Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Reviews: Spider-man: Homecoming, The Beautiful Fantastic, Gifted, Paterson, Primer

Spider-man: Homecoming: Another in the long list of passable and entertaining but ultimately unimportant Marvel movies. Tobey Maguire set the standard for the Spider-man role in 2002 and 2004; Tom Holland doesn't quite live up to that standard, but he does a decent job. Tom's Peter Parker is more child-like and less complex, a flat two-dimensional comic character compared to Tobey's rich and conflicted adolescent, but that is more to do with this movie's director and team of Marvel-assembled writers (six of them) versus the better director and single author of the earlier movies.

Slightly better is Michael Keaton's Vulture villain, who steals the screen every time he's around. With a little more character development - some more family time or father-daughter bonding - he could have been one of Marvel's rare, fully-fleshed characters. He gets awful close. I almost cared about him. As for everyone else, they are occasionally funny or emotive but ultimately one-dimensional plot points to serve as backdrop.

The plot works well within the movie, but not quite as well within the Marvel continuity: Vulture is collecting the energy materials left behind after The Avengers and selling them on the black market (we here about the sales, but not much about the effect of these sales). Peter is 15 years old, but jazzed up after having been called to be part of the incredibly dangerous fight against Captain America in Captain America: Civil War, and now thinks of himself as interning for Iron Man in the hopes of being made a full avenger. Iron Man wants him to just stick to his local neighborhood until he gets older - which doesn't make much sense, since he called him up to fight Captain America, for goodness sake. Of course, Peter encounters Vulture and tries to prove himself, takes a beating, earns Iron Man's wrath, gets his gun and badge taken away, but decides to solve the case on his own (excuse me, I seem to have mixed this movie up with every cop movie, ever).

The special effects are hum-drum for this kind of movie. In particular I don't like Peter's "suit", which is basically a copy of Iron Man's (given to him by Iron Man) with computer vision, a talking computer, etc etc. It doesn't have Iron Man's armor, but that doesn't seem to matter, since Spidey is invulnerable to any kind of punishment (like every other damn superhero), so he is basically Iron Man light. If there's one thing that makes a superhero movie good, it's when the hero's powers and surrounding characters are limited and markedly different from the other ones'. This movie fails in this regard, big time.

But, continuity and unoriginality aside, there is nothing else remarkably wrong with the movie. The contained plot flows, some scenes are tense, some are ridiculous (I'm sorry, but holding a boat together after it is split into two parts won't stop it from sinking). The scenes where Spider-man and Vulture encounter each other out of costume and each comes to realize who the other one is are done well.

Roughly on par with Captain America: Winter Soldier.

The Beautiful Fantastic: A deliberately quirky movie, pleasant and enjoyable, not too deep. Imagine the heroine of Amelie with a less challenging set of obstacles to overcome.

Bella (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a librarian and an aspiring children's author who lives in a small flat where she is responsible for keeping up the garden, but doesn't. She is faced with eviction unless she overhauls the garden by herself in thirty days. She is too poor to pay anyone (how she acquires and pays for the supplies is not dealt with). The cantankerous old, possibly ill widower next door neighbor is the one who ratted on her. This widower employs a gay (gayish?) young cook, Vernon, but treats him poorly, so the cook quits and decides to cook for Bella instead, who can't pay him, but somehow the widower continues to pay him and Vernon continues to cook for the widower so long as he doesn't have to deal with him on a daily basis. The widower eventually gives Bella a little advice. Also, Bella is interested in this odd young clockwork inventor fellow, who may also be interested in her.

The thing is ridiculously contrived and its premise exists to provide scenes of gardening and the main characters intermingling in humorous or wistful fashion. It's not a brilliant script, but it has its moments. It's ponderous with metaphor, but it's never mean and it's pleasant and fun to watch. The acting and photography are nice. A sweet little diversion.

Gifted: A beautiful, intelligent, and heartfelt movie, something like Proof crossed with My Sister's Keeper.

Chris Evans is Frank, who is raising his insanely gifted niece who was left in his living room as a baby by his insanely gifted sister after she committed suicide in his bathroom. The sister's intentions become slightly clearer as the movie progresses; however, Frank a) has given Mary, who is now 6 years old (McKenna Grace), access to enough mathematical reading material for her to already be well into advanced PhD level mathematics and b) is trying to send her to first grade in a normal school where the kids her age are learning basic arithmetic in the hopes of her having a more normal childhood than his sister. (It's not clear to me what he's been doing with the child until the movie starts.)

Frank lives a spartan life, and his mother, though she loves Frank, thinks the combination of a one room house and inadequate education is going to rob Mary of the chance to solve the same great proof that her daughter was working on. But Frank blames himself and his mother for his sister's suicide.They go to court to figure out who the girl should live with (again, it's not clear why the mother waited until now to make this move; and FYI, the father is basically out of the picture.)

If you overlook the two niggling questions above, it is wondrous to see McKenna (who is actually 11) act with such poise and emotion. Much of the movie is just watching a smart kid try to deal with her broken family, her loving uncle and his protective friend (Octavia Spencer), and the idiot children who inhabit her world, while the other parts are a courtroom drama without any bad guys and without any clear path to happiness for anyone. It's touching and emotional, funny and suspenseful.

Worth seeing.

Paterson: This is a very unambitious movie by Jim Jarmusch, starring Adam Driver as an unpublished poet named Paterson who drives a bus in Paterson, NJ. He has a girlfriend who doesn't do anything but paint everything in the house in black and white patterns but who wants to play guitar. Every day, Paterson wakes up, goes to work, drives a bus, walks a dog, drinks a beer in a bar, comes home, and straightens his mailbox. He steals time to write poems and he hears other people talking about their lives.

I know this because five repetitions of this is the first hour of the movie, after which I'm afraid I gave up. After I gave up I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and discovered that something slightly interesting happens a little after I gave up, and then nothing happens again, a little like Old Man and the Sea but less intense and less literate.

Everyone does a lovely job acting, and the directing and cinematography are all well done, and admittedly that's a nice thing to see. The only uplift in the movie comes from the four poems written for the movie by Ron Padgett; like the movie, they seem a little dull at the start but, unlike the movie, they display flashes of beauty as they progress. This wasn't enough to keep me watching, unfortunately. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I watched it. I just think there needs to be a little more there, there.

If you want to hear from the poet and how he came to be involved with the movie, click here.

Primer: This 2006 movie is probably the definitive focus on time travel for time travel's sake movie. It tells the story of two guys who are working on various chemical/material engineering projects, when they discover that they have invented a time travel box (it's a complicated explanation of waves that travel back and forth between tie periods). They then have various reactions to it: they go back in time and make money by betting on stocks that they know will go up, and eventually have a falling out about whether to continue using the box(es). Like later movies, such as Inception and Interstellar, the movie takes the math seriously enough to try to explain the paradoxes.

The movie looks like it was shot with a budget of a few thousand dollars, but the camera work is good enough for what it's trying to do, although it looks grainy and dark. The acting is fine. The script is ... well, it starts off with techno jumble that was easy enough for me to understand, but as it gets close to the end I just got lost, After reading up on the explanation, I can say that it does make sense, but it seems like they deliberately make it impossible to follow on screen.

More of a curiosity piece than an enjoyable movie. At least it wasn't bad and annoying.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Second Draft of the Book Done

Yay. And less than a year after the first draft.

Third draft means a) getting it edited, b) adding sources for and backing up all of my wild claims, c) adding any important arguments or information from the sources that I noted but forgot to include, and d) adding material anywhere my editors say to, as well as eliminating duplication or restructuring as necessary.

Fourth draft will be to pretty the book up with pictures and games.

Editors? Publishers?


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Movie Reviews: Wonder Woman, Logan, Personal Shopper, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Jane Eyre BBC (2006)

Wonder Woman:  Gal Gadot stars as Wonder Woman (aka Diana aka Diana Prince) in the first good DCEU movie. Unlike the last DCEU movies that were filled with grim, grit, and sadness, this film mixes the grimness with as much high popping fun, action, and even a little introspection about the good guys.

The movie is lovingly shot and detailed, with great settings and a large cast of background characters, at least some of whom sport two dimensional characters instead of the usual one dimensional. There are some assorted tokens of various races, but they are not caricatured. WW is not just a cardboard cutout of every other hero with a simple quirk of personality. She is another being altogether.

The plot: WW is created out of clay but somehow also the daughter of Zeus. She is raised on a secret island paradise of Amazon warriors and eventually trains to be the best, not only because some of her guardians believe that Ares will return to eradicate mankind and kill her, but because she has special powers that she keeps uncovering by accident.

Outside the island it is WW1 (a departure from the original mythos). Enter Steve Trevor in a downed plane, a British spy who stole a German cookbook for poison gas, followed by nasty Germans. The Amazons experience some real losses, but rather than do anything about it (um, wasn't that their entire purpose??) they waffle, so Diana rescues Steve, convinced that Ares has returned and it is up to her to stop him. Cue a lot of fish out of water scenes, as well as badass fearless and fearsome fighting woman scenes, as Steve rallies a cast of misfits to try to attack the German gas manufacturing base.

Gal owns the character of Wonder Woman, and in fact just about everyone does a fine acting job. The shooting and directing are lovely. There is time for some actual character moments between fighting - not a great amount, but some - and even some of the fighting is original - although a lot isn't. The breaths of sunshine and exuberant camaraderie enabled me to endure and even appreciate some of the longer fighting scenes.

Wonder Woman succeeds in something that Thor and Loki in the Marvel movies never did: she actually comes off looking like a demigod, rather than a petulant clumsy tough guy who is hard to hurt. And that's something new and refreshing.

But there are a few problems, at least for me. The movie's characters are still pretty lightweight, because the script is afraid to go into too much depth without another action scene. The movie's message seems to be that we are all equally evil or good or a mix, and tries not to take sides in WW1. Really? I think, just sometimes, you can take sides. Simultaneously and paradoxically, WW kicks the crap out of - and kills - German soldiers like they are meaningless video game characters, which contradicts her character and the previous problem. This story is a bit of a disservice to the veterans of WW1 who were not simply fighting Germany because they - or the Germans - were under mind control. And, when the war was over, we didn't all suddenly realize how much we all loved each other. So it is morally wishy-washy, not to mention possibly going to leave children pretty confused about what actually happened in WW1.

And, if WW1 was so bad, where was WW during WW2? Went back to her island to take a nap?

Anyway, you can try to suspend these problems and enjoy the movie. It's about on par with Iron Man in my mind, which is a good, solid comic book movie. Not on par with the great movies, such as The Dark Night or Terminator 2, but solid and enjoyable. Actually makes me want to see Justice League.

Logan: This is the second of the new R-rated Marvel movies, the other one being the shallow, violent, and insipid Deadpool. I'm well aware that Deadpool is loved and was a box office success. It had wall-to-wall juvenile humor, lots of cursing, on screen blood, explosions, punching, big things crashing and falling apart, and some sexy. Whatever.

This movie also has lots of cursing, and has even more on screen blood, stabbing, and limb severing. Worse, the stabbing and severing, as in Kick-Ass, is often performed by a young girl. It is also nearly wall to wall misery and humorlessness.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) is Wolverine, who has lived for a long time and has wanted to die in the past, but who is theoretically immortal since his body automatically heals (aging is cell damage, after all). He also has an adamantite skeleton that was inserted in place of his bones, a process that was uniquely able to be done on him due to his super-regenerative abilities. These include adamantite claws that protrude or retract into his hands and can be used to slice and dice enemies.

Now the adamantite appears to be slowly poisoning him, and now his regenerative properties are beginning to fade; he may actually soon die. In the meantime, he is caring for Professor X, the mutant with massive telepathic abilities who must be sedated since he, too, is suffering from old age: a degenerative mental condition which makes him a danger to anyone in a wide radius when not drugged up. A third mutant is some kind of albino that can track people at a distance but suffers massive skin burns when exposed to sunlight. And apparently they are three of the last mutants alive. It's not entirely clear what happened to all of them, but it is eventually revealed that Professor X killed some of them when his mental disorder first began.

The movie is basically a road trip. Logan is tasked with taking the young girl mutant, Laura, across the US to a supposed safe haven, which may not actually exist. In the meantime, Laura is being hunted. Lots of mayhem ensues.

Logen is not a great movie, but it is far better than Deadpool. For the first three fifths of the movie, the screenwriter simply makes everyone miserable, on the false assumption that misery conveys character and engenders empathy. Unfortunately, it doesn't. It's just misery; it didn't work for the first three DC Comics movies, and there is no reason, other than misplaced loyalty by Marvel fans, that one should believe that it works here. Still, I'll take misery over repulsive juvenile plastic immorality and sick/ugly jokes any day. At least it tried.

The cinematography was well done, and the acting was very good. Dafne Keen does a good job as Laura; I constantly reminded of Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things.

The movie picks up just a bit in the last two fifths, where we finally begin to show a budding relationship between Logan and his young charge. Just flashes of a relationship, which is enough to finally engage the sympathy of the viewer. Not quite enough to bring the movie up from its first acts, because the movie ends and the relationship is severed before any real sympathy kicks in, which is quite a shame. If the relationship-building scenes had come earlier in the movie, and were followed by many more, the movie really would have been something.

As it is, the strong language adds nothing to the movie; in fact, most of it seems as awkward and out of place as Spock's use of bad language in Star Trek IV. The violence is more bloody and more up close, some of it so brutal that I turned my head away and waited for the sounds of scraping metal and punctured flesh to subside before I looked back again. More visceral violence also didn't add anything to the movie; I'm sure people raised on bloody video games thought nothing of it, but for me, pornographic violence deadens my soul. I don't enjoy seeing people hurt, and don't take pleasure out of seeing them die in various ways. Sorry. These scenes were supposed to be entertaining, I guess, but I kept wanting to get back to (or start) the actual story.

So meh. Not going into my re-watch list.

Personal Shopper: After making the lovely Clouds of Sils Maria, the director Olivier Assayas kept Kristen Stewart around for another movie. Unfortunately, this one isn't that one. It's not a bad movie, and I must disclose that it is also a genre of movie that doesn't really interest me.

In this one, Kristen is waiting around in France to make contact with the spirit of her recently dead brother. Both of them believed in the spirit world, him more than her, and she wants to be sure that he has had enough time to make contact before moving on with her life. In the meantime, she is the personal shopper for a fabulously wealthy but obnoxiously oblivious and unapproachable celebrity of some kind. Some kinds of contact with the spirit world are made, or maybe not, and then other random things happen, some spooky, some violent. But these are few and far between the wanderings around of the protagonist.

In CoSM, there was a definitive, progressing story-line with interesting characters interacting and evolving, supported by an overarching metaphor and some lovely scenery and acting. The acting in this movie is good, but the plot is disjointed, the characters kind of wander around in a screenplay that seems to be cobbled together from a few interesting moments and a lot of stereotypical French cinematic cliches (shots of motorcycles and traffic, smoking, turtlenecks, and pointless conversations). I wasn't impressed.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Not much to say about this except that it bored me and I couldn't finish it. Johnny Depp provides the only on-screen character and charisma. Everyone else is just a one-dimensional cardboard figure; as a result, the action scenes were like watching building fall down with no characters in them. The plots and action sequences are convoluted and entirely uninteresting, since we've seen them all before, or just about. And there is nothing else there. It's possible I could make another go of it, since it's not bad, exactly, it was just boring.

Jane Eyre (BBC): I don't know if the link is to the full 4-part miniseries, but that's the one you should watch. This is the best version I've yet seen, and possibly the most faithful.

Like all versions, it glosses over Helen's Christian moralizing, so important to the story but absent from any film version. Still, nearly everything else I remember is included, although not always in the right order. The other film versions drastically shorten the initial conversations between Jane and Rochester; this one leaves enough in to not ruin it. The movie doesn't seem like it hurries to get to the action scenes. But it is never dull.

It is all finely acted and produced. Jane really holds herself to be plain, so that you almost believe it. A greatly entertaining visit to the world of Jane Eyre, when you don't have the book about you.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Period Game: Finally A Board Game About Menstruation?

In 2006 I lamented that there were no board games about menstruation. In 2010, I reported on two very limited games by public health services on the topic.

Now two designers, Daniela Gilsanz and Ryan Murphy, have produced a nifty-looking prototype for a game they call The Period Game: Bleed to Succeed. While the game looks pretty and has received a fair amount of press, the web site indicates that they are still looking for a publisher to bring the game to the masses.

On your turn, twist an ovary and one of four marbles comes out: three are clear and one is red. Clear means move one space and maybe collect a tampon or pad to protect you from a period space; red means jump to the next period space. You also get to read informational material in the small booklets that come with the game.

Hamas Has a Board Game: Reaching Jerusalem

Via MEMRI: The board of the "Reaching Jerusalem" game (image:, April 4, 2017)
According to MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), Hamas has published a board game called "Reaching Jerusalem". The game is based on Snakes and Ladders. Snakes are Israeli military equipment, ladders are secret tunnels and Hamas rockets.

According to the designer, who works at the Hamas Interior Ministry, the game is aimed at "strengthening children's military culture and love of jihad."

MEMRI got the information from a Facebook site which does not appear to be accessible, at least not by me.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Made in Ferenze would like you to look at their chess sets again (with 10% off)

I listed one of Italfama's chess sets sold by Made in Firenze among my top ten most expensive board games post, which is now ten years old (and woefully out of date).

Good lord, have I been blogging for that long?

Anyway, you can get 10% off from Made in Firenze until the end of 2017 by entering the code JERGAMES2017. The discount is for anything on the site, not just the chess sets. Some of their sets cost less than 42,540.98€, which is what you would pay for the below one (less 10%).

Monday, April 24, 2017