Sunday, February 27, 2011

RIP My Uncle Howard

A few months after losing her husband, my mom lost her brother on Friday. I'm spending tonight and Tuesday night with her in Beit Shemesh. I'm tired of being a bearer of down vibes to my friends and readers. As Mirah says in Daniel Deronda, "I am too ready to speak of troubles, I think. It seems unkind to put anything painful into other people's minds, unless one were sure it would hinder something worse."

I'm reading / listening to Daniel Deronda. What a shock it must have been to readers in the 19th century to encounter the rich, sympathetic, Zionist Jewish world in the context of a traditional English novel.

Obgame: I played two games of Set with the kids of the kind family who invited us for shabbat lunch. It's only a game if the players are evenly matched.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Session Report, in which Mace thoroughly trounces us in every game

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Nile, Genoa, Tichu.

I confirm my dislike of Nile. Genoa takes us only a little over 2.5 hours to complete.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More Movie Reviews

Black Swan - A woman pushes herself beyond normal limits, and even sanity, to achieve her dream of a perfect performance. This is not an entirely original concept.

Black Swan is a thriller with a dark mood, the occasional grotesque closeup, and some explicit sexual imagery (without nudity, if I recall correctly). Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who is in competition for the lead in Swan Lake, a role that requires innocence and grace as the white swan but sensuality and power as the black swan. She is perfect for the white swan, but lacks something for the black; nevertheless she is chosen for the role, with constant badgering by the director to do more to bring out her black swan. To add to the tension, she believes that another woman, who embodies the black swan quite well, is maneuvering to replace her.

The movie uses fantasy/horror imagery to explicitly show her transformation, some of which is predictable once you get the movie's gestalt. The fantasy/reality descends into some sex and violence. However, the acting is good and result is satisfying.

Fair Game - Fair Game is Valerie Plame' story. Valerie was a CIA agent with contacts around the world. The US sent her husband Joe Wilson to investigate whether uranium was sent from Nigeria to Iraq, in order to justify attacking Iraq. Joe reported that it wasn't, but the US attacked Iraq anyway, claiming that it was. Joe wrote an article in the NY Times discrediting the US admin, and the admin outed Valerie as a CIA agent in retribution (thereby compromising her contacts).

Your politics will color how you receive the movie. However, it is well crafted and tells its story. The revelation occurs halfway through the movie, so we have a chance to see the family in action pretending to be a normal family, and then the sense of isolation they feel as they accept/fight to maintain credibility. Obviously, the movie story wraps up a time segment in a neat way that the real story didn't and couldn't.

I also saw Nothing But the Truth, which was inspired by a journalist, Judith Miller, who wrote about Plame, but which otherwise had little connection to the real events. This film frustrated many critics for being so obviously not the story of Valerie Plame, or even Judith Miller, but it was a good movie marred only by the last three minutes which ruined the entire movie's message.

Going the Distance - I am a sucker for romance and romantic comedies. They come in three types: dumb (many), acceptable (many), and great (few and far between). This light, formulaic movie is about a modern long-distance relationship. The leads, Drew Barreymore and Justin Long, are cute enough and the movie was acceptable.

Howl - The movie interweaves the story of Allen Ginsberg's obscenity trial for his poem Howl, a faux-interview with Allen about the poem, and readings from the poem itself. Some of the readings are set to skillful but straightforward animation sequences. It's possible that you might enjoy the movie if you don't like or know much poetry, but I doubt it. If you like poetry, and Ginsberg in particular, you'll enjoy it.

It wasn't really much of a movie. The trial was foregone, of course, and the rest of it, while interesting for an hour-long TV documentary, didn't go much of anywhere. I expect a bit more from a movie.

The Kids Are All Right - Take a family where the children were the result of a sperm donation. The teenagers search for and find the donor living in the same town, and he and all but one of the parents want to get to know each other. Eventually that parent has an affair with him, and the family goes into crisis.

This could be any family story. This family just happens to be headed by a lesbian couple; the adulteress is the impeccable Julianne Moore. Very little is mentioned in the movie about the "unusual" family state; it would perhaps have been better if nothing at all had been mentioned. True stereotypes and prejudices can only disappear when the distinctive characteristic is no longer even worth a mention.

All five main characters are Californian, in their own way, from the more disciplined (the practical doctor mother) to the more hippy (the donor and the other mother). The story is straightforward, but it's about the nature of family and commitment, not about donation, gender, or attraction. "Marriage is a marathon." Which is itself interesting. A good, sometimes funny, movie.

The King's Speech - About 80 years ago in England, the king was nearing the end of his life and had two young men for sons. The younger, Bertie, the Duke of York, had a severe stutter since childhood. He was a determined, resolute, and even kingly man, but his impediment stood as a barrier to others' view of him, and was a constant twist to his own self-esteem. He was comforted only by a devoted wife and by the fact that his brother is heir to the throne, not him.

Unfortunately, his brother Phillip was decidedly un-kingly, cavorting with divorced women, which was simply unacceptable to the King of England, also the head of the church. Bertie was loyal to Philip while also trying to get him to do right by his country. Unfortunately, Philip abandoned the throne, leaving Bertie the job of assuming the throne and having to make a live radio address to his country to shore up England's defiance against the rising and malevolent Hitler.

The movie is about Bertie's struggle to overcome his stammer, particularly in time for the radio address, and the person his wife finds to help him do so. The resulting relationship eventually turns into a long-term friendship. Colin Firth stars as Bertie, and he, as well as everyone else in the cast, are phenomenal in their roles. The script shows us a man with the kind of royal dignity that seems missing from the other movies that have recently focused on the English royalty: not simply capricious and strong-willed, but dutiful, straight, loyal, and determined.

It's a bit slower than the usual action-filled movies of today, so it's not for everyone; there's no grand historical sweep. It's a fantastic character-driven movie.

No Strings Attached - Natalie Portman again, this time in a light, formulaic romantic comedy. Both insist they can have a physical relationship without getting emotionally entangled. Yadda yadda. It was acceptable.

The Runaways - The biopic of the founding of Joan Jett's all-girl punk band The Runaways. It's a decent rise from obscurity story, and worth it if you like the music or the seventies. The personal stories of the girls, and their transformation into a band with a boys' attitude and sexuality at the hands of a record exec, is entertaining, if not particularly deep. One dreamy faux-lesbian panoramic sequence adds some atmosphere. The girls are cute and appealing, probably much more so than they were in real life.

Tangled - Formula is not always bad. I appreciate the formula of a good romantic comedy. Even sonnets are a formula whose worth depends on how the form is filled. Sometimes we see something that breaks our notion of formula, such as Princess Mononoke, and we wonder at how great things could be if the formula is allowed to break more often. Disney somehow manages to churn out animated movie after animated movie patterned on formula, and yet many of them contain fleeting moments of greatness. Tangled is no exception.

Tangled was inspired by the Rapunzel story. A witch raises the stolen princess Rapunzel as her own daughter locked in a tower, using her magical hair as a youth potion. Rapunzel wants to get out and see the world, especially the colored lights that the king and queen release every year (in order to find her), but she was told that the world is dangerous.

Enter a young scoundrel who breaks into the tower with a jeweled crown. Rapunzel hides the crown and will only give it back if he agrees to escort her to see the lights. Her mother, the palace guards out to find the scoundrel, and the scoundrel's compatriots also out to find the scoundrel, give chase. Yadda yadda, we learn about love, freedom, and self-sacrifice. The scene where Rapunzel first leaves the tower and struggles between exhilaration and shame at defying her mother is priceless. The formula works.

Tron: Legacy - Tron was a Geek's movie, and the followup is supposed to appeal to both the fans of the original and the mainstream. It mostly succeeds at the first, and sort of succeeds at the second.

The movie contains a number of familiar elements of the first, but they feel like they're being ticked off in a box. The effects are updated in a retro way, which is pretty cool. The rest of the movie is kind of a Jeff Bridges zen thing crossed with the well-tread Star Trek/cyberpunk theme of life "arising in the net". Not a lot of it makes sense, which is fine. The ending makes the least sense, however, which is not.

It's mostly entertaining along the way. But it's not really new; and nothing stands out as a must-have improvement over the original.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Session Report, in which we try Shipyard; Personal Notes

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Nile, Carson City, Shipyard.

We try Shipyard for the first time. Impressions: Le Havre-like in complexity.


Things I haven't been blogging about:

- I'm attending a series of lectures in English about Shay Agnon at the Agnon House. For the first time ever, I am inspired to visit Galicia to see the remains of the Jewish communities in the area.

- I'm going to a Bridge club every Monday evening with my friend David Elkins. We're doing quite poorly. But I'm still having fun.

- My mother and the Nofei Aviv synagogue were both given a memorial plaque in honor of my father, who passed away last year.

- I'm getting divorced :-( . We've been telling people face to face until now. In other (nearly, but not quite entirely) unrelated news, Rachel has a fellowship at Harvard Divinity School next year.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Weekend Gaming

I hosted Abraham and Sarah for shabbat, two of our members who moved away about 6 months ago. We played Set a few times. It was Sara's first play, and she did pretty well.

They and I and one of my dinner guests played Anagrams, kind of a linguistic version of Set, I suppose. It's odd, but in these types of games I don't feel any need to keep or count score. Though you're playing against the speed and skill of the other players, every match made is its own victory; there doesn't need to be any kind of overall victory at the end of the game. Or even an end of the game.

At Nadine's the following day, Mace, Shachar, Eitan, Emily, and I played Carson City. It was our first five player game, and the first play for Shcachar, Eitan, and Emily. I thought it would be even better than 4 player, but 4 and 5 player are about equally good. 3 player is also still nice, but not as tense; perhaps if each player had 2 extra pawns it might feel a little tenser. Eitan won.

Afterwards, Mace, Shachar, and I played Tobago. First play for both of them. Shachar won. He had an early lead. Though I caught up, it wasn't quite enough. Mace had a pathetic start, and both of them had bad luck when, out of a nine card treasure pile, a curse was flipped up on the first card. The game was over too soon for him to catch up. I know people say this about many games, but this game really feels like it should be a bit longer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Session Report, in which I lose Dominion by as much as I win Agricola

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Dominion/Seaside/Prosperity, Agricola.

I lose Dominion by too much, but I win Agricola in compensation.

This shabbat I am hosting Abraham and Sara, our gamer friends who moved away last year. Lunch will be at Nadine's with a bunch o more gamers, so play is in store.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Session Report, in which we play only Steam

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Steam.

I played Scrabble with Rachel on Thursday, and she beat me by 40 or 50 points (she had a bingo and I didn't). I also played Scrabble with my mom, and I beat her by around 90 points (I had a bingo and she didn't).