Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Movie Reviews: American Hustle, The Hobbit 2, Inside Llewyn Davis, Frozen, The Butler, About Time

American Hustle: Loosely based on the real story of trying to catch crooked politicians and mafia people taking bribes in New Jersey in the late 1970s. A couple of crooks are the main characters; they get caught in an FBI sting and are in turn used to set up the bigger fish. The FBI guy who orchestrates this is desperate to make a name for himself.

Technically this is a very good movie: good directing, good acting, and the story is interesting and well done. However, everyone on the screen is a scumbag, which, in my book, is one of the cardinal sins of entertainment (and why, for example, I don't like Game of Thrones). I received no enjoyment from watching anyone win or lose in any scene and I kept turning it off. It took me four attempts to finish watching the movie, and I wish I hadn't. But Jennifer Lawrence is awesome, as usual.

Worth watching if you enjoy movies where all the characters are hopelessly immoral.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: I reviewed the first part of The Hobbit here. This is a middle movie, and as such it has no beginning and no end. The Two Towers also didn't have a beginning or end, and ended on a cliffhanger, but it felt more complete: there were three major battles, and two of them were resolved. Nothing is resolved in this movie.

Like the first Hobbit movie, this movie is not really the story of the book The Hobbit so much as it is the prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies. The story uses a few key locations, people, and sentences from The Hobbit in the movie, but then tells an almost entirely different tale with new characters and action sequences. The movie lived up to the technical achievements and so on of the other four movies.

Other reviewers have lauded this movie for being more exciting than the first Hobbit movie, but the action sequences are so ridiculous as to burst any sense of credibility. I don't mind a three thousand year old elf being a capable jumper and shooter in combat, but it is simply insane to jump from the head of dwarf in a barrel rolling down rapids to another dwarf head in a barrel and so on, without the slightest slip or missing a single shot. It is simply insane for a barrel to bounce out of the water and knock down orc after orc after orc with perfect precision, and - of course - for no harm to come to the dwarf inside. When you can no longer believe whats going on, you become detached from the action.

The sudden and bizarre love story between dwarf and elf, which suddenly occurs in a few minutes, was also ridiculous. And the entire sequence of the dwarves taking on Smaug is the most ridiculous yet. SPOILERS: That every piece of machinery would still be perfectly working after Smaug had been through the mountain for sixty years (or more?) and that it would all be fueled, and that all the gold would be ready to pour, and that there would be a giant dwarf mold ready to use, and that the dragon would be exactly in that spot, and, and, and .. And lastly, that they would think that molten gold would be able to harm Smaug to begin with. Oh please!

Suffice to say I found the story lacking, and the action unbelievable, and that detracted from the movie. It wasn't a REALLY bad movie, but it wasn't really good. You're going to watch it anyway, so it doesn't matter what I write.

Inside Llewyn Davis: From watching their movies, the Coen brothers would appear to be as arrogant as the characters usually played by John Goodman. They don't follow the conventional rules of storytelling, which is not necessarily bad. However, some basic rules always apply. This movie presents us with a character who - apparently - undergoes no transformation; his situation is unchanged. Although he manages at the end to prevent the recurrence of one small, particular minor annoyance, everything else, including his character, is no different. I'm all in favor of movies in which nothing appears to happen, but that's only because big things are happening under the surface. This movie is just a sequence of events.

On the other hand, it's a very well told sequence of events, and the music is lovely. This movie is about one week in the life of a folk singer at the start of the 1960s. He's good, but poor and starving and his singing partner just died. He makes a little money singing at the Gaslight club in NYC. He bums for floor and couch space from friends and has to make a trip to Chicago, but returns to NYC and the Gaslight club in the end.

Perhaps the fact that he prevents the recurrence of that one, small particular annoyance is symbolic of something, but if so I didn't get it. In spite of this letdown, the movie experience was fun and worth watching on the small screen for the great music and the well-directed scenes.

Frozen: The latest from Disney, this follows the story of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen as closely as The Hobbit movie follows the book of The Hobbit. Which is, essentially none. Actually, this story is more like Wicked. When two princesses are small, Elsa has the magical power of casting ice bolts, growing ice crystals, and freezing things at touch. Unfortunately, when she loses her temper or gets scared, she tends to do harm to those around her, including her sister Anna. So she is kept away from people and her power is kept secret, and Anna (who doesn't remember Elsa's power) is kept away from her.

Anna struggles to find out why her sister is so cold to her (ha ha). They grow up, Elsa has a temper tantrum and runs away to avoid hurting anyone, building a big castle in the frozen north (where she can finally be herself, the Ice Queen). Anna goes after her, because Elsa has also inadvertently frozen over the entire country. Can Anna win back Elsa's heart? Can Elsa live among people? Will Elsa hurt Anna? Will Elsa be hunted like a monster? And what of the two handsome men in Anna's life, the prince who woos her one evening and the brave, smart allecky ice seller who helps her find her sister; who will she end up loving?

The movie is very good from the moment AFTER the girls grow up until just before the resolution. The first part of the movie had me bored to tears, with stock little girls rushing reckless into wildness and danger (despite being warned), pablum songs, and pablum advice from a troll ("you must conquer fear!") Blah blah. The middle is interesting. One of the later songs between the sisters reminded me a little of Defying Gravity from Wicked. SPOILERS: The resolution has several problems, including a) the villain doesn't kill the heroine when he has the chance (and apparently the lack of morals) to do so, b) "love" solves everything, though it's hard to see how that works, c) getting rid of ice should not restore to health all the flora and fauna that was frozen under it and the boats that were cracked and sunk by it, and d) the oft-repeated trope of everyone applauding a villain's downfall despite the fact that only the heroine knew he was a villain. What, were they also watching the movie?


Lee Daniels' The Butler: This is mostly the story of the black civil disobedience in the south in the 1960s, though it is hung around a) a black boy who grows up in the 1920s to become a butler for several presidents in the white house, and b) his son who takes part in the civil rights demonstrations.

It doesn't add much to the story of civil disobedience and the struggles blacks faced before the Civil Rights Act, but, like many other facts of history, it is a good thing to be reminded of them on a regular basis, and this movie does an ok job of it. The scenes of the white house are ok. The major part of the movie is the relationship between the father and son. The father thinks the best way to make progress is to be civil and subservient, while the son wants to confront oppression by sitting at whites only counters, facing danger, and going to jail. This not only annoys the father because he thinks his son is naive and a troublemaker, but it frightens him because it jeopardizes his job.

It's supposed to feel epic, like Forest Gump, I suppose, but it's not so epic because the important parts are in the 1960s and the denouement, which is handled very nicely. It's worth watching on the small screen, but not the best movie of the year.

About Time: I tried, but I couldn't make it through this movie. I love Rachel McAdams, and I love Bill Nighy. and I like time travel, but the guy in this movie with a superpower (travel back in time to relive life from that point onward) is a jerk and the movie makes no sense. In The Time Traveler's Wife, the guy can't control the power, and his situation is poignant. In Groundhog Day, the guy is initially a jerk but he learns to be a better man. This guy doesn't use his power for anything important; he just selfishly takes advantage of people (it's supposed to be cute) to avoid the jerky things that regularly come out of his mouth or to have sex with a girl multiple times. Ok, ok, on rare occasions he tries to help a family member, but he's still a jerk.

Worse is that the time travel "rules", which should at least provide a proper framework around which to tell the story, are broken whenever the scriptwriter feels like it, which is glaringly Bad Writing. He's not supposed to be able to move forward in time, women aren't supposed to be able to travel in time (and he shouldn't be able to "bring someone" with him), and he always travels back in time and then walks out of a closet, when he wasn't originally in the closet at those points in time. And what about his age? How old is he when he travels back in time? The whole thing is a mess.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

New Tichu Converts

I successfully taught Lisa's son and daughter how to play Tichu. The son is a gamer, the daughter is generally not. Tal and I, two experienced hands, played against the two of them. It was a slaughter, as in they slaughtered us.

I had two good hands out of about eight. The first hand was fine, but we didn't count it because they didn't have the rules down yet (one of them tried to use a standard straight as a bomb). On the six or so hands after that they gained on every hand, including making Tichus, until the score was something like 735 to 165 against us. I had nothing resembling a Tichu on any of the hands. Finally I had a good hand and called Grand Tichu (phoenix, 2 aces, 2 kings, a queen, a jack and a 7). I didn't make it, because the daughter had the dragon to get in, a sequence of five pairs, and then a triple to exit. So even though our team netted 105 of the points on that round, we still lost the round.

The good thing to come out of it was that they both loved the game, which is often helped by winning on your first play. The next day they in turn taught two of their friends how to play, and the scores were much closer.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Berlinger Test: Five Rules for Articles about Tabletop Games

In the spirit of my post on mainstream articles about board games (8 years ago, already? wow!) and the Finkbeiner Test for articles covering women in science, here are five rules for not sucking in your article covering a new tabletop game or the people who play tabletop games.

Your article may not mention:
  1. That tabletop games are relics of the past.
    Corollary: or any of the following phrases: "old-fashioned", "back to basics", "remember [something from thirty years ago]", "[back of the] closet/attic/basement", "dusty", "nostalgia", or "comeback".
  2. That generally only young children enjoy tabletop games.
    Corollary: or that "nowadays" older children and adults enjoy other activities, such as video games.
  3. That tabletop games promote obvious, superficial benefits.
    Example: such as family togetherness, strategic thinking, decision making, or basic math and reading skills.
  4. Any game originally published before 1990 as a comparison or as an example.
    Exception: unless your article is about a new game that is explicitly derived from that game.
  5. The author's own lack of patience, lack of intelligence, or propensity to cheat at games.
    Clarification: thereby insinuating that people who play games are fanatics and nerds who take gaming too seriously.
In essence, your article about tabletop games should have the same integrity that is required when writing about a sports event or new video-game release. The tabletop game industry is a more than billion dollar a year industry (not including tabletop gambling, which is something like a hundred billion dollars); smaller than the sports and digital game industries, but not a quaint hobby or pastime. More than a billion people play tabletop games; they come from every social, national, religious, ethnic, professional, class, age, and gender group.

It's not a problem that you're ignorant about tabletop games, just like it's not a problem if you're ignorant about mutual funds or macrame. But your article about mutual funds or macrame shouldn't condescend to those who deal with them, nor your readers who have already seen hundreds of articles on the subject over the last twenty years, even if you haven't.