Friday, January 18, 2019


Too long without a post.

Hopefully this  won't be the last post on the blog. I am still in draft three of a book, and don't seem to be getting much writing done or even seeing many movie. Distractions and all.

I still have an unfinished story. An unfinished book of parsha shiurim. Several half-baked and nearly baked game designs on the shelf.

However, I am still employed, having a social life, going on a vacation next month. My daughter is married and thriving, my son is thriving, too. Which is all good.

Still have weekly game nights and still get new games occasionally. I just got Concordia, Sushi Go Party, and I am expecting Gentes Deluxe and Haithabu. I am expecting a few thousand new Magic cards soon.

I and my boss have been playing games with three non-gamer coworkers at work every Thursday. It's been half a year, and, aside from Codenames, we have rarely repeated any games. Looks like we may start soon.

The magic of games, those little points, seem insignificant, but it's astonishing how they take a play activity and make people focus on a goal, a start, and an end. It's almost hard to understand why, but it must have something to do with: not only feeling great when you succeed, but wanting others to have a chance to feel great, too. If it didn't, the whole concept of multiplayer games would just fall apart. As long as we still play games together, I think humanity still has hope.


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

2018 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.
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 players are Antike Duellum (for two players) and Risk Legacy (an odd game in which moves that you make in one game affect the next game).
Azul is a new game with gorgeous components and simple game play: take all of the tiles of one color from one mat or from the center and try to fit them into the right rows at the right time.

Easy enough. The tricky part is scoring rows and columns of connected tiles. This new version, Azul Stained Glass, ups the fun by eliminating a few rules and adding a half dozen additional tactical options without adding much more complexity.

Simple to explain and easy to get going, and it looks so nice.
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 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.
Some people like the pictures version or the new two-player version.
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.
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.
Sushi Go Party - This is a lighter, friendlier version of a game I dropped from this list (7 Wonders).

Sushi Go is a drafting game: everyone has a hand of cards. Pick one to play and pass the rest. Repeat until the game is over. At the end of each round and at the end of the game, score some of your cards based on the combinations you acquired and played during the round(s).

The party box gives you enough decks to play thousands of times with different combinations, keeping the challenge ever fresh. 7 Wonders has more complex scoring, busier cards, and an historical theme, but it's pretty much the same concept.
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.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Movie Reviews: A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Christopher Robin, Eighth Grade, First Man

A Star is Born (2018) - Bradley Cooper directs, writes, and stars in this third (at least) remake of the 1937 story. He is joined by the captivating and talented Lady Gaga. I assume you know the story, so here be general spoilers.

The original story is about a talented man whose best days are behind him. He is on the way out, but he finds and starts the career of the young woman. They fall in love. He is depressed, not only because he is no longer wanted, and is an alcoholic, but because he can't take the idea of a youngster and a woman besting him. Meanwhile, out of love - or maybe out of what is expected of a woman - she is on the verge of giving up her career because she thinks she can save him if they live a normal life. He overhears this and decides to end his life, either because he has finally reached bottom or so as not to allow her to give up her dreams for him.

This remake downplays the parts that make it seem like it is natural for her to give up her stardom for his sake. He has a drug and alcohol problem. She doesn't consider giving up her career, although she makes an attempt to get him booked on her tour, threatening to not do her tour if he is not allowed to join her. Her manager is a creep who flat out tells him that he is in her way, which leads him to end his life; this is far more sinister than having him overhear a conversation he should not have heard.

This is a pretty good movie, with good original music. Everyone gives a solid performance, and most of the camera work and directing is excellent (I had one or two minor quibbles, nothing major). The leads have good chemistry, and Lady Gaga's singing can blow you away; I suppose some will complain that no one can sing like Barbra Streisand in the second remake from 1976, but that movie wasn't as good as this one.

It is emotionally draining, however, if you have a hard time watching someone resort to suicide (not graphic, but the scene is long) or a woman having to deal with a lover who is an alcoholic and drug addict. Just so you know.

Bohemian Rhapsody - A biopic of Freddie Mercury of Queen, and also the story of Queen, from its founding until Live Aid. The main plot elements are Freddie vs his girlfriend Mary (as he comes to realize he is gay), Freddie vs his manager, Freddy vs some boyfriends and the swinging 80's lifestyle, Freddy vs his family and his traditional background, Freddy vs his contracting AIDS (only superficially covered), and Freddy vs his band-mates.

If you love Queens's music, of course you will love the movie. If you hate Queen's music ... what's wrong with you? Some of their songs, like We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, seem like they were chiseled out of music itself. On its own merits, Rami Malek does a great job as Freddy, and Lucy Boynton as Mary and Gwilym Lee as Brian May also shine, as does the rest of the cast. The plot is captivating, since Freddy seems equal parts genius arranger and singer, but also self-destructive and helpless. Mary, if you believe the movie, is the one who drags him back into sanity, even while she is kept apart from him due to his sexuality.

As an ending to the movie, Live Aid, while a lovely concert, doesn't really answer all of the questions. If you know the real story, you know that a lot of the early days are skipped over or compressed (they went through a bunch of bass guitarists and their first album was not a great success), Live Aid was a phenomenal triumph, and the story continues to the early 90's. So threads are left dangling.

But it doesn't matter. Good performances and great music, an interesting portrait of a tormented genius. Not the best movie ever made, but worth watching.

Christopher Robin - Ewan McGregor plays a grown up Christopher Robin, famous son of A. A. Milne, who works as an efficiency expert in London and who is tasked with firing a bunch of people unless he can figure out a way to save their jobs. He runs into Pooh Bear who needs Christopher Robin to help him find more honey in the 100 acre woods. CR tries to make sense of this, and they go on several adventures. Everyone learns something by the end of the movie.

The closest analogy here would be Hook (Robin Williams). It's an okay movie, though rather childish and cliche. Kids will probably enjoy it. I got a bit bored.

It's a little odd to see this movie after last' year's Goodbye Christopher Robin, which painted a rather grimmer picture of CR's relationship to his father's stories.

Eighth Grade - A good but intense look at a high school girl (Elsie Fisher) who spends all of her time, and tries to find all of her validation, on social media. Her real life, unfortunately, doesn't conform to her expectations from her virtual one. Not only does she have low self-esteem and low popularity and fall for the wrong boy, she also runs head on into a few moments of real danger and harassment that up the significance of what happens in real life.

Josh Hamilton plays her single father, desperately trying to help and support her while she fights to keep him out. It's not an easy movie to watch, but it's a fairly good one.

First Man - A biopic of Neil Armstrong, and also the story of the mission to land a man on the moon. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, in which the focus on one character made the story interesting, I wan't as happy here. Neil has a few problems with his wife and kids, but not really; I'm pretty sure most of the problems were invented by the screenwriters. The conflict with his wife was not believably portrayed. Meanwhile, all the parts about the moon landing were fascinating, but they were not the main focus of the movie.

The movie makes several other mistakes. Instead of a grand story of triumphs and tragedies (i/e, what really happened), the story concentrates solely on a series of tragedies (real ones). I guess that's the screenwriter's way of ratcheting up the tension, but it a) makes the story very narrow and small, making it more like a Marvel movie than a real story, and b) it makes it unrealistic: why would anyone continue with a program that fails so tragically and continuously over and over, killing people each time? Of course, that wasn't the real or entire story. But we don't get to hear the real or entire story.

The worst parts for me were a) the long sequences of shaking cameras that simulated the shaking rockets and flights. One such sequence of reasonable length in a movie is great. This movie does this at least three times, for 20 minutes each time. At some point it moves from being a good simulation to being distracting and unwatchable. Enough already. 2) About sixty percent of the movie is a closeup of someone's face. This is the same mistake used in Jackie. Again: a few face closeups are great but 60% of the screen-time spent on face closeups is not, It's just pretentious, distancing, and annoying. Which is a crying shame, because the cinematography of the other 40% is beautiful.

Aside from all that was bad about the movie, the movie did everything else  well: well acted, well scored, well paced, and an important piece of history. For what its worth, my fellow movie-goers (friends) liked the movie.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Movie Reviews: Crazy Rich Asians, Destination Wedding, I Feel Pretty, The Wife, Won't You Be My Neighbor

See all of my movie reviews.

Crazy Rich Asians: This was surprisingly good, considering the trailers. Not great, but good. it's about an American Chinese economics professor who goes to meet her boyfriend's Chinese family in Singapore. She soon discovers that his family is very, very rich, and that his mother doesn't think an American Chinese woman belongs in the family.

From the trailer, I expected this to be stupid, marketed only on the basis of having an all-Asian cast of comedians. Thankfully, this was not the case. I guess because a) trailers are often put together by idiots, and b) it came from a rather decent novel, which I have not yet read.

Like Me Before You, I am now interested in reading the novel. This movie is a little Jane Austeny - nowhere on that caliber - but interesting, with characters and confrontations that seem to have something to say. It works, I feel, almost in spite of itself. It looks like the director/screenwriter tried to cut it down to something resembling a Me Before You, but couldn't quite cut everything.

There are throwaway characters who I suspect have far more dept and character in the book; here they are stand-up comics doing two or three minutes of material. And there is a plot so tired and retread as to make any tension non-existent. But ... but the main characters have something to them, and they do a few things that make you feel that the plot is more than just something on which to hang comedy. I suspect that the book highlights these parts and makes them more prominent.

It is well acted, other than some of the comedy bits which seem out of place. There are scenes of sumptuous foods and wealth, as one would expect from the title. And a few too many party scenes. But fun and - nearly - satisfying. As for the fact that it had an all-Asian cast, well, duh. Like Black Panther, this doesn't prove anything. Any idiot already knew that an ethnic cast could lead a movie that contains ethnic story overtones and interactions. Any idiot should also know that the same people could be main characters in any, generic movie, but apparently there are a lot of people who are not yet as smart as just any idiots.

Destination Wedding: This was a surprisingly great movie. Lindsay (Winona Ryder) and Frank (Keanu Reeves) are the ex-fiance and the estranged brother of a guy getting married. They don't want to be there, don't like the groom, don't like the bride, or the place, or the airline, or the food, or each other, or themselves. And so they snark and insult their way through 90 minutes of screen-time. Literally no one else in the movie talks: it's just Lindsay and Frank. They are both so vile and bitter that even the usual rom-com tropes are subverted: they know that they should end up together, but they refuse to allow it to happen.

This movie follows in the tradition of the Before series of movies, as well as other heavy dialog movies. It's not quite as good as a Before movie, which had a more wide-ranging series of discussions and characters who were a little (a lot) less jaded. The movie is smart with snarky dialog and has some interesting things to say about relationships, self-worth, decency, obligation, and so forth. It's often very funny. I had a blast and really want to see it again.

Yes, they are miserable. Unlike the real misery that repelled me in movies like Logan and Three Billboards, these guys are funny-miserable, so it's fun to watch.

I Feel Pretty: This movie has a great message, or it pretends to, anyway: don't let what you look like rob you of your confidence. And Amy Schumer has certainly been known to be funny ... sometimes, and in small doses. This one is a disaster.

The movie has no artistry: Amy's character is supposed to feel bad about her looks, so she writes ten scenes in a row with her looking in a mirror with disappointment and people insulting her looks in various ways. It's so straightforward and artless that it is painful to watch. Compare this to the exact same message that Anne Hathaway conveys in The Devil Wears Prada and you see what I mean: Anne's lack of self-worth derives from the story around it and the occasional barbs thrown at her in passing, not ten flat scenes of "you're ugly". And let's not forget that Amy is not unattractive; she is a plus size, but she is not a flat blob and she is also perky and white with good skin. So the premise is a stretch.

Amy wakes up after a head injury believing that she is now beautiful (although her body hasn't changed, and no one else knows what she is talking about), and with her new head injury she confidently strides her way into the job and relationship she wants, while everyone else looks on in a) disbelief, b) with amusement, or c) with respect at her confidence based on nothing outwardly visible.

Her head injury also, apparently, causes her to become completely social unaware of what everyone else thinks, says, or does, causes her to steamroll over every conversation without listening to anyone, causes her to be cruel to everyone else, and somehow causes everyone else to respect her, despite the fact that she is still a complete klutz and idiot. One scene of this is tolerable; the same scene of her talking over people and insulting them, over and over and over and over and over is wearying, and eventually very very unfunny.

What's worse is that the entire point of the movie is that what's inside counts, not what's outside, but she ends up working for and being spokesman for a beauty company, which defeats the entire damn point. Crassness is one thing, artless is another. I really tried, but I couldn't tolerate more than half of the movie.

The Wife: A decent but not not great movie with great acting and an unambitious and uncomplicated fictional plot. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce star as Joan and Joe Castleman. They, their son, and a nosy, persistent journalist travel to Sweden so that Joe can get the Nobel prize for literature, The son is behaving like a spoiled teenager (he is supposed to be in his thirties) and the journalist is writing a book about Joe and suggesting some possible problems with his past.

It doesn't descend into something deep, dark, and criminal, like an action thriller. It's just a question of authorship, validity, and respect. This movie is reminiscent of the far superior Big Eyes, a true story that made it quite clear early on that a supposed genius was passing his wife's art off as his own. This movie, entirely fiction, gives us the revelation further into the movie, and handles it badly. The movie doesn't have anything new or interesting to say and also doesn't maintain much tension, other than who will get mad at whom, when, and how much. It is an acting exercise, which is a waste of time, since neither Close nor Pryce need to prove how well they can act.

Admittedly, if Big Eyes didn't exist, I might give this more of a break. As it is, I can't recommend it, but lovers of the actors or of acting scenes will enjoy it. It's really not all that bad. My particular non-enjoyment comes from the son, who is just too miserable throughout the movie, and the odious behavior of one of the other main characters, which drove me to distraction.

Won't You Be My Neighbor: Growing up I didn't like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood too much, since it was slow, the production was rather low, and puppets on television didn't excite me. As an adult, I have watched videos of Fred Rogers, including his speech defending public television and some of his great moments (such as telling a room full of celebrities to think about, in total silence, who got them to where they are today, and so forth). These videos move me. I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for the man. Nevertheless, I'm sure there were many others like me who could not connect to the messages he tried to convey in his TV series, for the reasons that I mentioned.

This biopic movie covers many major stories and facts about him and his philosophy, with only a small amount of material not related to his TV program. I doubt that anyone who never saw the TV show will be interested in it. It is a paean to a simple, slow goodness that seems to be fading away ... that I suspect will always seem to be fading away. There will always be a few great, lovely people with simple messages who lead wholesome lives, even while most of us are consumed by the latest glitz, glamour, gossip, guns, or sensationalist brawls that pass for entertainment or debate. I think it is great to be reminded about better values, at least once in a while. Of course, if we go right back to the guns and brawls, it doesn't come to much.

As a movie, it was okay. It is riveting if you find his personality riveting. Not much, otherwise.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

My Memory of Us: A Polish Video Game About the Ghettos

My Memory of Us is a game developed by Juggler Games and soon to be published by IMGN.PRO, both of them Polish companies.

The game is set in a fantasy version of WWII, where two kids who are best friends are separated when an evil king (with robots) comes to power. They impose harsh restrictions on one of the kids (the girl) forcing them to wear certain clothing, mocking them, and creating dangerous situations. They only want to play together, and only by working together can the kids reveal their true power.

The game uses cute graphics against black and white dystopian steampunk backdrops of ghettos, garbage, and barbed wire. The story is narrated by Patrick Stewart.

I'm happy that they are not directly using Holocaust imagery, since this tends to end up in the hands of Nazis who enjoy watching Jews lose the game (like they enjoy watching Holocaust movies and rooting for the bad guys).

I don't know exactly how the story plays out. It might be an apologetic for Poland: the main characters are obviously the bad German regime and the two kids, Polish and Jewish, who work together and are both victims. Or it might not. You could gloss over that and simply enjoy the game. Apparently, the game was inspired by the real lives of some of the developers.

HT: Engadget via Boing Boing

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Movie Reviews: Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The Incredibles 2, Breathe, Midnight Sun

See all of my movie reviews.

Mission Impossible: Fallout - A very good, but not great, entry in this franchise.

MI's plots are generally unimportant: a bunch of people want to kill a bunch of people, MI agents are the only ones who can stop them, but there are traitors in the CIA who are secretly working against them together with the bad guys. Lots of tropes: cool gadgets, deceptively getting suspects to talk, impersonating bad guys using fake masks, plans gone awry, Tom Cruise dangling off of something high, and last second triumphs.

This movie has a few things going for it that its competition franchises (MCU, DCU, James Bond, Fast and Furious, Transformers, Jurassic Park) don't. One is Tom Cruise, who is a great actor and action hero ONLY when he isn't carrying the entire movie. MI has a nice cast of characters that provide relief from endless shots of Tom running, dangling, and jumping. Another is that they manage to keep coming up with tense situations and action sequences that are at least plausible and thus captivating. And that Tom  does his own stunts and the CGI is minimal, which makes the action sequences more engaging and less like watching cool effects on a computer. Tom doing things while skydiving is really Tom Cruise skydiving, which is pretty cool. Mostly, it's that they take some time to give Tom, at least, some real personality, so that he makes different choices based on conflicting targets of loyalty.

The last one is important, and while MI:F includes this, it doesn't include it nearly enough. They keep trying to muscle in more action sequences and less character time. This may make Marvel fans happy but only makes the movie less engaging and more exhausting. The movie too often jumped from action sequence to action sequence without a breath, which left me just a bit numb. I'm sure there are people who like this; who would complain, in fact, if there were more character sequences. So it's just my opinion. These people also tend to overlook little problems, like how certain people deceive other people when these deceivers are under careful, continuous observation, how certain people could possibly know to be in certain places at certain times to meet certain other people when these other people are doing things purely randomly, and and how certain people would surely have to go through a number of checks before getting to where they got to. I guess I am not supposed to notice those things.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. Not as much as 1 or 4, but more then 5 (I didn't see 2 or 3).

Ant-Man and the Wasp - Marvel, yippee. I never actually made it through Ant-Man because it was formulaic and boring. Perhaps the only thing going for it was that at least the fate of the universe wasn't at stake, which was a nice change.

I'm kind of at a loss as to why I found this one more enjoyable. Not exactly a good movie, but better. The ending was poorly executed, and really the science doesn't make any sense. I'm happy that the fate of the world isn't at stake - just one woman. And I'm happy that the main "bad guy" is someone who has a compelling motivation and who isn't bad at all, just trying to survive.

I guess dispensing with a lot of the back-story helped, as did allowing us to see all of the many ways that shrinking/expanding can be used in a fight. Its lack of ambition made it feel less pretentious and thus easier to accept. It felt like a pretty good television episode. So it was okay.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - The first one (Jurassic Park) was a classic; the last one (Jurassic World) was okay, but the characters were so flat as to make it feel like a Marvel movie. This one is about the same as the last one, but the plot is dumber and even less original. They need to either let the dinosaurs die or rescue them to some other island, and by the way, someone wants to steal some of the dinosaurs and by the way, someone wants to sell them as military weapons (somehow). It sounds familiar because it is.

Same kinds of bad guys doing the same kinds of bad things; yadda yadda. The characters from the last movie are a little different, but just as flat. It's hard to care.

The Incredibles 2 - The first was a great movie, marrying Disney with superheroes with some actual adult themes that didn't talk down to kids. This one is even more so. It starts exactly where the last one left off, only they have to deal with the consequences of the damage caused to the city after they stop the first bad guy (exactly like Captain America: Civil War). In order to solve their PR problem, they decide that Elastigirl (rather than the less PR-worthy Mr Incredible) be sent out to do some careful superhero work, which leaves Mr Incredible alone at home with the kids and their new baby of wildly unknown superpowers.

Cue a little male resentment and a touch of 1950s role reversal comedy, but really not too much. Elastigirl really is a superhero as well as a mom, and she does it well, and Mr Incredible proves that every stay-at-home parent is a superhero in his or her own way. Of course, eventually everything has to come to a head.

The plot is good and thought-provoking, but still full of humor and great action. Of course, it's beautifully rendered and well voiced. A worthy sequel to the original.

Breathe - The true story of a British flyboy who becomes paralyzed by polio while in Kenya in the 1950s. He is ready to die, but his wife won't let him and he goes on to travel home, leave the hospital (which never happened back then) and eventually design the first wheelchair with a respirator. His work (and his good friend the engineer) went on to improve the life of thousands of people in similar condition.

It's wrapped up in beautiful scenery and costuming and a true-life love story. It was interesting to watch, although I guess they glossed over some of the less palatable parts of taking care of a paralyzed person. Meanwhile, some parts of the movie went on longer than they should have, such as the entire last half hour where he decides he has finally lived long enough; these parts could have been shorter. I loved and was even surprised by, the scenes in Spain.

Worth watching, although I wouldn't go out of my way to see it.

Midnight Sun - This is a pretty terrible movie from nearly every perspective. It is about a girl with xeroderma pigmentosum.

In real life, this is a non-curable condition whose sufferers tend to sunburn or blister after small exposures to sunlight and who are therefore extremely vulnerable to skin cancer. People with this condition are visibly distinguishable as such, having typically found out about their condition the hard way. They may have special glass in their house windows, but they can go out in daylight with a lot of clothing and extra caution.

In movie life, the girl has movie-perfect skin and never goes outside during daylight. Furthermore, the moment she is exposed to a few seconds of sunlight she develops a brain condition that begins causing her death.

If that wasn't enough of a problem, just let the anemic characters and the predictable, manipulative, and poorly scripted and acted plot do the rest. And, of course, she is going to "hide" her condition from the first (and last) boy she goes out with, because we never get enough of that kind of thing from sitcoms.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Movie Reviews: Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Loving, Disobedience, Every Day

See all of my movie reviews.

Avengers: Infinity War: Whoopee, another Marvel movie comes to save humanity from other more important things that they could be doing.

Thanos is some Big Guy who is collecting the "infinity stones" in order to wipe out half the population of the universe, because they are overpopulating (I'm not sure why, if he can reshape the universe, he doesn't just plan to double the size of the universe, but apparently imagination and power don't always go together). Everyone else, except his unexplained minions, try to stop him.

Within the context of Marvel movies - in other words, if you like Marvel movies - this is a great Marvel movie. While ten thousand main characters stretch the continuity and focus of the film for too much of the time, especially the first, oh, nine tenths - and while you pretty much have to have seen most of the other movies and have read some of the comics to know what the hell is going on, following the plot is never the point of a Marvel movie. Neither is attaining insight, being captivated by character or emotion, or getting inspired or informed. Marvel movies are about snarky humor, cool effects and battle sequences, nonsense uninvolving conflicts, and wish fulfilling superpowers.

Somehow the whole thing mostly holds together. Some of the main characters don't act exactly as they used to, powers and characters, as usual, are conveniently forgotten except when they are needed for a special effect (um ... God of Thunder? If Dr Strange can chop things off with his portal, why not chop off Thanos' hand or continually send him to some other place in the universe?), but the movie occasionally takes you in some directions that you were not expecting. Everyone acts well enough. And there were lots of cool battles and superpowers. So ... cool?

There were some weird problems, other than forgotten powers and characters. Why does no one seem to live in Scotland? How does that new eye work? If these stones were "spread out around the universe", it seems rather convenient that all of them were in our galaxy, and several of them were close to or on Earth.

This movie had a number of scenes involving people having to decide whether to sacrifice themselves or others for the greater good; the potential positive effect of this was ruined by the fact that this "greater good" was "saving half the people in the universe from dying", so the choice was really not much of a choice. Still, it was slightly interesting how some people couldn't make the choice to sacrifice others, while some people could. Maybe I could think about that for a while and learn something.

Within the context of all movies, this movie occupies the same space as nearly all the rest of the Marvel films: inconsequential, untransforming entertainment. You watch them to keep up to speed with a trendy cultural conversation. While I admit that the universe Marvel has created is somewhat rich, and likely to have a lasting effect on the cultural consciousness of this generation, I don't think any of the movies will ever be studied in school outside of a special effects course. There is nothing interesting about any character relations, choices, symbols, or plots in these movies. All you can do is recount the battles, jokes, and powers, and say "cool".

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I expected that this would be the movie in which Star Wars went off the deep end, but, sadly, that already happened with The Last Jedi. Rogue One showed us that the SW formula could be changed and still make a pretty good movie, while The Last Jedi showed us that, no, it really could not. Solo, therefore, was a surprise to me, since it was better than I was expecting.

The story is Solo and a gal named Qi'ra who are born into a poor world and have to commit crimes to survive. They get separated, and Solo finds himself in the army, then in a caper heist, and then in another one. Meanwhile, Qi'ra meets him somewhere between heists and might now be playing for the wrong side. A rag-tag band of scoundrels appear on various different sides of various different conflicts. Cue the betrayals, sleight-of-hands, and counter-betrayals.

Reviewers have not been kind, calling it derivative for not giving us more to Solo's character than we already knew from the other movies. Honestly, I liked that. This was what we saw in Rogue One, and Revenge of the Sith, for that matter.

Other reviewers said the story wasn't particularly interesting. Admittedly, the action sequences were rushed and generic, too much like Marvel movies. On the other hand, the Kessel sequence, which takes up about half of the movie, felt really, really Star Wars, and therefore really, really good. Kudos for that part of the film. Alden Ehrenreich was sometimes so-so as Solo, but occasionally he nailed it. Donald Glover was fantastic as Lando. Emilia Clark was decent as "the woman person in the plot". Woody Harrelson was okay as chief scoundrel, but distracting, since he always acts like Woody Harrelson.

It lacks a light saber battle, which is one of the best things about SW movies. And it lacks the plot development, ease of pace, and mysticism that made the six main SW movies so expansive. But it is competent and enjoyable, it fits into the story, and it sets up a sequel.

Loving: A quiet, moving film about the legal decision to forbid any laws that restrict marriage based on race. The case was Loving vs Virginia. The aptly named Richard Loving (played by Joel Edgerton, who is white) and Mildred Loving (played by Ruth Negga, who is black) got married in DC in the 1960s, but their home state of Virginia refused to recognize the marriage and said it was illegal to live together. They were thrown in jail, briefly, and then out of the state on pain of more jail. After too much time away from their family, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy who passes it on to the ACLU, who takes up the case.

Richard is a white male Southerner, a construction worker who patiently and evenly lays bricks, loves his wife, their families, and friends, and wants to be left alone. He is protective of his privacy and balks at the publicity the case brings to them, but, although he briefly protests once in a while,, he wants his wife and kids to be happy. Quiet and unassuming Mildred is no more of a troublemaker than her husband, but, with the protective strength she gets from Richard is willing to fight - just a little - and talk to the media. Richard, from the strength and conviction he eventually learns from Mildred, allows his world to be shaken, just a bit.

The movie has some creepy moments, where you expect something dire to happen to them (as it might in another movie by some other director), but most of these come to no more than threats. It's not an action fest; it's a character study and a small history lesson. Very nice acting and directing, and not at all heavy handed,

Disobedience: Another quiet film, also moving, also nice. This one is set in the London ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, or some facsimile thereof. As usual when I know something about the community that is being portrayed on-screen, I had to grumble during a few scenes that just could not have happened the way they were shown; I'm guessing a few liberties were taken by the screenwriters when adapting the book.

Anyway ... photographer and secular (and apparently bisexual but primarily lesbian) Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns after years of estrangement from her community for her father the Rav's funeral, after someone has the courtesy to let her know. She finds her not-too-happy to see her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the Rav's most prominent student and essentially adopted child is now married to her friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Esti was Ronit's "more than friend" when they were younger, which is how Ronit came to leave/be banished from the community. Ronit is surprised to find her married to a man, let a lone to Dovid. Is she really happy with him?

Like every other Hollywood film that has Jews in it, this is a "Shylock" film, which means it can't end without one or more of the Jews abandoning their faith, in total or in part, which is what makes for the "happy" part of the ending (a happy ending for a film with Christians in it is for them to resist the temptation and cling to their faith, unless the film is about an abusive authority figure). So I will spoil the movie a little and say, of course Esti and Ronit have a go around, and, even though there is no actual nudity when they do, the scene is hot as hell. This is in contrast to the lovemaking scene that Dovid and Esti share earlier in the film that, despite a little nudity, is incredibly not.

All the characters are played beautifully. Rachel is convincing as Ronit, Rachel shines as Esti (once in a while she doesn't quite sell herself as a woman who has been religious all of her life), and Alessandro does a fine job as Dovid, a job which the director/screenwriter nearly destroys at the end of the film. Bleah. Not a great amount happens in the movie other than in the interior world's of the characters, which is fine. The ending has a number of missteps which was a letdown, because it was quite lovely until then. It's not a terrible ending, just a fumble to squeeze in a few cliche scenes that I think the director thought we wanted to see, rather than the more natural scenes and conclusions that would have made a more satisfying experience. Still a beautifully shot, beautifully acted, nice little film.

Every Day: Another happy surprise, this was better than I was led to believe. It's the story about a ... something named "A" that wakes up every day in a different body. For plot's sake, one day A decides to spend the day with and fall in love with a girl named Rhiannon (Angourie Rice, who looks like the girl who finally gets to kill the serial killer in a horror movie). After a number of other run ins over the next few days (in other bodies, of course), A finally reveals itself to Rhiannon. Cue the skeptical, the attempt at a relationship, the obvious difficulties, and the final decision.

The movie doesn't explain how this is happening, which is fine, and it covers some of the questions and many of the difficulties that A and Rhiannon would face in this situation. Like any good science fiction film, the central element reflects and in reflected by other aspects of what it means to "change", to be constant, to be gender-fluid, to not know where and who someone is, to plan for an uncertain future, and to be yourself. This is reflected in Rhiannon's relationship with her family, her friends, her boyfriend, with A and with and herself.

This movie is little like The Time Traveler's Wife - it's not as good as that movie was, but it's solid, well acted, well plotted, and generally works. It's not a gripping movie: neither A nor Rhiannon are very engaging people; they're both pretty average, if polite and well-meaning. Some parts of A's past are unexplained and leave me wondering: was this body swapping happening while A was in the womb? If not, then who replaced A's original body when A swapped out for the very first time (since A never goes back to the same body)? But more important is the question about the fate of one of the main characters at the end. But I can let that go.