Tuesday, November 20, 2018

2018 Holiday Gift Guide

This guide includes games for young and old, for every sex, generation, temperament, and culture.

Whatever you do, and whatever you celebrate, there is no better way to spend a Christmas, Hanukkah, or what have you than together with friends, family, and neighbors with a warm cup of (fair trade) cocoa and a stack of casual board and/or card games.

Remember that the most valuable gift you can give is time. Don't just give your loved ones a game; play it with them. Find or start a local game group and join or form a community.

I hope you enjoy the guide. Remember: the holidays are not only for sharing the warmth with family and friends, but also for sharing with those who have no one else to share with them. Give to your local shelters, hospitals, and so on, because that's the gift that keeps on giving.
Antike II: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

Risk is a long game of laying low, with player elimination and just too much in the luck department; this game (and its predecessor but very rare and expensive Antike) is the perfect evolution to, and replacement for, Risk.

It plays quicker, there's dice-less conflict, no one gets to lay low watching while others fight, and - excepting truly poor play - everyone has a chance for most of the game. There's also a lot more to the game than just conflict, but the rules are short and elegant.

Other alternatives for the Risk players are Antike Duellum (for two players) and Risk Legacy (an odd game in which moves that you make in one game affect the next game).
Azul is a new game with gorgeous components and simple game play: take all of the tiles of one color from one mat or from the center and try to fit them into the right rows at the right time.

Easy enough. The tricky part is scoring rows and columns of connected tiles. This new version, Azul Stained Glass, ups the fun by eliminating a few rules and adding a half dozen additional tactical options without adding much more complexity.

Simple to explain and easy to get going, and it looks so nice.
Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players

Backgammon is a classic game that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. While there is a large amount of luck in the game, there are also many meaningful decisions, which makes this a good stepping stone to future games with more challenge, such as Checkers or Chess.
Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Blokus Duo: Ages 8+, 4 players (Blokus), 2-4 players (Blokus Trigon), or 2 players (Blokus Duo)

Blokus, Blokus Trigon, and Blokus Duo are abstract games with very simple rules. Each round you take a piece and place it on the board such that it touches any previous pieces you have played, but only corner to corner. It can touch other players' pieces along corners or sides.

The rules are easy, the components are beautiful, and it's fun.
Boggle: Ages 8+, 2 to 10 players

Boggle is a word game, whose simple rules - find all the words you can within three minutes - make it a game that is both fun and quick. Adults can play with kids by restricting the adults to have to find words of four or five letters.

The pictured version is a little quieter and less bulky than the old boxy version, and comes with a built-in electronic timer.
Candle Quest: Ages 6+, 2 to 4 players

A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a Hanukkah theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability. The theme makes it appropriate for all ages, and there's nothing overtly Jewish about it, other than that it's a menorah, so anyone should feel comfortable playing it.

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it.
Carcassonne, variants, and expansions: Ages 10+, 2 to 5 players

Carcassonne is a bit more complex than some of the other games here, but the beautiful pieces and the fun game play are worth the time to learn. Pick a piece from the pile, rotate and place it so that it fits on the board (like dominoes), and then optionally place one of your pieces on that tile. There are several ways to score, some of which occur during the game and some of which only at the end of the game.

There are some more rules than that, but not too many more. The game play is engaging enough to make you want to play it more than once in a single sitting.

There are dozens of versions to the game, and some of the versions have several expansions.
Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players

This game, formerly known as The Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride, are the perfect adult games for beginning gamers.

All you need to do is collect ten points through building settlements and cities, connecting roads, adding developments and trading with your fellow players. A unique board that changes each time you play, constant interaction even when it's not your turn, and a great balance of luck versus strategy makes this The Game to acquire if you still think that board games are only for kids.
Chess / Xiangqi / Shogi: Ages 6+, 2 players

These three games, Chess, XiangQi (Chinese Chess), and Shogi (Japanese Chess), are all top-tier 2-player games that can occupy a curious mind for an entire lifetime. They also have wide followings, so learning the game is learning a language that will admit you to a culture of fellow players around the world.

Board and piece prices range from inexpensive to very expensive, and Chess pieces come in many different themes.
Chinese Checkers: Ages 6+, 2 to 6 players

Another great abstract, and a pretty one if you find one with nice marbles. The rules are simple: move or jump your pieces from one side to the other. Finding chains of jumps is a thrill for all ages.
Carrom / Crokinole / Nok-Hockey / Air Hockey / Billiards / Foosball, etc.: Ages 6+, 2 players

Carrom is the most played tabletop game in India. Like Billiards, the object is to knock pieces off the table area, which you do by flicking wooden disks with your fingers. Crokinole is another classic finger flicking game, as is a racing game called Pitchcar. I finally picked up Crokinole for myself this year, and it is a constant hit with my nephews and their friends.

All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players

Decks of cards, whether they are the well known Western type with 52 cards in 4 suits, or special European or Asian decks, are a great starting point for any number of wonderful games, including Bridge, Hearts, Skat, Cribbage, Pinochle, Oh Hell, Bullsh*t, Durak, President, Spades, Solitaire, and many others.

Check out Pagat.com for the rules to these games and to thousands of others.
Codenames: Ages 10+, 4-10 players

Codenames is a new, fun game that uses words in an unusual way. Two teams, the clue givers alternate trying to give one word clues that match as many of their team's cards as possible. You must find a word that matches multiple other words, but not any of your opponent's words or the assassin's word. It's mindbending, and the game is infinitely replayable.

A great game for non-gamers and gamers alike.
Some people like the pictures version or the new two-player version.
Dixit: Ages 10+, 3-6 (12) players

Dixit is an incredible game, especially for non-gamers. It is loved as a creative exercise: pick a card and give a word, phrase, song, dance, or any other clue to describe it, but not too perfectly. The other players try to play cards that also match your clue. You only get points if some people guess which was your card and some people don't.

The fun is in the creativity of the clues, and I've yet to see a game where even the most stodgy non-gamer doesn't have fun.

There are now several expansions, which are all good. This game, like many others, was inspired by Apples to Apples, another nifty game for the casual non-gamers who walk among us.
Froggy Boogie: Ages 3-9, 2 to 4 players

Froggy Boogie is a brilliant game to frustrate grownups and please younger children. All you have to do is remember where the picture of the fly is, under the left eye or the right eye? The dice have only colors - no counting necessary. It's a perfect first game.
Go / Pente: Ages 6+, 2 players

Beyond Chess, Checkers, or XiangQi is the absolute perfect game of Go (aka Weiqi); it's so popular, there are twenty-four hour television stations dedicated to it, an anime series based on it, and it's considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar.

It really is that good, and the rules are easy, too. Best of all, a built-in handicap system allows two people of any skill levels to enjoy a challenging game against each other.

You should play with the nicest board you can afford.

Pente, a game of getting five stones in a row, can be played on the same board. The rules are just as easy as Go, and while the game has much less depth, it is also a little less intimidating to new players.
Jungle Speed: Ages 8+, 3 to 8 players

There are several games of speed reaction / pattern recognition on the market; I chose this one because of the components. Players flip cards in turn and grab for the totem in the middle as soon as two matching cards are revealed. Don't play with friends who have sharp nails or finger jewelry.
Magic the Gathering: Ages 8+, 2 players

After two decades, Magic is still The Bomb when it comes to collectible card games, although Yu-Gi-Oh sells more cards. These are not easy games to learn, but quick start guides can get you off the ground fairly quickly, and then you have months and years of challenging game play ahead of you.

Don't get sucked into having to buy endless amounts of boosters; to play the game outside of a tournament, you only need a few hundred common cards which can be picked up for a penny each on various sites.
Mancala: Ages 5+, 2 players

This is widely known around the world under various names (e.g. Oware), and the national game of many African countries.

The rules are easy: pick up all the seeds in one of your bowls and place one in each bowl around the table. If you land on an empty space on your side, you win the seed and any seeds opposite.

There are a few more rules, but that's about it. It takes a few games to get up to speed; early victories tend to be lopsided. Once you get the hang of it, you can play several, quick, challenging games in succession.
Memory: Ages 3 to 12, 2 to 5 players

This is a first game for kids and adults, and a great game for it, because kids get the hang of it very quickly and adults find it a real challenge without having to pretend. All you need are one or two decks of cards, but an infinite number of these games are sold with various different pictures and themes.

You can play with more than 5 players, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Nefarious: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

This is a game of mad scientists that is great for 2 to 6 players, and doesn't sacrifice speed with more players. Each round, you select one of four actions. collect money from any neighbors who selected actions that your minions are invested in, perform your action, and then check to see if you won. The actions are: invest minions, play cards, take cards, or take money.

The cards are fun and the game is quick and replayable, because, in each game, you play with some random twists that make that game's experience unique.
No Thanks: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

This is an easy to learn and addictive little card game. A card is flipped up, and you either take the card and any tokens on it or place one of your tokens on it and pass it to the next player. Cards are bad, and tokens are good. But runs of cards only penalize you for the lowest valued card.

A simple and fun game.
Pandemic / Pandemic Legacy

Cooperative games used to be either very boring, very childish, or very hippy. A new breed of cooperative games are nail-bitingly challenging and fun.

Pandemic is a cooperative game of saving the world from disease. Other cooperative games include Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot, and the much simpler Forbidden Island.

The new Pandemic Legacy (like Risk Legacy, mentioned above), is a version that plays out: each time you play the world is permanently changed with stickers and torn cards; after dozens of plays, the game is over.
Poker: Ages 6+, 2 to any number of players

Playing for money is not a good habit, but a nice set of poker chips and some decks of cards is a great way to spend an evening. There are countless poker games, too.
Scrabble: Ages 8+, 2 (or 2 to 4) players.

Scrabble purists will tell you that you should only play with 2 players and a Chess clock, but for casual purposes it can be played with up to four. It is The word game, and for a good reason.

My favorite way to play is to ditch the board and just play Anagrams: turn over tiles, and first to call a word gets it. A similar, recommended game is Bananagrams, where players race to create their own crossword boards.
Set: Ages 6+, 2 to 10 players

Those who don't have it won't enjoy it. For those who do, it hits just the right spot in the brain. All you have to do is call out matches when you see them, but the matches have to match or not match in all four characteristics.
Stratego: Ages 6 to 15, 2 players

By the time I was in my teens, I had outgrown this, but it remains a seminal game for early players, a great introductory war game with all the basic elements: strategy, tactics, and bluffing. Avoid the electronic ones; they break and they're noisy.
Splendor: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

The new game on this list, this is a little resource management game of taking jewels and buying trade routes (i.e. cards). The components and decisions are few and pretty, and there are a few options for strategy, but they are well balanced, making this a tight game every time.

Very simple to understand, challenging to win.
Sushi Go Party - This is a lighter, friendlier version of a game I dropped from this list (7 Wonders).

Sushi Go is a drafting game: everyone has a hand of cards. Pick one to play and pass the rest. Repeat until the game is over. At the end of each round and at the end of the game, score some of your cards based on the combinations you acquired and played during the round(s).

The party box gives you enough decks to play thousands of times with different combinations, keeping the challenge ever fresh. 7 Wonders has more complex scoring, busier cards, and an historical theme, but it's pretty much the same concept.
Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Many of my fellow bloggers think that this, rather than Catan, is The Game. I used to disagree, but I think I have come around. New players will find this a great intro game, with lots of choices and great game play.

There are several editions of the game, and the 1910 expansion is recommended.
Tichu: Ages 8+, 4 players

A partnership "ladder" game, similar to the game President (sometimes known by its crude name). It's similar, but the addition of a few special cards, a partnership, and passing elevate this to a perfect game for two couples. This is THE card game in gamer circles, and it's not at all complicated.
Time's Up: Ages 8+, 4 to 10 players

This consistently ranks as the number one party game on all of my fellow bloggers' lists. It's the number one ranked party game on Board Game Geek. Which says something.

It plays a lot like the parlor game Celebrities.
Uno: Ages 6 to 12, 2 to 8 players

This could be a child's second game, after Memory, and before moving on to real games. There's not much in the way of thinking involved, but its simple rules, portability, and quick play make it an ideal game for younger kids in almost any situation.

Just be sure to move up to better games when the kids are ready.
Wits and Wagers / Balderdash: Ages 8+, 4+ players

These are party trivia games where knowledge of trivia is not so important. The question is asked, and each player writes down an answer. These are revealed and players then bid on the answers they think are best. The winning answer, and the winning bids, all score points.

Wits and Wagers does this in the form of a poker game setting, while Balderdash requires you to make up funny possible answers. Both have won awards and acclaim as an order of magnitude better than you-know-which famous trivia game.
Zooloretto: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Winner of dozens of awards, Zooloretto is a cute game for kids and decent game for adults. Simply take the animals as they are revealed from the deck and try to fit them into your zoo without overcrowding.

A few extra rules and some clever mechanisms makes the game enjoyable for all ages.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Movie Reviews: A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Christopher Robin, Eighth Grade, First Man

See all of my movie reviews.

A Star is Born (2018) - Bradley Cooper directs, writes, and stars in this third (at least) remake of the 1937 story. He is joined by the captivating and talented Lady Gaga. I assume you know the story, so here be general spoilers.

The original story is about a talented man whose best days are behind him. He is on the way out, but he finds and starts the career of the young woman. They fall in love. He is depressed, not only because he is no longer wanted, and is an alcoholic, but because he can't take the idea of a youngster and a woman besting him. Meanwhile, out of love - or maybe out of what is expected of a woman - she is on the verge of giving up her career because she thinks she can save him if they live a normal life. He overhears this and decides to end his life, either because he has finally reached bottom or so as not to allow her to give up her dreams for him.

This remake downplays the parts that make it seem like it is natural for her to give up her stardom for his sake. He has a drug and alcohol problem. She doesn't consider giving up her career, although she makes an attempt to get him booked on her tour, threatening to not do her tour if he is not allowed to join her. Her manager is a creep who flat out tells him that he is in her way, which leads him to end his life; this is far more sinister than having him overhear a conversation he should not have heard.

This is a pretty good movie, with good original music. Everyone gives a solid performance, and most of the camera work and directing is excellent (I had one or two minor quibbles, nothing major). The leads have good chemistry, and Lady Gaga's singing can blow you away; I suppose some will complain that no one can sing like Barbra Streisand in the second remake from 1976, but that movie wasn't as good as this one.

It is emotionally draining, however, if you have a hard time watching someone resort to suicide (not graphic, but the scene is long) or a woman having to deal with a lover who is an alcoholic and drug addict. Just so you know.

Bohemian Rhapsody - A biopic of Freddie Mercury of Queen, and also the story of Queen, from its founding until Live Aid. The main plot elements are Freddie vs his girlfriend Mary (as he comes to realize he is gay), Freddie vs his manager, Freddy vs some boyfriends and the swinging 80's lifestyle, Freddy vs his family and his traditional background, Freddy vs his contracting AIDS (only superficially covered), and Freddy vs his band-mates.

If you love Queens's music, of course you will love the movie. If you hate Queen's music ... what's wrong with you? Some of their songs, like We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, seem like they were chiseled out of music itself. On its own merits, Rami Malek does a great job as Freddy, and Lucy Boynton as Mary and Gwilym Lee as Brian May also shine, as does the rest of the cast. The plot is captivating, since Freddy seems equal parts genius arranger and singer, but also self-destructive and helpless. Mary, if you believe the movie, is the one who drags him back into sanity, even while she is kept apart from him due to his sexuality.

As an ending to the movie, Live Aid, while a lovely concert, doesn't really answer all of the questions. If you know the real story, you know that a lot of the early days are skipped over or compressed (they went through a bunch of bass guitarists and their first album was not a great success), Live Aid was a phenomenal triumph, and the story continues to the early 90's. So threads are left dangling.

But it doesn't matter. Good performances and great music, an interesting portrait of a tormented genius. Not the best movie ever made, but worth watching.

Christopher Robin - Ewan McGregor plays a grown up Christopher Robin, famous son of A. A. Milne, who works as an efficiency expert in London and who is tasked with firing a bunch of people unless he can figure out a way to save their jobs. He runs into Pooh Bear who needs Christopher Robin to help him find more honey in the 100 acre woods. CR tries to make sense of this, and they go on several adventures. Everyone learns something by the end of the movie.

The closest analogy here would be Hook (Robin Williams). It's an okay movie, though rather childish and cliche. Kids will probably enjoy it. I got a bit bored.

It's a little odd to see this movie after last' year's Goodbye Christopher Robin, which painted a rather grimmer picture of CR's relationship to his father's stories.

Eighth Grade - A good but intense look at a high school girl (Elsie Fisher) who spends all of her time, and tries to find all of her validation, on social media. Her real life, unfortunately, doesn't conform to her expectations from her virtual one. Not only does she have low self-esteem and low popularity and fall for the wrong boy, she also runs head on into a few moments of real danger and harassment that up the significance of what happens in real life.

Josh Hamilton plays her single father, desperately trying to help and support her while she fights to keep him out. It's not an easy movie to watch, but it's a fairly good one.

First Man - A biopic of Neil Armstrong, and also the story of the mission to land a man on the moon. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, in which the focus on one character made the story interesting, I wan't as happy here. Neil has a few problems with his wife and kids, but not really; I'm pretty sure most of the problems were invented by the screenwriters. The conflict with his wife was not believably portrayed. Meanwhile, all the parts about the moon landing were fascinating, but they were not the main focus of the movie.

The movie makes several other mistakes. Instead of a grand story of triumphs and tragedies (i/e, what really happened), the story concentrates solely on a series of tragedies (real ones). I guess that's the screenwriter's way of ratcheting up the tension, but it a) makes the story very narrow and small, making it more like a Marvel movie than a real story, and b) it makes it unrealistic: why would anyone continue with a program that fails so tragically and continuously over and over, killing people each time? Of course, that wasn't the real or entire story. But we don't get to hear the real or entire story.

The worst parts for me were a) the long sequences of shaking cameras that simulated the shaking rockets and flights. One such sequence of reasonable length in a movie is great. This movie does this at least three times, for 20 minutes each time. At some point it moves from being a good simulation to being distracting and unwatchable. Enough already. 2) About sixty percent of the movie is a closeup of someone's face. This is the same mistake used in Jackie. Again: a few face closeups are great but 60% of the screen-time spent on face closeups is not, It's just pretentious, distancing, and annoying. Which is a crying shame, because the cinematography of the other 40% is beautiful.

Aside from all that was bad about the movie, the movie did everything else  well: well acted, well scored, well paced, and an important piece of history. For what its worth, my fellow movie-goers (friends) liked the movie.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Movie Reviews: Crazy Rich Asians, Destination Wedding, I Feel Pretty, The Wife, Won't You Be My Neighbor

See all of my movie reviews.

Crazy Rich Asians: This was surprisingly good, considering the trailers. Not great, but good. it's about an American Chinese economics professor who goes to meet her boyfriend's Chinese family in Singapore. She soon discovers that his family is very, very rich, and that his mother doesn't think an American Chinese woman belongs in the family.

From the trailer, I expected this to be stupid, marketed only on the basis of having an all-Asian cast of comedians. Thankfully, this was not the case. I guess because a) trailers are often put together by idiots, and b) it came from a rather decent novel, which I have not yet read.

Like Me Before You, I am now interested in reading the novel. This movie is a little Jane Austeny - nowhere on that caliber - but interesting, with characters and confrontations that seem to have something to say. It works, I feel, almost in spite of itself. It looks like the director/screenwriter tried to cut it down to something resembling a Me Before You, but couldn't quite cut everything.

There are throwaway characters who I suspect have far more dept and character in the book; here they are stand-up comics doing two or three minutes of material. And there is a plot so tired and retread as to make any tension non-existent. But ... but the main characters have something to them, and they do a few things that make you feel that the plot is more than just something on which to hang comedy. I suspect that the book highlights these parts and makes them more prominent.

It is well acted, other than some of the comedy bits which seem out of place. There are scenes of sumptuous foods and wealth, as one would expect from the title. And a few too many party scenes. But fun and - nearly - satisfying. As for the fact that it had an all-Asian cast, well, duh. Like Black Panther, this doesn't prove anything. Any idiot already knew that an ethnic cast could lead a movie that contains ethnic story overtones and interactions. Any idiot should also know that the same people could be main characters in any, generic movie, but apparently there are a lot of people who are not yet as smart as just any idiots.

Destination Wedding: This was a surprisingly great movie. Lindsay (Winona Ryder) and Frank (Keanu Reeves) are the ex-fiance and the estranged brother of a guy getting married. They don't want to be there, don't like the groom, don't like the bride, or the place, or the airline, or the food, or each other, or themselves. And so they snark and insult their way through 90 minutes of screen-time. Literally no one else in the movie talks: it's just Lindsay and Frank. They are both so vile and bitter that even the usual rom-com tropes are subverted: they know that they should end up together, but they refuse to allow it to happen.

This movie follows in the tradition of the Before series of movies, as well as other heavy dialog movies. It's not quite as good as a Before movie, which had a more wide-ranging series of discussions and characters who were a little (a lot) less jaded. The movie is smart with snarky dialog and has some interesting things to say about relationships, self-worth, decency, obligation, and so forth. It's often very funny. I had a blast and really want to see it again.

Yes, they are miserable. Unlike the real misery that repelled me in movies like Logan and Three Billboards, these guys are funny-miserable, so it's fun to watch.

I Feel Pretty: This movie has a great message, or it pretends to, anyway: don't let what you look like rob you of your confidence. And Amy Schumer has certainly been known to be funny ... sometimes, and in small doses. This one is a disaster.

The movie has no artistry: Amy's character is supposed to feel bad about her looks, so she writes ten scenes in a row with her looking in a mirror with disappointment and people insulting her looks in various ways. It's so straightforward and artless that it is painful to watch. Compare this to the exact same message that Anne Hathaway conveys in The Devil Wears Prada and you see what I mean: Anne's lack of self-worth derives from the story around it and the occasional barbs thrown at her in passing, not ten flat scenes of "you're ugly". And let's not forget that Amy is not unattractive; she is a plus size, but she is not a flat blob and she is also perky and white with good skin. So the premise is a stretch.

Amy wakes up after a head injury believing that she is now beautiful (although her body hasn't changed, and no one else knows what she is talking about), and with her new head injury she confidently strides her way into the job and relationship she wants, while everyone else looks on in a) disbelief, b) with amusement, or c) with respect at her confidence based on nothing outwardly visible.

Her head injury also, apparently, causes her to become completely social unaware of what everyone else thinks, says, or does, causes her to steamroll over every conversation without listening to anyone, causes her to be cruel to everyone else, and somehow causes everyone else to respect her, despite the fact that she is still a complete klutz and idiot. One scene of this is tolerable; the same scene of her talking over people and insulting them, over and over and over and over and over is wearying, and eventually very very unfunny.

What's worse is that the entire point of the movie is that what's inside counts, not what's outside, but she ends up working for and being spokesman for a beauty company, which defeats the entire damn point. Crassness is one thing, artless is another. I really tried, but I couldn't tolerate more than half of the movie.

The Wife: A decent but not not great movie with great acting and an unambitious and uncomplicated fictional plot. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce star as Joan and Joe Castleman. They, their son, and a nosy, persistent journalist travel to Sweden so that Joe can get the Nobel prize for literature, The son is behaving like a spoiled teenager (he is supposed to be in his thirties) and the journalist is writing a book about Joe and suggesting some possible problems with his past.

It doesn't descend into something deep, dark, and criminal, like an action thriller. It's just a question of authorship, validity, and respect. This movie is reminiscent of the far superior Big Eyes, a true story that made it quite clear early on that a supposed genius was passing his wife's art off as his own. This movie, entirely fiction, gives us the revelation further into the movie, and handles it badly. The movie doesn't have anything new or interesting to say and also doesn't maintain much tension, other than who will get mad at whom, when, and how much. It is an acting exercise, which is a waste of time, since neither Close nor Pryce need to prove how well they can act.

Admittedly, if Big Eyes didn't exist, I might give this more of a break. As it is, I can't recommend it, but lovers of the actors or of acting scenes will enjoy it. It's really not all that bad. My particular non-enjoyment comes from the son, who is just too miserable throughout the movie, and the odious behavior of one of the other main characters, which drove me to distraction.

Won't You Be My Neighbor: Growing up I didn't like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood too much, since it was slow, the production was rather low, and puppets on television didn't excite me. As an adult, I have watched videos of Fred Rogers, including his speech defending public television and some of his great moments (such as telling a room full of celebrities to think about, in total silence, who got them to where they are today, and so forth). These videos move me. I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for the man. Nevertheless, I'm sure there were many others like me who could not connect to the messages he tried to convey in his TV series, for the reasons that I mentioned.

This biopic movie covers many major stories and facts about him and his philosophy, with only a small amount of material not related to his TV program. I doubt that anyone who never saw the TV show will be interested in it. It is a paean to a simple, slow goodness that seems to be fading away ... that I suspect will always seem to be fading away. There will always be a few great, lovely people with simple messages who lead wholesome lives, even while most of us are consumed by the latest glitz, glamour, gossip, guns, or sensationalist brawls that pass for entertainment or debate. I think it is great to be reminded about better values, at least once in a while. Of course, if we go right back to the guns and brawls, it doesn't come to much.

As a movie, it was okay. It is riveting if you find his personality riveting. Not much, otherwise.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

My Memory of Us: A Polish Video Game About the Ghettos

My Memory of Us is a game developed by Juggler Games and soon to be published by IMGN.PRO, both of them Polish companies.

The game is set in a fantasy version of WWII, where two kids who are best friends are separated when an evil king (with robots) comes to power. They impose harsh restrictions on one of the kids (the girl) forcing them to wear certain clothing, mocking them, and creating dangerous situations. They only want to play together, and only by working together can the kids reveal their true power.

The game uses cute graphics against black and white dystopian steampunk backdrops of ghettos, garbage, and barbed wire. The story is narrated by Patrick Stewart.

I'm happy that they are not directly using Holocaust imagery, since this tends to end up in the hands of Nazis who enjoy watching Jews lose the game (like they enjoy watching Holocaust movies and rooting for the bad guys).

I don't know exactly how the story plays out. It might be an apologetic for Poland: the main characters are obviously the bad German regime and the two kids, Polish and Jewish, who work together and are both victims. Or it might not. You could gloss over that and simply enjoy the game. Apparently, the game was inspired by the real lives of some of the developers.

HT: Engadget via Boing Boing

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Movie Reviews: Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The Incredibles 2, Breathe, Midnight Sun

See all of my movie reviews.

Mission Impossible: Fallout - A very good, but not great, entry in this franchise.

MI's plots are generally unimportant: a bunch of people want to kill a bunch of people, MI agents are the only ones who can stop them, but there are traitors in the CIA who are secretly working against them together with the bad guys. Lots of tropes: cool gadgets, deceptively getting suspects to talk, impersonating bad guys using fake masks, plans gone awry, Tom Cruise dangling off of something high, and last second triumphs.

This movie has a few things going for it that its competition franchises (MCU, DCU, James Bond, Fast and Furious, Transformers, Jurassic Park) don't. One is Tom Cruise, who is a great actor and action hero ONLY when he isn't carrying the entire movie. MI has a nice cast of characters that provide relief from endless shots of Tom running, dangling, and jumping. Another is that they manage to keep coming up with tense situations and action sequences that are at least plausible and thus captivating. And that Tom  does his own stunts and the CGI is minimal, which makes the action sequences more engaging and less like watching cool effects on a computer. Tom doing things while skydiving is really Tom Cruise skydiving, which is pretty cool. Mostly, it's that they take some time to give Tom, at least, some real personality, so that he makes different choices based on conflicting targets of loyalty.

The last one is important, and while MI:F includes this, it doesn't include it nearly enough. They keep trying to muscle in more action sequences and less character time. This may make Marvel fans happy but only makes the movie less engaging and more exhausting. The movie too often jumped from action sequence to action sequence without a breath, which left me just a bit numb. I'm sure there are people who like this; who would complain, in fact, if there were more character sequences. So it's just my opinion. These people also tend to overlook little problems, like how certain people deceive other people when these deceivers are under careful, continuous observation, how certain people could possibly know to be in certain places at certain times to meet certain other people when these other people are doing things purely randomly, and and how certain people would surely have to go through a number of checks before getting to where they got to. I guess I am not supposed to notice those things.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. Not as much as 1 or 4, but more then 5 (I didn't see 2 or 3).

Ant-Man and the Wasp - Marvel, yippee. I never actually made it through Ant-Man because it was formulaic and boring. Perhaps the only thing going for it was that at least the fate of the universe wasn't at stake, which was a nice change.

I'm kind of at a loss as to why I found this one more enjoyable. Not exactly a good movie, but better. The ending was poorly executed, and really the science doesn't make any sense. I'm happy that the fate of the world isn't at stake - just one woman. And I'm happy that the main "bad guy" is someone who has a compelling motivation and who isn't bad at all, just trying to survive.

I guess dispensing with a lot of the back-story helped, as did allowing us to see all of the many ways that shrinking/expanding can be used in a fight. Its lack of ambition made it feel less pretentious and thus easier to accept. It felt like a pretty good television episode. So it was okay.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - The first one (Jurassic Park) was a classic; the last one (Jurassic World) was okay, but the characters were so flat as to make it feel like a Marvel movie. This one is about the same as the last one, but the plot is dumber and even less original. They need to either let the dinosaurs die or rescue them to some other island, and by the way, someone wants to steal some of the dinosaurs and by the way, someone wants to sell them as military weapons (somehow). It sounds familiar because it is.

Same kinds of bad guys doing the same kinds of bad things; yadda yadda. The characters from the last movie are a little different, but just as flat. It's hard to care.

The Incredibles 2 - The first was a great movie, marrying Disney with superheroes with some actual adult themes that didn't talk down to kids. This one is even more so. It starts exactly where the last one left off, only they have to deal with the consequences of the damage caused to the city after they stop the first bad guy (exactly like Captain America: Civil War). In order to solve their PR problem, they decide that Elastigirl (rather than the less PR-worthy Mr Incredible) be sent out to do some careful superhero work, which leaves Mr Incredible alone at home with the kids and their new baby of wildly unknown superpowers.

Cue a little male resentment and a touch of 1950s role reversal comedy, but really not too much. Elastigirl really is a superhero as well as a mom, and she does it well, and Mr Incredible proves that every stay-at-home parent is a superhero in his or her own way. Of course, eventually everything has to come to a head.

The plot is good and thought-provoking, but still full of humor and great action. Of course, it's beautifully rendered and well voiced. A worthy sequel to the original.

Breathe - The true story of a British flyboy who becomes paralyzed by polio while in Kenya in the 1950s. He is ready to die, but his wife won't let him and he goes on to travel home, leave the hospital (which never happened back then) and eventually design the first wheelchair with a respirator. His work (and his good friend the engineer) went on to improve the life of thousands of people in similar condition.

It's wrapped up in beautiful scenery and costuming and a true-life love story. It was interesting to watch, although I guess they glossed over some of the less palatable parts of taking care of a paralyzed person. Meanwhile, some parts of the movie went on longer than they should have, such as the entire last half hour where he decides he has finally lived long enough; these parts could have been shorter. I loved and was even surprised by, the scenes in Spain.

Worth watching, although I wouldn't go out of my way to see it.

Midnight Sun - This is a pretty terrible movie from nearly every perspective. It is about a girl with xeroderma pigmentosum.

In real life, this is a non-curable condition whose sufferers tend to sunburn or blister after small exposures to sunlight and who are therefore extremely vulnerable to skin cancer. People with this condition are visibly distinguishable as such, having typically found out about their condition the hard way. They may have special glass in their house windows, but they can go out in daylight with a lot of clothing and extra caution.

In movie life, the girl has movie-perfect skin and never goes outside during daylight. Furthermore, the moment she is exposed to a few seconds of sunlight she develops a brain condition that begins causing her death.

If that wasn't enough of a problem, just let the anemic characters and the predictable, manipulative, and poorly scripted and acted plot do the rest. And, of course, she is going to "hide" her condition from the first (and last) boy she goes out with, because we never get enough of that kind of thing from sitcoms.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Movie Reviews: Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Loving, Disobedience, Every Day

See all of my movie reviews.

Avengers: Infinity War: Whoopee, another Marvel movie comes to save humanity from other more important things that they could be doing.

Thanos is some Big Guy who is collecting the "infinity stones" in order to wipe out half the population of the universe, because they are overpopulating (I'm not sure why, if he can reshape the universe, he doesn't just plan to double the size of the universe, but apparently imagination and power don't always go together). Everyone else, except his unexplained minions, try to stop him.

Within the context of Marvel movies - in other words, if you like Marvel movies - this is a great Marvel movie. While ten thousand main characters stretch the continuity and focus of the film for too much of the time, especially the first, oh, nine tenths - and while you pretty much have to have seen most of the other movies and have read some of the comics to know what the hell is going on, following the plot is never the point of a Marvel movie. Neither is attaining insight, being captivated by character or emotion, or getting inspired or informed. Marvel movies are about snarky humor, cool effects and battle sequences, nonsense uninvolving conflicts, and wish fulfilling superpowers.

Somehow the whole thing mostly holds together. Some of the main characters don't act exactly as they used to, powers and characters, as usual, are conveniently forgotten except when they are needed for a special effect (um ... God of Thunder? If Dr Strange can chop things off with his portal, why not chop off Thanos' hand or continually send him to some other place in the universe?), but the movie occasionally takes you in some directions that you were not expecting. Everyone acts well enough. And there were lots of cool battles and superpowers. So ... cool?

There were some weird problems, other than forgotten powers and characters. Why does no one seem to live in Scotland? How does that new eye work? If these stones were "spread out around the universe", it seems rather convenient that all of them were in our galaxy, and several of them were close to or on Earth.

This movie had a number of scenes involving people having to decide whether to sacrifice themselves or others for the greater good; the potential positive effect of this was ruined by the fact that this "greater good" was "saving half the people in the universe from dying", so the choice was really not much of a choice. Still, it was slightly interesting how some people couldn't make the choice to sacrifice others, while some people could. Maybe I could think about that for a while and learn something.

Within the context of all movies, this movie occupies the same space as nearly all the rest of the Marvel films: inconsequential, untransforming entertainment. You watch them to keep up to speed with a trendy cultural conversation. While I admit that the universe Marvel has created is somewhat rich, and likely to have a lasting effect on the cultural consciousness of this generation, I don't think any of the movies will ever be studied in school outside of a special effects course. There is nothing interesting about any character relations, choices, symbols, or plots in these movies. All you can do is recount the battles, jokes, and powers, and say "cool".

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I expected that this would be the movie in which Star Wars went off the deep end, but, sadly, that already happened with The Last Jedi. Rogue One showed us that the SW formula could be changed and still make a pretty good movie, while The Last Jedi showed us that, no, it really could not. Solo, therefore, was a surprise to me, since it was better than I was expecting.

The story is Solo and a gal named Qi'ra who are born into a poor world and have to commit crimes to survive. They get separated, and Solo finds himself in the army, then in a caper heist, and then in another one. Meanwhile, Qi'ra meets him somewhere between heists and might now be playing for the wrong side. A rag-tag band of scoundrels appear on various different sides of various different conflicts. Cue the betrayals, sleight-of-hands, and counter-betrayals.

Reviewers have not been kind, calling it derivative for not giving us more to Solo's character than we already knew from the other movies. Honestly, I liked that. This was what we saw in Rogue One, and Revenge of the Sith, for that matter.

Other reviewers said the story wasn't particularly interesting. Admittedly, the action sequences were rushed and generic, too much like Marvel movies. On the other hand, the Kessel sequence, which takes up about half of the movie, felt really, really Star Wars, and therefore really, really good. Kudos for that part of the film. Alden Ehrenreich was sometimes so-so as Solo, but occasionally he nailed it. Donald Glover was fantastic as Lando. Emilia Clark was decent as "the woman person in the plot". Woody Harrelson was okay as chief scoundrel, but distracting, since he always acts like Woody Harrelson.

It lacks a light saber battle, which is one of the best things about SW movies. And it lacks the plot development, ease of pace, and mysticism that made the six main SW movies so expansive. But it is competent and enjoyable, it fits into the story, and it sets up a sequel.

Loving: A quiet, moving film about the legal decision to forbid any laws that restrict marriage based on race. The case was Loving vs Virginia. The aptly named Richard Loving (played by Joel Edgerton, who is white) and Mildred Loving (played by Ruth Negga, who is black) got married in DC in the 1960s, but their home state of Virginia refused to recognize the marriage and said it was illegal to live together. They were thrown in jail, briefly, and then out of the state on pain of more jail. After too much time away from their family, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy who passes it on to the ACLU, who takes up the case.

Richard is a white male Southerner, a construction worker who patiently and evenly lays bricks, loves his wife, their families, and friends, and wants to be left alone. He is protective of his privacy and balks at the publicity the case brings to them, but, although he briefly protests once in a while,, he wants his wife and kids to be happy. Quiet and unassuming Mildred is no more of a troublemaker than her husband, but, with the protective strength she gets from Richard is willing to fight - just a little - and talk to the media. Richard, from the strength and conviction he eventually learns from Mildred, allows his world to be shaken, just a bit.

The movie has some creepy moments, where you expect something dire to happen to them (as it might in another movie by some other director), but most of these come to no more than threats. It's not an action fest; it's a character study and a small history lesson. Very nice acting and directing, and not at all heavy handed,

Disobedience: Another quiet film, also moving, also nice. This one is set in the London ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, or some facsimile thereof. As usual when I know something about the community that is being portrayed on-screen, I had to grumble during a few scenes that just could not have happened the way they were shown; I'm guessing a few liberties were taken by the screenwriters when adapting the book.

Anyway ... photographer and secular (and apparently bisexual but primarily lesbian) Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns after years of estrangement from her community for her father the Rav's funeral, after someone has the courtesy to let her know. She finds her not-too-happy to see her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the Rav's most prominent student and essentially adopted child is now married to her friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Esti was Ronit's "more than friend" when they were younger, which is how Ronit came to leave/be banished from the community. Ronit is surprised to find her married to a man, let a lone to Dovid. Is she really happy with him?

Like every other Hollywood film that has Jews in it, this is a "Shylock" film, which means it can't end without one or more of the Jews abandoning their faith, in total or in part, which is what makes for the "happy" part of the ending (a happy ending for a film with Christians in it is for them to resist the temptation and cling to their faith, unless the film is about an abusive authority figure). So I will spoil the movie a little and say, of course Esti and Ronit have a go around, and, even though there is no actual nudity when they do, the scene is hot as hell. This is in contrast to the lovemaking scene that Dovid and Esti share earlier in the film that, despite a little nudity, is incredibly not.

All the characters are played beautifully. Rachel is convincing as Ronit, Rachel shines as Esti (once in a while she doesn't quite sell herself as a woman who has been religious all of her life), and Alessandro does a fine job as Dovid, a job which the director/screenwriter nearly destroys at the end of the film. Bleah. Not a great amount happens in the movie other than in the interior world's of the characters, which is fine. The ending has a number of missteps which was a letdown, because it was quite lovely until then. It's not a terrible ending, just a fumble to squeeze in a few cliche scenes that I think the director thought we wanted to see, rather than the more natural scenes and conclusions that would have made a more satisfying experience. Still a beautifully shot, beautifully acted, nice little film.

Every Day: Another happy surprise, this was better than I was led to believe. It's the story about a ... something named "A" that wakes up every day in a different body. For plot's sake, one day A decides to spend the day with and fall in love with a girl named Rhiannon (Angourie Rice, who looks like the girl who finally gets to kill the serial killer in a horror movie). After a number of other run ins over the next few days (in other bodies, of course), A finally reveals itself to Rhiannon. Cue the skeptical, the attempt at a relationship, the obvious difficulties, and the final decision.

The movie doesn't explain how this is happening, which is fine, and it covers some of the questions and many of the difficulties that A and Rhiannon would face in this situation. Like any good science fiction film, the central element reflects and in reflected by other aspects of what it means to "change", to be constant, to be gender-fluid, to not know where and who someone is, to plan for an uncertain future, and to be yourself. This is reflected in Rhiannon's relationship with her family, her friends, her boyfriend, with A and with and herself.

This movie is little like The Time Traveler's Wife - it's not as good as that movie was, but it's solid, well acted, well plotted, and generally works. It's not a gripping movie: neither A nor Rhiannon are very engaging people; they're both pretty average, if polite and well-meaning. Some parts of A's past are unexplained and leave me wondering: was this body swapping happening while A was in the womb? If not, then who replaced A's original body when A swapped out for the very first time (since A never goes back to the same body)? But more important is the question about the fate of one of the main characters at the end. But I can let that go.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Movie Reviews: Ready Player One, Game Night, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, The Phantom Thread, Loving Vincent

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Sorry guys; five disappointing movies ...

Ready Player One: From Steven Spielberg, this is a shallow, uninteresting movie is about a guy who plays in a virtual world looking for three Easter eggs, or "keys", so that he can gain ownership of the company that owns the virtual world. While he is at it, others are also looking for the keys, one of whom is a woman who joins him as love interest (along with some other guild members), as well as certain high-financed players backed by people who are willing to kill you in the real world if they discover who you are and that you are a competitor.

Within five minutes of the start of the movie I found myself not caring about the boy or anyone else, since there is zero character development. Astonishingly, the amount I cared continued to drop as the movie went along. I didn't think that was possible, since I already didn't care at all, but I managed to continue to care less and less. I eventually figured out that this was because the score was very good. It cued me into thinking, every once in a while, that something that I might care about was about to occur. Each time, however, this never happened.

The amusement of the movie is supposed to come from a) watching other people play video games, which is a colossal bore (unless the player knows how to fill the time with snarky commentary, as people often do on YouTube), and b) seeing hundreds of throwbacks to 1980s video games and fiction. Unlike recent media in which this worked, such as Stranger Things and even Super 8 to an extent, it did not work here. I didn't get 90% of the references, and, anyway, simply seeing references on screen is not what made those other media good; the other media had good stories. And, I guess, we are supposed to be amused by c) the suspense as to whether the main character will solve the rather obvious and uninteresting puzzles and ultimately find the keys and triumph. Duh.

There is not a scrap of emotion in the entire movie. Someone gets killed at one point, but it's someone who we were barely introduced to and who is not shown as having any emotional connection to the main character. I am really in shock at this. This is the emotionally manipulative director who brought us Jaws? E.T.? Shindler's List? Bridge of Spies?

Whatever. I guess, while it is a useless and dull movie, it is not particularly offensive, at least. Oh wait, it is: at the end of the movie the narrator tells us that we shouldn't be spending all of our time playing video games / in virtual reality, but should instead interact with each other more in the real world. Thanks for that very important message; never would have known that.

One more thing that irritated me: T.J. Miller played the exact same character in this movie that he played in Silicon Valley. I liked it in Silicon Valley, but it was pretty out of place here.

Game Night: This is ninety minutes of one joke, the kind of joke that is funny only if it comes once, unexpectedly, in the middle of an otherwise serious situation, but is not funny when it comes repeatedly for ninety minutes. This is a farcical remake of The Game (1997, Michael Douglas). Instead of a strange combination of gaslighting, pursuit, and trying to figure out what is going on as the terror mounts, in this movie the terror happens, but everyone keeps making stupid jokes. It's supposed to be funny, because they keep making light of things while bad things happen; that's the one and only joke, really. The acting, directing, and cinematography were fine. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are always cute.

The movie that did this well is The Man Who knew Too Little (1997, Bill Murray), which was a cute and silly movie. I was appalled enough at this movie to happily walk outside the movie theater twice to answer phone calls (I had it on vibrate, guys). If my friends hadn't been with me in the theater, I would have gone home and not gone back in to the theater to finish the movie. In the movie's defense, my friends liked it. They said that they like to see a mindless, silly movie once in a while (I think that's a slight directed at me and my movie choices).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: This is a well-acted, grim piece of midwest Americana. Mildred's (Fances McDermott) daughter was raped and murdered several months ago, but she hasn't heard anything from the police who are busy (according to her) chasing and shooting blacks who aren't really doing anything. So she puts up some billboards that pointedly call out the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) in a low-trafficked area. What makes it interesting is that a) she is actually friends with the chief of police, b) the chief is dying of cancer and should really not be at work, and c) the rest of the police dept doesn't take kindly to this, especially one lunatic racist violent hotheaded police creep. Things come to a boil, especially after the police chief shoots himself.

This movie is relentlessly depressing, representing a lot of the worst aspects of American prejudice, violence, despair, and hatred. Just about nobody supports Midred, not even her son. Interestingly, the lunatic police guy actually makes a kind of (unbelievable) change around two thirds into the movie. This should have given us a bit of hope. However, the movie ends just as bleakly and miserably as it started.

Other than being relentlessly depressing, what actually ruins the movie for me are the multiple acts of outrageous criminal behavior performed by multiple people on multiple occasions, some of it incredibly brutal and most of it performed in sight of multiple witnesses. These acts are done and never have repercussions. And I'm not saying that the bad guys weasel their way out of repercussions, I'm saying that the movie doesn't seem to believe that any reactions by the witnesses or police is expected. What the hell? Is this a video game? While I expect to sometimes find injustice in the system, the system still exists; treating violence like it's just a video game broke the reality of the movie for me.

The movie has compelling performances and some good ideas, but it's ultimately not realistic enough to recommend.

The Phantom Thread: Daniel Day Lewis gives another astounding performance as Reynolds, a dressmaker / bachelor / bully and all around a**hole in 1950s London. He is joined by other great performances by Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, and everyone else in this beautifully shot and artfully scripted period piece about a dressmaker who obsessively creates beautiful dresses, but only if his cadre of assistants take care of his other needs and none of them interrupts his "solitary genius" thinking. This genius is, apparently, sufficient excuse for everyone to give him his way, and for him to throw toxic vitriol at anyone who expresses any kind of opinion, presence, or personality. Like a spoiled baby, as one of the other main characters eventually says.

Krieps plays a waitress, Anna, who is drawn to this bully and who follows him to London to be a dress model and eventually a lover. She falls deeply in love with him - because he is such a genius - and even goes and does some of his bullying for him, both - because he is such a genius - and because she hopes he will one day fall in love with her and allow her to butter her toast in his presence without cursing her out. Even taking into account that this is the 1950s, she is really pathetic; in the first two thirds of the movie, not a moment is shown where she has a relationship with anyone else but him. No family? No friends or neighbors at all?

SPOILERS follow, because really you shouldn't watch this movie, and if you do you should be prepared for what happens.

Anna has a little strength in her, just enough to keep wanting him to love her. And so, one day after she suffers great abuse from him, she poisons him, and he falls sick and can't work for the next few days he is too sick to abuse her, so she is happy. And then, he comes back from his illness and proposes to her.

Okay ... but maybe he doesn't know that she poisoned him?

After the marriage, things go back to as they were, obviously, and he begins to heap abuse at her again until one day she overhears him complaining about how he doesn't want her around as she is disrupting his work. So she poisons him again, and this time he knows it and goes along with it. And he loves her.

And that's the movie. Okay...

So this is a sick, toxic (literally) relationship that works for both of them. She is only happy when he is poisoned and helpless, and he, despite his passion and perfection for work is apparently only able to love her when his work is taken from him and he is poisoned and helpless. Apparently he makes the choice to let her poison him. Perhaps he really doesn't want the endless pressure of being a genius after all? It's hard to say, as the screenwriter leaves it a mystery.

Like Whiplash, I recognize great performances and interesting screenplay, but I can't watch it. Who really wants to watch two hours of repulsive people, where the main character is an abusive, horrible person? A little bit of it in a movie adds color. You know that the scriptwriter threw it in for you to not like the abusive character. But, if the whole movie is about an abusive character who doesn't learn the error of his ways, you get the impression that the scriptwriter thinks that we should be entertained by it, or even sympathetic to this toxic white privileged male jerk.

But I wasn't. And I wasn't. I was simply repulsed. And the perfect "solitary genius" who is too important to be bothered with having to be nice to people is a myth.

Loving Vincent: Like a number of other animations I have reviewed, this work is one of astounding, gorgeous animation but also utterly boring. The plot, such as it is, is ... um ... well, there isn't one. A police officer wanders around trying to deliver a letter and asks a few questions about how Van Gogh died. It is all shots, and scenes, and music, and flaccid unimportant dialog. And nothing happens and there are no characters.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Books vs Movies 1/2: Books I Read After Seeing the Movie

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Movie: One of those movies that uses it's actors like juggling balls rather then for their talents and performances. Filled with a self-indulgent hyper-kinetic freneticism that is supposed to overawe but only makes me feel as empty as I do after watching forty minutes of Marvel movie fighting. I couldn't take more than a half hour of it.

The movie contains only the barest outline of the contents of the book (which is well over 700 dense pages).

Book: A classic, beautifully written, deeply insightful, and filled with a rich panoply of characters and events. I just don't like it. Why? Because it's filled with despair , depression, and the oppression of a soulless bureaucracy. I need someone to root for in my media, and there are no redeemable characters in the book. Anna starts out likeable enough, but soon becomes single-mindedly fixated on her adultery and filled with despair. Levin is kind of interesting as he works out the basics of communism, but hardly someone to identify with. Kitty is vacuous during the first half of the book, but she gains a few morals by the middle; unfortunately, her character just isn't that interesting.

Arrival, Ted Chiang

Movie: Quiet but phenomenal: intelligent, suspenseful, beautifully acted, scripted, and directed, and thoroughly engaging. It was only an hour after the movie ended that I figured out exactly what had been going on. One of my favorite movies of its year.

Book: A very nice short story, written in an economical style, well-plotted and thoughtful. To be honest,  the movie is so good that it makes reading the story kind of superfluous. The movie contains everything in the original story (with a few irrelevant changes) and more.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Movie: A beautiful movie with some haunting cinematography and outstanding acting. Some of the scenes and characters are haunting, and it contains some of my favorite actors. The story is clean and harsh.

Book: Very well-written, the movie is fairly close to the book. Both were enjoyable.

Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding

Movie: A very well-made chick-flick romcom that is a modern remake of Pride and Prejudice. A defining role for the fetching, sarcastic, and sympathetic Renee Zellweger. Actually a lot of fun, although kind of devolves a bit at the end as romcoms do.

Book: Slightly better than the movie, with a sharper satirical voice. The movie pretty much follows the book, but the book has its own distinctive voice.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok

Movie: A classic coming of age movie set in two Jewish 1940s Brooklyns that intersect. Contains some lessons in overcoming prejudices, making friends, and dealing with the heavy roles placed on us by society and family.

Book: As I recall, the movie is pretty much a reflection of the book, but the book is longer and deeper. Honestly, it's been a long while since I read it.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Movie: An iconic live-action Disney musical and performance by Dick Van Dyke. Very reminiscent of his overacting and production, like Mary Poppins. Fun in a nostalgic kind of way.

Book: Holds up better than the movie It is aimed at young readers and has good pictures and a simple clean writing style. The movie basically follows the book but changes several story elements to make it more child-friendly.

E.T. The Extraterrestrial, William Kotzwinkle

Movie: A classic Spielberg movie, with an absent father, cute kids, realistic dialogue that can veer from maudlin to annoying, and an incredible sense of wonder and magic. Beautiful cinematography and direction.

Book: A novelization of the movie, and I remember being thoroughly underwhelmed. The book adds some inner dialogue to the book that somehow managed to destroy the magic of the story.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

Movie: A great movie, one of the three major films starring James Dean. Powerfully shot and directed, with iconic performances.

Book: A powerhouse classic novel, one of the best American novels ever written. It is large, wide and epic, as well as thought-provoking with biblical allusions, well-drawn out characters, and interesting moral questions. The movie only superficially covers about the last quarter of the book.

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Movie: A great movie; could be considered a chick-flick but it is so much more, with sweeping characters caught in a global war and a series of interesting character dynamics and coincidences. Beautifully shot and acted, and very engaging.

Book: The movie follows the book fairly closely, and may be slightly better, but the book is also great. A very good read.

Escape to Witch Mountain, Alexander, H. Key

Movie: I loved this as a kid. It's kind of dated and a bit hokey, but still pretty fun to watch.

Book: Aimed at a rather young audience, so very easy and quick to read. The movie and book are nearly identical.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J. K. Rowling

Movie: An interesting movie, more low key than the Harry Potter movies. Two thirds of its time is spent on the pastoral main character and his doings and only in the last third do the hinted-at dark elements come to the fore. In this way, it is actually a closer representation of Rowling's writing style than the HP movies.

The main character is not a fighter, but a nurturer, which is quite an unusual choice for a movie that seems, superficially, to be more about action. It was well shot, had quirky characters, but was perhaps a bit slow. And then there was a battle sequence which went on too long, or at least with too much monotony. But it was enjoyable, all the same.

Book: Has nothing to do with the movie; it is a small fictional encyclopedia, which will eventually be written by the main character of the movie. You can skip it.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

Movie: Cute but disappointing. The characters were nice, the message was upbeat, but it was mostly predictable. The movie had a particularly bad misstep by setting a romantic scene in The Anne Frank House (ugh) and one particularly good scene near the end in a car. The rest was fine, occasionally charming, but too tame and pedestrian.

Book: The movie very closely follows the book. The book is slightly better, but has basically the same flaws.

Freaky Friday, Mary Rodgers

Movie: Here I refer to the original movie with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, I suspect that it is now pretty hokey, like many made for TV Disney films, but may still have some charm. I remember find it very funny and entertaining when I was a kid. The remake with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan was watchable but often over-produced and dumbed down. I think I might try to find the original again.

Book: Has several major differences from the movie, as I recall, as it follows almost entirely the point of view of the daughter in the mother's body. I don't remember it, although I remember my brother owning a copy. It was aimed at young teens.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Movie: I saw this in high school and wasn't ready for it. It's pretty grim. Well made, but not really entertaining.

Book: A well written classic, and far more expansive than the movie. The movie covers most of the book, but skips the first few and last few chapters and glosses over a lot of the middle. The book is also grim, but the good writing brings the characters to life, and it is more engaging.

Heaven Can Wait, Leonore Fleischer

Movie: Another somewhat dated movie (1978). While the special effects are hokey and the timing and performances of the actors are sometimes a bit off, it still holds up pretty well. I really enjoyed it when I was young.

Book: Actually, the movie is based on the 1941 play Here Comes Mr. Jordan by Henry Segall. This is the novelization of the above version of the movie. It wasn't that bad, just a straightforward telling of what you see on the screen. Not worth seeking out.

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Movie: A beautiful, thoughtful movie about three women in three different realities, connected by visual clues and emotional eddies. Perhaps a bit heavy handed on cinematic allusions, the directing and production are nevertheless solid, as are the magnificent performances by several incredibly talented actors. Emotional and hopeful.

Book: Was a disappointment after seeing the movie. It's not a bad book, but it is pedestrian in comparison. The movie essentially follows the book, with some cinematic licenses.

The Hunger Games (1), Suzanne Collins

Movie: I loved this movie so much that I immediately bought the entire trilogy of books knowing nothing about it. The performances are fantastic and the story and execution is beautiful. It's a great movie. Even so, the movie glossed over certain side themes and characters. It tried to both denounce the games while at the same time glorify them on screen, which didn't really make sense.

Book: The book is phenomenal, an instant classic, beautifully written with evocative characters and settings. The book presents the correct balance of despair and terror that the movie glosses over.

The second and third books are just as good or even better, while the subsequent movies got progressively worse.

John Carter (A Princess of Mars), Edgar Rice Burroughs

Movie: Roundly condemned for being boring, disjointed, and derivative, it was a huge box office bomb. I liked it. It was quirky and even daring in certain instances, and the plot, while somewhat far-fetched, was easy enough to follow. The characters and plot were shallow, but not boring.

Book: From 1912, the book is pre-golden age of science fiction, which explains its bizarre far-fetched plot. It is a decent read. The movie follows the book fairly closely, but expands on the text and plays with the start and end in order to provide a more compelling explanation of how the protagonist travels to Mars. Neither book nor movie are amazing, but they are both entertaining enough.

Julie and Julia, Julie Powell

Movie: A fun Nora Ephron movie about blogging, New York City, marriage, and cooking. Amy Adams is cute as Julie the blogger who decides to cook through Julia Childs' fat-laced Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Meryl Streep is delightful (of course) as a young Child as she first learns to cook. The fact that, in present time, Child acknowledges Julie only to dismiss what she does as a stunt is disconcerting but somewhat telling.

Book: The movie is actually based on Powell's book Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously as well as an autobiography by Child from the same year. Powell's book corresponds to the Julie scenes in the movie, and is written well enough. I can't really recommend the book: it's okay, but the author has some questionable morals.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton

Movie: An iconic, fantastic Spielberg movie that still works so well that you don't even mind the just ever-so-slightly off effects (except for when the girl says "It's a UNIX system!" which elicits a groan of pain from me every time). Has the usual daddy issues and cute, precocious children. Wonderful, magical film, with a great cast especially Goldblum), superb action and humor, and even a timeless message.

Book: The movie pretty much follows the book, which is also excellent. The book leaves out some of the great lines from the movie, but goes deeper into the characters, science, terrain, and so forth, and has a slightly darker more ominous tone, especially the ending.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Movie: A stunning work of cinematography, with a good story and good acting. This was one of my favorite movies of its year.

Book: The movie pretty much follows the book, but the movie is more fun to experience.

Me Before You, JoJo Moyes

Movie: Shallow and predictable. Its assets are the impossibly perky Emilia Clarke as Lou and the handsome and winning Sam Claffin as the wealthy but paralyzed Will. Everything else were just devices to have the main characters interact, trade barbs and glances, and share hearts. During the movie, when it appeared to be leading to a tragic ending, the realization of its inevitability evoked some emotion out of me, but that was its only real good point. When it ended I suspected that the book would be better.

Book: I was happily surprised to discover that the book is not only better, but it is excellent, well worth the read. The book goes deep into the poverty and struggles of Lou and her family, the dynamics of Will's parents and sister, the ethics of suicide and assisted suicide, and the lives and struggles of quadriplegics. The book takes its time and is well researched. Even Lou's boyfriend is more interesting in the book: in the movie he is one dimensional and you know he will be kicked to the curb a few seconds after he shows up on screen; in the book, he is still an ass but more well-rounded and sympathetic. I recommend the book.

After you read the book, you can enjoy the movie more, because you now know the back stories of the characters that were glossed over by the movie. Or you may also be even more disappointed in the movie for cutting the heart out of the book.

Message in a Bottle, Nicolas Sparks

Movie: Not a bad chick flick, it is solid but also not particularly daring. Paul Newman steals all of the scenes he is in.

Book: It's Nicholas Sparks: the plot is simple and fun, the writing is good enough to tell the story and not much more. The movie pretty much follows the book.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

Movie: A fabulous movie about a strange teen and his mysterious problems and the odd friends he makes in high school The movie is beautifully scripted with several concurrent themes running through it, some serious and some light, and they all work together Great performances and music, too. Inspired me to read the book as soon as possible.

Book: Also great, a longer and more complex version of the movie. The movie managed to portray most of the book's major plot elements, but the book makes them more gripping with an attention to details and events more fully realized. Worth the read.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Bryan Lee O'Malley

Movie: A fun, wacky and engaging movie that inspired me to read the comic series as soon as possible. The movie is so random in some ways, and yet it cohesively uses video-game semiotics to metaphorically convey the main character's reality, while the main plot is its own metaphor about making a relationship work while dealing with the ghosts of past relationships. I loved it.

Book: My joy of the movie was lessened after reading the powerhouse that is the graphic novel series. Scott Pilgrim the six part comic series is incredible and incredibly deep, funny, original, cute, cool, and so much fun. The movie more or less covers book 1, some of book 2, parts of book 3, a teeny bit of book 4 and 5, and then nearly entirely rewrites book 6. The plot ends in a totally different place, and so much of the important story, character development, metaphors, depth, and life lessons from the last four books are absent from the movie. The movie is just a shadow of the incredible book series. I still enjoy the movie, but do read the series.

The Shipping News, Annie Proulx

Movie: An adult story set in New England mostly Maine) about loneliness and mediocrity, the movie is pretty good, although it doesn't really have a lot to say. The main characters are not all that sympathetic, but its a decent watch.

Book: A more fleshed out and sympathetic portrayal of the story, the main character transforms and grows by the end of the book. It is written solidly and a good read. Scenes that were flat in the movie are richer in the book since we can see can experience the characters' inner struggles. I enjoyed it more than the movie (and that feeling is only exacerbated by knowing what we now know about Kevin Spacey).

Slumdog Millionaire (Q and A), Vikas Swarup

Movie: A highly-praised movie, and well deserved. It manages to be funny and yet still explore some of the dark areas of Indian poverty, child abuse, and crime. Great acting and sets, and an engaging plot.

Book: Definitely better than the movie, well written and more satisfying. The book contains background information, relationships, and even entire scenes that are skipped over by the movie, so that many of the characters and their motivations make more sense. Not a long book, and worth the read.

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

Movie: The movie that introduced me to Kristen Stewart, it is a neat, quiet, but powerful little teen drama about an event that is hard to speak about. It is very well done, almost a classic teen movie.

Book: The movie essentially follows the book. It is something like two different people telling the same story - all of the plot elements are there, but the coloring and which parts are given weight is slightly different in each telling. A very good teen read.

Star Wars, George Lucas (Alan Dean Foster)

Movie: Not much to say here, I think.

Book: A novelization of the movie, adding only a bit of interior dialogue. It was nothing special. Foster went on to write the first sequel to Star Wars - Splinter of the Mind's Eye - even before The Empire Strikes Back came out. As a result, that book doesn't entirely adhere to the SW universe; it was a pretty good book, however.

Superman III, William Kotzwinkle

Movie: Superman was a little soporific, but also iconic in many ways. Superman II was pretty great; from today's perspective, its timing, some effects, and some of the dialogue is off, but it's still a good watch. Superman III tried to be a comedy with Richard Pryor, but it wasn't funny. It was pretty tiresome to watch, and its computer elements were as ridiculous as they come in movies. Some scenes with Clark Kent fighting his evil instantiation were okay.

Book: Like E.T.'s novelization, this book was pretty awful, robbing what little interest the movie held with poor cutesy prose. I hardly remember anything from it except that I didn't like it.

The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White

Movie: One of the minor Disney efforts, it's a barrage of meaningless, psychedelic, and silly visuals and jokes. The move has only passing reference to the book's form, missing nearly all of the rich descriptions, all of its important concepts, and all but the last, major plot point.

Book: The movie glosses over the first book of a five book series on the Arthurian legends. The first four are collected under the title The Once and Future King. The first book, rather like The Hobbit, is the juvenile entry of the series; the other four are more for adults. The entire series is a must read, an absolute classic of English literature, on par with The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it's that good.

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Movie: Certain movies, like this one, just work, and you can tell that from the first ten minutes. This is a lovely romance movie, which uses its science fiction element as an allegory (as all good works of science fiction do). Heart-warming and captivating, but very much an emotional roller coaster. It falters a bit when it veers into trying to explain things scientifically, and then certain story elements aren't exactly explained well (like how their time traveling daughter can possibly survive, at a very young age, the same kinds of experiences that the protagonist went through as an adult).

Book: Like Perks of Being a Wallflower, the movie is a condensed version of the book. The book gives a richer tapestry of the events, including expanded scenes and an ending that are more satisfying than the movie. A beautiful read, good to read together with a loved one.

Twilight, Stephanie Meyer

Movie: Not bad, although it also somewhat shallow. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, the central fantasy is a metaphor about sexual tension between an older boy and a minor girl, but it is also an action movie. It doesn't quite successfully juggle both elements, and Kristen Stewart doesn't give us much character depth, but that is more the fault of the screenwriter and director than hers. The movie is aimed at tween girls, and they like it, so that's that.

Book: Somewhat better than the movie, still aimed at tween and teen girls. Again, it's not bad, and certainly more original than the hundreds of similar books that it inspired and that came after.

The Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum

Movie: A wonderful movie that, amazingly, hasn't lost its charm. Full of great moments, great quotes, and great characters, and some very funny and scary moments you always seem to forget.

Book: Called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I was never able to get into it. The author's writing is not as good as the author's imagination. Dorothy is someone who things happen to, rather then someone who does things. The movie really makes the story shine.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio

Movie: I anticipated this being a boring movie with a straightforward story about a disfigured boy who goes to school, is bullied, makes a false friend and then a true friend, finally wins over the school, etc, blah blah. Actually, half of the book is about that, but the other half is told from the point of view of others in his life, and those stories are more interesting. Some of these side stories don't even revolve around the boy, which make the whole thing a richer experience. So I enjoyed the movie, although the main plot was somewhat shallow. I anticipated that the book would contain things left out of the movie.

Book: But the movie nearly exactly follows the book, even the structure of telling stories from the perspectives of the different characters. The book and the movie are essentially the same, so, while the book was also fairly enjoyable, it was not much more than that.