similarly minded jerks harass them more, and more seriously. And when called on it, of course, they post endlessly, harassing everyone with why they are right and everyone else is lying and "missing the point". Ho hum, how familiar.

Seems like this behavior is getting worse, not better, and I can think of a few reasons why. I just wish that they didn't infect my hobby.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Movie Reviews: Thor: Ragnorak, Justice League, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Victoria and Abdul

See all my movie reviews.

Thor: Ragnarok: This movie has received heaps of praise, and much of it is for the very things that I hated most about it. And I basically hated this movie.

First off, the plot (spoilers, as if): there isn't one. Thor has to escape from something, then he and Loki get lectured at by their dying immortal father, then their sister shows up and breaks Thor's hammer, then Thor gets caught in some arena, has to fight Hulk for some reason - which is pointless, since they are both indestructible and anyway we all know they won't die. Then they escape, and then Asgard blows up and Thor and the rest of the cast is in a spaceship.

It's not a plot, it's a series of disconnected comedy and battle sequences, with zero tension and not a single character worth a damn. Every hero is going to survive, and even if they don't, there is not a whit of emotional interest if seeing them survive or not (and if they are killed, they'll probably just get resurrected again in the next movie). Hela is so unbeatable, that every fighting scene she was in was a complete waste of screen time: everyone else is beaten, whoop-dy do. Why bother filming it? Loki, the one person who at least had some interesting character in his other movies, is now useless window dressing with almost no character at all. There is only one memorable scene in the movie, and it's the only scene in which Loki displays his old trickster character. It lasts for 30 seconds, and then we're back to an endless blank nothing of emotional involvement.

I honestly don't remember a single line of dialogue outside of "We work together!" and the scene I mentioned above. Was the movie funny? I cracked a smile three times. Admittedly, if I had not seen the trailers, I would have cracked a smile four times. The acting is mostly adequate but unremarkable, and the sets, visuals, directing, and so forth are adequate and unremarkable. There is one pretty scene which would have been enjoyable if it wasn't basically a copy of the scene we saw a few months ago in Wonder Woman. Four cracked smiles are not enough to sustain a movie. There is no tension, and there is nothing and no one to root for. There is no bigger message to learn. There is no real reason for this movie to exist.

There is no explanation as to how Thor's hammer is so easily broken. Thor rips out a hammer shaped piece of plumbing that causes as much damage as his original hammer. Huh? Even after smashing into the Hulk and vice versa, the hammer shows not a single piece of wear. Banner falls hundreds of feet onto a solid surface - without turning into the Hulk - and, rather than dying, the scene is played for laughs (he is unscathed, of course). Thor must have lived for thousands of years, yet he doesn't remember that he is the freaking God of thunder and lightning until he cries like a baby because he does not have his hammer to play with - what a puny god. Any one of these was just freaking insane. But mostly, who cares??? The movie is a bunch of unfunny attempts at insult and slapstick humor and Attack of the Clones levels of emotional dialogue. It's like Deadpool, only I hated Deadpool more because Deadpool was also immoral and visceral, which made me feel sullied. This movie was merely a pathetic waste of time.

Justice League: DC comics follows up a series of boring, gritty, dark, mumbling slugfests - followed by the excellent Wonder Woman - with a return to boring, gritty, dark, mumbling, slugfest. They never learn.

If there was more than 90 seconds of daylight in the movie, I must have missed them. The origin stories are cookie cutter and uninteresting, the characters are one dimensional, at best, and no one has a relationship or seems to care about anyone or anything other than being cool. With the exception of Amy Adams, who has nothing to do but be Superman's girlfriend.

Ezra Miller's Flash takes the role played by Spider-man in the Marvel movies: wisecracking and boyish, but hardly relatable. Gal Gadot continues to be superhuman, but all she gets to do is bash people and make a few encouraging remarks. Henry Cavill as Superman managed to use his tiny screen time to exude a little more personality than the others. The bad guy, the other heroes, and the mcguffin were forgettable.

As were the action scenes. Look, guys, good fight scenes are not ones where lots of people get bashed repeatedly until one of them finally bashes harder and wins, while everyone else walked away un-scarred. Good battle scenes are ones where the bashing is kept in context and a story continues to unfold. Where victory is not finally bashing a lot harder, but where humanity is exhibited, emotional connections are made or rebuffed, and entirely new things come into play (for example, see The Dark Knight). You recent superhero film makers just don't seem to get it; I mean, you make lots of money, so I guess you're fine. But your movies are emotionless shells. They are no better than episodes of superhero TV shows.

Please: give me stories and characters, not beams of light, wisecracks, things going smash, and guys in suits posing. Lots and lots of posing.

This movie was, at least, not terrible or fatally flawed, so it earns its place among the watchable but forgettable of superhero movies.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: This flawed, beautiful movie was incredibly creative and generally fun. It has a simple Avatar-like theme of some peaceful creatures, some big bad bosses, cute creatures, and mystery. It also has two cute main characters who look like they are barely out of their teens (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne). Unfortunately, while they act well, there is not a smidgen of chemistry or fun between them. A major subplot hangs around their emotional relationship, written by someone who has no clue how to write relationships. So, although the characters are not exactly one-dimensional, they are not engaging.

The move is still fun, since the main plot - who is attacking the floating spaceship and why? - works fine. It is so inventive and fresh, you kind of wish that whomever is behind the visuals and the bestiary would have been working for the Star Wars production team. A visual feast full of surprises, directed and shot well.

Victoria and Abdul: This flat biopic introduces a topic but doesn't do much with it. Apparently, Queen Victoria spent some of the end of her life in the presence of some Muslim Indian man who was plucked out of India to perform a meaningless ceremony for her, but whom she came to think of as a teacher, despite his occasionally hiding or omitting certain aspects of the truth from her. Everyone around her hates him because he is Indian, not to mention that he is taking time and attention away from things she should be doing.

Judi Dench is a treasure, of course, but Abdul (Ali Fazal) and everyone else puts in fine performances. Costumes and cinematography are adequate. But it's not really much of a story, and the story that there is is not developed properly. For example, the movie introduces a Chekhov gun by having Abdul tell Victoria about a mango early on in the movie. In the middle of the movie, someone brings her a mango, but it is rotten. I'm not an expert filmmaker, but even I know that somewhere near the end of the movie there needs to be another mango. Either Victoria finally gets to eat a ripe one before she dies, or Abdul returns to India and reflects on a mango tree, thinking of Victoria, or something. But no. We never hear of mangoes again; the thread is simply forgotten.

Other interesting story elements were hiding in the screenplay, but they also never made it out. Victoria and Abdul walk and talk, everyone else threatens them (both), and then it's all over. The main characters' changing feelings towards each other are presented, but not well. I was left feeling hollow.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

2017 Holiday Gift Guide

This guide includes games for young and old, for every sex, generation, temperament, and culture.

Whatever you do, and whatever you celebrate, there is no better way to spend a Christmas, Hanukkah, or what have you than together with friends, family, and neighbors with a warm cup of (fair trade) cocoa and a stack of casual board and/or card games.

Remember that the most valuable gift you can give is time. Don't just give your loved ones a game; play it with them. Find or start a local game group and join or form a community.

I hope you enjoy the guide. Remember: the holidays are not only for sharing the warmth with family and friends, but also for sharing with those who have no one else to share with them. Give to your local shelters, hospitals, and so on, because that's the gift that keeps on giving.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 10"

Tablets are perfect platforms for playing thousands of face to face games for two to four players. Because you don't need to buy the physical components, you can stack all your games in a teeny space, the games (if not the tablet) cost very little, and you don't have to cut down old trees to make them or use fossil fuels to ship them. Tablets have their own environmental impact in their making, so that's a trade off; but if you're getting one anyway, most of the games on this list are available electronically.

Nowadays, most games are also available on consoles, too.
7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players

This is a game of drafting cards and building a wondrous city. You get a hand of cards; pick one and pass the rest. Everyone reveals the card they picked and puts it into their tableaux. Repeat. Done. Score points based on the combinations of cards you have at the end of all the passing.

The graphics are fantastic, the theme not so visible. It's easy to learn, provides great choices, with depth enough to spare.

Antike II: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

Risk is a long game of laying low, with player elimination and just too much in the luck department; this game (and its predecessor but very rare and expensive Antike) is the perfect evolution to, and replacement for, Risk.

It plays quicker, there's dice-less conflict, no one gets to lay low watching while others fight, and - excepting truly poor play - everyone has a chance for most of the game. There's also a lot more to the game than just conflict, but the rules are short and elegant.

Other alternatives for the Risk player are Antike Duellum (for two players) and Risk Legacy (an odd game that moves in one game affect the next).

Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players

Backgammon is a classic game that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. While there is a large amount of luck in the game, there are also many meaningful decisions, which makes this a good stepping stone to future games with more challenge, such as Checkers or Chess.
Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Blokus Duo: Ages 8+, 4 players (Blokus), 2-4 players (Blokus Trigon), or 2 players (Blokus Duo)

Blokus, Blokus Trigon, and Blokus Duo are abstract games with very simple rules. Each round you take a piece and place it on the board such that it touches any previous pieces you have played, but only corner to corner. It can touch other players' pieces along corners or sides.

The rules are easy, the components are beautiful, and it's fun.
Boggle: Ages 8+, 2 to 10 players

Boggle is a word game, whose simple rules - find all the words you can within three minutes - make it a game that is both fun and quick. Adults can play with kids by restricting the adults to have to find words of four or five letters.

The pictured version is a little quieter and less bulky than the old boxy version, and comes with a built-in electronic timer.
Candle Quest: Ages 6+, 2 to 4 players

A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a Hanukkah theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability. The theme makes it appropriate for all ages, and there's nothing overtly Jewish about it, other than that it's a menorah, so anyone should feel comfortable playing it.

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it.
Carcassonne, variants, and expansions: Ages 10+, 2 to 5 players

Carcassonne is a bit more complex than some of the other games here, but the beautiful pieces and the fun game play are worth the time to learn. Pick a piece from the pile, rotate and place it so that it fits on the board (like dominoes), and then optionally place one of your pieces on that tile. There are several ways to score, some of which occur during the game and some of which only at the end of the game.

There are some more rules than that, but not too many more. The game play is engaging enough to make you want to play it more than once in a single sitting.

There are dozens of versions to the game, and some of the versions have several expansions.

Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players

This game, formerly known as The Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride, are the perfect adult games for beginning gamers.

All you need to do is collect ten points through building settlements and cities, connecting roads, adding developments and trading with your fellow players. A unique board that changes each time you play, constant interaction even when it's not your turn, and a great balance of luck versus strategy makes this The Game to acquire if you still think that board games are only for kids.

Chess / Xiangqi / Shogi: Ages 6+, 2 players

These three games, Chess, XiangQi (Chinese Chess), and Shogi (Japanese Chess), are all top-tier 2-player games that can occupy a curious mind for an entire lifetime. They also have wide followings, so learning the game is learning a language that will admit you to a culture of fellow players around the world.

Board and piece prices range from inexpensive to very expensive, and Chess pieces come in many different themes.
Chinese Checkers: Ages 6+, 2 to 6 players

Another great abstract, and a pretty one if you find one with nice marbles. The rules are simple: move or jump your pieces from one side to the other. Finding chains of jumps is a thrill for all ages.
Carrom / Crokinole / Nok-Hockey / Air Hockey / Billiards / Foosball, etc.: Ages 6+, 2 players

Carrom is the most played tabletop game in India. Like Billiards, the object is to knock pieces off the table area, which you do by flicking wooden disks with your fingers. Crokinole is another classic finger flicking game, as is a racing game called Pitchcar. I finally picked up Crokinole for myself this year, and it is a constant hit with my nephews and their friends.

All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players

Decks of cards, whether they are the well known Western type with 52 cards in 4 suits, or special European or Asian decks, are a great starting point for any number of wonderful games, including Bridge, Hearts, Skat, Cribbage, Pinochle, Oh Hell, Bullsh*t, Durak, President, Spades, Solitaire, and many others.

Check out Pagat.com for the rules to these games and to thousands of others.
Codenames: Ages 10+, 4-10 players

Codenames is a new, fun game that uses words in an unusual way. Two teams, the clue givers alternate trying to give one word clues that match as many of their team's cards as possible. You must find a word that matches multiple other words, but not any of your opponent's words or the assassin's word. It's mindbending, and the game is infinitely replayable.

A great game for non-gamers and gamers alike.

Dixit: Ages 10+, 3-6 (12) players

Dixit is an incredible game, especially for non-gamers. It is loved as a creative exercise: pick a card and give a word, phrase, song, dance, or any other clue to describe it, but not too perfectly. The other players try to play cards that also match your clue. You only get points if some people guess which was your card and some people don't.

The fun is in the creativity of the clues, and I've yet to see a game where even the most stodgy non-gamer doesn't have fun.

There are now several expansions, which are all good. This game, like many others, was inspired by Apples to Apples, another nifty game for the casual non-gamers who walk among us.
Froggy Boogie: Ages 3-9, 2 to 4 players

Froggy Boogie is a brilliant game to frustrate grownups and please younger children. All you have to do is remember where the picture of the fly is, under the left eye or the right eye? The dice have only colors - no counting necessary. It's a perfect first game.
Go / Pente: Ages 6+, 2 players

Beyond Chess, Checkers, or XiangQi is the absolute perfect game of Go (aka Weiqi); it's so popular, there are twenty-four hour television stations dedicated to it, an anime series based on it, and it's considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar.

It really is that good, and the rules are easy, too. Best of all, a built-in handicap system allows two people of any skill levels to enjoy a challenging game against each other.

You should play with the nicest board you can afford.

Pente, a game of getting five stones in a row, can be played on the same board. The rules are just as easy as Go, and while the game has much less depth, it is also a little less intimidating to new players.
Jungle Speed: Ages 8+, 3 to 8 players

There are several games of speed reaction / pattern recognition on the market; I chose this one because of the components. Players flip cards in turn and grab for the totem in the middle as soon as two matching cards are revealed. Don't play with friends who have sharp nails or finger jewelry.

Love Letter: Age 8+, 2-4 players

This game has just 16 cards, but it packs a full, replayable deduction, bluffing game into 10 minutes. It's a top seller, takes 30 seconds to learn, and is challenging to play.

It's not my type of game, but I'm in the minority.
Magic the Gathering: Ages 8+, 2 players

After two decades, Magic is still The Bomb when it comes to collectible card games, although Yu-Gi-Oh sells more cards. These are not easy games to learn, but quick start guides can get you off the ground fairly quickly, and then you have months and years of challenging game play ahead of you.

Don't get sucked into having to buy endless amounts of boosters; to play the game outside of a tournament, you only need a few hundred common cards which can be picked up for a penny each on various sites.
Mancala: Ages 5+, 2 players

This is widely known around the world under various names (e.g. Oware), and the national game of many African countries.

The rules are easy: pick up all the seeds in one of your bowls and place one in each bowl around the table. If you land on an empty space on your side, you win the seed and any seeds opposite.

There are a few more rules, but that's about it. It takes a few games to get up to speed; early victories tend to be lopsided. Once you get the hang of it, you can play several, quick, challenging games in succession.
Memory: Ages 3 to 12, 2 to 5 players

This is a first game for kids and adults, and a great game for it, because kids get the hang of it very quickly and adults find it a real challenge without having to pretend. All you need are one or two decks of cards, but an infinite number of these games are sold with various different pictures and themes.

You can play with more than 5 players, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Nefarious: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

This is a game of mad scientists that is great for 2 to 6 players, and doesn't sacrifice speed with more players. Each round, you select one of four actions. collect money from any neighbors who selected actions that your minions are invested in, perform your action, and then check to see if you won. The actions are: invest minions, play cards, take cards, or take money.

The cards are fun and the game is quick and replayable, because, in each game, you play with some random twists that make that game's experience unique.
No Thanks: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

This is an easy to learn and addictive little card game. A card is flipped up, and you either take the card and any tokens on it or place one of your tokens on it and pass it to the next player. Cards are bad, and tokens are good. But runs of cards only penalize you for the lowest valued card.

A simple and fun game.

Pandemic / Pandemic Legacy

Cooperative games used to be either very boring, very childish, or very hippy. A new breed of cooperative games are nail-bitingly challenging and fun.

Pandemic is a cooperative game of saving the world from disease. Other cooperative games include Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot, and the much simpler Forbidden Island.

The new Pandemic Legacy (like Risk Legacy, mentioned above), is a version that plays out: each time you play the world is permanently changed with stickers and torn cards; after dozens of plays, the game is over.
Poker: Ages 6+, 2 to any number of players

Playing for money is not a good habit, but a nice set of poker chips and some decks of cards is a great way to spend an evening. There are countless poker games, too.
Scrabble: Ages 8+, 2 (or 2 to 4) players.

Scrabble purists will tell you that you should only play with 2 players and a Chess clock, but for casual purposes it can be played with up to four. It is The word game, and for a good reason.

My favorite way to play is to ditch the board and just play Anagrams: turn over tiles, and first to call a word gets it. A similar, recommended game is Bananagrams, where players race to create their own crossword boards.
Set: Ages 6+, 2 to 10 players

Those who don't have it won't enjoy it. For those who do, it hits just the right spot in the brain. All you have to do is call out matches when you see them, but the matches have to match or not match in all four characteristics.
Stratego: Ages 6 to 15, 2 players

By the time I was in my teens, I had outgrown this, but it remains a seminal game for early players, a great introductory war game with all the basic elements: strategy, tactics, and bluffing. Avoid the electronic ones; they break and they're noisy.

Splendor: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

The new game on this list, this is a little resource management game of taking jewels and buying trade routes (i.e. cards). The components and decisions are few and pretty, and there are a few options for strategy, but they are well balanced, making this a tight game every time.

Very simple to understand, challenging to win.
Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Many of my fellow bloggers think that this, rather than Catan, is The Game. I used to disagree, but I think I have come around. New players will find this a great intro game, with lots of choices and great game play.

There are several editions of the game, and the 1910 expansion is recommended.
Tichu: Ages 8+, 4 players

A partnership "ladder" game, similar to the game President (sometimes known by its crude name). It's similar, but the addition of a few special cards, a partnership, and passing elevate this to a perfect game for two couples. This is THE card game in gamer circles, and it's not at all complicated.
Time's Up: Ages 8+, 4 to 10 players

This consistently ranks as the number one party game on all of my fellow bloggers' lists. It's the number one ranked party game on Board Game Geek. Which says something.

It plays a lot like the parlor game Celebrities.
Uno: Ages 6 to 12, 2 to 8 players

This could be a child's second game, after Memory, and before moving on to real games. There's not much in the way of thinking involved, but its simple rules, portability, and quick play make it an ideal game for younger kids in almost any situation.

Just be sure to move up to better games when the kids are ready.
Wits and Wagers / Balderdash: Ages 8+, 4+ players

These are party trivia games where knowledge of trivia is not so important. The question is asked, and each player writes down an answer. These are revealed and players then bid on the answers they think are best. The winning answer, and the winning bids, all score points.

Wits and Wagers does this in the form of a poker game setting, while Balderdash requires you to make up funny possible answers. Both have won awards and acclaim as an order of magnitude better than you-know-which famous trivia game.
Zooloretto: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Winner of dozens of awards, Zooloretto is a cute game for kids and decent game for adults. Simply take the animals as they are revealed from the deck and try to fit them into your zoo without overcrowding.

A few extra rules and some clever mechanisms makes the game enjoyable for all ages.


Enjoy,
Yehuda

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Get Candle Quest From The Game Crafter




I think I forgot to mention this: you can get my game Candle Quest, the one and only good Hanukkah game, from The Game Crafter, a publish on demand game site. Thanks to Nadine for some redevelopment that made this possible.

It's the same game with slightly different sized cards and coins, and reworded rules.

Order in time for Hanukkah.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Movie/TV Reviews: Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Stranger Things Season 2, The Big Sick, Frantz

See all my movie reviews.

Dunkirk - This is a fantastic Christopher Nolan movie, but not one I want to see multiple times. Okay, maybe one more time, but that's it.

The story is a slice of the evacuation at Dunkirk, the famous retreat of British (and French and Belgian) soldiers from France at the opening of WWII. While French soldiers held Germany at bay, Britain evacuated over 300,000 soldiers after expecting to only be able to rescue 30,000 or so. The evacuation was assisted by some air cover and by owners of small crafts, such as motor boats and so forth, taking the 25 mile sea trip to France and back. The beach was under attack a lot of the time.

The movie presents one week of the story of a foot soldier making several attempts to gain safety on a ship, interspersed with one day of the story of a civilian motorboat owner who travels to France to pick up some of the soldiers, interspersed with one hour of a pilot providing air cover. All stories converge by the end.

The interspersing of the stories was good in theory, but a little confusing due to the shifting time frames. There is no sensationalizing the war, either for or against. The stories are about fear, desperation, heroism and tragedy and survival, and how these are instantiated in humans. It's a war movie with little in the way of fighting; mostly it's about ducking and covering and running. But it's also about bravery and morality.  It is not presented as a traditional story.

The acting and directing are sensational, and so is the cinematography. Most sensational is the sound, which heightens the gripping visuals and makes them either pathetic or harrowing. Very beautiful, often educational, and a real demonstration of what movies can be. I can't remember if there are any women in the movie.

The Big Sick -  The best rom-com I've seen in quite a while, this was very funny and quite heartwarming. Written by and starring Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), it tells a fictionalized version of how Kumail met his American wife (played by Zoe Kazan) and the difficulty he/they endured from his parents (played byAnupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and (to a lesser degree) her parents (played by Holly Hunter and Roy Romano). The central part of the movie is a) the fact that his parents reject her because she is not Pakistani and b) that he spends a lot of time in the hospital with her parents when she suddenly falls into a coma ... after he had allegedly already broken up with her.

It's funny and it's touching. It's well acted and directed. But mostly, the script is great. It's funny. Worth seeing, especially on a date.

Frantz -  A reworking of a very old movie, this tells a story set just after WWI. A German woman goes every day to the cemetery to put flowers on the grave of her fiance Frantz who was killed in the war, and one day she meets a man ... a French man .. who also starts putting flowers on the grave. She is living with her former fiance's parents, and they are all grief-stricken. The Frenchman shows up, but anger and intolerance runs high. Until he says how he was great friends with Frantz and can't get over his death. This is kind of believable, since Frantz was a humanist, pacifist, and Francophile before the war. But ... what kind of relationship did this guy really have with Frantz?

As a modern viewer, our immediate suspicion is that the guy was Frantz's lover, something not even considered or asked by the protagonists in the movie. The movie confirms some things and then goes in other directions, and then in yet other directions. Intolerance runs on both sides of the border, lies are condemned but met with other lies, and who knows where it will all end up. Will they get together?

The movie is beautifully shot, costumed, and acted. The direction is lovely. It was enjoyable. However, it suffers from a few flaws that are the result of heavy handedness by the director. I will give a teeny example.

One of the scenes in Germany has this young Frenchman, all alone, while the German patrons, who have previously expressed their contempt for all people French, stand in a bar and sing their national anthem out of respect for Germany's soldiers. The Frenchman looks lost and even frightened. In the hands of a more competent director, we would expect to see the young lady at some future time in the movie, say, pass by a sports stadium or train station where French people are singing the national anthem. That would display the dichotomy without descending into heavy handedness. Instead, we see a scene where she is all alone, while the French patrons, who have previously expressed their contempt for all people German, stand in a bar and sing their national anthem out of respect for France's soldiers. Come on. I actually laughed out loud at this and said "Come on!" in the movie theater. And this kind of thing happens again and again. The Frenchman knocks on her (fiance's) parents door, and then later we see her knock at his family's door in an eerily similar shot. And on and on like this.

The director also shoots mostly in black and white but fades into color during certain scenes, which had the potential to be lovely (as it was in Pleasantville, Wizard of Oz, and other movies), but ended up also feeling heavy handed and obvious, essentially adding nothing to the movie that wasn't already patently obvious from the settings and story.

Honestly, I would have thought this was the director's second or third film, but it seems he has been making movies since the late 1980s. So he should know better.

Despite these misfires - and the fact that no blame is assigned to anyone for the war, it just kind of happened - the movie is otherwise lovely and sweet, with a story that really picks up and captivates you (especially after the first major reveal).

Blade Runner 2049 - It's good, although maybe not as good as it could have been. It fits seamlessly in with the first movie, without being a retelling of that movie, which is about as well as one could hope for.

The first Blade Runner had its faults - a little too much staring at visuals, a little undeveloped romance (even a little rape-y), a few plot-holes and inconsistencies - but it was beautifully filmed and acted, had an intellectual script unlike any other science fiction movie since 2001, and created a genre and look for many other movies to copy. This one doesn't really break any new ground; if anything, it feels like it inhabits the same space as Ghost in the Shell 2017. However, it has a few unique twists on the hero/destiny journey which make it rather brave in some ways. I suspect that its ending is a reason that it didn't perform overly well in the box office, but actually its ending is just right when you think about it.

As for its acting, visuals, plot, and directing, they're all good. I was confused about certain elements of the movie - how can androids have babies / grow up from being babies? What kind of biological functions do they have? Do their cells wear out? Do they go through teething, adolescence, and puberty? What do they eat, do they eliminate, and how do they metabolize? None of that makes any real sense.

I have to see it again to really get some of the confusion cleared up. In any case, it's certainly worth going to see.

Stranger Things (season 2) - Well, I just saw it and it blew me away, much like the first season did. There is really not much to say about it. It's a great story, starts off a little slowly for the first few episodes like last season, and then gets rip roaring. There are a few new characters and they are all fantastic.

The show is now part Andromeda Strain, part Aliens, and part Harry Potter. If it has any fault, it feels so neatly wrapped up that I can hardly imagine a need for another season. These two were just perfect.