Monday, December 09, 2019

The Case of Turner Prize: Are Too Many Ties Devaluing the Concept of Competition?

CNN reports on the winners of this year's Turner Prize, an annual prize presented to a British visual artist. All of the finalists asked to be given the prize jointly, as a group, and so all of the contenders "won" in a competition in which no one lost.

This, combined with what some people see as a pattern in recent years, has irked some people. These people see this "tie" and equate it with the concept of spoiled Millennials who get "participation trophies" or prizes for trying. What has happened to cutthroat competition and actual winning.

The Arguments For and Against

The arguments against the Turner prize tie, in this case, are that the refusal to announce a single winner is indicative of snowflakes, who can't handle being losers. That too many winners devalues the concept of winning, and of competition in general. And that it lacks drama.

The arguments in favor are rather specific to this event. The artists decided that their works were complementary, rather than competitive, and did not feel that a competition was the right way to judge them. That felt that they had already "won" by having reached the shortlist for the prize. Alex Farquharson, the director of the Tate Britain gallery which organizes the prize, argues that times have changed and that competition may not be the right format to judge these kinds of works, anymore. Andrew Russeth, a writer for the Daily Mail, writes "This notion of having artists compete in public and one walk away the winner feels a little demeaning and unpleasant."

Some Points to Consider

As for the arguments against, it is important to divide up those activities in which competition really brings out the most effort and the best results versus those in which we have stuck absolute competitions because we were too boring or lazy to provide a better framework. The Olympics doesn't have a single winner, because we don't make the downhill skier compete against the figure skater; the disciplines and forms are too different to compare. So maybe, when it comes to art competitions with very loose frameworks, it is silly to compare different kinds of entries in different subjects, and with different intents. Maybe the Turner Prize is overdue for a restructure.

When it comes to "participation trophies", there are two hands here. On the one hand, participation trophies are not just a Millennial issue; that is lazy, biased journalism, and the usual "look down at the next generation" attitude of Boomers who have suddenly publicized a concept that has existed for generations. Everyone who joins the army (and doesn't screw up too badly) gets stripes and awards during and after service. Everyone who shows up for work gets paid, and often gets bonuses, even if they aren't the number one worker. Even the specific concept of participation trophies is a century old.

On the other hand, participation trophies are not "everyone gets a trophy". They are, unless severely mishandled, a reward for having put in effort. In the same event, different people, i.e. winners, get specific prizes, while everyone who at least put in effort gets the participation trophy. The recipients of these trophies are not morons, and they know that trophies for winning and trophies for participation have different values. But studies show that encouraging effort is better motivation than acknowledging talent. When you tell someone they have won, they stop trying; when you tell someone that they are smart, they often find a way to not be, act, or appear smart. When you tell someone that you see their hard work and you think it is worthwhile, they may end up trying harder, and, sometimes, they may eventually win or get smarter.

However, announcing the Turner Prize as a tie is lazy; if you set up a competition, you should not change the rules in the middle when you realize that the competition was the wrong format. They should have, originally, defined better categories that were more conductive to direct competition, or they should have defined goals for which prizes could be given to all, or a list, of people who met these goals. But, since they didn't, they should have awarded a winner and let the artists figure out how to deal with this.

Competition is not inherently evil. It brings out efforts and results that would not happen without it. When mishandled, it can bring out people too focused on the goal; they might even short circuit the permitted methods to get to that goal. Winning, when handled well, can be a goal or a stepping stone to more effort. Losing, when handled well, is not something to be afraid of. Competition against others should always be, in parallel, competition against ourselves. And for that, a job well done results in a self-award that does not require any external acknowledgement.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Comparing All Four Versions of A Star is Born

There are four movies called A Star is Born, all roughly following the same plot (here be spoilers):

An aging, alcoholic, male entertainer is just beginning to exceed the tolerance people allow him for his talent with the ridicule and distress he engenders with his destructive, obnoxious antics. Just at this time, he hears or sees a young woman with talent languishing in a small-time position and takes it upon himself to short-list her into fame and fortune. She initially resists, but falls for him and takes the opportunity. She becomes absorbed into the soulless hit-making factory of Hollywood and becomes wildly successful,, while the world turns away from him. They marry and move in together. He runs out of opportunities and people call him a has-been, in so many words; he even ends up taking phone calls or interview requests for her from people who don't even know him. She wins an award (Oscar or Grammy) and he shows up late to the ceremony and interrupts her speech with some kind of drunken scandalous antic. She asks her manager to give him some pity opportunities; he turns them down. She resolves (more or less) to quit the business in order to live a smaller life with him, since she realizes that he can't handle the situation as is (with her being successful and him not), but he discovers this and decides to kill himself in order to prevent this. She spends some time in self-pity. In the end, she publicly performs or says something to acknowledge his importance to her.

1937: Leads are Esther Victoria Blodgett aka Vivki Lester (Janet Gaynor) and Norman Maine (Fredric March). This is a fine film, although very much a period piece of the time it was made, so there are some rushed dialog, odd pauses, harsh sound, and bad lighting. The plot is well-paced and scripted. The actors are both likeable. The main actors recite some of their speeches woodenly but passionately at the camera (or just off to the left) and there are some hysterics. Everyone else talks like a 1930s gangster.

In this version, the main characters are actors. Esther starts on a farm and travels to Hollywood but meets rejection. Norman gets her into his pictures when he sees her waitressing. Someone directly and quite rudely tells Norman that he is washed up. Norman punches him, so Vicki has to bail Norman out of the police station. Norman overhears Vicki planning to give up her career, so Norman walks into the ocean  Vicki ends the movie by looking at the camera and calling herself Mrs. Norman Maine.

This is a fine and memorable movie, worthy of being redone.

1954: 17 years later. Esther Blodgett aka Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) and Norman Maine (James Mason). In this version, the main characters are actors / vaudeville performers singes and dancers. Norman finds Esther singing in a nightclub. The movie is punctuated with several musical performances that, I suppose, were entertaining to audiences of the 1950s. Anyway, they look a lot like bad musicals from that era, like the Road movies and so forth.

I have a hard time conveying the contempt I have for this film. It's mostly in two parts.

Firstly, the acting is always fairly terrible, but sometimes it rises to the level of horrifically terrible. The actors stare at the screen in horror with long pauses, bite their knuckles, fling themselves onto furniture, and weep or shout like idiots.

But mostly, James Mason's Norman grabs, yanks, hurls, pushes, interrupts, orders, and otherwise abuses Judy Garland's Esther throughout the whole movie, yet the movie conveys this as rough but charming. It's sickening. By the time she falls in love with Norman, he has done nothing but pull her through doors, push her into cars and rooms, and otherwise abuse her, but all she can think of is how he takes her breath away (duh, by never letting her think or talk). Most of the abuse comes from Norman, but some of it comes from other people, too. She is a rag doll. It's jaw-droppingly painful to watch. The very little agency she has in the film is to sing and dance, or to wail and cry over how sad it is that she can't do anything for Norman ("She can't! She can't! She can't! Ohhhhh aaahhhh aaahhhh!")

Norman overhears the fateful conversation and is (overacting) horrified and drowns himself. After getting yelled out and yanked by a few more people, Vicki ends the movie by looking at the camera and calling herself Mrs. Norman Maine. And then ...

1976: 22 years later. Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand) and John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson). This movie is thankfully a step up from the previous one. It's diverges a bit from the others as to how it fills in the plot scenes. The main characters are now singers. The movie starts with a big crowd and drunken stage performance.

They took the main outline of the plot and decided that everyone already knows it, so the movie is about 50% plot and 50% Barbra and Kris being playful and making love. It's very 1970s, not only the hair styles and crowd scenes, motorcycle and car driving, but with the casual flashes of nudity and almost relaxed attitude toward infidelity (it's an insult, but apparently an easily forgivable one). And now we have cocaine, not just alcohol.

The result is somewhat loosely plotted and kind of boring. We skip all the scenes of how she turns into a star (she just does, in a 2 minute montage), we skip her changing her name (she pooh-poohs that idea after being asked by a reporter), we skip the courtroom bailout scene, and we skip most of the conversation that is supposed to lead to his death. She yells at him once for sleeping around, saying that she doesn't want him to drag her down, and he races off into the desert and dies (whether by accident or deliberately is left a bit vague). She ends the movie by singling another song, no name assertion.

It's not only that neither of the main characters are likeable. It's that they don't have much in the way of character to like or to not like. John is kind of sympathetic. Esther is kind of ... well, she's just Barbra Streisand.

But Barbra can sing, and she sings fine. So fine that you kind of wonder how it is that she was languishing in obscurity to begin with.

This is not worth watching, but the soundtrack is lovely. And then ...

2018: 38 years later. Ally (Lady Gaga) and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper). The main characters are singers. The movie starts pretty similarly to the 1973 one (with better camera-work and sound), but the alcoholism is more subtle.

This one is, by far, the best one, with incredible performances, scripting, directing, and shooting. The music is amazing, and Lady Gaga is a great singer (okay, Barbra was better, but that's a given for just about anyone). Possibly the only issue I have is the rushed scenes leading up to his decision to kill himself. Ally only half-heartedly tries to throw Jackson some pity-bones (she says one quick sentence about not go on tour without him). The scene that struck me as most wrong was that someone flat out says to Jackson that he is a drag on her career and should disappear, rather than him overhearing it (like he does in the first two movies). It's not that this couldn't or wouldn't happen, it's just a less sympathetic way to depict it happening.

Jackson hangs himself instead of drowning. And Ally ends by introducing herself as Ally Maine, and then she sings a final song while she looks directly into the camera.

Bradley and Lady, as well as everyone else, do a great job of pacing and acting. They are likeable and tragic. The songs are pretty great, too. And the story is, apparently, timeless.

Monday, November 18, 2019

2019 Holiday Gift Guide

This guide includes games for young and old, for every gender, 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.

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.
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.
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. I picked up Crokinole a few years ago, and it is a constant hit with my girlfriend, family, and 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 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.
If you are just two people, try 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.

Frankenstein: Ages 6+, 2 to 4 players

A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a monster theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability. The theme may not be appropriate for all ages, but most kids today should feel comfortable playing it.

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it.
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.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Movie Reviews: X-Men Dark Phoenix, Shazam, Alita: Battle Angel, Rocketman

Dark Phoenix: I liked this movie more than the masses did, apparently. Not that I thought it was a great movie, but it was better than the mess that was Apocalypse.

I think the biggest hate directed at this movie comes from the fact that this movie spits on any concept of fitting into the the other movies' timeline: it doesn't end in a way that fits in, and it takes place in the wrong decade. While I admit that it would have been better had it fit the timeline, I don't ding it any points for NOT doing so. I take the movie as it is, just like I don't care if it matches whatever is supposed to have happened in the comic books.

The story moves well enough: Jean Gray is a mutant with telekinesis, energy containment and blasts, and some mind reading. As a girl, she accidentally kills her parents. Charles Xavier takes her in and raises her in his school for gifted children. Some time later, on a rescue mission to save regular people in a space craft, she is exposed to and absorbs some kind of massive cloud of energy. She begins to lose control of her powers and some of her personality. During this process, she comes to find out that Charles "protected" her by lying to her about some things from her past and erecting some blocks on her power that were dangerous to her and others. Unbeknownst to her and everyone else, the energy she absorbed is some kind of power wanted by shape-shifting aliens who want to use it to destroy Earth. They try to win her over to their side and/or retake control of her power. Or something like that.

The movie is acted well and there is nothing wrong with the special effects, sound, or directing. One problem with the movie is that the aliens just kind of meander around; it's hard to figure out their exact powers or plan, they don't seem all that vicious (except for their ultimate goal), they don't exhibit any kind of emotion, and they are sometimes vulnerable to our heroes attacks and sometimes not without explanation as to why. So it's hard to relate to the struggle against them. Jean Gray doesn't emerge as much of a character, just someone who wanders around glassy eyed and generally upset. And Magneto is a shadow of his former self and not that interesting to watch. The others are not too bad.

The biggest problem is that the plot feels awfully like Captain Marvel's, which was a pretty terrific movie: a woman lied to by people who put blocks on her power, told to control her emotions, fighting shape shifting aliens. Captain Marvel manages to make the main character's smug constraints on her emotion seem human; she even smiles and laughs once in a while. This movie just isn't as good. It's also a reworking of the X-Men III: The Last Stand (from the previous timeline), which wasn't too bad of a movie either, although it suffered from some other, different, problems.

But at least this movie was watchable.

Shazam: Another DC movie, this one is pretty forgettable. A boy gets a suit that give him superpowers for reasons, and someone else want his power while others want to kill him, so there is fighting and a lot of young boys giggling. He is a foster kid who is sent from home to home, also for reasons, and ends up with a bunch of other foster kids in a home of an altruistic couple, and all of the other kids also join in the fun. The supernatural elements were ridiculous and even hokey. The whole plot was silly.

This movie is like if Spider-man happened, but instead of great action, a weighty sense of importance, great moral questions, excitement, tension, and good characters, a bunch of adolescent boys sat around and imagined how cool it would be to have a superpower. About the only good parts are the brief scenes of the boy's search for his mother and his mother's reaction to this.

Alita: Battle Angel: I gave this a shot, but it was only marginally better than Elysim, another story about people stuck on-world trying to get to the floating ship. Okay, Elysium was really bad, and this wasn't quite that bad, but it sure wasn't good.

You can kind of see through this animated movie how the comic source material (that I never heard of) could be pretty good. Flashes of some interesting world-building, characters, and plots hover around at the edges of the screen, but then they are gone, leaving us with a simple matter of roller skates, robot parts, races, a dull romance, silly action scenes, and nothing in the way of any characters that we care about. Highly unmemorable.

Rocketman: Taron Egerton inhabits adult Elton John in this biopic that will inevitably be compared to the recent Bohemian Rhapsody but is nothing like it, really. The latter is allegedly true, but mostly fiction, with weird changes to the true story that you wouldn't know were changes if you didn't know the actual history of Queen. It is also about Freddy Mercury's descent from drugs and promiscuity, but only mildly so; it is mostly about the music. Rocketman is a fantasy, but mostly true. It is a true musical with dramatic scenes or bridges breaking out into dance and song. The songs and drama are used to illustrate the character's feelings and experiences and the story is not about the music but about the descent, which is harsh and harrowing.

It is gripping and dazzling despite itself, much the way that Elton John was. Several songs are performed as showpieces, while others (mostly Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Rocket Man) run through the more poignant scenes in chords and snippets. Elton was tolerated but unloved by his mother and her family, and rejected altogether by his father, even as an adult. He had a lifelong friendship with Bernie Taupin, who accepted him as a homosexual but was not one  himself. Elton's descent includes pushing even Bernie away - temporarily - as depressed, drugged up, overly wealthy and indulged suicidal rock stars are likely to do. Except for the scenes with his parents, the story does not contain any real surprises, even for those who don't know anything about it, since it's pretty straightforward. But it is fun, or occasionally moving, to watch. And the music is great, even though it is all covers.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame (SPOILERS)

Probably the best thing about Endgame is that it's the (almost) last of the first generation of MCU movies (we still have a Spiderman movie, maybe a Black Widow movie, and I'm sure a whole 'other next-generation of MCU movies are in the works). Is it a good movie? No. Is it a good-MCU movie? It's fine, much in the same way that Harry Potter 8 was fine: it does what it is supposed to.

That it broke box office records is understandable since the last movie was a cliff-hanger. Less understandable is its rave reviews, unless the reviews are based on its "must see" quality. Because, even from a Marvel perspective, the movie just barely makes sense, is disjointed, has too many scenes that are just sketches, has too many underused characters, and has an ending that is somewhat anti-climactic. What it has going for it is some emotional impact (a bit), some humor (not all of it good), some flashbacks to previous MCU movies, some nice visuals, and a sense of an ending.

PLOT: Following the last movie where half of the universe is wiped out, the characters are upset. The survivors track down Thanos who has already destroyed the stones so that his work can't be undone, so all they can do is kill him. Five years later Ant-Man is accidentally rescued from the quantum realm but has experienced only 5 hours, which leads him to think that the Avengers can use the quantum realm to go back in time - and space (???) - to very specific times and places in order to steal the infinity stones from the past, undo what Thanos did, and return them to their timelines. Unfortunately, while in the past, future Nebula's presence and memories alert past Thanos to this plan and he travels into the present to destroy the universe and remake a new one that won't try this plan again.

REACTIONS: Let's put a pin onto the obvious time-travel paradox problems, and even the rest of the insane problems for one minute and take the movie as is. This movie takes a little time to show us Hawkeye's family, Iron Man's daughter, and a few other character-relationship moments, which is a little more than we get in most MCU movies and which was nice. There was at least some attempt to deal with the failure and loss of the last movie, although, other than an argument from Iron Man and a sense of purpose from Captain America, these attempts were laughably badly done. Thor's gut belly and indifference was supposed to be funny, but other than the quick visual punch it really wasn't. On the one hand it was nice to see an overweight superhero. On the other, too many jokes were made about him being out of shape.

Now we have to take the pin out, because this movie's basic plot, premise, and how it deals with what happened is just insane:

  • If you wipe out half of all "living creatures", what about the animals and vegetation?
  • If you wipe our half of all living creatures, far FAR more than half of the remainder are going to die, and pretty soon. Half of all airplane pilots of mid-flight airplanes and half of the air-traffic controllers are gone. That's thousands of crashed flights. Half of all drivers of cars and trucks are gone but their cars are still speeding. That stops EVERY car and truck on the road, killing millions of people and instantly blocking every major and minor thoroughfare. Who's left to un-jam the roads? Half of all surgeons are gone mid-operation and nurses mid-care. Half of all single-parents with dependents that can't get help. Half of the people that care for remote villages.
  • How about every religion? How many of them could deal with half of their flock, including their pope or chief or most of their cardinals, dying? No riots? No looting? No new cults or major overthrows? How are the governments still working? How are buildings? How is food and medicine getting delivered, let alone produced and harvested and supplied?
  • How about financial markets and the collapse of industry? How about the collapse of all national security? How about rogue nations and terrorism? How about ...
  • Let's talk about what it would mean then to reintroduce half of the population again five years after the world has moved on without them. Where are they reintroduced into the world, including the ones that were mid-flight or mid-driving? Up in the air, at their destination, or at home? Who owns what? Who is married to whom? Who is producing food for them and where do they live?
  • The point is that this kind of disaster is a mcguffin, something that you can't think about even in the most shallow terms because it doesn't make any sense, but the MCU just throws it in and expects you not to think about it.
And that's not even considering the loony ways that time-travel is dealt with, screwing around with multiple timelines with no concept of how to resolve any of the changes. But that consideration is, at least, par for the course for bad sci-fi movies. Also, how does time travel = infinite space travel?

As far as characters go:
  • Iron Man is well acted and has a good show. It was nice to see his callback to the end of the first movie
  • Captain America has definitely grown as a character and had a good show.
  • Black Widow / Hawkeye: yes, it was a better choice for her to die, since he has a real family, but the movie doesn't make you feel that that was more than a plot consideration. Her death was more tragic than Iron Man's, but she is only given a few words of remorse while he is given a whole ending funeral and condolence scene. Which just goes to show that the MCU still doesn't consider the women to be as important as the men.
  • Captain Marvel has barely 15 minutes of screen-time after her big movie. It's entirely unclear how she rescues Iron Man at the beginning. The nice shot of all of the remaining women characters was nice, but it shouldn't be: there are tons of shots of all men characters that we simply take for granted, but the MCU makes us wait for a big, dramatic shot of women characters. I will be more excited when there are so many scenes and shots of women superheroes that we don't notice them anymore.  Which just goes to show that the MCU still doesn't consider the women to be as important as the men.
  • Thanos' powers are never explained. Why would the God of Thunder and several of his weapons have no effect on him, why is he able to break Captain America's unbreakable shield, and why can't even Captain Marvel put a dent in him? Plot, is the only reason. The MCU dug themselves into a hole when they gave superheroes so much strength and then could not think  of a way to create tension without simply ignoring all of that strength. Tension with an overly strong superhero is supposed to come from moral complexity, deception, and self-actualization, not from Something Even Stronger.
  • Hulk: They keep finding new ways to present him to keep him fresh, which is nice. But he's still pretty boring as a character.
  • Ant-Man: I kind of forgot where he was, once the time travelling started. Oh wait, I think I saw him flying around with the Wasp here and there. Whatever.
  • Nebula and Gemora had a lot to do, and they were the stars. Too bad they were pretty boring in their previous movies.
  • Pepper: Gwenyth stole the scenes she was in just by being a better actor and presence than anyone else.
  • Black Panther, Spider-man, Doctor Strange, etc all showed up just to be there, but served no other purpose.
As a movie qua movie, the movie exists only to complete what happened in the last movie. It contained no real moral dilemmas, no real character tension, no real insights, no real inspiration or sacrifice (Black Widow's sacrifice was antiseptic and Iron Man's was accidental), and nothing really interesting story-wise other than its utter mangling and refusal to deal with the more interesting ramifications of story that was supposedly occurring around them.

Was it entertaining? If you ignore all of the parts than made my brain hurt, then it was entertaining. I wanted to see how it ended, which is about all one could have hoped for and no more. Infinity War was more entertaining and more satisfying (not that it was good, per se, but it was a better MCU movie). This was just okay.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Frankenstein: A New Version of It's Alive from Invedars

Hey guys. News about the game formerly known as It's Alive.

After the first prototypes, two editions of It's Alive from Reiver Games, and two versions of Hanukkah themed versions called Candle Quest by Victory Point Games and on The Game Crafter (still available), the game has been picked up by Invedars, returning to its original Frankenstein theme.

The new version is called Frankenstein and it looks amazing. New artwork, and a figurine and a new events expansion for Kickstarter backers.

The project is up on Kickstarter and reached its goal in only 24 hours. It is now many times above its goal.

They have already sent prototypes to reviewers for new reviews, for example:

Follow Invedars and progress about the game on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Movie Reviews: Captain Marvel, Green Book, Juliet, Naked, Colette, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Aquaman, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Mary Poppins Returns, Like Father

See all of my movie reviews.

Captain Marvel - It's not the toxic male mob intent on trashing this movie because it features strong women characters (some of color, no less) that gets me. It's the well-meaning but clueless regular men (and women) who don't get that a female superhero movie doesn't have to a) be exactly like a male superhero movie or b) feature a woman who has to listen to, love, or get saved or supported by a man.

"Vers" is a Kree, a humanoid with a past that she remembers in glimpses in her dreams. She is fighting as an elite Kree warrior against the "terrorist" shape-shifting Krulls, and told by her mentor and the world's AI that they gave her her special powers (shooting energy blasts from her hands and other things, that other Krees don't have) and will take it away if she can't control it. During a mission she is kidnapped by Krulls and crash lands in 1990s Earth, where she discovers many secrets about the past and the war she is fighting. Eventually she turns into Captain Marvel; this is late in the movie but not a big spoiler.

The naysayers who say that Brie Larson doesn't exhibit enough emotion didn't watch the movie. Okay, maybe she doesn't play CM as a vulnerable helpless naif, or make us feel her struggles too much, but she exhibits fear, doubt, confusion, happiness, joy, anger, and everything in between. She's just freakin' strong and powerful, she's generally in control, and she's angry. Captain Marvel has nothing to prove after being lied to and finally regurgitating the lies. She spent six years in a civilization that treats men and women equally and she doesn't know anything about being a second class citizen. She is a powerhouse and a warrior. And so, in a more human way, is her female friend Lashana Lynch, a pilot who skillfully flies a rescue mission and shoots down enemy ships.

The naysayers who claim that CM doesn't learn or grow also didn't watch the movie. Okay, the turning points were sometimes a tad rushed, but it's a Marvel movie; for crying out loud. Compared to other Marvel movies, this was Shakespeare. Everything about her confusion, her gradual uncovering of the truth, and her turning points are well presented in the movie and make sense. (How she got her powers - and lived - doesn't make sense, but then neither do any of the other Marvel superhero origin stories.)

One way to analyze if the movie works is to ask if the movie would still be good if the sexes were swapped. The answer is hell yes. But it's far better to have women as the lead characters, because so few movies like this do. It's high time that girls had some uncompromising, independent, unsexualized, strong role models.

Everyone involved in this movie did a great job. It has the most real character development and character relations I've seen in a Marvel movie since Iron Man. Within the context of Marvel, the plot flows seamlessly into the rest of the MCU (without the hanging threads that Wonder Woman left in the DCU, for example). CM is a real superhero, like Superman. A fun watch. Ben Mandelsohn also bring fun to most scenes he is in as one of the Skrulls.

Green Book - Based on a true story of a low-class Italian bouncer who drives a black, fancy piano virtuoso across the deep south in 1962. Mahershala Ali plays the somewhat ridiculous Doctor Donald Shirley who is invited as guest of honor in places where he is typically not allowed to sleep or eat. Viggo Mortensen is nearly unrecognizable as his driver, who starts off as a crude racist but ends up ... well, you'll have to see.

The story is okay, the acting and everything else is good. The movie creates a relatively safe space to encounter racism, with only a little violence and general racism. It's more a road movie and a culture class of refined vs uncouth. I don't know that the movie deserved an Oscar for best picture, but it was solid enough, if a tad predictable in some places.

The ending scene is unbelievable as Hollywood movies tend to be.

Juliet, Naked - A very good romantic comedy. Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) is a fanatic blogger who obsessively tracks information about one musician, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who disappeared many years ago. Duncan is more interested in his hobby than his girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), who ends up in contact with Tucker behind Duncan's back.

Like in many romantic comedies, it's hard to figure out how the girl ended up with the guy in the first place. Not that Duncan is horrible, but he's not a great match for Annie. The scenery is a small pretty, port town in England crossed with some scenes in London hospitals and studios. The movie is mostly laid back.

It's sweet and calm, with an original screenplay that goes in a familiar rom-com direction with some original, unexpected confrontations along the way. Well worth a watch.

Colette - Keira Knightley plays the eponymous writer in a now-familiar story of a woman writing under her man's name, who takes the credit, until she has had enough of that, thank you.

Keira is a firehouse in some movies (Pirates of the Caribbean, Begin Again) and out of place in others (Pride and Prejudice, The Imitation Game). Here she is closer to the latter, unfortunately, unable to give the role the kind of gravitas that would make a more interesting picture. Her character is too straightforward. The plot is too straightforward. Colette's lesbian encounters were not scandalous at the time, because no one knew about them, and they are not scandalous to us today, so that part of the plot doesn't really add much substance to the movie.

It's not bad, and it doesn't drag, but it wasn't very memorable.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - Actually a good movie. The critics somewhat miss the mark here. They didn't like that this was an interim chapter of a movie that sets up the next one(s). In this regard, it's something like HP 5 or 6, but without the tournament or shock ending. Basically, if there had been a shock ending, the critics would have been mollified. The problem is that we're not invested in the characters, so that kind of an ending wasn't really possible.

Queenie, Jacob, Newt, and Tina, as well as a host of other characters, all congregate in Paris (and some other places) to chase after the smarmy Grindelwald, who is assembling an army to attack muggles, and the reborn Credence who has some kind of part to play. Dumbledore is also involved in some short scenes that don't give us much information.

They abandoned sense regarding Queenie's character and reduced her to a plot point "good witch turns bad" using the flimsiest of plot elements: they shoehorned Jacob back into the movie as another plot element. That part was kind of a mess, which I bet JKR could have done much better in book form than it ended up being on screen. As for Newt and Tina, yeah, it's a little hard to figure out why Newt is the hero handing this mission, instead of a pack of competent, trained aurors, but whatever. I also give "whatevers" to a few of the other random plot elements.

It's still pretty fun, pretty magical, mostly makes sense, is well-paced, has some clever and thrilling moments, and takes its time doing world-building ...something which other directors could learn from (*cough* new Star Wars *cough* all comic book movies *cough*). I'm not saying I'm going to run out and see it again in the theater, but I'll happily watch it again when I re-watch the whole FBaWTFT series.

Aquaman - Actually ... meh. Lots of men with irrelevant supporting women. That's par for the course, mostly, but the men are not interesting. They yell, pose, and fight. The spectacle and effects are pretty and overwhelming sometimes, but it all comes to a lot of posing and fighting, and nothing interesting in the way of plot or characters.

Queen of Atlantis runs away, or gets washed away, and meets a human who runs a lighthouse. They have a baby, Aquaman, who grows up (in too-little screen time) who goes to claim his crown in the sea. To do this he has to find a magic trident, while being pursued by a human in a magic suit who is upset that Aquaman didn't save his criminal father from dying, as well as the current lord of Atlantis who wants to kill all the humans for dumping garbage in the ocean.

On the one hand, it's nice when the bad guys have reasonable motivations (taken too far). On the other hand, do we really want to be rooting FOR dumping in the ocean? Or oppression of black people around the world (Black Panther)? Or overpopulation (Avengers Infinity War)?

Visually beautiful, frenetic, and kind of insane is the best that can be said about it. It's like Thor underwater, with a laser light show. Not on my list of great comic movies.

Ralph Breaks the Internet - Ralph and Princess Vanellope are video game characters, as you know from the last outing of this franchise. They get sucked into the Internet, and try to find a (real world physical) component to fix Vanellope's arcade game (and then the money to buy the component), and then they get into fights and races with hot gaming chicks and computer viruses.

It mostly makes sense if you don't think about any of it too hard (take one small aspect of a real world concept, pretend that it makes sense for a video game character to deal with or manifest, repeat ad nauseum). It's entertaining. It tries hard to have relatable characters, but they are just flat pixels on which to give a few life lessons and say jokes. The room full of hip Disney princesses was fun, but I couldn't help feeling that even this scene could have been better. Actually, just following a bunch of updated, feminist Disney princesses, free from the constraints of their movie plots, would make a great movie.

It tries hard, but ultimately it's just okay.

Mary Poppins Returns - Emily Blunt makes a nice Mary Poppins. She lacks (deliberately) some of the warmth and sentimentality that Julie Andrews had in the original, but makes up for it with a no-nonsense strictness and charm that gives her a more otherworldly, appealing magical quality. Lin-Manuel Miranda is good as the sidekick with an accent almost as bad as Van Dyke's was.

In this story, The Banks children are grown up with children of their own. They are facing financial problems that will cause them to have to leave their house. If only that lost bank deed with the proper signature would turn up to save the day. In the meantime, where is light-heartedness and fun to be found any more?

It's hard to judge this kind of thing as an adult with grown children. The original Mary Poppins was not one of my favorites: I loved the songs, but the movie was mysterious and dragged on on occasion (what the heck was that whole plot about women's votes? (I asked as a child)). This movie was at least as good, with inventive animated sequences and songs that pay homage to the original without duplicating it or being too "modern". On the other hand, maybe modern songs would have been a better idea for modern kids, like in The Greatest Showman?

I liked it.

Like Father - Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer play their charming selves in this so-so romantic comedy without the romance; is there a genre for parent-child relationship movies?

Rachel (Kristen) is an overworking always-on-the-phone bride who is left at the altar by her fiance for bringing her phone with her to the altar. Her estranged father (Kelsey) who left when she was five showed up to the wedding and then again a few nights later. They get drunk and end up on the cruise she was supposed to have gone on with her ex-fiance. They fight, they try to bond, they fight, they bond.

It's all predictable, down to the expected karaoke scene, the just-when-it-looks-like-everything-is-going-well-they-fight fight, and the last minute change of heart. Kristen and Kelsey carry the movie with their talents, and the usual assortment of nice location shots and the not-too-odd irrelevant cruise guests along for backdrop. No surprises makes it a little dull, but there is nothing very wrong with the movie and there are some laughs.

Friday, March 08, 2019

No News is No News

A year ago my manager at work started a game hour on Thursdays for our small group of 5. Between the 2 of us we brought in new games every week for several months that could be played for 5 non-gamers. My manager up and left us last week, but I hope to continue the gaming. Only now we are going to get between 7 and 10 each week. Which makes it more challenging, unless I just bring in 2 copies of Codenames (1 Hebrew and 1 English) each week. That will be the default option.

Meanwhile I haven't touched my book. But I went to South Africa and came back. Pictures on Facebook. I usually tell a travelogue on my blog, and I may still do that. I didn't play much on the trip.

There is something to say about my game It's Alive, which I will say when I can say it.

Friday, January 18, 2019


Too long without a post.

Hopefully this  won't be the last post on the blog. I am still in draft three of a book, and don't seem to be getting much writing done or even seeing many movie. Distractions and all.

I still have an unfinished story. An unfinished book of parsha shiurim. Several half-baked and nearly baked game designs on the shelf.

However, I am still employed, having a social life, going on a vacation next month. My daughter is married and thriving, my son is thriving, too. Which is all good.

Still have weekly game nights and still get new games occasionally. I just got Concordia, Sushi Go Party, and I am expecting Gentes Deluxe and Haithabu. I am expecting a few thousand new Magic cards soon.

I and my boss have been playing games with three non-gamer coworkers at work every Thursday. It's been half a year, and, aside from Codenames, we have rarely repeated any games. Looks like we may start soon.

The magic of games, those little points, seem insignificant, but it's astonishing how they take a play activity and make people focus on a goal, a start, and an end. It's almost hard to understand why, but it must have something to do with: not only feeling great when you succeed, but wanting others to have a chance to feel great, too. If it didn't, the whole concept of multiplayer games would just fall apart. As long as we still play games together, I think humanity still has hope.