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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Movie Reviews: Passengers, Your Name, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Hidden Figures

Passengers: I am astounded that this Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt disaster was (supposedly) a "great script that needs to be made" for several years, and no one in all that time was able to see the Big Problem with it. Insider sources confirm that it wasn't a matter of a late script change; the script was always this disturbing.

There are actually two parts to the movie. The less significant is the disaster movie in space, which is filmed well but entirely contrived. The disaster and all of the circumstances that lead to it are contrived. That there is no one but two useless passengers able to address the problem (instead of competent ship pilots, autopilots, or engineers that are awakened on a rotational basis to check the ship) is contrived. That the problem is exactly enough of a problem to threaten the ship but (ultimately) easily fixed by a single dangerous act (which fixes EVERYTHING that went wrong, instantly) is so contrived and silly that you wonder that this movie could be made only a few years after similar and far better movies like The Martian or Interstellar. The acting is okay, and there is one nifty shot of what happens to you when you're in a swimming pool and the gravity stops; that's about the only good thing to say about the movie.

The engineers who made this ships must be morons. No backups for things that "can't possibly fail". Right. No waking up the crew once in a while to perform maintenance or check that everything is okay? Right.No avoidance of hurtling rocks while traveling through space for 120 years? Right.

But who cares? The main concept of the movie is about a guy who accidentally wakes up on a ship that has 90 years to go and is, therefore, faced with the prospect of living and dying on the ship instead of on the world he was supposed to reach at the destination. The movie contrives most ridiculously that there is no way to reenter suspended animation (no backups!). And so, after going a little loopy for a year, the man does the vastly horrible and immoral act of choosing and condemning another passenger, a beautiful woman that he lusts over, to suffer that same fate because he doesn't want to suffer alone. Of course, he hides what he did and we know she is going to discover it eventually. And then the ship starts breaking down.

Spoilers ahead, but you should just skip the movie anyway.

The idea for the movie isn't terrible: the act is terrible, and the movie sort of acknowledges this. The movie is supposed to make us feel that he has done a wicked thing, but instead of punishing him the movie presents us with a freaking romance movie, and not a good one. We are supposed to be sympathetic with him and root for him. Thank god I was able to fast forward through much of the romance, because it made me ill. The two leads have some chemistry, but very little in the way of character .. but again, who cares? The act was the act of a desperate, drowning man, so maybe, MAYBE it is at least understandable, and maybe MAYBE if he was portrayed as horrible, and realizing how horribly he acted and immediately confessing his sins, she could come to forgive him for stealing her entire life from her. But not telling her for months and romancing her for an hour of movie time is unforgivable. Instead of the movie stressing that this is a sick man and his act was revolting, and his not telling her is even more revolting, it wants us to enjoy their burgeoning romantic chemistry.

She gets rightly pissed off after she finds out, but the movie doesn't end with her killing him and finding out what it means to be alone, or afraid of a man who would destroy her life, imprison her on a ship, and lie to her for many months just so he could trick her into sleeping with him. Instead, when they face the possibility of losing the entire ship, she realizes how much she loves him after all and can't face living without him. Oh. My. God.

And we're not even done. Through more idiotic movie contrivance, after saving the ship, he discovers a way to put only her (or any one person) back into suspended animation, and she chooses to stay and live her life with him on the ship.

Who thought this was a good idea?

Just to complete the stupidity, we also have a black guy who wakes up just long enough to help save the cute white couple and then die, because what would a sci-fi movie be without that?

Your Name: A beautiful, subtitled, animated body-swap film from Japan. Something like Charlotte Sometimes, a high school boy from Tokyo and a high school girl from a small mountain town near a lake begin to switch bodies through mysterious circumstances. This disrupts their lives in several ways, and they try to communicate by leaving notes. But most importantly, they try to find each other. And, for various reasons, it's not that simple.

This is a rich, complex tale. There are several points where you might expect the movie, if it were American, to end, but it just veers off in yet another direction. And yet, it all works beautifully; nothing is added just for filling, and all elements foreshadow or recapitulate other elements with perfect sense. The only thing I found extraneous were the Japanese pop songs, several of which intrude upon the film at various points. in my opinion, all of these but the last one should have been ditched (not that my opinion on Japanese pop music means much, but I think they were not particularly good, and in any case they tried to impose emotions in places where the movie was doing a perfectly fine job without them.) The brief song and graphics at the beginning actually hurt the movie by making the whole production look like a typical anime TV show.

Aside from the music, it was haunting, sweet, romantic, and tragic all at once. A great film.

A Tale of Love and Darkness: Based on the book of the same name and the autobiographical story of Amos Oz's childhood in Jerusalem before, during, and just after the founding of the state of Israel, this is Natalie Portman's baby: her first time directing, she also wrote the screenplay and starts as Amos' mother. While the book focuses on Amos, his parents playing significant but secondary roles, Natalie is the central figure in the movie sharing equal (or a little more) screen time with Amir Tessler playing the young Amos.

The movie shows a lot of promise, in that it is a lovely work of art but not particularly entertaining. There are grim and harrowing movies that are also entertaining (not fun, but emotionally investing, captivating, involving you in the story). This movie doesn't do that very well. Instead, it plays as a series of film scenes, all rather grim and bleak, some of them well shot, all well acted, but not very involving. Scenes seem to come and go without any warning or connection. The night when the radio announces the vote to create a state shows jubilation, but there were no scenes leading up to it that would have made us care. An early scene involving young Jewish and Arab children who were trying to be friendly until an accident drives them apart should be prescient but is never followed up in any meaningful way on screen, and the characters never reappear.

Natalie makes us understand the allegory of the scene, of course, and the omniscient narrator bemoans the senseless conflict with his personal political views. Shot well, voiced beautifully, but they're not the story. The story is that of the mother, her dreams of what Israel would be like and her descent into depression and - ultimately - suicide when the dreams don't become reality. Again, Natalie makes us understand the allegory of the mother's dreams with the unrealized dreams of the state, but only as that: an allegory. Not a movie, not a story. An art piece, not entertainment. Unfortunately, for most people this movie will drag on for far too long. It could have been cut down to focus on the art and statement, because as far as the story goes, it's just not interesting.

The film making is interesting, the movie is bleak but watchable, and the art is good. Hopefully her directing will be matched with better screenwriting the next time around.

Hidden Figures: Many women, as well as women of color, contributed to the success of America's space program through their hard work in engineering, math, and supervisory skills. In particular for the women of color, this was a challenge, since they did this work at a time when segregation was in effect in the south, which was where NASA's offices were.

I just saved you from having to see the movie.

Like other dull biopics, the screenplay presents the most obvious, unchallenging, straightforward scenes without a whit of depth. The acting, directing, set and costumes are all fine. But when a movie presents a story where the ending is known, there has to be something else there to keep the viewer's interest. There's no there, here. One of the characters is great at math. So - surprise, the white men scorn her until she proves she is capable. She has to run half a mile a few times a day to get to the colored bathroom. So - surprise, everyone wonders why she is absent for so long a couple of times a day. These are scenes that could have been incorporated into a great movie. Instead, these scenes ARE the movie, and that's it. And oh yeah, we send some white guys into space.

One of the real women (now in her 90s), expressed surprise that anyone would want to watch a movie made about her. This movie doesn't challenge that question.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Clock Face Routing Puzzle

There is a clock face lying on my table, upon which I have placed cheese on all of the numbers, one through twelve. I have trained a mouse to start by eating all of the cheese from whichever number it pleases, and then to eat all of the cheese of any other number, so long as the new number still has cheese and is either a multiple of, or a divisor of, the number from which it has just come. The mouse continues to run to new numbers with the same restriction. It can never go back to the same number (no cheese there).

My mouse is now smart enough to eat the maximum number of pieces of cheese that it can. How many pieces is that, and what is the order it takes (there are a few solutions for the maximum, not counting just flipping the entire route).

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Moview Reviews: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, La La Land, Lion (Saroo), Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, Proof

Lot of good movies in this post, for once...

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: This movie acts as the first part of a two part movie, where the original Star Wars (4) is now positioned as the second part. In the original Star Wars, the opening crawl informed us that rebels had stolen plans to the Death Star. Later in the movie, a rebel leader said that they found a weakness in its design. This movie fills in the story of how those plans were discovered and stolen (you thought that was just backstory, right?) and why the weakness is there (you thought that was just a plot hole in the first movie, right?).

Felicity Jones stars as the protagonist who is reluctantly roped into helping steal the plans. Diego Luna and a host of others form her "dirty dozen" attack team. Famous sets from the original Star Wars becomes more and more prominent as we race to the end of the movie, which ends scant hours before the original Star Wars starts. You will recognize objects, races, computer screens, and control rooms from the original movie, but the story is not a retread of other Star Wars movies (a criticism leveled at The Force Awakens), despite the fact that the story has to fit into the one that we already know. Instead, this movie is like D-Day meets Star Trek; it's a gritty war movie with little place for humor, except for one dry, pithy droid. The mission seems to be suicide, but there is an undercurrent of hope. This movie puts Luke Skywalker's journey in the fourth movie into perspective, and makes that movie even better; Luke was standing on the shoulders of panoply of heroes.

Like the awesome Daisy Ridley from The Force Awakens, Felicity provides a well-defined courageous heroine who happens to be a woman. This generation's movies, many of them from Disney, are putting heroines into movies that have no specific romantic goals, which is great ... mostly. What it lacks in romantic chemistry, it also lacks in personal chemistry: we care for her, and maybe we care for one or two of the sidekicks, but (except for two sidekicks) none of the characters seem to care much for each other. That gives the movie a certain coldness, and inserts distance between the characters and the audience. I don't need for the heroine to have romance as her main goal, but a little romantic, friendship, or familial side-plot gives us more involvement and does not have to imply a lack of fierceness or independence. Human stories involve us, and all human emotions (not just fear, bravery, and determination) are a central part of being human.

My only other complaint is a certain creepiness factor: Peter Cushing who played Governor Tarkin died in the 1990s, yet here he is again, on screen, playing in a movie through the wonders of motion capture and CGI. It's jarring. Did they get his permission? His family's permission? Shouldn't an actor have a say as to which movies in which his likeliness appears? Are we really going full Looker?

These issues aside, the movie is beautifully shot - all the grittiness and dirt that was absent from the second trilogy is back, making the world seem rich and vibrant. There are new worlds and settings, even as the movie gradually leads back to the settings that we will see again in the original trilogy. A few other characters from the original trilogy also appear (either through great makeup jobs or more CGI). I greatly missed seeing lightsabers, which is one of the main elements that makes Star Wars great, but when Darth Vader appears in his few brief cameos he both steals and elevates the movie.

The story works well, as if it had been part of the original script. The characters are distinct (if distancing, as I noted). It all works better than it should. It's a great ride and essential viewing for a Star Wars fan. It will probably be somewhat confusing for someone who never saw any of the other movies, especially because it ends on a cliff hanger (leading straight into the first scene of the original Star Wars), but I believe it holds up well in this case, too.

La La Land: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone present a beautiful movie musical, like a 1950s musical just barely kissing the 21st century (cellphones, and a bad word here or there). The thing we worry about when we hear "musical" is that the characters will be shallow and the music and dancing hokey and jarring, forgettable self-indulgence at best, interminable annoyance at worst. Children's movies are hit or miss with musical numbers, but adult movies are generally miss. Happily, this movie is one big hit.

Emma and Ryan have so much chemistry, its a wonder they haven't done a half dozen movies together before this. They sing okay (if not great), they dance well enough, and Ryan supposedly even learned enough piano to play it himself during his scenes. So, much of the singing and dancing isn't spectacular, but the movie makes up for this with great music, great costuming and visuals, beautiful choreography, sweetness, enthusiasm, and numbers that add to the movie's fun rather than jar it.

The story is also not spectacular - girl meets boy, boy and girl part, will they make it back together? Will they succeed at their dreams? - but the 21st century touches add enough color to make the characters fully-fleshed, the dialog captivating, and the ending a mystery. The pivotal fight scene before the parting was handled beautifully - it could have come from one of Linklater's Before movies. Despite one or two curse words, the movie is suitable for all ages, although some of it may go over the head of the youngest viewers.

I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just say this: the movie ends (the last ten seconds) with a slow smile. I've been thinking about the choice to do this for a day since I saw the movie, and I'm still not sure that this was the right ending or just the more palatable ending. If you see the movie let me know: how would your feeling for the movie be different if it didn't end with the smile?

Great movie. Worth seeing in the cinema.

Lion (Saroo): I have seen a number of great movies this year (La La Land comes to mind), and I haven't seen all of the ones I want to see, but I am confident in naming this as the best movie of the year. Wow, what a great movie.

Based on the book, a true story, in 1985 a five year old boy gets separated from his family by accidentally taking a train ride from a remote Indian village to Calcutta, 1000 miles away. He doesn't know how to pronounce the name of his village properly, or even speak Bengali (he speaks Hindi). He experiences various pitiless, travails on the Calcutta streets and in an overcrowded orphanage before he is adopted by a well-to-do, good-hearted couple from Tanzania. They give him a new, good life, but he comes to remember that he left his family behind and that they may be looking for him. And now, in 2010, there is such a thing as Google Earth.

If you liked Slumdog Millionaire, or even if you didn't, this is set in the same kind of space, but a very different story. The story is great, which is a good start. The acting by everyone is outstanding. Sunny Pawar, a very young Indian boy in his first film role, does an incredible job conveying Saroo's thoughts and fears with his eyes and his face. Dev Patel as the grown up version is also amazing. More amazing (if that is possible) is Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-worthy performance as a woman who (with her husband) chooses not to bring more children into the world but instead give hope, love, and a future to some other children. The actors playing Saroo's brother, mother, girlfriend, and everyone else all act flawlessly.

The directing is excellent, the cinematography captures both the beautiful and the ugly in full measure, and the lighting and music work. I don't get emotional at many films, but I teared up twice during this movie; once at the pathetic circumstances of a lost child beset upon in the big city, and once when the protagonist's long quest for resolutions was coming to its conclusion.

The only thing I could complain about, if anything, was that the Saroo's Aussie girlfriend was portrayed as too perfect - she initiated the relationship, she supported him in everything, she didn't react badly when he gave her grief, and she stuck with him through it all. I haven't met any woman who is THAT perfect.

Moana: This is an odd Disney movie. It has a young, strong female protagonist, but she's not a princess (although she is part of the Disney princess pantheon now, anyway) and she has no love interest at all (Anna from Frozen and Merida from Brave didn't end up with anyone, but love and marriage were still a part of their stories; I think Elsa is the only other Disney princess without a love story of any kind (other than love for her sister, of course)). It has an epic quest, a narcissistic demigod, and some of the mythological spirits heavily borrowed from Miyazaki movies; which is not SO odd, I suppose, since the movie is set in Polynesia, which is halfway to Japan. Then again, Lilo and Stitch was set in Hawaii, also technically in Polynesia (but modern Polynesia, so there you go).

The music is not too memorable. There are some b-grade songs, but also some songs so explicitly mundane and straightforward that they are laughably bad. The "message" - because every Disney movie has to have one straightforward, uncomplicated message - is "be true to yourself". Follow your heart's desire, even if doing so recklessly will likely leave you drowned, crashed on the rocks, or burned to death under a steam of lava. Of course, this message is less unbelievable if you also happen to be the most favored of the ancient spirit of the ocean, who is there to rescue you from drowning, save you from the rocks, and guide you safely around the lava flow.

Moana is an okay character. Her friends and relatives are uninteresting and one-dimensional. Maui the demigod is two-dimensional, at best. The animation is stunning, as usual. The quest works well enough and - aside from a trip to monster-land and some annoying songs, which take up about a fifth of the running time - the rest of the movie moves along, helped greatly by the Miyakazi influences. It has a funny, stupid chicken, who thankfully doesn't talk. But please, Disney, enough with the pee and butt jokes.

Kubo and the Two Strings: This is a lovely Americanized Japanese animation film. Mostly stop-motion, with some CGI, the stop-motion is so smooth that the whole things looks like CGI. Many stop motion scenes are based on origami.

Like other Japanese movies, the director knows how to frame beautiful shots, sometimes expansive, sometimes intimate; American movies can create beautiful and realistic effects, but rarely know how to pause or frame the scenes to inspire wonder. Also, as in other Japanese movies, the film is shot through with traditional Japanese traditions regarding spirits and other mythological elements; at least, I think so. And the movie is unafraid to deal with parental mental health issues, parental death and unwholesome family connections, ideas rarely tackled by American films for children.

Yet, unlike other Japanese movies, there are things about the movie that are very American. The movie uses English wordplay. The characters feel American with American values.

The main character is a boy who has a few real magical skills, and who sets out on a hero's journey. His lives alone with his mother near a small village. His mother fades in and out of mental clarity, but she strictly warns him to never be out at night, or the Moon-spirit, his grandfather, will take him. Naturally, he stays out late at night once, only to be set upon by his witch-like aunts and to be told that his mother is gone and the village burned down. He must find some mcguffins in order to be able to fight. The mcguffins don't make much sense, and neither do the various magical deux ex machinas that appear in order to guide him along.

The problem with these kinds of random quests, random encounters, and plot device guides is that you don't feel much for the character, his enemies, or any of the obstacles. Still, other than a fifteen minute lull about a half an hour into the movie, it moves along with some funny characters and thrilling action sequences, mixed with beautiful, sometimes stirring or stunning animation. The protagonist is no worse than other movies of this sort. It's a far better movie than Moana, The Jungle Book, or Finding Dory, and equal to (better in some ways, worse in others) Zootopia.

Proof: Gwyneth Paltrow gives another incredible performance as the daughter of a math genius who recently passed away. She speaks with a slow lilt that emotes a combination of depression, fatigue, and possible mental imbalance. Her father authored a world-famous proof back in the day, and then spent his remaining years growing ever more insane - with possible periods of lucidity. She is also a math genius, who took care of her father through all of the difficult years of his life. But now she fears that she may also becoming insane.

Her sister, and one of her father's students, the latter of whom finds what may be a new earth-shaking proof among his last papers, share this concern. Is this new possible proof the result of a final burst of lucidity by the father? Or is it the work of his daughter, as she claims? Who to believe? The movie focuses only partly on these questions; it also focuses on the relationship between the sisters and how they deal with life after their father's death.

Based on a play, written with humor, pathos, and intense mystery, this is an extremely good character-driven movie, if a bit hard to watch sometimes. People with no math background need not be worried; the actual math discussions are few and easy to follow.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: This is a pleasant movie, the first of an alleged five part series in the same world that contains, and by the same author that wrote, the Harry Potter series. This time J. K. Rowling went straight to the screenplay, but you can buy the screenplay from Amazon.

The title of the movie is from a quick-and-dirty small encyclopedia of magical creatures that Rowling published and sold for charity, but the movie is actually fleshed out from some tales briefly mentioned in the Harry Potter series: Newt Scamander, procurer, protector, and proponent of rare, mostly tame magical beasts, and Gellert Grindelwald, yet another Rowling bad guy who wants the magical world to assert itself as ruler over the muggle world.

The plot: This movie is divorced from the main story of Harry Potter. It is set in 1924 as Newt is at the peak of his procuring and before he has begun writing his book. Something nasty is tearing up the streets of New York City. Graves, a high-up in Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA, the US version of the Ministry of Magic) is doing some secret spying on some orphans who have been collected by a crank fundamentalist lady who is convinced there are witches that walk the streets of NYC. She provides them food and shelter, but also sends them out to distribute pamphlets and whips them for misbehavior. Graves has been meeting with one of the orphans, Credence, who also has a sister. Graves thinks that his sister or some other girl may be of special importance, or something. We find out more about this later, as it turns from the side-plot into the main plot during the last third of the movie.

Meanwhile, Newt arrives in NY with his bag of creatures. His bag gets mixed up with a muggle's, and the muggle accidentally releases a bunch of the creatures. Newt drags the muggle into his quest to find them, along with a discredited MACUSA enforcer, Tina, and her mind-reading sister. The four of them experience trouble, including Newt and Tina being sentenced and nearly put to death (!!!) by a harassed and apparently ineffectual and panicking MACUSA. They escape, collect the last missing creatures, and are then caught up in the Graves plot, the orphans, and the something nasty that is tearing up the streets.

Reactions: This movie is enjoyable, particularly for younger viewers who will take delight in all of the pretty creatures contained in Newt's suitcase. The first third of the movie actually meandered a lot as we hear a lot of slow conversations between Tina, her sister, and Newt, and slowly wander around the contents of the suitcase (for what must be a good 15 minutes) and watch creatures wrecking buildings (another 15 minutes). A young Harry Potter's delight in the magic world was one of the original movie's strength; in this movie, the muggle serves that purpose, to a lesser degree. The story is Rowlingian: a main plot and a sub-plot that switch places about two thirds of the way through. This make this movie feel more like a Harry Potter book than any of the Harry Potter movies did. The HP movies were usually over-rushed to cover only the action points from the books. Older viewers might feel bored during these early scenes.

The HP movies had a strung together overarching plot. At least starting from the fourth book/movie, you know that Harry potter must eventually face off against Voldemort, so there is an underlying story going on behind the scenes and a climax toward which everything is leading. This movie feels like a small vignette about a one-off event; only a cognoscenti would guess that this is probably the first of a five part arc about Grindelwald. The first Harry Potter movie(s) felt about the same.

In the original HP movies, Harry, Hermione, and Ron were cute kids whose characters grew and changed over each movie (well, Ron was basically a lump for movies 2-4). In this movie, there are no character arcs; the only change that we see is that Newt and Tina are keen on each other by the end of the movie.

The movie is beautifully shot and directed, well lit, with the usual HP magic abounding in the pictures and newspapers, the menagerie of creatures, and some Easter eggs. It lacks character arcs, an overriding setting in a larger story, and connection with the main characters, who are cute but not characters who one would identify with due to sympathy. But it is in other ways magical, the story is good after the slow parts, the good guys and bad guys are three-dimensional, flawed characters (although the main bad guy is not particularly sinister), and the merging of magic and period is kind of intriguing: the 1920s world was gender-divided, but the wizarding world isn't. On the other hand, it appears to be race-divided; there are no minority characters in the film. In the jazz clubs, where in the 1920s one could expect to find a racially mixed audience, the clientele is Caucasian characters and non-humans. The movie is good, but I expect the next films in the series to be darker and better.

Monday, November 07, 2016

2016 Holiday Gift Guide

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

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

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

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

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 10"

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

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

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

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

Antike II: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

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

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

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

Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it. This game was published by Victory Point Games.
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. All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players

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

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

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

A great game for non-gamers and gamers alike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You should play with the nicest board you can afford.

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

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

Love Letter: Age 8+, 2-4 players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A simple and fun game.

Pandemic / Pandemic Legacy

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

Pandemic is a cooperative game of saving the world from disease. Other cooperative games include Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot, and 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.
Parade: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

Another easy to learn and addictive little card game. Add cards to the end of the "parade", taking cards from the parade into your pile based on a few simple rules. Points are bad ... usually.
Pit: Ages 7+, 4 to 10 players

I don't know if you can play up to 10 players with the original game, but you should. This is a loud trading game. The cards are dealt out, someone says go, and everyone shouts for what they need. The first player to collect a full set wins.

Raucous and fun. The deluxe version comes with it's own bell to signal the start of trading.
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.
Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Enjoy,
Yehuda