Sunday, January 31, 2016

Far From the Madding Cow: Starting a One Month Vegan Challenge

I've decided to be vegan for the month of February. "Why?" you ask. That was clever of you to ask me just as I was writing this blog post. Good timing!

Well, I'll tell you:
  • I hate domesticated animals. If the entire world became vegan for any length of time, all domesticated animal species would go extinct. Think about it: farmers aren't going to raise animals if they can't make money off of them; and these animals are not going to wander off and survive in the wild. As one vegan site puts it, every vegan is responsible for consuming 100 less animals every year, which means that each vegan denies 100 animals the chance to be born every year. I want to do my part for barnyard genocide.
  • To be self-righteous. When I was a child living in America, I use to say, around Christmas time, "Who needs fancy presents and lights and holiday joy? I'm Jewish, so there! I'll just sit here next to this little candle and watch The Charlie Brown Christmas Special on TV. Pass me a latke." Ah, I miss that self-righteous feeling! I don't get to have that in Israel being around all of these Jews. Being vegan should do the trick.
  • In a similar vein, I actively look for opportunities to be masochistic. I expect to be told I'm being stupid, that what I'm doing makes isn't natural, and that I'll ruin my health. And "Wouldn't I like to eat this? Doesn't it smell great? Come on, one hamburger won't kill you." And how I can do what I want, but the normal people will be over here enjoying real food. Because I don't get enough of that simply keeping kosher in Israel.
  • Being vegan, as everyone knows, totally grants one superpowers and stuff.
  • Because I want to meet more women, and they live on Vega. Or maybe Venus. Well, chicks dig guys who have, like, conviction? and are, like, compassionate, or whatever.
  • February is only 28 days, right? Because if it were even one day more, I don't think I could do it. Thank god for February being only 28 days!
Gives you a warm glowy feeling, doesn't it?

I ran these reasons by a vegan friend - or ex-friend, I should say - and after yelling at me for half an hour, she put the knife down and told me I should feel great. Actually, she said I should feel pleasure. Actually, she said that I should feel a specific kind of pleasure that I self-administer. Or something like that. She managed to say it using only three words.

Veganism might be healthier in some regards, like for saturated fats. I just have to be careful about calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. And my father had anemia. I don't have to worry about anemia as an omnivore; as a vegan, I may have to take some supplements. Anyway, it's only for 30 days, and I'm aware of the various foodstuffs that I should take to minimize any problems in these areas.

My biggest concern is the ninja cows that may be out to get me because of that genocide joke. I may have attracted the attention of the bovine cow-bal. They hunt down vegans in dark alleys and attack them with fresh fruit. One of my friends told me that that would be more funny than frightening, but I'm not a-moo-sed.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Moriarty or Mutants: I Review the Marvel and DC TV Show Pilots, plus Shannara, Humans, and Six Movies


But first, more about Supergirl - In my initial review, I said that the dialog was horrible, the action sequences senseless, and the premise that having a girl superhero movie be more about relationships than kicking ass was insulting to women. I wasn't going to watch any more, but then I did. It continues to intrigue me, a little, despite what it still does wrong. Actually it really only does a few things right.

Melissa Benoit is cute and clumsy in the right ways as Supergirl; she acts well, instead of wooden and/or eccentric like the rest of the cast. Laura Benenti and Peter Facinelli play characters who may or may not be bad guys, which is nice. These two make the show rise above the usual Moriarty or Mutants that is the staple of comic book derived TV shows. Supergirl is some of both, although it's mostly Mutants.

  • A Moriarty show: One bad guy of exceptional and unbelievable intelligence and power always survives, attacks or taunts the hero, performs a dastardly deed in every episode (often with unexplained motives), gets tracked down, confronted, and then narrowly escapes in every episode.
  • A Mutants show: In every episode, the hero has to fight yet another villain who has some mutated power - typically resulting from the same source that gave the hero his or her power. The hero is initially overpowered, but rallies to put away or kill the mutant by the end of the episode. There is always another mutant. It is never explained why all these mutants hang out in the proximity of the hero, instead of going literally anywhere else in the world/universe to do their mean things, nor why they attack one or two at a time.
    Some shows like to use both of these.
Supergirl's action sequences - like the action sequences in every sci-fi and fantasy show I have seen (with the exception of Blake's Seven) - continue to bore me. No one important ever dies, superhero powers or weapons are conveniently forgotten, no one has an ounce of strategy, and no one is ever in serious trouble. What happened to the kryptonite guns and blades?  Why is everyone attacking innocents in a convenient 50 mile radius of Supergirl's apartment?

In this show, unlike shows with male protagonists, the superhero requires a team of others to help her, can't manage her abilities without training, must learn that powers are not the solution to everything, and has to wear a short skirt. Instead of being bothered by these points, my reaction is: well done. The other shows should really be more like this one (I'm not talking about the short skirt, although I don't really mind it, since her legs are not the central shot when she is on screen). Supergirl is more vulnerable and not always able to come up with a solution, which makes it more than just a bunch of punching and kicking, snarling villains, and threats and intrigue all managed by a lone hero karate chopper who never gets hurt.

Short skirt aside, I enjoy women protagonists more than male ones, except when they are invulnerable karate choppers (I'm looking at you Black Widow).

Other Marvel and D.C. Shows ...

Since I realize that pilot episodes are usually the worst, I really need to see more episodes of the rest of these shows to make proper judgements. But here they are, anyway. These are listed in the order that I viewed them.

Daredevil - Not entirely bad, but also not too good. You know the basic story: he's blind, he's a lawyer, he whacks people with a stick. A Moriarty. None of the characters were interesting. Brooding and dreary.

The Flash - A Mutants show that predates Supergirl and is a bit similar, with a male protagonist who runs really fast after a weird explosion but who needs a team to help him learn his powers. Many others were also caught in the explosion. I think the problem here is that I didn't find any of the characters appealing. It's a knock off, much smaller version of X-Men. Again, none of the characters were interesting. In the last scene of the pilot, it has the tired cliche of the supposed friend who turns out to be something else by turning his head and looking malevolently at the camera. Boring.

Agent Carter - As I have a preference for female protagonists who have time to do more than kick things, I liked this one more than most. It's the continuing story of Agent Carter from Captain America and her occasional run-ins with Papa Stark and other riff-raff. I nearly considered watching additional episodes, but I was thoroughly disgusted when, in the last scene of the pilot, it had the tired cliche of the supposed friend who turns out to be something else by turning his head and looking malevolently at the camera. Please stop presenting people whose eyes glow red when no one is looking, or who secretly keep tabs on the main character by pretending to be their friend. It's bad writing and bad filming. I HATE these silly "cliffhangers" of pilot episodes; it's a totally unnecessary trope.

The acting was good but the plot was forgettable, as Marvel plots are. Only Carter has any character, although not much; on the other hand, there is hope that some of the other characters may become more interesting, given the chance. But I will probably not watch another episode unless I am bored.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - A totally forgettable Mutants show, going by the pilot. It has a group of misfit powers. My friend says that the show became something else entirely after the fifth episode, and it's one of his favorites. He says I should watch more.

Legend of Tomorrow - Very clunky pilot episode, with too many introductions and cliche characters and intrigue - which is to be expected when you introduce ten main superpower characters in 45 minutes. Good production values for the most part, except for when it wasn't (such as the opening scene). Some of the characters could become interesting, like the ones that have lived and died for 4000 years, but it's more likely that we're never going to really explore their psychology, like how they deal with living a long time while their friends die. Instead I expect to just see the occasional run-in with a past familiar face. It's a big fat Moriarty.

Unnhhhhh ..... maybe I'll watch a second episode.

Jessica Jones - Not bad, again because it's not all about butt kicking; and its no accident that this is because the protagonist is female. However, it suffers from a severe Moriarty problem. Jessica is a private eye who also happens to be a retired power, but whose path once crossed, and will now cross again, a guy who controls people's minds in nasty ways. Krysten Ritter is a fine actress, but the characters had shallow development (in the pilot, at least). Again, I may watch another episode if I am truly bored.

Arrow - I finally watched the original D.C. show and I see what the fuss is about. This show is neither Moriarty nor Mutants; Arrow's hit list of targets is a little like Mutants, but the list isn't endless and they don't have mutant powers. The story is original - well, actually, it's basically a take on Bat-Man. He returns from a shipwreck where his father died and so did the girl he was banging (his girlfriend's sister). His relationships, such as to his ex girlfriend and best friend, are well done. Some of it didn't make any sense - how did he learn all that technology when he was out of commission for so many years (and you know that computers don't work like that, right?) and it's unbelievable that he can be shot at at point blank range by dozens of machine guns and never hit by a bullet - but I gave it a pass because of the interesting plot. I will probably watch more episodes.

iZombie - This is another well done story, and rather unique. Basically, zombies exist but are not well known; being a zombie is something you can hide from your friends and family, so long as you get to work in a morgue and eat brains. And it gives you ex-machina crime-solving abilities. That means that, in future episodes, Ms brain-eater is going to get just the right flashes at just the right times, which is awfully convenient. And oh yeah: zombie may be a curable illness. I gross out easily, so I didn't like the gory parts, but the "fades from comic panel to real life action sequences" are fun and stylish. If I was into crime-dramas at all, I might watch more of this, but I'm not.

Gotham -  A solid, well-acted police/detective serial. Follows the story of James Gordon's early days on the police and the boy Bruce Wayne, sprinkling in early looks at half a dozen future criminals in the meantime. Lots of mob and crooked policemen. It's Mutants, with some Moriarty thrown in. If I liked crime/detective shows with lots of violence, I would probably watch more episodes, but I don't.

Other Shows ...

The Shannara Chronicles - This is a PG fantasy series, loosely based on the Elfstones of Shannara (the second book in the series). The acting is wooden or eccentric. The plot turns a good and powerful story into a series of cute meets and irrelevant action sequences. A magic tree that holds back hordes of demons is dying; one elf has to take a seed and bathe it in some mountain fire to make a new tree. I stuck around for the first three episodes, but I got bored by the plot distractions, like arranged marriages, deaf leaders, and people running away from responsibility. These aren't inherently bad ideas, but they are done without grace. The scenes engender no empathy, nor do they create any emotional connection to the characters. The funny scenes aren't funny. The tense scenes aren't tense.

Manu Bennett as Allanon is perhaps the best thing going for the show. Possibly Ivana Baquero's or Poppy Drayto's elf women characters will become something interesting eventually. Austin Butler's Wil Ohmsford is a complete blank, so I have no hope for his character becoming anything at all.

Humans - A foreboding take on human-looking androids, as depicted by the movies A.I. and Ex Machina. Here you buy them as companions or servants, but they are obviously going to be sexually and physically abused. An interesting question would be whether this can exacerbate, or help sublimate, abusive behavior against real people, but I don't know if the series gets (got) into that question.

Instead, the story is about displacement and other kinds of social dynamics, and (having read the series synopsis) eventually the same issue explored by movies like Ex Machina and Blade Runner: whether or not androids can really be sentient, and thus granted equal rights like humans.

It's not bad, but it also didn't quite grab me. I think the human characters were just not that interesting in the pilot. It might get better after the pilot, when the characters become more familiar. I might try a few more episodes.


Suffragette - This movie is not, unfortunately, the story of the Suffragette movement. Instead, it is a series of scenes depicting the suffering undergone by some of the suffragettes. To have been the story of the movement, it would have had to have shown how the suffragettes' activities gradually came to win over the hearts and minds of the people. None of that is shown.

The movie is just a repetition of women plotting, protesting, or breaking windows, followed by the women being ignored, beaten, arrested, abused, or otherwise mistreated. That's it. Details of the unfair situation of, and the abuse and sacrifices made by, the main character, played by Carey Mulligan, are shown. I found it hard to tell the other women apart, since they had no differences in character, other than being a bit louder or weaker. The one man shown to be slightly supportive - a husband - is given almost no role and no voice. And then someone dies and the movie ends. Great cinematography, but kind of a waste for such an important topic.

Steve Jobs - Three half-hour scenes in the life of Steve Jobs, all right before product launches. For what it is, it's okay. Jobs is shown as a prick, as usual. I don't know that it adds anything to what we know about Jobs from what we already know from the previous movies. We learn a bit more about product launches, and a bit more about what it was like to be Jobs' daughter.

My main problem here was that Michael Fassbender looks nothing like Jobs, so it was hard to believe him in the role. Another problem was Jeff Daniels as John Scully; Daniels acts exactly like his character from Sorkins' The Newsroom, and the pacing and camera shots, and even some of the dialog, is lifted straight out of Sorkins' TV shows, so the movie seemed like another episode of The Newsroom. Don't talk to me like I'm other people!

The Peanuts Movie - An aberration upon humanity. I can't step away from the fact that I've seen all of the original Peanuts movies and many of the shows, and read the comics; perhaps I would see this a bit differently as a newcomer. I recognized many of the one-liners, characters, and even short set-up scenes from previous Peanuts media, but the majority of the movie was slapstick: characters getting smashed or hit, falling down, bonked on the head, jumping into a bush, screaming, or otherwise, in fast sequence after sequence. The original material barely surfaces for a few seconds before another pratfall or smack in the face. Maybe a little kid who enjoys seeing people get hit or hurt will enjoy the movie. Otherwise, it is blasphemous. There is a reason that many cartoonists don't want other people continuing their work after they're dead.

The Little Prince - An odd, but not too odd, animated movie that tells the story of The Little Prince in the first half of the movie, while simultaneously telling the story of a girl and her mother who move into a new house. The mother has the girl's entire future planned out to a ridiculous degree; the girl makes friends with her neighbor, who turns out to be the aviator of the eponymous story. The second half of the movie sees the old man going to the hospital and the girl's search for The Little Prince who is now an adult and has forgotten all of the lessons of the book.

It doesn't take a genius to know what will happen next, but kids will enjoy it, and hopefully their interest in reading the book will be aroused. Watchable as an adult.

Big Eyes - A nifty movie about Margaret and Walter Keane (Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz). In the early 1960s, Walter painted many kitchy paintings featuring kids who had big eyes. These became very popular, and Walter hobnobbed with the media, celebrities, and the art world until Margaret suddenly left him, and shortly afterwards claimed to have been the actual artist. This was demonstrated as undeniably true in a famous courtroom battle, although Walter continued to claim to be the real artist until his death. It's a movie about a woman who supports a Big Lie by her husband; I would think it would be hard to relate to by today's women. None of the women I know could or would do such a thing for so long, but maybe there are still many who would. I felt that the moment of her first willingness to go along with the lie wasn't presented sufficiently, but that may be simply because I am a man. Anyway, the rest of the movie is interesting, moves well, is acted, scripted, and directed well, and is worth watching on a small screen.

Joy - A small story starring Jennifer Lawrence as the real-life Joy Mangano, a woman from a dysfunctional, poor extended family of leeches who invented the miracle mop and marketed it on television. It's pretty grim for most of its running, even though you know it has to turn out well somehow, eventually. J-Law is fine, as usual, and the rest of the cast and directing is, too. Something is missing from the story, however. Either they told the wrong parts of the story, or the story isn't that interesting. It tries to make up for this by presenting all the weird characters that surrounded Joy, but the movie spends too much time on those characters, who are not interesting stories. It's ok for watching on an airplane ride, but I wouldn't seek it out.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Shabbat Gaming

I spent the weekend at my brother's; one of his boys had a bar-mitzvah. We got to play a few games:

  • High Society: First play for me and everyone else. This is a quick auction game from Knizia. You bid on cards from a 16 card deck; the auction ends after the 4th "red" card is revealed from the deck, so the game could be as short as 3 rounds or as long as 15. There are 12 yellow cards: 1 through 10, -5, and "lose a card". The four red cards are three x 2's and one x 1/2. You have a hand full of money to bid with, and the person with the most points in cards at the end wins (add the yellow cards and then apply multipliers, if any). The "lose a card" makes you lose a card you already have or the first one you acquire. For the 13 good cards, top bidder takes the card and pays his bid. For the 3 bad cards, all players pay their bid, except for the first one to pass who gets the card but keeps his money. The twist is that the person with the least money when the game ends is automatically disqualified from winning (money doesn't count among the remaining payers, so you can't bid nothing and win the game, if at least two other people acquired cards).

    Ben's theory was to pay a lot of money for a x 2 and a high card (like a 9 or 10) and then sit tight. Unfortunately, he also had to pay to avoid some bad cards, and he tried to bid on a second x 2 at one point. In both of the games we played, he had the least money at the end; in the first game it was simply because the game ended only halfway through the deck. The bar mitzvah boy won the first game, and his younger brother won the second. It's a nice, quick filler (very abstract), but I worry that everyone's cash holdings are trackable; It's not hard to do, but I refused to track it exactly, because it would bog the game down and make it less fun.
  • La Isla: First play for me and everyone else. This is a small box Alea game from Stephan Feld. There is a board with island spaces of different terrain types (five types). Surrounded by every two, three, or four terrain spaces are animals that you can collect (five types). You get points for collecting the animals (2, 3, or 4 points, depending on how many people you need to collect them). You have five guys to move around the board. To move a guy to a place, you need two cubes of that terrain type (five types of cubes).

    Each round you get three cards (from a deck of 180 cards). Each card can be used in any of three ways, and each round you must use one card in each of the three ways. One card you will add to your bonus abilities; it stays in front of you giving you a bonus ability. You only have three slots for bonus abilities, so every round you have to lose one of your previous abilities and gain the new one. One card you will use for the resource cube it gives, and then toss the card. And one card you will use to raise the value of one of the five animals, giving you points for its current value times the number of animals you have of that type (and also tossing the card). At the end of the game, everyone scores the value of the animal times the number of animals he has of that type, as well as 10 points for each complete set of animals (one of each type).

    Nadine warned me that you have to guess and worry about which animal type the other players will be increasing, but I don't think the way she does, which is why she a) takes a lot longer to make her moves than I do, and b) wins these kinds of games more often than I do. I was happy to just play cards and see what happened. I didn't do too poorly, but the bar-mitzvah boy ran away with the game by collecting four animals of one type and scoring 12 and then 16 points several rounds in a row, while we were all making 2 to 5 or so. Even though he had no sets, he still won by a large margin (124 to my 77 to last place who had 61).

    I enjoyed the game: it's fairly quick (medium length), plays nicely, and has some competition on the board. My only complaint is too many cards, and the cards are of poor quality (easy to bend and/or rip).
  • Speed ("Chinese-style") played with a young cousin. I don't really get this version of the game, and in any case she tended to cheat. :-)

Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Real Reasons The Force Awakens Fails as a Star Wars Movie

In a word: development.

George Lucas had the vision and ability to unfold scenes that were slices of an epic story, not just connected pieces of one story.

In IV, consider the first scenes with Luke and his uncle and aunt. There are conversations about washing droids, cleaning up, going to town, fixing water harvesters. They talk about dreams and hopes for the future. It's not only the content; it's the pacing ... not only the pacing, it's the flow. The first Luke scenes don't seem like an integral part of one main story - though they are. They seem like the middle of another story and a typical slice of life during that story. Until the first visions of Leia in the hologram there is no feeling of being part of a "plot". From the hologram until C-3PO mentions that R2 ran away, again there is no feeling of rushing forward in a plot. When exciting things happen, it feels like worlds of different stories are intersecting and getting caught up in each other.

You get the same feeling watching Luke fight the battle ball - it's a slice of a longer time period, making you feel that much time has passed, and Luke has experienced similar events, and many more will come. When Leia is interrogated, same thing. In VII, the interrogation scene we saw was the only one that happened. In VII, every scene felt like it existed only to get to the end of the scene - okay, got it? Let's move on to the next. The process of getting there was clean and executed quickly and antiseptically. The movie needed to tell you this to move the plot forward.

VII gives us just one scene that feels like a slice of time - the scavenge scene and the cleaning of what was scavenged. It lasts about 2 minutes. Even the meeting of Rey and Finn is a sequence of bursts: a fight, then a challenge, then seconds later we're on the run. Then 40 seconds of trying to fix the ship, then a capture. Then a brief exposition by Han, and then another challenge/fight. After the scavenge scene, VII NEVER feels epic. It always feels like a rush to finish a story that is already completely scripted. Even the one scene that should have been filled with wonder - Maz and Rey and the lightsaber - was a rushed scene to get to the point, and then to the end, and then we run off to the next action sequence.

Remember V, with Luke training on Degobah? There was no rush to get to the end of it; it felt like slices of weeks of training. Remember VI, with the walks through the woods? Even in I, II, and III there were (a few) scenes of patience: they may have been terribly acted and poorly scripted, but they were scenes that gave you the sense of epic, long-haul, world-building, not just plot-driving.

That's the first reason.

The second reason is one that others have mentioned: There is nothing new in this movie, other than a female protagonist. Every Star Wars had new ships, new worlds, new creatures, new weapons, new plots, new conflicts, new robots, new costumes, new discoveries, and so on and on. What was new in VII? Takodana looks a lot like the moon from IV, as does its cantina. The Starkiller world has snow, which could have been interesting, but we didn't get to see any of it. The rest was just everything we've already seen.

Again: it was an enjoyable sci-fi movie based on the Star Wars story. The acting was great, there were good lines, it was fun to see a tough, non-sexualized capable heroine. But there was no character development, no epic story, and nothing mystical, at least not until the very last frame. Maybe, maybe, the next movie will give us something more than a very good Star Wars version of a Marvel movie.

See here for my initial review.