Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Movie Reviews: Ex Machina, The Age of Adelaine, Pitch Perfect 2, Inside Out, Jurrasic World, Song of the Sea

Ex Machina: Unfortunately, this is a very good movie. Unfortunately, because I'm not entirely happy with the answers to some of the questions raised in the movie, but I admit that they are asked and answered competently and consistently.

This movie is in the same cinema space as Moon and Gattaca; if you  liked them, you will like this, possibly more. It has only four characters. One is a billionaire who has built high-functioning human-like robots, that may or may not be conscious. Two is a programmer in his company who the billionaire selects to "test" a robot to see if it can pass the Turing test. Three is the robot, a female (naturally, since the billionaire is a bit of a douchebag). And four is another woman (robot?) who serves and services the billionaire but speaks no English. Allegedly.

Of course, questions about how you can tell actual consciousness from programming are raised, as well as the morality of keeping potentially conscious beings in captivity, and who is or who isn't a robot. I can't give you much more without giving away the answers. I'll just say that it's acted and scripted well. There are a few script problems (why use non-biometric key cards for security when you have ubiquitous face scanning recognition cameras?), but again I can't raise most of them without giving away the answers (email me if you want to hear them). But nothing major. It's an engaging think-piece that I never want to see again.

The Age of Adelaine: There came a point about 1/3 of the way through this movie when I realized that this is a nearly perfect romantic movie. These come along every few years, like The Time Traveler's Wife. There are movie formulas at work, yes, but it's not the formulaic story arc that nearly mars the sweet flow of the movie; it's the formulaic camera work. Because of certain camera angles and framing, some of the "surprises" are telegraphed minutes before they should be. Otherwise ...

Adelaine stopped aging sometime in the early 20th century (through the nonsense of movie science). She keeps herself aloof from romance because she doesn't want to be captured as a scientific freak, but, of course, someone worms his way into her heart. Will she trust him with her secret? Will he freak out? What will happen to them in the long run?

Great acting, fine characters, sweet romance. My favorite movie this year, so far.

Pitch Perfect 2: A pretty forgettable sequel/remake that is still passably entertaining most of the time. The first one seemed fresh, even if it was basically Glee meets Bring It On. It had fresh comedy bits, the judges and Fat Amy were super funny, Anna Kendrick and her cups were ana-amazing, and aca-everything wormed its way into my brain like an aca-earworm.

There is nothing special about this one. Some of the jokes are funny, some of the singing is ok. The conflicts are highly contrived and unconvincingly scripted. The requisite aca-battle was poorly executed. Anna Kendrick was still cute - her running gag of not being able to diss her competition was cute but forced - but again nothing special. Forced seems to be the word I'm looking for. Ho hum.

Inside Out: Pixar has another hit. The film focuses tangentially on a girl traveling to another city because her family moves, but mostly on the five emotions that control her behavior: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger. Joy is in nominally charge, with the others taking the helm when required, although joy doesn't understand why sadness should ever get a turn. She tries to sideline her. Disaster ensues after the move, where joy and sadness get lost in the recesses of the brain, leaving only fear, disgust, and anger in charge.

The absolutely funniest moment are when we get a peek into the control centers of the other people who surround the girl, but these are few. Joy's and sadness' journey is entertaining and they go much further into metaphor than I was expecting, and so create a rich story. Some of the metaphor doesn't quite work: are you telling me that sadness really hasn't demonstrated any use for the first 11 years of this girl's life? Really? Every day has been basically joyful? And how is it that joy experiences sadness, and vice versa?

It's not as good as Wall-E or Up: the characters are unrelatable, and the girl's story is not really the central story, so she doesn't have much of a character. But it's still a good story. I'm looking forward to the sequel after she hits puberty; that will be interesting.

Jurassic World: I watched the first and liked it, though the characters were limited to two-dimensional Spielbergian arcs: setup, spunky behavior, declaration of independence, conflict, odd moment of pathos, joint struggle to survive, denouement with caring looks. I admit that I didn't watch the next movies in the series.

This one is good, but the characters are even less fleshed out: one-dimensional. They exist as plot devices. The effects are great, of course, and the action ... actions. There is a one-dimensional bad guy who gets his one dimensional comeuppance. It's so shallow in the character department that it feels like ... a Marvel movie. Yep, as I type this, that's what it reminds me of: a Marvel movie, but without superpowers, just monsters.

The "taming" of the velociraptors was contrived and unbelievable, but it's hard to complain about unrealistic when you're watching a freakin' dinosaur park movie. The story works well enough to entertain, so there you go.

Song of the Sea:A breathtakingly gorgeous animation that reminds us that Disney and Pixar (and anime) aren't the only options when it comes to animation. This movie uses traditional Irish pictures to create 2-D animation that intentionally lacks perspective, but it's lack of realism doesn't remove you from the story. The music is lovely too, if a bit repetitive.

The story is based on a the myth of the selkie (woman who is a seal); a boy resents his baby sister (his mother was lost when his sister was born) and is taken by his grandmother to live away from his father and the sea. He undergoes a heroic quest to get home; his sister tags along, but it turns out that her need to return to the sea may be more important than his.

The story is nice enough for an adult - mythical and sweet - but it takes quite a while to get going and doesn't always present itself clearly. You are not always sure exactly who need to do what, or why, until the middle of the movie. That's kind of sin, and it distinguishes it from other mythical animation films like Miyazaki's. I think kids will be bored during the first half; I only wasn't bored because I was loving the pictures.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Who Did It? The Story of the Clue VCR Game

Tim Labonte writes to tell me about his documentary on Clue: The VCR Game, the first VCR game from 1985 (30 years ago). Tim and co interview most of the people involved in the creation of the game, including the designer, the producers, the actors, and so on. It's very well done and worth the look if you're into the game history at all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Religion Against Game Variants

It's not the bible. I'm not going to go to hell for changing the rules.

As a game designer, I know how arbitrary a game's final design is. It's a collection of components and mechanisms; they don't come from god (well, maybe Go does, but your game doesn't). If it's a good Eurogame, I'm sure they were play-tested, and I'm equally sure the final result included several arbitrary decisions to end "here" instead of  "there", with 40% of the testers thinking "there" was better.

I like many of the mechanics and ideas of some games, but personally I don't like that little luck mechanic that trashes all of your plans. We can play the whole game taking different paths, playing about equally well or not in each of the different areas of the game, but then the whole game comes down to the die roll or card flip that lets you get 20 points and not me.

There is no reason that I shouldn't take a game, that I would enjoy but for one mechanic that ruins it for me, and tweak it so that I now enjoy it. I test the change for several games until I'm satisfied that the play experience is basically the same but nicer. Then I sometimes post it. Immediately I am hit with "That change destroys the ENTIRE game", "You obviously don't understand how to play", "You can solve your so-called problem by playing in this very specific way", "Why do you want to change the game? Just go play something else". Every time.

Why play this game? Why not? Because I enjoy it. How does it offend you for me to change the design slightly to make it more enjoyable, not only for me but for any other like-minded people?

Yes, it changes the game, but all of this hooplah about HOW MUCH it changes the game is rubbish. My tweak doesn't greatly change the game, and I know because I've actually tested it, and the majority of the game mechanics are left intact. Furthermore, I wouldn't care if it greatly changed the game; it makes the game better. For me. Better for me. I understand that if you like change. Don't play with my variant.

I don't understand this obsession AGAINST tweaking games to make them more enjoyable. Like it's a religion of some kind and I'm sinning.

Bernie, you're obviously not speaking loudly enough.