Sunday, October 29, 2017

Movie/TV Reviews: Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Stranger Things Season 2, The Big Sick, Frantz

See all my movie reviews.

Dunkirk - This is a fantastic Christopher Nolan movie, but not one I want to see multiple times. Okay, maybe one more time, but that's it.

The story is a slice of the evacuation at Dunkirk, the famous retreat of British (and French and Belgian) soldiers from France at the opening of WWII. While French soldiers held Germany at bay, Britain evacuated over 300,000 soldiers after expecting to only be able to rescue 30,000 or so. The evacuation was assisted by some air cover and by owners of small crafts, such as motor boats and so forth, taking the 25 mile sea trip to France and back. The beach was under attack a lot of the time.

The movie presents one week of the story of a foot soldier making several attempts to gain safety on a ship, interspersed with one day of the story of a civilian motorboat owner who travels to France to pick up some of the soldiers, interspersed with one hour of a pilot providing air cover. All stories converge by the end.

The interspersing of the stories was good in theory, but a little confusing due to the shifting time frames. There is no sensationalizing the war, either for or against. The stories are about fear, desperation, heroism and tragedy and survival, and how these are instantiated in humans. It's a war movie with little in the way of fighting; mostly it's about ducking and covering and running. But it's also about bravery and morality.  It is not presented as a traditional story.

The acting and directing are sensational, and so is the cinematography. Most sensational is the sound, which heightens the gripping visuals and makes them either pathetic or harrowing. Very beautiful, often educational, and a real demonstration of what movies can be. I can't remember if there are any women in the movie.

The Big Sick -  The best rom-com I've seen in quite a while, this was very funny and quite heartwarming. Written by and starring Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), it tells a fictionalized version of how Kumail met his American wife (played by Zoe Kazan) and the difficulty he/they endured from his parents (played byAnupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and (to a lesser degree) her parents (played by Holly Hunter and Roy Romano). The central part of the movie is a) the fact that his parents reject her because she is not Pakistani and b) that he spends a lot of time in the hospital with her parents when she suddenly falls into a coma ... after he had allegedly already broken up with her.

It's funny and it's touching. It's well acted and directed. But mostly, the script is great. It's funny. Worth seeing, especially on a date.

Frantz -  A reworking of a very old movie, this tells a story set just after WWI. A German woman goes every day to the cemetery to put flowers on the grave of her fiance Frantz who was killed in the war, and one day she meets a man ... a French man .. who also starts putting flowers on the grave. She is living with her former fiance's parents, and they are all grief-stricken. The Frenchman shows up, but anger and intolerance runs high. Until he says how he was great friends with Frantz and can't get over his death. This is kind of believable, since Frantz was a humanist, pacifist, and Francophile before the war. But ... what kind of relationship did this guy really have with Frantz?

As a modern viewer, our immediate suspicion is that the guy was Frantz's lover, something not even considered or asked by the protagonists in the movie. The movie confirms some things and then goes in other directions, and then in yet other directions. Intolerance runs on both sides of the border, lies are condemned but met with other lies, and who knows where it will all end up. Will they get together?

The movie is beautifully shot, costumed, and acted. The direction is lovely. It was enjoyable. However, it suffers from a few flaws that are the result of heavy handedness by the director. I will give a teeny example.

One of the scenes in Germany has this young Frenchman, all alone, while the German patrons, who have previously expressed their contempt for all people French, stand in a bar and sing their national anthem out of respect for Germany's soldiers. The Frenchman looks lost and even frightened. In the hands of a more competent director, we would expect to see the young lady at some future time in the movie, say, pass by a sports stadium or train station where French people are singing the national anthem. That would display the dichotomy without descending into heavy handedness. Instead, we see a scene where she is all alone, while the French patrons, who have previously expressed their contempt for all people German, stand in a bar and sing their national anthem out of respect for France's soldiers. Come on. I actually laughed out loud at this and said "Come on!" in the movie theater. And this kind of thing happens again and again. The Frenchman knocks on her (fiance's) parents door, and then later we see her knock at his family's door in an eerily similar shot. And on and on like this.

The director also shoots mostly in black and white but fades into color during certain scenes, which had the potential to be lovely (as it was in Pleasantville, Wizard of Oz, and other movies), but ended up also feeling heavy handed and obvious, essentially adding nothing to the movie that wasn't already patently obvious from the settings and story.

Honestly, I would have thought this was the director's second or third film, but it seems he has been making movies since the late 1980s. So he should know better.

Despite these misfires - and the fact that no blame is assigned to anyone for the war, it just kind of happened - the movie is otherwise lovely and sweet, with a story that really picks up and captivates you (especially after the first major reveal).

Blade Runner 2049 - It's good, although maybe not as good as it could have been. It fits seamlessly in with the first movie, without being a retelling of that movie, which is about as well as one could hope for.

The first Blade Runner had its faults - a little too much staring at visuals, a little undeveloped romance (even a little rape-y), a few plot-holes and inconsistencies - but it was beautifully filmed and acted, had an intellectual script unlike any other science fiction movie since 2001, and created a genre and look for many other movies to copy. This one doesn't really break any new ground; if anything, it feels like it inhabits the same space as Ghost in the Shell 2017. However, it has a few unique twists on the hero/destiny journey which make it rather brave in some ways. I suspect that its ending is a reason that it didn't perform overly well in the box office, but actually its ending is just right when you think about it.

As for its acting, visuals, plot, and directing, they're all good. I was confused about certain elements of the movie - how can androids have babies / grow up from being babies? What kind of biological functions do they have? Do their cells wear out? Do they go through teething, adolescence, and puberty? What do they eat, do they eliminate, and how do they metabolize? None of that makes any real sense.

I have to see it again to really get some of the confusion cleared up. In any case, it's certainly worth going to see.

Stranger Things (season 2) - Well, I just saw it and it blew me away, much like the first season did. There is really not much to say about it. It's a great story, starts off a little slowly for the first few episodes like last season, and then gets rip roaring. There are a few new characters and they are all fantastic.

The show is now part Andromeda Strain, part Aliens, and part Harry Potter. If it has any fault, it feels so neatly wrapped up that I can hardly imagine a need for another season. These two were just perfect.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Bulls & Bears Board Game on Kickstarter

Bulls and Bears is a financial board game from 1988. The first version of the game sold over 10,000 copies. I have talked with the designer on a few occasions and I may be helping him to turn the game into something more Euro-style. In the meantime, they are kickstarting a new version of the original game, called Trumponomics vs. Bernienomics (yeah, okay).

It has the usual roll-and-move mechanics, with a few clever additions that make it better than other games of its type.

For one thing, trivia questions are informative about stock market topics, but rather than simply answer them, you react to events by putting your money down or taking actions, after which the result of the event (what went up or down in the world as a result of the event) is revealed, and you gain or lose by it. As such, the mechanics of learning about the stock market are integrated right into the play, which makes for both better learning and a better play experience.

Unlike Monopoly, the game ends and is won when someone reaches $200k, which means less direct competition and a game that doesn't drag on. There is already a Euroish feel in that you are building a kind of economic engine through your investments.

Topics include financial markets, commodities, insurance, housing, mortgage, retirement, and so forth. The designer has a PhD and worked at the world bank for many years. Their website includes online play and guidebooks for educators.

This new edition is a roll and move game, like the original, which is what it is. But if you like non-gamer games, and you actually want to learn real financial information with a game that's actually fun to play, this may be your thing.