Monday, April 24, 2017

Amazon deals on games

Amazon has a more extensive than usual list of deals on games today.

Theora Design: From The Holocaust to a Game Company Success Story

Michelle Spelman, writing for Mary Couzin's Chitag magazine, profiles Ora and Theo Coster, the couple behind the successful Israeli game company Theora Design (Guess Who, Zingo, Elefun, others). Worth a look.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Movie Reviews: Ghost in the Shell (2017), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Deadpool

Ghost in the Shell (2017): The graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim was 100 times better than the movie Scott Pilgrim, but I still thought that the movie Scott Pilgrim was the best movie I saw in 2010. It probably helped that I never saw the source material; I read the graphic novels after seeing the movie. the movie was so good that it made me want to read them. The movie was quixotic, quirky, energetic, fun, interesting, well-acted and paced, and entertaining. It had obvious but interesting central metaphors, about new relationships, and about dealing with the world as a video game, which made the movie a cut better than other young adult movies. So what if the comic was so much richer and deeper?

Lucky for me it has been fifteen years since I saw the original Ghost in the Shell movie and I never read the manga. I was able to enjoy this movie, starring Scarlett Johansson. I remembered some parts of the original movie, enough to know that some of the scenes in this movie are track for track copies from the original and that the original was 100 times better - richer, and deeper - than this one. But I still think this is one of the better action/sci-fi movies, ten times richer and deeper than the crud Marvel keeps foisting on us. Not quite as good as Arrival; not quite as good as Blade Runner; possibly as good as Interstellar.

First of all, it is one of the most beautiful and visually arresting movies from the last several years, an absolute treasure trove of stunning shots in a world reminiscent of Blade Runner. Acting, directing, and cinematography are top notch. There are many high-profile scenes of violence, about as many as a Marvel movie, and they are just as cool, but they aren't the only thing cool about the movie. While a Marvel movie fills the rest of the movie with snarky quips and a shallow, stupid excuse to set up the next combat sequence - and that's it - this movie wraps a cyberhacking chase plot around a search for the nature of what it means to be human. Okay, the search isn't very deep, the questions are not all answered, and the material was dumbed down from its source. Whatever. This movie's story is different from the original one, which makes this more of a reboot than a remake. At least there is something there, there. At least I have a reason to care for the characters and a reason to care about who is fighting and why. I can ask questions that the movie doesn't explore in depth, because at least these conflicts are shown. And did I mention that the visuals and acting are beautiful and cool?

As for the casting of a white person in a role that was previously played by a cartoon Asian, get a life. No one in Japan is bothered by this, and it's not like she is pretending to be an Asian; she's just a fine actress. She looks awesome. And that's that.

Beauty and the Beast (2017): Yet another Disney remake. Unlike Ghost in the Shell, this movie is really just a remake of the original classic and not a reboot. For what it's worth, this movie, starring Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, and the always wonderful Emma Watson, adds a few extra scenes to buttress Beauty's backstory. They neither add to, nor hurt, the movie, although the talk about her mother dying of plague turns the movie into a PG one.

Like the recent Cinderella and The Jungle Book, the movie doesn't seem to have any reason to exist other than to show that Disney has the technical means of creating live action versions of their beloved animations. All of these movies are worse than the originals. Whatever is good about them was good or better in the originals. And it's not like the originals are hard to find or inaccessible. This is a cash grab from a studio that has run out of original ideas.

I liked it more than I expected to. It was closer to the quality of the original than the other two I mentioned. On the other hand, Beauty was a little colder in this version, and the Stockholm Syndrome seemed worse than I remembered from the original. Really, if they were anyway going to change things up in this movie, that would have been the thing to change.

Deadpool: I finally succumbed to boredom one evening and watched this, and I wish I hadn't. About the worst of the Marvel movies, this is dead, and soulless, with nothing but quips and violence the entire way through. The paint-thin character tragedy of Deadpool is supposed to inspire sympathy, but it didn't inspire anything but revulsion. The central conflict is that he thinks he's no longer attractive enough. Torture and kill many people. Blood. Kick. Boom.

Come on. I guess I was supposed to laugh at the funny parts, but I really couldn't be bothered to.

Uber Uses Gamification

The NY Times reports on Uber and gamification. Some of it is white-hat, encouraging drivers to meet goals and informing them of better opportunities. Unfortunately, much of it is black-hat, being another way to avoid actually paying drivers fair compensation by manipulating them into accepting fake rewards instead of more pay.

Personally, I loathe Uber (and would probably loathe Lyft if I knew more about it) and I like Gett. The only thing I appreciate about Uber is the introduction of competition into a monopolistic market (taxi service is generally a monopoly with collusion-style pricing, even when multiple companies compete for the service).

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Movie Reviews: Arrival, Jackie, The Edge of Seventeen, Certain Women, Fifty Shades Darker,

Arrival: Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner star in this wonderful, smart, thoughtful sci-fi contact movie written by Eric Heisserer based on a short story by Ted Chiang. Instead of the missiles, bombs, and guns we get in most first contact movies, this one is about a) trying to communicate, and b) how a new way of thinking may change us.

Arrival is a slow, tense thriller that reveals itself like a murder mystery without a murder. The missile and bomb throwers are impatient, so the linguists have to figure out what's going on quickly. In the meantime, multiple layers of relationships, communication, and memory are explored. The ending confused me for a good hour after the movie ended until I finally figured it out. Beautiful on so many levels. Beautifully scripted, beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted.

This is this year's Interstellar, but different. Worth watching on a big or small screen.

Jackie: Natalie Portman is front and center in nearly every shot of this heavy, ponderous exploration of Jackie Kennedy over the course of several time periods, but mostly the week following the assassination of her husband. One story line is a recreation of the White House tour television special in which she appeared. Others are the assassination itself, wandering the white house over the next week, planning the funeral, a walk and talk she has with a priest, and an interview she does with a reporter looking back on many of these periods.

Everyone in the film acts impeccably. The sets and costumes are phenomenally put together. Cinematography, sound, and light are great, although Natalie's Jackie face fills the screen in closeup for a good portion of the movie, and it gets to be a bit much. But the movie didn't work for me.

It suffers from two major problems. The first is that the story is really about very little - it's mostly 100 minutes of watching Jackie suffer on screen. In closeup. I've seen other movies based on similar ideas, but those movies had other things to say; this one doesn't. It's pretty much 80 minutes of Natalie wandering around in a daze and 20 minutes of funeral planning / interviewing. That's just not enough for more than a vanity acting exercise. The second is that the movie jumps around from period to period with no apparent flow or sense. While this may help to heighten the distracted sense of chaos that Jackie experiences, as a viewer it wrecks the tenuous threads of story that surely lie within the various periods. Plenty of movies do the flashback narrative well, but they work when you can follow the story threads in parallel. Here, you can kind of follow the funeral preparation story as it picks up in the last third of the movie, and that's it. The rest of the movie is just a jumble. I would be interested in seeing the movie again with all of the scenes playing in chronological order.

I can't say that I recommend it, which is a shame because there is so much to like about the movie. I just wish it were a bit more interested in its story, and less in itself as a movie.

The Edge of Seventeen: A pretty good coming of age comedy about a depressed seventeen year old (Hailee Steinfeld) and her teacher (Woody Harrelson). Hailee's father, the only person she could really relate to, died in a car crash some time ago, and now her best friend has started sleeping with her brother.  She is attracted to an oblivious boy (Alexander Calvert), while an awkward boy is attracted to her (Hayden Szeto). Her teacher is semi-supportive when he wants to be, and he likes her well enough. Many of Hailee's problems are of her own devising, and she is more loved than she is able to see, which makes the movie both frustrating and good.

It's one of the better movies of this genre. Worth watching if you like this kind of movie. Nothing to knock your socks off, but it works. It's often funny, and it's well acted and scripted, but it's pretty depressing until about midway.

Certain Women: Three vignettes from middle America about bored, exhausted women and some short scenes from their average lives. Something like a mini-version of a Robert Altman movie, the main characters' lives overlap in tiny, insignificant ways. It was well acted. But I didn't really see the point. None of the characters were interesting (although they were played well), and none of the stories were interesting either. Each of the three parts would make a fine beginning for some other movie.

The cinematography is as beautiful as compositions of bleak landscapes and bleak lives permit.

Fifty Shades Darker:  All right, settle down. I reviewed the first entry in this series, and I didn't find it to be nearly as bad as most of the critics did. Not that I thought that it was great. It just wasn't a boy's movie. Too bad.

Unfortunately, this entry is worse. Rather than being darker, this one is simply less interesting. Christian and Anastasia have little to say and do. They are trying a relationship again, a vanilla relationship (except when Anastasia suggests something a little kinkier), but Anastasia's boss, as well as some characters from Christian's past, show up to bother them. It is as deep as a jello dish, and about as filling. There's barely a story arc.

Un-artfully plotted, shallow, and dull, it may have made a decent hour television drama. Maybe half an hour. I guess it's shot and directed well. It has one hot sex scene (with barely any nudity) and some average ones. Good soundtrack. Unlike the first movie, there are no badly represented moral power/domination issues in this movie, so there is really nothing to be up in arms about.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Games I Have Recently Acquired

I went on a shopping/trading spree recently, selling or trading away dozens of games and getting slightly less back. Recent acquisitions include:

  • Age of Industry: A dry game of money management and planning, with a little route building. I find it to be elegant, with a lot of game play and many interesting choices. So far my group has responded less enthusiastically, since turns take a bit of time the first time you play and there is nothing to do until it is your turn again. I think the dryness may keep people away from it.
  • Amerigo: A colorful game with a nifty cube tower action mechanism. The downside is that they number actions you get each turn, and which ones, are kind of random. The upsides are that it's a freakin' cube tower. The gameplay is also reasonable, if not brilliant or perfect or polished.  There are many paths to take as long as you don't get totally stuck on the wrong side of the board with no places left to build. This should continue to hit the table every once in a while.
  • Among the Stars: A drafting game of building a spaceship, by which I mean placing tiles of five colors into your play space, trying to maximize points. It plays quickly enough, so it doesn't bother me that it is not a brain burner. But, again, some of the people who have played it found it not very interesting. This could be because they were expecting something deeper.
  • Bruges: I played this at a game convention, and it was fairly good (I like many of Stefan Feld's games). I haven't tried it in the group yet.
  • Codenames: This is an excellent puzzle game using words and teams, good for both gamers and non-gamers. It shot up the charts on BoardGameGeek and it deserves it. We play it often in the group, and I also play it with guests.
  • Coloretto: A very light very quick game. I like Zooloretto more, but this one was available so I picked it up. I haven't played it in the group yet.
  • La Granja: My secret santa game, which I didn't even put on my wish list. But my elf (Nadine) suggested it to my santa because she had played it at a convention. Looks good but complex. The more complex the game, the trickier it becomes to get everything working well. I haven't played it yet.
  • The Grizzled: The other game I received from secret santa. A coop game themed with WWI that also wasn't on my wish list. It was a nice thought - the game has good reviews - but I'm really not a fan of coop games, generally.
  • Myrmes: The opportunity presented itself so I picked this one up while I was picking up something else. Looks cool. I haven't played it yet.
  • Producer: Acquired as a gift from the designer who was passing through. Comes packed in a VHS box. I haven't played it yet.
  • Seasons: The opportunity presented itself. Another version of acquiring actions from a pool of dice. I haven't played it yet.
  • Suburbia: A city building game. Some luck determines if the tile you need is available - at all, or at a time you can acquire it - but it's mostly about planning and managing your money. Should feel drier, but I find it to be fun. It has received mixed reviews in the group, but at least some of them are willing to play it again.
  • Trajan: A very complex Euro that I brought after it was on my wishlist for a long time. I have only played it once, but it seemed to work very well (although we made some rules mistakes). Nadine has already played it half a dozen times. I hope to play it again. Everyone else has liked it, I think.