Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Reviews: Spider-man: Homecoming, The Beautiful Fantastic, Gifted, Paterson, Primer

Spider-man: Homecoming: Another in the long list of passable and entertaining but ultimately unimportant Marvel movies. Tobey Maguire set the standard for the Spider-man role in 2002 and 2004; Tom Holland doesn't quite live up to that standard, but he does a decent job. Tom's Peter Parker is more child-like and less complex, a flat two-dimensional comic character compared to Tobey's rich and conflicted adolescent, but that is more to do with this movie's director and team of Marvel-assembled writers (six of them) versus the better director and single author of the earlier movies.

Slightly better is Michael Keaton's Vulture villain, who steals the screen every time he's around. With a little more character development - some more family time or father-daughter bonding - he could have been one of Marvel's rare, fully-fleshed characters. He gets awful close. I almost cared about him. As for everyone else, they are occasionally funny or emotive but ultimately one-dimensional plot points to serve as backdrop.

The plot works well within the movie, but not quite as well within the Marvel continuity: Vulture is collecting the energy materials left behind after The Avengers and selling them on the black market (we here about the sales, but not much about the effect of these sales). Peter is 15 years old, but jazzed up after having been called to be part of the incredibly dangerous fight against Captain America in Captain America: Civil War, and now thinks of himself as interning for Iron Man in the hopes of being made a full avenger. Iron Man wants him to just stick to his local neighborhood until he gets older - which doesn't make much sense, since he called him up to fight Captain America, for goodness sake. Of course, Peter encounters Vulture and tries to prove himself, takes a beating, earns Iron Man's wrath, gets his gun and badge taken away, but decides to solve the case on his own (excuse me, I seem to have mixed this movie up with every cop movie, ever).

The special effects are hum-drum for this kind of movie. In particular I don't like Peter's "suit", which is basically a copy of Iron Man's (given to him by Iron Man) with computer vision, a talking computer, etc etc. It doesn't have Iron Man's armor, but that doesn't seem to matter, since Spidey is invulnerable to any kind of punishment (like every other damn superhero), so he is basically Iron Man light. If there's one thing that makes a superhero movie good, it's when the hero's powers and surrounding characters are limited and markedly different from the other ones'. This movie fails in this regard, big time.

But, continuity and unoriginality aside, there is nothing else remarkably wrong with the movie. The contained plot flows, some scenes are tense, some are ridiculous (I'm sorry, but holding a boat together after it is split into two parts won't stop it from sinking). The scenes where Spider-man and Vulture encounter each other out of costume and each comes to realize who the other one is are done well.

Roughly on par with Captain America: Winter Soldier.

The Beautiful Fantastic: A deliberately quirky movie, pleasant and enjoyable, not too deep. Imagine the heroine of Amelie with a less challenging set of obstacles to overcome.

Bella (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a librarian and an aspiring children's author who lives in a small flat where she is responsible for keeping up the garden, but doesn't. She is faced with eviction unless she overhauls the garden by herself in thirty days. She is too poor to pay anyone (how she acquires and pays for the supplies is not dealt with). The cantankerous old, possibly ill widower next door neighbor is the one who ratted on her. This widower employs a gay (gayish?) young cook, Vernon, but treats him poorly, so the cook quits and decides to cook for Bella instead, who can't pay him, but somehow the widower continues to pay him and Vernon continues to cook for the widower so long as he doesn't have to deal with him on a daily basis. The widower eventually gives Bella a little advice. Also, Bella is interested in this odd young clockwork inventor fellow, who may also be interested in her.

The thing is ridiculously contrived and its premise exists to provide scenes of gardening and the main characters intermingling in humorous or wistful fashion. It's not a brilliant script, but it has its moments. It's ponderous with metaphor, but it's never mean and it's pleasant and fun to watch. The acting and photography are nice. A sweet little diversion.

Gifted: A beautiful, intelligent, and heartfelt movie, something like Proof crossed with My Sister's Keeper.

Chris Evans is Frank, who is raising his insanely gifted niece who was left in his living room as a baby by his insanely gifted sister after she committed suicide in his bathroom. The sister's intentions become slightly clearer as the movie progresses; however, Frank a) has given Mary, who is now 6 years old (McKenna Grace), access to enough mathematical reading material for her to already be well into advanced PhD level mathematics and b) is trying to send her to first grade in a normal school where the kids her age are learning basic arithmetic in the hopes of her having a more normal childhood than his sister. (It's not clear to me what he's been doing with the child until the movie starts.)

Frank lives a spartan life, and his mother, though she loves Frank, thinks the combination of a one room house and inadequate education is going to rob Mary of the chance to solve the same great proof that her daughter was working on. But Frank blames himself and his mother for his sister's suicide.They go to court to figure out who the girl should live with (again, it's not clear why the mother waited until now to make this move; and FYI, the father is basically out of the picture.)

If you overlook the two niggling questions above, it is wondrous to see McKenna (who is actually 11) act with such poise and emotion. Much of the movie is just watching a smart kid try to deal with her broken family, her loving uncle and his protective friend (Octavia Spencer), and the idiot children who inhabit her world, while the other parts are a courtroom drama without any bad guys and without any clear path to happiness for anyone. It's touching and emotional, funny and suspenseful.

Worth seeing.

Paterson: This is a very unambitious movie by Jim Jarmusch, starring Adam Driver as an unpublished poet named Paterson who drives a bus in Paterson, NJ. He has a girlfriend who doesn't do anything but paint everything in the house in black and white patterns but who wants to play guitar. Every day, Paterson wakes up, goes to work, drives a bus, walks a dog, drinks a beer in a bar, comes home, and straightens his mailbox. He steals time to write poems and he hears other people talking about their lives.

I know this because five repetitions of this is the first hour of the movie, after which I'm afraid I gave up. After I gave up I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and discovered that something slightly interesting happens a little after I gave up, and then nothing happens again, a little like Old Man and the Sea but less intense and less literate.

Everyone does a lovely job acting, and the directing and cinematography are all well done, and admittedly that's a nice thing to see. The only uplift in the movie comes from the four poems written for the movie by Ron Padgett; like the movie, they seem a little dull at the start but, unlike the movie, they display flashes of beauty as they progress. This wasn't enough to keep me watching, unfortunately. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I watched it. I just think there needs to be a little more there, there.

If you want to hear from the poet and how he came to be involved with the movie, click here.

Primer: This 2006 movie is probably the definitive focus on time travel for time travel's sake movie. It tells the story of two guys who are working on various chemical/material engineering projects, when they discover that they have invented a time travel box (it's a complicated explanation of waves that travel back and forth between tie periods). They then have various reactions to it: they go back in time and make money by betting on stocks that they know will go up, and eventually have a falling out about whether to continue using the box(es). Like later movies, such as Inception and Interstellar, the movie takes the math seriously enough to try to explain the paradoxes.

The movie looks like it was shot with a budget of a few thousand dollars, but the camera work is good enough for what it's trying to do, although it looks grainy and dark. The acting is fine. The script is ... well, it starts off with techno jumble that was easy enough for me to understand, but as it gets close to the end I just got lost, After reading up on the explanation, I can say that it does make sense, but it seems like they deliberately make it impossible to follow on screen.

More of a curiosity piece than an enjoyable movie. At least it wasn't bad and annoying.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Second Draft of the Book Done

Yay. And less than a year after the first draft.

Third draft means a) getting it edited, b) adding sources for and backing up all of my wild claims, c) adding any important arguments or information from the sources that I noted but forgot to include, and d) adding material anywhere my editors say to, as well as eliminating duplication or restructuring as necessary.

Fourth draft will be to pretty the book up with pictures and games.

Editors? Publishers?


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Movie Reviews: Wonder Woman, Logan, Personal Shopper, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Jane Eyre BBC (2006)

Wonder Woman:  Gal Gadot stars as Wonder Woman (aka Diana aka Diana Prince) in the first good DCEU movie. Unlike the last DCEU movies that were filled with grim, grit, and sadness, this film mixes the grimness with as much high popping fun, action, and even a little introspection about the good guys.

The movie is lovingly shot and detailed, with great settings and a large cast of background characters, at least some of whom sport two dimensional characters instead of the usual one dimensional. There are some assorted tokens of various races, but they are not caricatured. WW is not just a cardboard cutout of every other hero with a simple quirk of personality. She is another being altogether.

The plot: WW is created out of clay but somehow also the daughter of Zeus. She is raised on a secret island paradise of Amazon warriors and eventually trains to be the best, not only because some of her guardians believe that Ares will return to eradicate mankind and kill her, but because she has special powers that she keeps uncovering by accident.

Outside the island it is WW1 (a departure from the original mythos). Enter Steve Trevor in a downed plane, a British spy who stole a German cookbook for poison gas, followed by nasty Germans. The Amazons experience some real losses, but rather than do anything about it (um, wasn't that their entire purpose??) they waffle, so Diana rescues Steve, convinced that Ares has returned and it is up to her to stop him. Cue a lot of fish out of water scenes, as well as badass fearless and fearsome fighting woman scenes, as Steve rallies a cast of misfits to try to attack the German gas manufacturing base.

Gal owns the character of Wonder Woman, and in fact just about everyone does a fine acting job. The shooting and directing are lovely. There is time for some actual character moments between fighting - not a great amount, but some - and even some of the fighting is original - although a lot isn't. The breaths of sunshine and exuberant camaraderie enabled me to endure and even appreciate some of the longer fighting scenes.

Wonder Woman succeeds in something that Thor and Loki in the Marvel movies never did: she actually comes off looking like a demigod, rather than a petulant clumsy tough guy who is hard to hurt. And that's something new and refreshing.

But there are a few problems, at least for me. The movie's characters are still pretty lightweight, because the script is afraid to go into too much depth without another action scene. The movie's message seems to be that we are all equally evil or good or a mix, and tries not to take sides in WW1. Really? I think, just sometimes, you can take sides. Simultaneously and paradoxically, WW kicks the crap out of - and kills - German soldiers like they are meaningless video game characters, which contradicts her character and the previous problem. This story is a bit of a disservice to the veterans of WW1 who were not simply fighting Germany because they - or the Germans - were under mind control. And, when the war was over, we didn't all suddenly realize how much we all loved each other. So it is morally wishy-washy, not to mention possibly going to leave children pretty confused about what actually happened in WW1.

And, if WW1 was so bad, where was WW during WW2? Went back to her island to take a nap?

Anyway, you can try to suspend these problems and enjoy the movie. It's about on par with Iron Man in my mind, which is a good, solid comic book movie. Not on par with the great movies, such as The Dark Night or Terminator 2, but solid and enjoyable. Actually makes me want to see Justice League.

Logan: This is the second of the new R-rated Marvel movies, the other one being the shallow, violent, and insipid Deadpool. I'm well aware that Deadpool is loved and was a box office success. It had wall-to-wall juvenile humor, lots of cursing, on screen blood, explosions, punching, big things crashing and falling apart, and some sexy. Whatever.

This movie also has lots of cursing, and has even more on screen blood, stabbing, and limb severing. Worse, the stabbing and severing, as in Kick-Ass, is often performed by a young girl. It is also nearly wall to wall misery and humorlessness.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) is Wolverine, who has lived for a long time and has wanted to die in the past, but who is theoretically immortal since his body automatically heals (aging is cell damage, after all). He also has an adamantite skeleton that was inserted in place of his bones, a process that was uniquely able to be done on him due to his super-regenerative abilities. These include adamantite claws that protrude or retract into his hands and can be used to slice and dice enemies.

Now the adamantite appears to be slowly poisoning him, and now his regenerative properties are beginning to fade; he may actually soon die. In the meantime, he is caring for Professor X, the mutant with massive telepathic abilities who must be sedated since he, too, is suffering from old age: a degenerative mental condition which makes him a danger to anyone in a wide radius when not drugged up. A third mutant is some kind of albino that can track people at a distance but suffers massive skin burns when exposed to sunlight. And apparently they are three of the last mutants alive. It's not entirely clear what happened to all of them, but it is eventually revealed that Professor X killed some of them when his mental disorder first began.

The movie is basically a road trip. Logan is tasked with taking the young girl mutant, Laura, across the US to a supposed safe haven, which may not actually exist. In the meantime, Laura is being hunted. Lots of mayhem ensues.

Logen is not a great movie, but it is far better than Deadpool. For the first three fifths of the movie, the screenwriter simply makes everyone miserable, on the false assumption that misery conveys character and engenders empathy. Unfortunately, it doesn't. It's just misery; it didn't work for the first three DC Comics movies, and there is no reason, other than misplaced loyalty by Marvel fans, that one should believe that it works here. Still, I'll take misery over repulsive juvenile plastic immorality and sick/ugly jokes any day. At least it tried.

The cinematography was well done, and the acting was very good. Dafne Keen does a good job as Laura; I constantly reminded of Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things.

The movie picks up just a bit in the last two fifths, where we finally begin to show a budding relationship between Logan and his young charge. Just flashes of a relationship, which is enough to finally engage the sympathy of the viewer. Not quite enough to bring the movie up from its first acts, because the movie ends and the relationship is severed before any real sympathy kicks in, which is quite a shame. If the relationship-building scenes had come earlier in the movie, and were followed by many more, the movie really would have been something.

As it is, the strong language adds nothing to the movie; in fact, most of it seems as awkward and out of place as Spock's use of bad language in Star Trek IV. The violence is more bloody and more up close, some of it so brutal that I turned my head away and waited for the sounds of scraping metal and punctured flesh to subside before I looked back again. More visceral violence also didn't add anything to the movie; I'm sure people raised on bloody video games thought nothing of it, but for me, pornographic violence deadens my soul. I don't enjoy seeing people hurt, and don't take pleasure out of seeing them die in various ways. Sorry. These scenes were supposed to be entertaining, I guess, but I kept wanting to get back to (or start) the actual story.

So meh. Not going into my re-watch list.

Personal Shopper: After making the lovely Clouds of Sils Maria, the director Olivier Assayas kept Kristen Stewart around for another movie. Unfortunately, this one isn't that one. It's not a bad movie, and I must disclose that it is also a genre of movie that doesn't really interest me.

In this one, Kristen is waiting around in France to make contact with the spirit of her recently dead brother. Both of them believed in the spirit world, him more than her, and she wants to be sure that he has had enough time to make contact before moving on with her life. In the meantime, she is the personal shopper for a fabulously wealthy but obnoxiously oblivious and unapproachable celebrity of some kind. Some kinds of contact with the spirit world are made, or maybe not, and then other random things happen, some spooky, some violent. But these are few and far between the wanderings around of the protagonist.

In CoSM, there was a definitive, progressing story-line with interesting characters interacting and evolving, supported by an overarching metaphor and some lovely scenery and acting. The acting in this movie is good, but the plot is disjointed, the characters kind of wander around in a screenplay that seems to be cobbled together from a few interesting moments and a lot of stereotypical French cinematic cliches (shots of motorcycles and traffic, smoking, turtlenecks, and pointless conversations). I wasn't impressed.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Not much to say about this except that it bored me and I couldn't finish it. Johnny Depp provides the only on-screen character and charisma. Everyone else is just a one-dimensional cardboard figure; as a result, the action scenes were like watching building fall down with no characters in them. The plots and action sequences are convoluted and entirely uninteresting, since we've seen them all before, or just about. And there is nothing else there. It's possible I could make another go of it, since it's not bad, exactly, it was just boring.

Jane Eyre (BBC): I don't know if the link is to the full 4-part miniseries, but that's the one you should watch. This is the best version I've yet seen, and possibly the most faithful.

Like all versions, it glosses over Helen's Christian moralizing, so important to the story but absent from any film version. Still, nearly everything else I remember is included, although not always in the right order. The other film versions drastically shorten the initial conversations between Jane and Rochester; this one leaves enough in to not ruin it. The movie doesn't seem like it hurries to get to the action scenes. But it is never dull.

It is all finely acted and produced. Jane really holds herself to be plain, so that you almost believe it. A greatly entertaining visit to the world of Jane Eyre, when you don't have the book about you.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Period Game: Finally A Board Game About Menstruation?

In 2006 I lamented that there were no board games about menstruation. In 2010, I reported on two very limited games by public health services on the topic.

Now two designers, Daniela Gilsanz and Ryan Murphy, have produced a nifty-looking prototype for a game they call The Period Game: Bleed to Succeed. While the game looks pretty and has received a fair amount of press, the web site indicates that they are still looking for a publisher to bring the game to the masses.

On your turn, twist an ovary and one of four marbles comes out: three are clear and one is red. Clear means move one space and maybe collect a tampon or pad to protect you from a period space; red means jump to the next period space. You also get to read informational material in the small booklets that come with the game.

Hamas Has a Board Game: Reaching Jerusalem

Via MEMRI: The board of the "Reaching Jerusalem" game (image:, April 4, 2017)
According to MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), Hamas has published a board game called "Reaching Jerusalem". The game is based on Snakes and Ladders. Snakes are Israeli military equipment, ladders are secret tunnels and Hamas rockets.

According to the designer, who works at the Hamas Interior Ministry, the game is aimed at "strengthening children's military culture and love of jihad."

MEMRI got the information from a Facebook site which does not appear to be accessible, at least not by me.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Made in Ferenze would like you to look at their chess sets again (with 10% off)

I listed one of Italfama's chess sets sold by Made in Firenze among my top ten most expensive board games post, which is now ten years old (and woefully out of date).

Good lord, have I been blogging for that long?

Anyway, you can get 10% off from Made in Firenze until the end of 2017 by entering the code JERGAMES2017. The discount is for anything on the site, not just the chess sets. Some of their sets cost less than 42,540.98€, which is what you would pay for the below one (less 10%).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Monday, April 03, 2017

Movie Reviews: Ghost in the Shell (2017), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Deadpool

Ghost in the Shell (2017): The graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim was 100 times better than the movie Scott Pilgrim, but I still thought that the movie Scott Pilgrim was the best movie I saw in 2010. It probably helped that I never saw the source material; I read the graphic novels after seeing the movie. the movie was so good that it made me want to read them. The movie was quixotic, quirky, energetic, fun, interesting, well-acted and paced, and entertaining. It had obvious but interesting central metaphors, about new relationships, and about dealing with the world as a video game, which made the movie a cut better than other young adult movies. So what if the comic was so much richer and deeper?

Lucky for me it has been fifteen years since I saw the original Ghost in the Shell movie and I never read the manga. I was able to enjoy this movie, starring Scarlett Johansson. I remembered some parts of the original movie, enough to know that some of the scenes in this movie are track for track copies from the original and that the original was 100 times better - richer, and deeper - than this one. But I still think this is one of the better action/sci-fi movies, ten times richer and deeper than the crud Marvel keeps foisting on us. Not quite as good as Arrival; not quite as good as Blade Runner; possibly as good as Interstellar.

First of all, it is one of the most beautiful and visually arresting movies from the last several years, an absolute treasure trove of stunning shots in a world reminiscent of Blade Runner. Acting, directing, and cinematography are top notch. There are many high-profile scenes of violence, about as many as a Marvel movie, and they are just as cool, but they aren't the only thing cool about the movie. While a Marvel movie fills the rest of the movie with snarky quips and a shallow, stupid excuse to set up the next combat sequence - and that's it - this movie wraps a cyberhacking chase plot around a search for the nature of what it means to be human. Okay, the search isn't very deep, the questions are not all answered, and the material was dumbed down from its source. Whatever. This movie's story is different from the original one, which makes this more of a reboot than a remake. At least there is something there, there. At least I have a reason to care for the characters and a reason to care about who is fighting and why. I can ask questions that the movie doesn't explore in depth, because at least these conflicts are shown. And did I mention that the visuals and acting are beautiful and cool?

As for the casting of a white person in a role that was previously played by a cartoon Asian, get a life. No one in Japan is bothered by this, and it's not like she is pretending to be an Asian; she's just a fine actress. She looks awesome. And that's that.

Beauty and the Beast (2017): Yet another Disney remake. Unlike Ghost in the Shell, this movie is really just a remake of the original classic and not a reboot. For what it's worth, this movie, starring Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, and the always wonderful Emma Watson, adds a few extra scenes to buttress Beauty's backstory. They neither add to, nor hurt, the movie, although the talk about her mother dying of plague turns the movie into a PG one.

Like the recent Cinderella and The Jungle Book, the movie doesn't seem to have any reason to exist other than to show that Disney has the technical means of creating live action versions of their beloved animations. All of these movies are worse than the originals. Whatever is good about them was good or better in the originals. And it's not like the originals are hard to find or inaccessible. This is a cash grab from a studio that has run out of original ideas.

I liked it more than I expected to. It was closer to the quality of the original than the other two I mentioned. On the other hand, Beauty was a little colder in this version, and the Stockholm Syndrome seemed worse than I remembered from the original. Really, if they were anyway going to change things up in this movie, that would have been the thing to change.

Deadpool: I finally succumbed to boredom one evening and watched this, and I wish I hadn't. About the worst of the Marvel movies, this is dead, and soulless, with nothing but quips and violence the entire way through. The paint-thin character tragedy of Deadpool is supposed to inspire sympathy, but it didn't inspire anything but revulsion. The central conflict is that he thinks he's no longer attractive enough. Torture and kill many people. Blood. Kick. Boom.

Come on. I guess I was supposed to laugh at the funny parts, but I really couldn't be bothered to.

Uber Uses Gamification

The NY Times reports on Uber and gamification. Some of it is white-hat, encouraging drivers to meet goals and informing them of better opportunities. Unfortunately, much of it is black-hat, being another way to avoid actually paying drivers fair compensation by manipulating them into accepting fake rewards instead of more pay.

Personally, I loathe Uber (and would probably loathe Lyft if I knew more about it) and I like Gett. The only thing I appreciate about Uber is the introduction of competition into a monopolistic market (taxi service is generally a monopoly with collusion-style pricing, even when multiple companies compete for the service).

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).