Sunday, January 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

Other Marvel and D.C. Shows ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Shows ...

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 18, 2016

Shabbat Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 03, 2016

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

In a word: development.

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

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

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

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

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

That's the first reason.

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

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

See here for my initial review.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)

When the movie ended, I mulled over how to react. It took a lot of mulling. I could not instantly say "This was great!" I certainly couldn't say "This was bad!" Is it good? Is it great? Is it good only in the context of the Star Wars saga, or good as movie qua movie? Is it just another sci-fi movie with Star Wars nostalgia thrown in to appeal to fans? Or is it a better movie than the usual crop of sci-fi movies?

(For context, I love the original trilogy (RotJ a bit less) and I do not hate the second trilogy. I disliked the enhancements that Lucas made to the original trilogy: they didn't add anything and they really look kind of hokey, but they didn't ruin the movies for me. The second trilogy had some pitifully bad acting, midichlorians were a useless and stupid addition, and Jar Jar was annoying, enough to stress my enjoyment of the first movie. The pod race went on for too long. It was insane that none of the Jedi could see that Annakin was a complete failure as a Jedi (he was so transparently unable to control his emotions that it was criminal to let him be a Jedi), and the final fight between Annakin and Obi Wan ended really stupidly, what with the "high ground" and Obi Wan letting his friend burn to death instead of putting him out of his misery. But I didn't find the taxation and blockade plots boring. I liked Amadalia's spunk, the light saber fights was awesome, and I thought the plot hung together fairly well. Remember that Return of the Jedi had stupid Ewok battle scenes and really bad acting from Carrie Fisher (who acted fine in the first two movies). Something about the second trilogy movies were still appealing to me: that thing that made Star Wars. Which may simply be the well-choreographed lightsaber battles.)

Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Um... maybe?

It is entertaining and plotted well, even if they leave out a number of explanations to fully understand some of the plot details. However, it is missing parts of what made Star Wars unique. The first is development between the action scenes, like Luke talking to his Aunt and Uncle or looking out over the horizon, Han and Leia talking, Han and Luke talking, Obi Wan talking to Luke and training him, etc. This movie has one conversation between humans, and it is flat and forgettable. It has a few slower scenes, and they are great; but more were necessary. Another is character transformation, like Luke learning to take on responsibility, Han turning back to save the rebellion, or Darth Vader, for that matter. There are two transformation in this movie: one is early in the movie and very quick, so it hardly counts, and the other is non-mental and not really a kind that makes you feel invested in it. It just happens, and you're left wondering why. Mostly, what is missing from this movie is mysticism. No one is reaching out to a higher cause or into the unfathomable unknown. Mysticism is nearly, almost, kind of struggling to be there in the movie, but it doesn't happen until the very last frame of the movie.

The nostalgia is there, but not overwhelmingly so. We get some of the old characters on screen for a while, and they don't just stand there looking wistful. I realize that it's hard to strike the right balance. Nevertheless, it is mishandled a bit. The movie tries to copy the original trilogy too much; there really is too much New Hope in it. A planet sized weapon attacked by X-Wings and Tie fighters, plans hidden in a droid, a freakin' alien bar scene. There is even a father son conflict. We did these already, didn't we?

The cinematography is vastly better than the first or second trilogies. Ships and hovercraft move in erratic patterns with oddly tracked shots full of detail as the camera focus swirls around. Ships don't look like models or sterile backdrops; they are fully realized and lifelike. If Lucas was trying to "update" his original trilogy with enhancements to make it look more modern, this movie shows how far he failed in doing so. THIS movie looks incredibly good, so much so, that it feels un-Star Wars, which has always been a bit less complicated and a bit more hokey than the modern sterile sci-fi we are used to.

It was great to see a mad dash to save the girl only to find out that she doesn't need saving. It was nice to see diversity, but really, there is only one black dude in the galaxy, so far (unless Lando is hiding somewhere). BB-8 is really good as a WALL-E type droid, though mostly a substitute for R2-D2 who is awol for much of the movie.

The acting is universally good. Like the original movie, there is nearly no on-screen romantic dialog, a welcome change from the worst elements of episodes II and III. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are charismatic, and even have a bit of chemistry. On the other hand, Adam Driver as Kylo (the villain), and Oscar Isaac as Poe (a hero) are both uninteresting, flat characters.

Though the movie has plot problems, little character transformation, and little substantive dialog between characters, I still enjoyed the movie. Partly due to nostalgia. Partly that it is a decent action movie, like the better Marvel or Batman movies. Party because there are lightsabers. And partly due to the charisma of Harrison Ford, Daisy, and John. As for the latter two, we will watch your careers with great interest.

See here for questions and complaints about the movie (with REAL spoilers).

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Spectre, Minions, Paper Towns

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2: This movie, while not as good as the first two films, is a fine action flick with some unique elements that sets it apart from other modern action movies. One is that it tackles the question of whether the resistance is really a better substitute than the existing tyranny. Another is the fine, strong and useful heroine as the central character.

The acting and directing are good and the movie is put together well. But this movie is only half a movie, and you won't understand most of it without having read the books or seen the first three movies, especially the third. If the third book would not have been split into two movies, the result would have been one much better movie.

As usual, I don't ding a movie just for leaving out parts of the book or for changing elements in the book. However, what was left out of the movie includes some of the central themes the book, and that's a pity. Perhaps the most crucial element left out of the movie is that Katniss was a selfish, spoiled, and lazy heroine who had to train in order to be able to handle herself in the field. Also left out of the movie is the brutal and permanent physical disfigurements she sports by the end of the book; she lives out the remainder of her life with half of her face burned off. J-Law's Katniss suffers no such problems in the movie, despite a scene showing her getting burned. Like in the first movie, the physical and social desperation and psychological trauma are dispensed with in favor of the kind of insensitive and careless video game violence that we come to expect from movies, where no one eats or goes to the bathroom and children can kill hundreds of people or watch hundreds of people die horrible deaths and yet suffer only a brief cry or angry outburst. Pity. Go read the books.

Still, this last movie is worthy and entertaining. We will watch Jennifer's career with great interest.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: At least this series, like the original Bourne trilogy, but unlike the current superhero movies or the Bond franchise, gives us thrilling action sequences that appear semi-possible and even - occasionally - make you think that they may end with the main characters dead.

This MI, like the last one, is far more entertaining than it should have been. It only crashed for me in the middle during a car chase that had one too many car flips. When the occupant jumps sprightly out of the overturned car onto a motorcycle, my disbelief could no longer be suspended and the movie was ruined for me for about twenty minutes.

The end also seemed rather impossible since the plan required a bunch of people to be exactly at one spot at a specific time with certain hardware and construction that could not possibly have been obtained or constructed, but whatever. Tom Cruise manages to not crowd out everyone else in the movie, at least.

It's all still pretty dumb, but it's entertaining and occasionally clever. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Spectre: Spectre completes a four part mini-arc for Daniel Craig's James Bond. It is better than the frenetic and unwatchable Quantum, and not quite as stupid as the ridiculously plotted Skyfall. I would rank it below Casino Royale, which was the most straightforward of the films.

While not quite as stupid as Skyfall, please tell me Bond's plan wasn't to walk into the lair, let himself be captured, trussed, and tortured, and, while drills are going into his head, hand his watch to his girlfriend in full view of many bad guys, have her toss the watch so that it blows up exactly the right way to knock out exactly the right people and release his electronic locks, and have all the bad guys miss him from close range, and walk to the unguarded and available helicopter, and have the lair blow up from a couple of bullet shots due to ... actually, I still don't know why it all blew up. It's like the scriptwriters are not even trying anymore. The surveillance capabilities are also presented as ridiculous; I don't put it past governments to have more surveillance than many of us know, but I feel pretty confident that they still can't capture video inside a remote house without at least having placed a video camera in the house first.

And since when can nine different governments cooperate sufficiently to put all of their surveillance into the hands of a British guy? Heck, since when can nine different government organizations in the same country even connect their computers to the same network?

The film tries to introduce an actual romantic interest, as opposed to just a sexual interest, for our hero. And it brings into question whether Bond really wants to continue being a 00. Watchable, but silly. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Minions: The prequel to Despicable Me, this fluff kids movie contains many funny moments but a pretty bad plot. It is the movie equivalent of a game with a lot of tactics but not a smidgen of strategy.

Despicable Me at least had the bad guy turn into a good guy, which makes sense when the main characters all care for and love each other. This movie dispenses with any kind of character arcs or growth, has only bad guys, and hangs the movie on a quest by three walking babbling banana slugs in search of "the most evil" person to serve. This really makes no sense. The movie ridicules the idea of evil, making "the most despicable" characters into jewel thieves who steal lollipops from kids ... and not much worse. I can think of worse people who work at my bank. And no one ever gets killed or hurt for real.

The animators and director do an incredible job of carrying the movie along with almost no understandable dialog for most of it. The silent movies did it 100 years ago, and apparently these were part of the inspiration for how to achieve it in this movie.

I am uncomfortable with the whole premise, since there is no one to root for, really. If we ignore that, the movie is basically plotless, and the quest is nonsensical. Despite this, in between holding my head at the inappropriateness of the whole endeavor, I laughed out loud quite a few times. Scene after scene is thrown at you with joke after joke, and some of them are quite clever and funny. Something like The LEGO Movie (which didn't suffer from the problems that this movie has). But ... are all the minions boys? Why?

There are so many better movies with better values that I wouldn't buy it for my kids or go out of my way to see it. However cute the banana slugs are.

Paper Towns:  John Green is having a few good years. After The Fault in Our Stars, he comes back with another movie based on one of his books. This one has more normal teenagers, none of whom are heading for imminent death.

Quentin (Nat Wolff) loves a neighbor girl Margo (Cara Delevingne) who has a habit of disappearing. Near the end of high school, she takes him out for a night in which she exacts her revenge on her (now) ex-boyfriend, ex-friends, and a few others and then disappears the next day. He and his friends decide to track her down based on the clues she left as to her whereabouts. Meanwhile, high school is drawing to a close and each of the friends has his or her own stories and concerns about the present or future.

Part high school romcom, part mystery (very small part), and part road trip, I started off not liking the movie because neither Quentin nor Margo initially appeared to be likeable. The disappearance to come was predictable, so I am not spoiling that for you. It is after this that the movie picks up, slowly, slowly the characters evolve and they all become likeable. The minor things in the movie are not always predictable, and even the major ones, while more predictable, are handled well.

A sweet movie with several interesting allegories that I expect (hope) are explored more thoroughly in the book.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

2015 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.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 10"

I'm starting with this unusual choice for a board game list, because tablets are perfect platforms for playing thousands of face to face games for two to four players. Because you don't need to buy the physical components, you can stack all your games in a teeny space, the games (if not the tablet) cost very little, and you don't have to cut down old trees to make them or use fossil fuels to ship them. Tablets have their own environmental impact in their making, so that's a trade off; but if you're getting one anyway, most of the games on this list are available electronically.

Nowadays, most games are also available on consoles, too.
7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players

This is a game of drafting cards and building a wondrous city. You get a hand of cards; pick one and pass the rest. Everyone reveals the card they picked and puts it into their tableaux. Repeat. Done. Score points based on the combinations of cards you have at the end of all the passing.

The graphics are fantastic, the theme not so visible. It's easy to learn, provides great choices, with depth enough to spare.

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 player are Antike Duellum (for two players) and Risk Legacy (an odd game that moves in one game affect the next).

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. This game was published by Victory Point Games.
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. 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.

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.

This game, like many others, was inspired by Apples to Apples, another nifty game for the casual non-gamers who walk among us.
Dominion: Ages 10+, 2-4 players

Dominion is a game based around deck building: as you play, you acquire cards which get shuffled into your deck. You need victory points to score, but too many early victory points will clog up your deck, making it harder to acquire more points.

A brilliant adaptation of a mechanic, it plays quickly and every game plays differently. The game has several expansions, all of which are good.
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.

Love Letter: Age 8+, 2-4 players

This game has just 16 cards, but it packs a full, replayable deduction, bluffing game into 10 minutes. It's a top seller, takes 30 seconds to learn, and is challenging to play.

It's not my type of game, but I'm in the minority.
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.
Parade: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

Another easy to learn and addictive little card game. Add cards to the end of the "parade", taking cards from the parade into your pile based on a few simple rules. Points are bad ... usually.
Pit: Ages 7+, 4 to 10 players

I don't know if you can play up to 10 players with the original game, but you should. This is a loud trading game. The cards are dealt out, someone says go, and everyone shouts for what they need. The first player to collect a full set wins.

Raucous and fun. The deluxe version comes with it's own bell to signal the start of trading.
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.
Shadows Over Camelot: Ages 12+, 3 to 7 players

A cooperative game, this is no feel-good game of cooperation. The hordes of Saxons, Mordred, siege engines, and sinister knights are out to destroy Camelot, and you have to work together to save it. But lurking among the players is a traitor who wins if you all lose. Or is there?

Pretty components, albeit more complex than most of the games on this list. But it's easy for people to join and leave midgame.

Other recommended co-operative games that have made a splash in the last few years are Pandemic and Forbidden Island
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.
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.