Friday, December 31, 2010

Good Riddance to 2010

Every year brings good and bad into people's lives. But as I reflect back on the year that comes to an end tonight, I realize that for a too-large number of people in my life, it's brought far more bad than good. Long-running stress about work, serious disease, ugly breakups, even unexpected and untimely deaths (yes, more than one). It seems like 2010 has been only just short of everything the "prophecies" say 2012 is supposed to be.

I'm hoping to start 2011 on a happy note myself, and to that end, I'm pleased to report that come Monday, I'm starting a new job. (Something that many of you reading this may already know.) I've been with the same company -- albeit one that was purchased by Sony Online Entertainment a while back -- since I was laid off and left Virginia nearly six years ago. It's been a lot of fun, and leaving it means I won't get to see a lot of wonderful people as often as I've become accustomed to.

The good news is that my new job, at Dire Wolf Digital, should offer all the highs of the best of my time at SOE, and even brings a reunion with some of the people I used to work with there. I'm excited about the work we'll all be doing together.

Out with the old, in with the new. Happy new year, everyone!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A True Surprise

For someone who claims not to like movies by the Coen brothers, you have to wonder why I keep seeing them. And yet, there were enough other factors going in favor of True Grit that I decided to check it out.

Trend officially bucked. This is far and away my favorite of the Coen brothers films I've seen, a truly entertaining movie. I've never seen the original John Wayne film, so I can offer no basis of comparison there. But I can mention some of the strong points this version has going for it.

Chief among them is the quality of the dialogue. Some of it ranks right up there with the best from an episode of Deadwood (minus the colorful swearing). The three main characters -- especially the young girl Mattie -- all have solid wits, distinct ways of speaking, and clever turns of phrase. I've seen my share of comedies where the audience doesn't laugh out loud as much as they did as I watched True Grit.

Then there's the great acting. There's been a little talk about Jeff Bridges again giving an award worthy performance, and I think that's a reasonable claim. It's also not surprising to find another strong turn by Matt Damon. Josh Brolin is also good, though his role as the villain means he doesn't even enter the picture until the final act.

But the real revelation is the almost totally unknown Hailee Steinfeld, as the young girl who leads the hunt against the man who killed her father. She goes toe to toe with award-winning actors and easily keeps up with them. Her character is strong and likeable, as is she.

All that said, it's a very predictable story. Just knowing that this movie is based on a decades old story tells you everything; it simply can't end any other way and be of that time. Nevertheless, I'd call it well worth seeing, perhaps even if you're not particularly a fan of Westerns. I give it a solid B.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Dirteaters

My viewing of the final episodes of Caprica continues with The Dirteaters. The title is a reference to Taurons, and it is (at long last) Sam and Joseph Adama that are the focal characters of an episode.

This hour sees Joseph being more formally inducted into the "mafia" of which Sam is a part, at the same time Sam is promoted. But it's not smooth sailing for them; Sam learns early on what Joseph has already known and quietly accepted -- that the boss is using Daniel to provide Cylons as warriors, not to Tauron revolutionaries in need, but to STO operatives. To the very organization that is responsible for the death of Joseph's wife and daughter.

The timing of this turns out to be quite an opportunity for Daniel, who learns early in this episode that the boss means to kill him as soon as he delivers his "resurrection program." Daniel approaches Sam (having boned up on Tauron customs), and strikes a deal to provide Cylons for his purposes in exchange for protection to stay alive when the time comes.

Meanwhile, in New Cap City, we pick up the story of Zoe and Tamara, who are working together and have been dubbed "The Avenging Angels." Seems all the cool kids logging on to this game want to try their hand at killing the unkillable girls, and they themselves are tiring of it. For reasons that aren't made clear and that I can't really explain, the two tap into a power that none of us knew they had, and begin reforming the New Cap City game to better suit their vision.

The Jordan storyline continues, with his dirty boss using tape recordings (incomplete, of course) to make it look like he did something wrong. It's not a straight-up frame job, but rather an effort to make it look like Jordan is indirectly responsible for the death of his own CI in the previous episode. He is suspended until a further investigation can be conducted.

Clarice appears only sparingly, in a tiny runner that shows power going to her head. Her mole in the police office has smuggled out a pin from Zoe's personal effects, which secretly held a backup of the avatar creation program -- or as Clarice thinks of it, the key to "apotheosis." So now she's planning the welcoming area for everyone who enters her version of the afterlife. Two of her husbands don't seem to think much of this power trip.

The major dramatic meat in this episode comes in a series of flashbacks, interspersed much like an episode of Lost, that show us Sam and Joseph as kids. I don't want to reveal too much of the content here, preserving the story for those who'll watch it later. It doesn't drive the plot directly in any case, though it does definitely illuminate these two characters and their relationship. It also toughens up Joseph, demonstrating that it's not necessarily Sam who is the "tough" brother.

The episode concludes with Daniel, who has seen a young man on the streets wearing an "Avenging Angels" t-shirt related to the New Cap City game. Daniel recognizes Zoe, and further, recognizes that her avatar was not destroyed when her Cylon body was; she's now in the game. Daniel also decides to share this information with Amanda, and the two resolve to go into v-world and look for their daughter together.

Lacy does not appear, and isn't missed if you ask me. (And if you're reading this, you basically did.)

The often languid plotting of Caprica does seem to be picking up now, and this episode also did a good job of bringing the character drama in the form of the Sam/Joseph flashbacks. I'd say it's definitely the best episode in the back half of Caprica's run. (At least, that I've seen so far.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You (Probably) Don't Know Jack

I recently received a gift from my friend FKL, both nice and unexpected. (Both qualities make for the best kind of gift.) It was a simple game called "Mr. Jack Pocket." Being meant just for two players, it took me a few weeks to get around to trying it out, but I've now done so, and I definitely enjoyed it.

The best comparison I think I can come up with is that the game is a bit like Mastermind, that old more-puzzle-than-game activity where one player tries to guess information hidden by the other. But Mr. Jack Pocket turns it into an actual game by giving the "secret holder" actions he can take to try and thwart the "guesser's" effort to win.

One player has a secret identity that can be one of nine characters. The other player uses three detectives to try and eliminate possible identities until only one remains. If the criminal can remain hidden for enough turns, he wins the game. If exposed, the detective wins.

The game is incredibly fast to play, taking only a minute or two to explain to a first time player, and only about 5 to 20 minutes to play. This makes it a perfect "waiting for more people to show up to game night" game.

I also feel that it's thrown a challenge my way. In the games I've played so far, the detective player has always won. I don't think it's unwinnable for the criminal, but it certainly feels quite difficult to me. I imagine there are strategies and tactics you need to learn to play the villain effectively; I'm interested in seeing those surface, and ultimately seeing the villain triumph.

In any case, it's a good addition to my limited collection of two player games. It was a nice gift for me, and might make one for a gamer in your life. (Including yourself.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Actually, A Great Film

One more "Christmas movie" before I move back to regular fare. I decided to watch Love Actually, which while not really about Christmas, is set in the weeks running up to it. It also happens to be a film that made my original top 100 list, though it had been many years since I'd first seen it.

My opinion of it was undiminished as I watched it again. If anything, I liked the movie even more this time around. It's a multi-story tale chock full of fantastic actors, any of whom could carry a film of their own. (And in many cases, they have.) Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, and Alan Rickman are all great. Liam Neeson is particularly strong in a role that calls for him to act most opposite a young child actor (Thomas Sangster), and the two have a great rapport. Add to the mix Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln (now well-known for The Walking Dead), and bit part by Billy Bob Thornton. Top with cameos by Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones (before Mad Men made her a face people would recognize), Claudia Schiffer, Shannon Elizabeth, and Denise Richards, and you've got one of the most exhaustive casts assembled in the last decade. (And a great "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" link.)

If I had to say anything against the film, it might be that the large number of running plots (I believe there are 10 in all) make juggling everything quite difficult. At a couple of points in the movie, one or two of the stories vanish for long enough to make you think "oh yeah, this!" when they're revisited. Still, that's a minor issue.

And particularly so since I'd be hard-pressed to cut any of the stories from the film. The thing that really makes Love Actually land is that it explores such a wide array of takes on the topic of love. There are couples finding each other (one in particularly odd circumstances), and another couple drifting apart. There's a man trying to deal with his love loving someone else. There's a young boy coping with love for the first time. There's a widower dealing with his loss. There's a date that goes bad. There's a guy just out for sex. There's love between brothers and sisters, and between long-time friends. And every one of these stories nails the emotion perfectly.

In short, it really is a movie that fulfills that old cliché: "you'll laugh, you'll cry." Love Actually remains on my top 100, and gets my recommendation for any time of year, not just Christmas. It's a total grade A.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Here We Come a Caroling

Just days ago, I was praising Scrooged for presenting the story of A Christmas Carol with a wink and a nudge, an awareness that everyone knows the story being told. But that isn't to say that I haven't the patience for a more straight-up telling of the tale. In past years, I've turned most often to the Patrick Stewart version made for cable TV a few years back. This year, however, I'd seen more than a few places giving high marks to the George C. Scott version made for TV in the mid 1980s. I'd seen that version long ago, but didn't really remember the specifics that were making so many critics recall his performance at this time of year.

Having now watched it again for this Christmas, I can say that while the overall production values of this version of A Christmas Carol are in places limited, George C. Scott's performance does indeed make this one to praise among many others. Too often, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge is played as a humorless, get-off-my-lawn brand of curmudgeon, solely to make the end of the story land more forcefully. In his performance, George C. Scott actually shows why such a man as Scrooge could continue to behave in such a manner all his life -- he enjoys it. We see him find glee in telling off his nephew, coercing fellow businessmen, even trying to boss around the spirits who haunt him at first. There's pleasant nuance here.

A few other recognizable faces pop up here and there in the cast, including David Warner as Bob Cratchit, Michael Gough, and Roger Rees (whom you'd recognize if you're a fan of Cheers) as nephew Fred. Still, the real reason to watch any version of A Christmas Carol is probably for the Scrooge, and Scott rightly commands the show here.

I could get into particulars of the tale that this incarnation chooses to include or omit, but it's really all just details. Actually, I've never read the original novel myself (though I've considered it on occasion), so I don't have much of a base from which to know what Dickens put there himself and what is extrapolation.

I'd rate this version a B-. You may well be already falling out of the Christmas mood, but perhaps it's one for you to catch next year.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Blowback

The last time I talked about Caprica, I was noting its cancellation by Syfy. I also noted that I was ambivalent about that. The show had never been so great that I looked forward to it the way I had Battlestar Galactica, but neither was it so bad to make me want to give up watching it. Mostly, I stayed with it, hoping it would get better at some point.

Cancellation was only a speed bump on the road to that last destination. From what I've heard, Syfy is planning to burn off the last five remaining episodes in a marathon early in 2011. But no need to wait until then; the last of Caprica was just released on DVD this past week. While my mixed feelings about the show meant I wasn't willing to buy that box set myself, I did toss it into my Netflix queue. So here's the first of my final five Caprica episode reviews.

The next episode is titled Blowback. In typical Caprica fashion, it pushes a few different plot lines incrementally forward. The featured story -- arguably -- is about Lacy, whom we last left in Clarice's attic. Clarice has decided that Lacy needs some "training" at an STO camp, and this episode finds her traveling off world for that purpose.

In her story, her transport is captured by a group of polytheistic warriors fighting against the monotheistic STO. They terrorize the would-be terrorists, executing the people on their way to the training camp one by one unless some vaguely defined person on the other end of a phone agrees to some vaguely defined demands.

Why all so vague? Because it's a ruse. Really, this is just step one of the recruits' indoctrination, seeing how they'll respond to a stressful situation. I've never bought Lacy as a kick-butt action hero, and here again you have to just go with it when she (with the help up a young man she met in transit) takes charge and gets the best of the "hostage takers," passing the test. It's all a pretty rote bait and switch, and the weakest element of the episode. (Though if you're a fan of the show Sanctuary, you might enjoy the presence of not one but two people from that show in guest starring roles.)

A more interesting storyline -- as per usual -- follows Daniel, who is given a two week deadline by the Tauron "mob boss" to make the resurrection program work. He tries in vain to make more progress with the simulacrum he constructed of his wife Amanda. Though the story doesn't progress far, the emotional and dramatic content of the scenes are strong.

The ongoing story advances most with Jordan, the police officer who has been pursuing the STO in general, and Clarice in particular. We last left him having convinced Amanda to be an undercover spy in Clarice's family. But now, his supervisor is pressuring him to reveal the identity of this "confidential informant," which he's quite reluctant to do.

This reluctance, it turns out, is for good reason, as his boss is revealed in this episode as an STO agent himself, trying to get information to tip off Clarice. Jordan smells something fishy though, and decides to test his boss by revealing that his informant is not Amanda Greystone, but one of Clarice's wives. Sure enough, this information is leaked to Clarice...

Who reacts by killing her by her own hand. So while Clarice is far from the focus of the episode, she gets what I think is the single most powerful moment. I don't think they've built up the wife in the past quite strongly enough for the death to pack a major punch, but you still get a chilling sense of Clarice's ruthlessness that she stoops to this act with no real hesitation.

Anyway, Jordan at last becomes a principle character in the narrative, now with problems of his own in the form of a dirty boss he must find a way to bring down.

Zoe, Tamara, and V-World go unseen this episode, and I can't say I really missed them.

I'd say in all that this episode represented one more small step in the right direction for Caprica. I still don't think it's going to reach the point where it would have been appointment TV, but I do think that it may be building to a decent climax to the season.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Oscar, Please!

Behold! The trailer for a sure-fire Oscar winner:



And the extra icing on the cake is reading all the comments about the video on YouTube. Anonymous posters totally embracing the spirit of the video!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Legacy Up

I finally caught up with Tron: Legacy this week, and got more or less what I expected out of it. Maybe a bit more, actually. It was certainly a worthy successor to the original Tron, in that the two films felt very much connected despite the 28 years between them.

The visuals of the virtual world are truly spectacular. There were perhaps one or two moments where I caught myself wondering if perhaps things looked too realistic, that perhaps things had been pushed too far beyond the abstract environments of the first film. But I quickly decided that Tron: Legacy was a reasonable take on what the original filmmakers probably would have done if they could have. Nearly all the things from the original reappear here, from Recognizers and light cycles to data sailers and disc wars, and everything looks really cool.

Well, everything. The biggest, most critical visual effect of the movie is a person -- the CG-rendered Jeff Bridges used to portray Clu and young "flashback" Kevin Flynn. And it flat out does not work at all. Not for one scene, not for one moment. I'm about to spend a lot of time and words on this, which is probably going to make you think I liked Tron: Legacy less than I did. But "Faux Bridges" is employed so heavily in the film that it demands an equally lengthy response.

I've seen still frames from Tron: Legacy floating about the internet, and in most of those frozen moments, this CG creation is a wholly convincing likeness. But the moment they try to map a performance onto it, the fakery rings out. Oddly, the part that this digital creation nails completely are the eyes -- the element that has torpedoed many a creepy human in past, fully CG-animated features. (Exhibit A: The Polar Express, aka "Hell Ride to Creepy Town.") But everything else, particularly the jaw, is a disaster. The mouth moves like a badly synced work of stop-motion animation, the skin looks waxy and cold, and the hair doesn't move naturally.

If this rendering were used only to portray the computer construct of Clu, you could possibly "no prize" your way into accepting this pervasive falseness as appropriate to a character that isn't real. But the very first scene of the film employs the Madame Toussaud meets Frankenstein creature as the real Flynn, in a tender heart-to-heart with his young son. The film then puts the simulacrum in one impossible-to-realize situation after another, as though they were deliberately setting up the beleaguered effects team to fail. When Clu confronts the real Bridges in a windstorm at the climax of the movie, the mind just flat out rebels.

But let's get back on the grid here and talk about other elements of the film. The storytelling of this sequel is improved over that of the original. It's still flawed in places, though in many of the same ways that, again, make it feel very much in the spirit of its predecessor. Legacy does a better job of providing more "connective tissue" between set pieces, explaining how characters get from one place to the next, and why. But it still falls short on providing context for things. Sam arrives in the v-world in a facsimile of the arcade, but leaves in a shaft of light at the end of retractable bridge? Uh, okay. Kevin Flynn can destroy Clu whenever he wants to, if he chooses that he wants to? I guess.

The portrayal of the characters is a lot stronger than the first Tron. The emotional core of the film could have pushed even farther for my tastes, but its heart was at least in the right place by centering the story around Flynn, his orphaned son, and their reunion. The writing does a better job of setting up why Sam has the skills necessary to survive in v-world (where the original left you wondering how playing video games could translate to decidedly physical activities). It also brings a smart treatment of Kevin Flynn who, having been cut off from the real world for two decades, behaves like he's trapped in the 1980s, tossing off "radical" slang.

Some of the new characters are interesting, particularly the self-indulgent Castor. I never would have picked Michael Sheen for such a part, but he seems to relish every second of screen time. And Olivia Wilde as Quorra makes for a far more capable female character than the original film.

Overall, Tron: Legacy, like its predecessor, is a movie that relies more on its visuals than anything else. But while the first Tron, in my estimation, barely squeaked by in the other areas, this sequel makes more of an effort. I give Tron: Legacy a B-.

And if you haven't seen it yet, here's a quick footnote: I concur completely with those who have said this film is not worth seeing in 3D. The "Wizard of Oz" treatment doesn't really work, presenting the v-world in 3D and the real world in standard 2D (except, inexplicably, for the opening push-in shot of the home of Sam's grandparents). It makes the opening of the film an even longer wait to get to "what you came to see," and when it arrives, doesn't really add much to the already eye-popping visuals. Save yourself the preposterous 3D "up-charge."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Scrooged Over

I've mentioned more than once over the past few years that watching the movie Scrooged is a holiday tradition with me. But I've never really written up an actual review of it, as I do for other movies. I just upheld the tradition here in this week running up to Christmas, so with the movie fresh in my mind, here are a few thoughts about why I like it so well.

Everybody knows the story of A Christmas Carol. And I think I might really mean everybody. I wouldn't be at all surprised if my three-year-old niece could give you a rough account of the story. So, for my money, the most important thing about Scrooged is the way it embraces this familiarity. Everyone from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart has starred in some version of the "original." Adaptations have been made that turn it into a musical, feature The Muppets, and animate it with Disney characters. But all of those incarnations play it straight.

Scrooged says, "yes, we know you've seen some version of A Christmas Carol, and we're not going to pretend otherwise." The main character is a television executive staging a live production of the story. He immediately reacts to his own haunting with a sarcastic knowledge of Dickens' tale. The movie is littered with self-aware jokes. (Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim!)

Beginning from this solid ground, the movie then actually improves on the original story, in my view. Ebenezer Scrooge is redeemed at the end of the Dickens story, but you have to wonder how much it really means when you think about it. He's an old man at that point, probably no more than a few years from death. He has little time to make many changes in the world, nor to enjoy his own reformed character and spirit.

Scrooged's Frank Cross, by contrast, still has a whole life ahead of him. And it's not too late for him to fix his mistakes. Where Ebenezer's beloved left him many decades ago and is lost forever, Frank Cross' love is a major character in the film that he reconnects with in the present, and the two end up together by the end of the film.

Scrooge's hauntings happen all in one uninterrupted night; he has no contact with any real person before the entire process of his reformation is complete. But in Scrooged, time continues to pass for the main character between the arrival of the ghosts. As a result, the movie is better able to portray the incremental steps in which the main character slowly "gets it." After his visit to the past, he tries to do the right thing and reconnect with his girlfriend, but that backfires. He then passes up the chance to save a person's life, and the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the consequences of that decision. Then the Ghost of Christmas Future is able to show him a future that comes as a direct consequence of things he said and did even after his visitations from the Ghost of Christmas Past. In short, it's a stronger narrative line that builds upon itself more methodically than the original Dickens tale.

Now add brilliant casting. Bill Murray's defining roles in things like Stripes or Ghostbusters was as a "wise cracker," but I think he really excels in movies like this and Groundhog Day, as a flawed man in need of a personality makeover. Karen Allen is his likable love interest. The ghosts are fantastic, from John Forsythe's "Marley" character, to David Johansen's gruff cabbie Ghost of Christmas Past, to the (of course) brilliant Carol Kane's sadistic Ghost of Christmas Present. Alfre Woodard brings heart to film in her "Bob Cratchit" role.

And then there are the cameos. It starts with the insane and hilarious appearance of Lee Majors in the opening sequence, and before we're through, Robert Goulet, Mary Lou Retton, Jamie Farr, Buddy Hackett, and more have all gotten a laugh.

The movie is funny throughout. That's perhaps less easy to appreciate when you watch it every year, but I find myself and my friends quoting from Scrooged all year round -- a great sign that it was something memorable to all of us. But it also has a few genuine moments of sentiment too, like the past breakup of Frank and Claire, or the "God bless us, every one" climax involving Grace's mute child.

Workhorse director Richard Donner keeps everything moving at a quick pace, and Danny Elfman contributes a perfect "bright but also creepy" score.

I'd say that really the only down side of the movie is that it feels at times like it was really made on the cheap, or rushed through production, or both. I'm not usually the person spotting "continuity errors" or other mistakes of that nature in movies, but they're rather plentiful in this film. Visible wires, the changing name of Claire's homeless shelter, three shots firing from a double-barrel shotgun, and more. The film may come together well, but it doesn't seem like anybody was sweating the details.

Still, Scrooged is a holiday tradition I haven't tired of, and don't foresee tiring of any time soon. I rate the movie an A-, and would certainly place it on my Top 100 list. (Which really, no seriously, I will finish revising some day.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Look, Up in the Sky!

Everybody is all a-twitter (and a-Facebook, and a-blog, etc) about the lunar eclipse. It's tomorrow, technically, except that by the time most of you read this, it will have already happened.

There's much being made of the significance of it. Or, I should say, the coincidence of it, since no interstellar forces are going to rain frogs upon us or anything. It happens that this total lunar eclipse falls on the same day as the winter solstice. Many internet folk are therefore proclaiming it "truly the darkest day of the year." Personally, I think that would be more accurate of a winter solstice coinciding with a new moon. Still, the "it's only happened once before in 2000 years" is kind of cool.

But really, regardless of the timing, I just happen to think lunar eclipses are pretty cool. You can actually look at them, for starters, unlike those far less observable solar eclipses. And they typically result in that cool "blood moon" effect that's just neat to look at -- and that probably made our distant ancestors cower in their caves in fear.

Anyway, I'm going to step outside for a moment (bundled up, of course) and enjoy it for a while on this perfectly clear night before I head off to bed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Definitely Worthwhile

Some of you were probably expecting to see a review of Tron Legacy here. I wasn't able to get out to it this weekend, though. I plan to try and catch up this week.

Instead, I'm bringing you a review of an entirely different sort of movie: Definitely, Maybe. This is a light-hearted film from a couple years back starring Ryan Reynolds as the father of a precocious young girl played by Abigail Breslin (because after Little Miss Sunshine, that's who you get to play a precocious young girl). He's divorcing, and she wants to hear the story of how he and her mother first met.

But in order to dress up this romantic comedy in a different skin, he decides to present the tale in an unusual way. There were three women in his life at the time, and he's going to changes their names and present the story to his daughter as a "romantic mystery." It's up to her to figure out which of the women is her mother.

It's sort of like How I Met Your Mother, compressed into two hours for those people who for some reason think that the point of How I Met Your Mother is to actually learn how he met the mother.

This narrative device makes the movie different, I suppose, but what really makes it work is that it's just a sweetly written, well acted movie. Playing opposite Ryan Reynolds are Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher. There's a unique chemistry between him and all the women. At different points in the film, you find that you could root for any one of them to be the true mother. Flesh things out with some other good acting -- including a small role by Kevin Kline -- and you have a very entertaining cast.

The movie also manages to bring more than simple smiles near the end. After all, remember the premise: the main character is getting divorced. Handled well, this becomes a device by which a few sadder moments are peppered in during the final act.

It's not a tear-jerker, nor a laugh out loud romp, but it is a rather perfect specimen of a light, romantic tale. I rate it a B+.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Get Me a Great Board Game -- Stadt!

I recently picked up a board game called The Speicherstadt. It's a new effort from designer Stefan Feld, the designer behind other fantastic games including Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, and Macao. The Speicherstadt is another outstanding game, but especially commendable for being so much simpler than those others.

Players auction their way through a deck of cards that are each potentially worth a variety of points. The cards are auctioned only a few at a time (the exact number varying according to the number of players), and in a very interesting manner. Each card has a column of spaces above it where players may place one of three pawns he has. Play proceeds around the table, with each player placing one of his pawns in the unoccupied space closest to the card he's bidding on. If someone has bid there before you (including yourself), you place your new pawn above any others there.

Once all pawns are placed, cards are auctioned off in order. The player whose pawn is closest to the first card may buy it -- at a cost equal to the number of pawns there (including his own). He may have been first, but if three other pawns were placed behind him, the cost of that card skyrockets to four. If he declines (or can't afford the card), then he removes his pawn, and the next person up the chain gets a shot -- with the price appropriately reduced by one for the cost of the now-missing pawn.

There are a few rules associated with how the cards score points, but essentially, that's the entire game right there. Easy to explain and understand. But incredibly deep in its strategy. I haven't even begun to crack all the nuances to the pawn placement stage of each turn. Possible strategies include obscuring your true intentions, bidding twice at two different times on the same card (for a variety of reasons), extorting a player for a card he really wants, trying to bid up the leader to balance out the game, forcing a situation where an opponent must pick between two cards for lack of money... the list goes on and on.

I suppose the only bad thing I could say about this game is that perhaps it wouldn't be good for people who take their gaming too personally. There is a lot of screwing your neighbor in this game. I happen to think the way it works in this game is fun and not annoying, but I suppose I could imagine the intense sort of gamer who might take this very personally.

A simple, fast-paced, deep game that plays in under an hour? That's pretty much the holy grail of board gaming right there. I'm thoroughly enjoying The Speicherstadt.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Someone Made a Boo Boo

Some guy spent an insane amount of time making this Yogi Bear "alternate ending" all by himself. (For maximum enjoyment, close your eyes for the first two seconds after you start the clip. On screen text ruins the fun.)



I think it's damn funny, though I've seen the movie that this scene is aping. (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.) Your mileage may vary.

As for the guy who made it, I'm sure he'll be getting a job animating CG for movies very soon. (Assuming he wants it.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Version 1.0

Tron Legacy is just around the corner -- a mere 28 years after the original film. I'm planning to see the new movie at some point, so I decided to revisit the original film. And I found it to be a crazy mixed bag of contradictions.

Obviously, style is really the thing Tron had going for it. As a piece of storytelling, it borders on being completely incoherent. Oh, it's a simple enough story, and not hard to follow. It's that the movie bounces from one idea to the next with little or no connective tissue, and never stays with any given thing for more than a minute or two. It's a rapid fire narrative of sensory overload that you could argue is perfectly suited to the visual display. Recognizers! Light cycles! Pools of raw power! I/O towers! Love interests! Giant spinning heads! And it's all related with stilted, wooden dialogue. You might think it a conscious choice made to convey the personalities of the "programs," save for the fact that the real world characters are just as awkward.

In a 90 minute movie, it feels like 30 minutes of it is badly delivered exposition, and another 30 is a big advertisement for the real life Tron arcade games that cropped up everywhere in the wake of the films. This doesn't leave much room in the remaining third for proper "getting from A to B."

But oh, those visuals. It's easy to see what made jaws everywhere drop back in 1982. This film doesn't look like anything that came before, nor even was it really much imitated after. Even the handful of 80s movies to embrace computer generated visual effects -- say, for instance, The Last Starfighter -- didn't have the style or flair of this film. And the interesting thing watching the film is that while it can at times look hokey now, full of bad blue screen work and the modern computer equivalent of childrens' crayon drawings, it still somehow works within the context of the movie itself. Somehow, it looks old without looking dated; it's the real world moments of people in short-shorts and feathered hairdos that call more attention to just how old the movie is.

On the acting side, it's hard for anyone to shine saying these kinds of lines. Still Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner make likable heroes, while David Warner is a wonderfully oily villain (both in the real world and the computer realm).

I'd call Tron a C- overall. My hope is that in this modern age of movie making, where it is so much harder to deliver "something you've never seen before," that the sequel will pick up the storytelling slack for a more complete experience.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Going Pro

About a month back, I wrote up my thoughts about Rock Band 3, leaving out the new Pro Guitar feature due to the fact that the controller for that was not available at that time for Playstation 3. Well, happy birthday to me when my Mustang guitar arrived at my door; I've spent the last few weeks playing with it.

A refresher if you're not in the know. The idea of Pro Guitar is to play actual guitar parts in the game. To do this requires a 17 fretted guitar with 6 buttons at each fret -- 102 in all -- and six "strings" for strumming. It's pictured there at the right. It even comes with picks.

The game is still divided into four difficulty settings. Expert is the actual guitar part for the song with all the correct finger positions. If you can play it, you can play it. Easier difficulties scale back down to Easy, which generally has you plucking individual notes from chords -- but still actually correct pieces of the whole.

This is a lot like guitar lessons. If that sounds like a criticism to you, then this isn't for you. I personally mean it as a compliment, and I'm loving it. You could still get pointers from a guitar teacher about proper placement on a fret, ways to pluck strings, how to arch your fingers, and such. But the game can even coach you on what finger frets which string, so it does a lot of the work of teaching you a song.

It has made me pull out my real guitar again on a more regular basis, as I've been taking song pieces I've learned in the game and trying them out for real. And yes, they're the real thing. There's some serious positive reinforcement going on here.

That said, it's damn hard. It's learning the guitar. You don't just play songs sight unseen on Pro Guitar. At least, not if you haven't been playing guitar for real for a while already, and are able to recognize chords by name. I've barely ventured out of the easiest songs in the game so far. But I really want to get better at it, and it won't just be for gamer bragging rights when I do.

It will be a long while though. Damn you, barre chords!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Snookered

I'm a little short on content today. All the way short. So I'm filling in with a great video that FKL brought to my attention this morning. Brian Blessed does snooker commentary:



In response to FKL's posting, I noted that as a kid, I used to get Brian Blessed confused with John Rhys-Davies. Probably had to do with seeing Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark relatively close to each other. Anyway, both actors are awesome, but I think Brian Blessed pulls a bit ahead with this.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Training Day

I sometimes don't go for the big action movies, but I'd heard some good things about director Tony Scott's latest, Unstoppable, and decided the give it a chance.

On the down side, the movie about a runaway train is quite limited. An "on the rails" pun is just dying to be made here, but it's appropriate. There's really only one way a story like this can end, and any doubts are dispelled by the opening moments that tell you it's all based on a true story. (You'd know more about the incident if it had ended any other way, right?) When the story of the heroes appears to reach a momentary conclusion about halfway into the film, you know it's not the end for them, because they're being played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, who aren't just going to waltz out of the movie with 45 minutes to go.

However, if you accept the terms, the movie basically fulfills its contract. It's a fun ride. There are good action sequences, fun characters, nice moments of humor, and lots of thrills. The movie goes about the business of being adventurous intelligently, and gets the job done.

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine make effective leads for the story, with charisma and a good rapport with one another. Also strong is Rosario Dawson, who connects well with them and the action, even though she's almost never at their location.

As fun as the visuals are, though, the real highlight of the film is its soundscape. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams provides a pulsing and exciting score that really drives the action. And then there are the sounds themselves. When your movie is about a train, sound is critically important, and the team behind this movie serves up one speaker-rumbling thrill after another. It would be wrong to say this is the kind of movie that doesn't win any awards, because it certainly would be a worthy contender in the audio categories.

But let's not pretend the movie is any more than it sets out to be -- a visceral ride. I rate it a B- overall, and probably even give it the theater recommendation if you don't have a booming home sound system to watch it on later.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cutting Remarks

The fifth season of Dexter wrapped up tonight. Though I haven't been commenting on it on a week to week basis as I have some other shows, I have been watching it all along.

This season was actually the first time I've ever watched the show one episode at a time like that. I first started Dexter just after season three had aired, caught up with that much on DVD, and then watched season four on a series of recordings a co-worker made. This time around, I'd decided I was going to spring for Showtime and watch it as it ran.

I have to say, I thought this season got off to a bit of a rocky start. The conclusion of season four necessitated some "wrap up" to occur at the beginning of this year, but for a few episodes I thought season five was feeling like more of an epilogue than a story unto itself. Of course, the fact that I wasn't able to just sit down and watch multiple episodes at a time may have to do with my sense that the initial pacing was slow.

This slowly began to pick up when Julia Stiles entered the picture. And there's a sentence I don't think I ever would have imagined myself typing. She's been the most bland thing in every movie I've ever seen her in, and I wasn't enthused to hear that she was a major element of the new season. Having taken in all of season five now, though, I have to say that she surprised me. Her character was well written, and she did justice to that quality.

In past seasons of Dexter -- particularly seasons two and four -- I felt that somewhere around episode four, things reached a tipping point where I just wanted to keep watching the series all the way to the end. In season five, that tipping point didn't occur until maybe episode eight or nine. But it did get there, and I definitely felt that thrill watching the final few hours.

I was even a little bit surprised at the conclusion too. For several episodes, the pieces seemed to be falling into place to suggest that Deb was going to discover Dexter's secret by the end of the season. Lots of suggestive conversations about her understanding the vigilante killers, that sort of thing. And when the moment came that she found herself at the camp with her brother and Lumen on the other side of the sheet, I thought: here we go. But no, the buildup was just to get Deb to the point where she'd let the killers escape, not that she'd learn who they were.

Instead, if anyone quite has Dexter's secret now, it's Quinn. Just how interesting that thread turns out to be is an issue for the recently announced season six to tackle next fall, I suppose.

Overall, I'd say that season five was not the best for Dexter. Still, it didn't fall terribly short of the mark. Other series -- say... 24 -- were really quite disappointing when they weren't at their best. Dexter was still a great show, even if it wasn't matching the heights of one or two past years. And it does seem like there's still more gas in the tank for another trip.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

To Havre and Havre Not

I am having an intense love-hate relationship with the board game Le Havre. It's another game from Agricola designer Uwe Rosenburg. The "love" part is pretty simple: I love the game. The "hate" part comes from me not being able to play it very often.

The thing is, I don't think I have ever played a game more full with the potential for "analysis paralysis," that crippling, crushing mental weight you get when it's your turn, you can do only one thing, but you have tons of things you'd like to do (and several of those that you need to do). Swift and savvy players can keep it moving, with a run time of about half an hour per player (though I've yet to play it with the maximum five). But even then, you will have a few turns where you just have to say, "sorry, I need a minute."

That's with players who are ordinarily quick gamers. The sort of people who can play Puerto Rico in 30-45 minutes, including set-up time. I don't even want to think about how long it might take to play Le Havre with slower players.

Of course, if it were an absolutely brilliant game design, it would be a little less rife with analysis paralysis. But it's still a damn good design. The core is simple enough. Each player's turn, two out of seven basic resources "increment" one in an array of ever growing piles. That player then chooses to either take an action with his player disc, foregoing the acquisition of resources; or takes one of the seven growing piles, taking everything that has built up in it for several turns (and foregoing any other action). It sounds that simple.

But as I said, there are seven piles of resources to choose from. And when you get to taking an action, your options there can be staggering too. The game starts with only three choices, but players "build" cards that offer more actions all game long. By the end, there can be over 20 to choose from. No surprise, choosing from possibly 25 things you can do isn't always easy.

Though it really is fun. It's a constant struggle to keep feeding your people as you acquire building resources of various types to build more cards. There are still other commodities besides the seven that automatically accumulate, some of which you can only make by "upgrading" the basic versions of those things. There's just a lot going on. The game also has many clever ways to ensure that repeat plays can be strikingly different.

I quite struggled with it for the first few times I played, never winning, but still enjoying myself. Lately, I've been able to win a few, including a crushing victory where everything just magically aligned to give me an impossibly high score. But I don't feel any closer to having "mastered" the game, nor has my enjoyment of it lessened in any way.

For the right group, this game is a real gem, a must own. For the wrong group, you'll never even want to open the box. It's worth a look if you like resource management games, but I do suggest doing some investigating of your own before you decide to make a purchase.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I Ado

I like William Shakespeare, and plan on one day getting around to reading (or seeing performed, or both) every one of his plays. At the moment, however, I've been hovering somewhere around half. Probably the most famous of his plays I didn't know anything about was Much Ado About Nothing. I decided give Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film incarnation a try.

I really like Branagh overall. Though my opinion of his Henry V was lukewarm, it didn't dull my interest in seeing his other takes on Shakespeare. I thought this might be a particularly interesting one to watch, as I didn't know the play.

As writer and director, Branagh delivers an exceptional adaptation. I can virtually guarantee you the original play itself could never be performed in under two hours, but this film comes in with 10 minutes to spare and with a few long cinematic sequences that unfold without dialogue. Whatever cuts may have been made don't leave any perceptible trace, however. The movie is brisk and fun.

And incredibly coherent. This is as much as testament to the actors as the director, of course. The 400-year-old language of the Bard can be quite difficult to penetrate in the mouths of less able actors. (And there is one in this film. I'm looking at you, Keanu Reeves.) But this cast is bursting at the seams with talented people who make the poetry seem effortless, natural, and completely understandable.

There's Branagh himself, his then-wife Emma Thomspon, and Denzel Washington anchoring the most prominent roles. Michael Keaton does a hilarious turn as the "fool" of the piece, perhaps channeling his own Beetlejuice a bit too much, but eliciting laughs all the same. Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale are solid as the young lovers of the piece.

But, as usual, there are some elements of Shakespeare that just can't quite overcome four centuries of passing time. Many say his themes are timeless, but be that as it may, the specific events often come off dated. The key antiquated notion you have to swallow in this tale is that, after her fiance spurns her at the altar in a near-violent fashion, that a woman's only desire would be to find a way to set it all straight and go on with the wedding. And that her fiercely protective father is completely on board with this.

There are also a few elements common to other Shakespearean stories that don't come off quite as well here as they do in those other plays. For example, there's a bastard son determined to see his legitimate brother go down in disgrace, realized better in King Lear. There's a fiery-tempered woman at odds with a man she ends up falling in love with, realized better in The Taming of the Shrew.

But overall, there's a lot to like here. It's an entertaining story, and a very well-realized adaptation of it. I rate it a B.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Lost Re-view: Numbers

Numbers was a major episode in the first season of Lost, both for the show itself and to me personally. The writers had been making us wait almost the entire season to finally learn Hurley's backstory. He was the last major character of season one to have an episode devoted to his flashbacks, and the sheer off-the-wallness of learning he's a multi-millionaire lottery winner was a great reveal unto itself, independent of the numbers and their curse.

Even before we knew the story behind Hurley, he was a favorite character of mine, so I was looking forward to this hour back in 2005. But the episode sticks out in my mind today for reasons outside the show itself. I'd been laid off from my job in Virginia at the start of the year, and resolved almost immediately to head back to Denver, which still felt like my real home even after almost six years living on the coast. I'd just finished my long drive back on the day this episode aired. So there I was, back in Denver, watching Lost on a small TV, exhausted but determined not to miss a moment of this series I'd become addicted to.

I think perhaps there was an odd sort of resonance for me in the story, as well. Hurley's tale was about how something that seemed good on the face of it had turned bitter. I was at a point in my life where I hoped that something that seemed bitter on the face of it would turn out to be something good. (And it did.)

So it might just be that Numbers is my favorite hour of all of Lost... but for reasons that don't really have a lot to do with the actual content of the episode. As best as I can, I'm going to try to set that aside and look at the hour itself and see how it measures up.

The episode was written by Brent Fletcher and David Fury. This is the only writing credit on the series for the former; the latter I've praised at length before for his work on Walkabout, among other episodes. Behind the camera was director Dan Attias, whose only other episode besides this was another Hurley-centric episode during the final season.

As I mentioned earlier, this is the episode where we finally learn Hurley's "secret," and it comes before we even get to the opening title. Hurley is watching TV in a flashback and sees his winning lottery numbers drawn. (That's 4-8-15-16-23-42, by the way, one or more of which would appear in almost every single episode of the series after this.)

By the next flashback, he's surrounded by reporters who flood him with questions. He's evasive with them about where he came up with the winning numbers, turning to the focus instead to his family, including a brother I'd totally forgotten he had, and a grandfather with a pacemaker... that apparently gives out right there, just moments after Hurley mentions it.

In a later flashback, Hurley is driving his mother to a "surprise," and details a rash of bad luck that has befallen the family since he won the lottery. Maybe the money is cursed, he suggests, earning him a slap from his mother for entertaining a non-Catholic notion. But inside of a minute, she's tripped and broken her ankle, the new house Hurley bought her is on fire, and the police have slapped handcuffs on him due to some misunderstanding.

Another flashback continues to drive the point home. Objectively speaking, it might be belaboring the point, except that the comedy is so deft that it's easy to smile and go with it.

But then things turn serious. The next flashback reveals to us that Hurley was, until not long ago, a patient in a mental hospital -- by way of him returning there to visit a fellow patient named Leonard. He sits around all day mumbling the numbers, and Hurley tries to find out where he got them. No success there until Hurley mentions he won the lottery by using them, which sends Leonard into a rage. But before the doctors haul him off, he gives up the name of Sam Toomey, from Australia.

Hurley follows this lead in the next flashback, only to find Sam Toomey's wife. She lives in a house in the middle of nowhere, where he moved them in the hopes of getting away from everyone and everything after he used the numbers to win a "guess the number of beans in this jar" game. Mrs Toomey is a widow now, after her husband killed himself.

Still, she knows exactly where the numbers came from. Sam and Leonard, together in the U.S. Navy, were stationed at a listening post 16 years ago, monitoring long range transmissions over the Pacific. One night, instead of more mindless static, they picked up a voice repeating those numbers. Sam felt they'd cursed him just as Hurley does, though the widow Toomey is outraged at the suggestion. You make your own luck, she declares, don't blame it on the damn numbers.

Of course, we know what happened next, when Hurley tried to return home from his trip to Australia. He wound up on the mysterious Island, at the center of this episode's action. In a break from tradition, the hour begins not with a close-up on his eye, but with a relaxing close-up of the ocean waves crashing on the beach. The camera then pans to Hurley, who is working with Jin on Michael's raft.

It's Michael that inadvertently sets the whole plot in motion. Once he's out to sea, he wants a way to be able to send a distress signal. Sayid thinks it impossible; even if he could build a radio of some kind, there would be no batteries to power it. Hurley remembers that Rousseau had some in her possession, though Sayid cautions against going after her.

Then Hurley looks through some of Rousseau's rambling notes, taken by Sayid when he last saw her. There are his winning lottery numbers. THE numbers. Hurley tries as subtly as he can to pump for information, but Sayid dismisses everything in the notes as nonsense. So Hurley steals the material from Sayid and resolves to find Rousseau himself. Charlie catches him packing for the journey, but he awkwardly covers and avoids the unwelcome company.

It's not a smooth getaway, however, because Sayid has noticed the missing map, and immediately comes to angrily confront Jack about getting Hurley to do his dirty work in stealing it. Upon seeing Jack knows nothing about the matter, and hearing about his strange behavior from Charlie, the trio takes off after him.

They catch up just in time to save Hurley from one of Rousseau's trap. (Well, to warn him of the trap, anyway. He dodges it on his own because, in his own words, he's "spry.") But he refuses to abandon his quest -- he maintains it's still all about getting the battery -- and convinces the others to accompany him.

What follows is a fun sequence about crossing a rickety old rope bridge, that still has some great tension (and humor) in it even on a repeat viewing. But the end result is that Jack and Sayid are separated from Charlie and Hurley. And Hurley refuses to wait for the other two. When Charlie says -- twice -- that he's acting like a lunatic, Hurley snaps at him. That particular insult cuts quite deeply when we know that insanity is a tender subject for Hurley.

He's about to explain to Charlie why he's so determined to find Rousseau when she finds them first. But she "greets" them with her rifle, taking shots at them from the trees. She then corners Hurley alone and hits him with some of her most menacing form of crazy. Or crazy form of menacing.

But Hurley won't back down. When he begs her for information about the numbers, and she claims she doesn't know, his desperation bubbles over as anger. "I want some freakin' answers!" So Rousseau reveals a bit of her past. Her research group picked up a transmission of the numbers, and followed it to the Island, where they were shipwrecked. They found the radio tower that was broadcasting (near the Black Rock, she name drops), but couldn't decipher the meaning of the numbers before "the Sickness" came upon them. Later, she erased the recording and replaced it with her own distress signal.

And then Hurley and Rousseau, though as different from one another as you could imagine, bond over this common thread between them -- perhaps the numbers are cursed. It was the numbers that brought both of them to the Island. And that in turn took from her everything and everyone she ever cared about. That's all Hurley needed to hear, that someone believes him. With that, and a battery that Rousseau agrees to give him, Hurley returns to the group.

Late that night, back at the beach, Hurley reveals to Charlie that the plane crash may have been his fault, thanks to his bad luck. But Charlie reacts much like Toomey's widow, saying that you make your own luck. It's an understandable reaction from Charlie, who has learned to take responsibility for his own addiction, and won't really stand for someone accusing "luck" for their problems. The conversation ends with Hurley revealing to Charlie his "biggest secret." I would think that's his stay in the mental hospital, but that's not what Hurley reveals. Either that secret is too private for Hurley to discuss at this point, or the writers simply want to end on a humorous beat; in any case, he reveals he's worth $156 million (which Charlie doesn't believe).

This rather detailed plot and its related flashbacks take up much of the time in this episode. Still, there are a few other threads sprinkled in. Following last episode's blowup between Sun and Jin, Sun has a brief but poignant conversation with Kate. She's certain he'll never speak to her again.

The other main thread involves Locke enlisting Claire to help him with "a little project" that turns out to be a cradle for her baby. It's an interesting handful of scenes that has an odd sort of resonance with the final season of Lost. Claire would turn out to have a very powerful -- though not positive -- relation with Locke at the end of the show. Well, with the man that looked like Locke, anyway. And the baby was a key element in play there too. There's little chance that the writers here knew they were setting up for a dark reflection five years later, but it plays well all the same.

The final scene of the episode is a close-up on the side of the partially exposed Hatch, revealing that Hurley's numbers are etched there on the metal. Ah, the numbers. This is already an incredibly long re-cap, but I can't wrap it up without delving into the numbers.

When I first set out to go back through all of Lost again, I specifically said that I'd be leaving out ancillary material not found on the DVDs themselves. But I might have to make an exception for the numbers, since they have at least two distinct "meanings" in Lost, only one of which was ever dealt with on screen.

If you followed one of the "alternate reality games" that ran between seasons (two and three, I think), you were exposed to another Dharma Initiative video that explained their interest in the numbers. One of Dharma's founding scientists was considered about nuclear annihilation following the Cuban Missile Crisis, and came up with some mathematical formula that he believed would predict the exact number of days remaining before the human race destroyed itself. There were six prominent variables in the formula, and the values assigned in those places were -- you guessed it -- 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42.

So, mixed in with the electromagnetism experiments, the animal cross-breeding, the brainwashing programs, and every other crazy thing going on with Dharma, their true, overarching purpose was to explore those numbers. The creators' reasoning was that if some way could be found to manipulate even one of the variables in that doomsday equation, the extinction of mankind could be delayed or avoided.

None of this reflects on the emotional journeys of any of our characters, which is why this material is not dealt with (rightly) during an actual episode. But it does serve a place in the grand story of Lost. Dharma's fixation on the numbers is why they're carved on the Swan hatch, and why they're the password for the computer. It's why they were being broadcast on an endless loop from the radio tower, and it was indeed that broadcast that drew Rousseau's team to the Island, and gave the information passed from Toomey to Leonard to Hurley.

That's the explanation for the "man of science." For the "man of faith," you can find a second interpretation in the episodes themselves. Those numbers aren't just about the end of the human race. They keep showing up in the lives of our characters, before, on, and (in some cases) after the Island. Hurley may even be right about them being cursed.

Out of the 360 "candidates" originally strewn around the dial of Jacob's lighthouse, those six numbers were assigned to the exact six people who would be the final contenders to take his place. In short, the numbers truly do have some cosmic significance, which Jacob was either consciously or subconsciously aware of.

But to get back from the macro to the micro, how about just this one episode that bears the numbers' name? I'd say it's not quite the jaw-dropper of Walkabout, nor the heart-wrencher of The Moth. But it does still tickle the brain, is fun, introduces material that rippled throughout the entire run of the show, and has a layer of extra meaning in its question of luck -- fate vs. determination. So I think that even setting aside the personal meaning this episode has for me, Numbers is worth an A-, and stands as one of the first season's best hours.

One last thing (no, really) before I close. There's a "Missing Pieces" mobisode connected to this episode. Technically, it falls between this episode and the next one, but the entirely comedic tone of it means it's better considered here rather than with the next, deathly serious installment.

This Missing Piece is called "Jin Has a Temper-Tantrum on the Golf Course." And that's basically all there is to know about it. Michael, Jin, and Hurley are having a mock tournament out on the makeshift golf course, Jin misses a putt, and throws a fit over the fact that not one thing can go right for him. It's a cute but unnecessary scene. Jin is being used very dramatically at this point in the season, so I suppose a comedy moment with him is a nice change of pace. Still, it's a one-note joke that barely even fills the two minutes it takes the scene to play out. Take it or leave it, I say.

Whew. That's probably quite enough on Lost for now.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Sleuth in Training

I love "deduction games." Sleuth is one of my all-time favorite games (the bad art in the recent printing notwithstanding). I'll even play Clue -- which is one of the very few mass market board games I enjoy. You have a deduction game, I'll be happy to try it out.

This year, a friend picked up one called Mystery Express. It's a solve-the-crime game with much of Clue's identify the suspect-weapon-room flavor, but with several added twists. The result is a reasonably fun game, but with a very different feel.

The most novel difference of Mystery Express is that the deck of cards from which the mystery is drawn has two copies of each individual card. Imagine Clue with two Colonel Mustards, two lead pipes, two conservatories, and so on, and you can instantly see how that changes the game. Every "clue" you pick up requires "corroboration" from a second source before you can truly eliminate a suspected element from the crime.

Each of the rooms in this game has a special action built into it. On your turn, you have a specific number of "hours" to spend on taking actions. You can move to as many different rooms as you like and take the special action of each one time, consuming your hours however you like. Actions with low potential rewards consume fewer hours than those with a higher potential reward. But you can customize your turn to get info in the area you need most. It's another element of this game that I'd say is a strong positive.

But there are also some elements I'm on the fence about. The "chaos" level of this game is rather high. Many of the actions I mentioned above cause cards to permanently change hands from one player to another. You can be this close to a major breakthrough in the case, only to have a card you'd tracked change hands. Now when you ask that second player to see the card, you can't be sure whether you're seeing the same card twice. Tracking who has which card is a monumental challenge in this game compared to Clue -- one that you really can't manage with any guaranteed accuracy. I'll admit, it's not so chaotic that the puzzle seems unsolvable, but it also isn't quite the controlled experience you'd probably expect a deduction game to provide. I'm on the fence about whether I like this.

And then there's a unique aspect of the crime which you must also solve -- when it occurred. This is arrived at with a separate deck of clock-face cards that are not distributed to the players' hands. And in this deck, there are three copies of each possible solution. At three points during the game, players have the opportunity to browse the deck (as a group) in different kinds of rapid fire, flash card ways. You must simply rely on your powers of observation and try to spot which card is missing from the time deck. On the one hand, I like this unusual mechanic. (And I've had good success at identifying the time in games I've played.) But on the other, it also feels like a mechanic too unrelated from the rest of the game. I've also seen it be unfair to different players, for reasons I probably don't need to detail. Suffice it to say, it's another element of the game that I'm unsure about.

Overall, I'd say it's an enjoyable game that I would play again on occasion. But I'd also say it's probably not the best choice for any real deduction enthusiast like myself. If you have a group that doesn't mind a bit of whimsy in their games, and yet is ready for something more sophisticated than Clue, I'd say you're the target audience.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Island Escape

Time for another random Netflix recommendation of a movie I've never heard of before. This time the film was called City Island, a low budget film made just last year, starring Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, and Steven Strait, with secondary roles played by Alan Arkin and Emily Mortimer.

I went into it with absolutely no knowledge of the plot. But for the less adventurous, here it is in a nutshell. The setting is a tiny island near the Bronx. It's a family comedy (with a touch of drama) about a prison guard who finds out that a son he abandoned before his birth is in his facility. The young man has made parole, but without any family to accept responsibility for his release, he'll have to stay behind bars for the remainder of his term. The father decides to take responsibility himself, bringing him home to his own family, but without telling anyone who the young man really is. Hilarity ensues.

This isn't a raucous, laugh-out-loud kind of comedy. It's a "soft touch" story that's pleasant to watch, and makes you smile with some comedic misunderstandings along the way. Classic "if only everyone would just talk to everyone else, none of this would have happened" material. It isn't knocked off from any one given source, I'd say, but you've probably seen movies like this many times before.

It is probably worth a viewing, though, thanks to a charming cast. The performances won't amaze you, but they all feel authentic and honest. In movies like this, where the situations aren't always believable, the characters have to be for it all to work. Here, they are, and so it does.

I give City Island a B-. If you're looking for a light movie night, it might be one for you to consider.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

TS-19

The Walking Dead wrapped up its first season tonight with another strong hour, packed with plenty of difficult scenes to watch.

In a world of rotting corpses, head shots, and decapitations, how chilling was it that the most unsettling scene in the episode was watching a drunken Shane force himself on Lori? With as far as the show has taken so many other things, I was not at all sure how far it would go here. It made the scene absolutely stomach-churning to watch.

Another series of powerful moments came from the gradual realization that the doctor's "test subject" was his own wife, capped by thinking back to the earlier scene and realizing he'd had to shoot her himself.

And the climax was a real moral debate played out in a literal locked door setting. I imagine we'd all like to think that in a real life or death situation, we'd all go down fighting to the end. But the reality is, that won't be everybody. Who's to say that maybe the swift and painless end isn't better than risking a long, fruitless struggle only to likely end up facing an agonizing demise? And well done to the show for presenting several possibilities of facing that decision: calm surrender, the urge to fight, and someone coaxed from one position to the other.

I'd say the only misfire in the entire episode was really how many times the computer and the doctor had to tell us what was going to happen when the countdown expired. The first time around seemed completely unambiguous, but it seemed as though the characters had to hear it three or four times before it finally sunk in. Was this a deliberate bit of writing intended to show just how in denial these survivors would be about the news, after having struggled so much to reach "safety?" Or was it a rare moment of them assuming a dumb audience that needed to hear the stakes laid out concretely, step by step?

Either way, it's nothing to quibble about. The Walking Dead went out as it came in, as one of the best shows on television right now. Now a much longer countdown clock begins, waiting the better part of a year for season two.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Central Time

Last night, I got my first taste of Harmonix's newest video game. No, it's actually not Rock Band 3. They're also at the forefront of the whole XBox Kinect thing, with what many reviews have described as the best launch title for this device, Dance Central.

I was curious about the game from the moment its coming was announced earlier this year. I used to really enjoy the Dance Dance Revolution games -- basically until Rock Band kicked them off the top of the mountain. How appropriate that the makers of Rock Band might come up with the next generation dancing game to reinvigorate the genre.

The thing is, though, I don't own an XBox 360. I went the Playstation 3 route (which I'm happy about every time I watch a Blu-ray movie). Dance Central looked interesting, but probably not interesting enough to buy the console and Kinect essentially for one game. Not to mention that I've heard Kinect wants some depth in your living room to function best, and my condo doesn't really offer that.

Well, my curiosity was satisfied when one of my friends picked up Dance Central and invited some of us over to give it a try. It is, as expected, a hell of a lot of fun. It's also fairly good exercise, if that aspect holds appeal for you; if you really throw yourself into the routines, you will get winded if you stay at it for long. (Actually, the game even has a Workout Mode, if that's what you want to use it for.)

It's an obvious quantum leap above DDR. I suppose Wii DDR players have been able to use the remote and nunchuck for movements with the hands, but the other consoles have never had this. Even then, not having to hang on to a controller is more authentic and enjoyable. Where DDR still felt fundamentally like a game, Dance Central (like Rock Band) feels like a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. I don't think you'd see people doing these routines at a club or anything, but plenty of the individual moves are actual dance moves.

There are shortcomings in the game, but many are excusable for a variety of reasons. The 30-odd song set list seems pretty short, but the old DDR games didn't have much bigger. (They also didn't use entire songs as this game does. And a significant portion of those songs were cloying J-Pop that were only rarely fun to play anyway.) This will expand over time, as Harmonix will be releasing downloadable songs to expand the Dance Central library.

One one player can play at a time. This may be an insurmountable limitation of the technology, period. You can at least understand this would have been a very difficult limitation to overcome as they worked on the game, since the technology itself was being created at the same time. Something for Dance Central 2 to address, perhaps?

If I already owned an XBox 360, this game probably would sell me on getting a Kinect. But it's not quite the jaw-dropping experience that convinces me that I have to make a $400+ investment to go from the nothing I have now. Still, a solid effort from the best music game developer around.

Friday, December 03, 2010

A Matter of Degrees

I've long been aware of the film (and original play) Six Degrees of Separation. (When I was in college, it was a bit of a favorite for acting students to lift monologues from, in fact.) Lots of people are familiar with the concept referenced in the title -- the "small world" theory that posits any person on Earth can be linked directly to every other person through no more than six acquaintances. (And lots of others have heard of the "Kevin Bacon game" that riffs on the idea.) Until recently, I'd never actually watched the film itself.

The movie wisely does not stray far from its roots on the stage. By that I mean that its an intensely dialogue-driven affair. Words fly at you a mile a minute, and it's up to you to maintain rapt attention or risk being lost in the current.

To carry the weight of this finely-crafted text, the movie brings together a rather exceptional cast. Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland play the married couple spinning this wild story, the former reprising the role she played in the original stage production. They go on a wonderful journey together, carefully hitting every beat along the way that leads to the film's conclusion.

Will Smith portrays the unusual young man that incites the action. This movie came at a time while he was still just the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," before anyone knew he had any true acting chops whatsoever. And there could be no question that he did after this film. The real nuance of the performance comes in the middle chunk of the film, when you literally see the layers of it -- his character is himself putting on a character.

The cast is rounded out with many other fine actors taking on smaller roles -- some rather against "type" -- including Ian McKellen and Anthony Michael Hall. Two of the more surprising appearances come from Heather Graham (surprising for actually being pretty good) and J.J. Abrams (surprising because he's acting here, even though it is indeed that J.J. Abrams, best known for writing, directing, and creating shows like Alias, Lost, and Fringe).

Another notable plus is the fantastic, though brief, musical score by Jerry Goldsmith -- which I mention in part because I was just praising his work recently. Here he delivers something entirely different, grounded in a passionate tango motif. Again, in the spirit of keeping with a play, the score is sparse, leaving room for all the dialogue. But the 15-20 minutes or so that is there is fantastic.

It is a rather entertaining ride, though not a perfect one. For one thing, most of the twists of the plot seem rather apparent. Perhaps the film isn't necessarily meant to surprise, but in any case, it doesn't. For another, the title seems like a bit of an odd fit. One of the characters does indeed bring up the "small world" theory in dialogue, but it really seems like an odd flight of fancy, purely revealing of her mindset, than it seems much of a commentary on the story itself. To me, anyway; your mileage may vary.

Still, I'd definitely encourage you to take the journey. If you like a brisk and witty tale, you'll find something to like in Six Degrees of Separation. I rate it a B.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sometimes, You Get the Bear

I'd had a few posts recently that deal with musical scores for film and television. If that sort of thing interests you, then there's another blog well worth checking out: Bear's Battlestar Blog.

It's written by Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary. He began it, as you'd probably suspect, during the actual production of that show. The blog has continued up to now with its increasingly inaccurate name, covering his work on many other television series, including Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Human Target, Caprica, and most recently, The Walking Dead.

Every time a new TV episode airs with one of his scores, he posts an entry that talks about the particular challenges of scoring that episode of television. It's a neat insight into the mind of a very effective composer, and I think it quite interesting. Worth checking out, even if you don't watch all the shows in question.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

In the Eye of the Beholder

I've talked before about how my friends and I are always on the hunt for good "group" games. Even though we already have an all-time favorite in Time's Up, it does seem that as long as you have a group to play them, more variety in this category of game is never a bad thing.

Not too long ago, one of my friends picked up a game called Dixit. It might be a stretch to call it a "party game," because it caps out at six players. You could allow more, but you'd have to make your own extra bits, and I'm pretty sure the quality of the game would suffer. Still, it's the sort of socially-oriented, light-weight rules, easy-to-play kind of game that one normally thinks of as a party game.

The game revolves around a deck of cards, each with a different illustration. They're all fairly detailed, but not literal depictions of any given scene. (Unless that scene is the sort of non-sensical thing someone might dream about.) When your turn comes, you choose one image from your hand of six cards, and say a word (or words, or a short sentence) to describe the card as you place it face down in front of you.

Each other player then looks at his own hand and selects the card he thinks best fits that description. You shuffle this small pile of one card from each player, then turn each face up and assign it a number. All your opponents then vote (secretly and simultaneously) on which card they think was the original.

So basically, Apples to Apples with art. And perhaps with a touch of Balderdash, due to some interesting scoring. As you'd expect, each player gets points for guessing the right answer, and points for having the wrong answer they offered up guessed by an opponent. But you, the clue giver, only score if your true answer is guessed by at least one player... but not by every player. So you want to craft a clue that is solid enough for one person (ideally, only one person) to guess, but opaque enough for people to be able to provide viable wrong answers to confuse most of the group.

It's rather fun and quick to play. (You can be thinking about the clue you'll give next from the cards in your hand, during other players' turns.) It's also dirt simple to explain. All good marks for this sort of game. But I do wonder about the replay value over the long haul. We haven't really played Dixit all that much in our group, and that may be just as well. I think familiarity with the limited deck of picture cards might risk leeching some of the fun out of the game. Sure, players could give increasingly weirder clues each time they play again. They could even give clues that they know might describe other cards they've seen in past games, hoping that someone else has that card in their hand. Still, it seems like these cards won't last nearly as long as a box of Balderdash clues, for example.

I'd say if you're in the market for a group game, and have creative people in that group (though not necessarily "outgoing" people -- if you have those, get Time's Up), you might want to take a look at Dixit.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

49 and Counting

I have reached the end of my journey -- so far -- with The Up Series. 49 Up was made in 2005, and so until 2012 rolls around, it is the last in the series. Certainly, there will be a 56 Up when the time comes, though I would think the series appropriately "complete" if that never happened. The narrator of the original Seven Up documentary all those years ago said that by looking at those children of age seven, you could get a glimpse of Britain in "the year 2000." As 49 Up stands several years past that point, it could well be seen as the culmination of the documentary project.

In any case, let's see what has become of those children of the early 1960s.

Tony and his wife are still together, even after the affair revealed in 42 Up. They're both still cab drivers, and they have taken out a second mortgage on their home in order to buy a holiday home in Spain. And they're talking of moving there permanently, possibly to start a sports bar. In any case, Tony feels that the economy will bust in less than five years under Tony Blair's government, and that is spurring on his desire to leave the country. (I can't say how much Blair had to do with it, but the general prediction wasn't off the mark.)

His oldest son Nick is still in the furniture business. Jody, his middle daughter, is recovering from a broken relationship. And his youngest daughter Perry is a postal worker. He has three grandchildren now. Watching him and his wife Debbie interact in the interview, you see steady -- but usually playful -- bickering. But more than that, you see they really are similar.

On to the trio of Jackie, Lynn, and Sue.

Jackie is raising her three sons, getting by with a disability benefit from her rheumatoid arthritis, and help from the grandmother of her younger two boys. Her oldest, Charlie, wants to leave school early to apprentice as a car mechanic, and she's trying to steer him aware from that. Her second, James, has an interest in making his own computer games. Lee, the youngest, is adventurous, and Jackie sees a lot of her own best traits in him.

But more interesting than the facts of Jackie's life in this particular film is the argument she gets into with the interviewer. Jackie has always had a bit of a short temper when it comes to these films (and we're shown a brief montage of past highlights), but she really takes filmmaker Michael Apted to task on this occasion. She says that he always edits the films to make his own point, and hopes that 49 Up might finally be the first time the documentary is truly about "us" and not about how "you (Apted) see us."

Apted probes further into what she means, and she says that the previous film was less about what she was doing with her life and more about what she might not be able to do now in light of her condition. It was playing on sympathy. She also says that she's more intelligent today that he (the interviewer) thought she would be at age 7. "I enjoy being me, and I don't think you expected me to turn out the way that I have." And she says she cringes when she watches the films, not just for herself, but for the others too. Take that, Apted!

Sue is far less fiery a subject. She works for a college in London as an administrator for the legal program. She's together now with Glenn, the man she was just getting to know as of 42 Up. She's very committed to him, but they are not married. She basically says that she's done the marriage thing (implying that she will not ever again). Her son William works in computers, having passed on the chance to go to university. Her daughter Catherine is still finishing school, but is incredibly similar to Sue herself, she thinks. Sue has moved out of the East End, and is asked if it feels to her like she's reached "the upper class." Perhaps it does, she agrees.

Lynn is still working at the same library, but fears that job may be in jeopardy to still further cutbacks in education. "They" say that a specialist such as herself is not required to do her job. There is no change in her health; her brain condition is not going away, but neither is it a problem. She is still happily married, but her husband still refuses to take part in the films. She says he sees them as an intrusion, and she respects that view. Her two daughters, Sarah and Emma, are grown. Neither went to university, by their choice, and Lynn does not find that a disappointment. "It's their lives. You can only guide and be there for them." One of the two has a son of her own.

Bruce still teaches, but has changed schools again. (Though he's still with a school affiliated with a church.) He has left behind the teaching of less privileged children, work which he still says is very important, but that was wearing him down more than he was affecting the lives of his students. He and his wife, newlyweds as of 42 Up, now have two boys, Henry and George. They will not be sending their boys to boarding school, as Bruce was. He says he looks at himself at 7 and feels that boy doesn't even look familiar. "He looks lost and sad."

Paul has sought professional help in getting through a bout of depression. Though he's doing well now, he talks about concern that it was a strain on his marriage. (Though his wife seems surprised to hear him say so in the interview.) When he's asked if he has any ambitions, he says simply no. He notes that he's worked in the same job for 10 years and never asked for a raise; that's just the kind of guy he is. Their daughter Katie excelled in school, and is now an archaeologist that goes out on digs all over the world. Their son Robert is still battling his reading disability, but has become a car mechanic, husband, and father.

Suzy makes a rather brief appearance in the film. She says that now is maybe the first time in her life that she's ever been completely comfortable with herself, and that appearing in these films always dredges up things she'd compartmentalized and moved on from. Either she's never spoken of the issues she's concerned about, or she's referring to her general depression after her parents' divorce, from around age 14 to 21. To my eye, she seems to have done quite well for herself, but she says the films have not been a good experience for her, and that this is probably the last time she'll participate in them. She also speaks wistfully of her three grown children beginning to move away from home, of a chapter in her life coming to a close.

Nick's life has seen many changes, but he's still doing well. Because the technology simply didn't exist to continue his research on fusion, he's been forced to abandon it. But he still teaches undergraduates, and sees sparking their interest as a way to keep his dream alive. He has divorced his wife, apparently fulfilling the predictions of many Up Series viewers who thought the marriage doomed. But according to Nick, it wasn't his decision. She went to England to visit a dying father, and came back a completely different person. The two quickly drifted apart. Perhaps because she's no longer around to protest it, their son Adam (now age 16) appears in one of the documentaries for the first time.

Nick has remarried, to another professor. But the two teach at different campuses in different parts of the state, and must commute on weekends to see one another. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," he muses. It is perhaps an unconventional marriage, but the two seem very happy together. She has a young boy herself from a previous marriage. She's also concerned that doing these films is a wrenching experience for Nick. He does them because he feels they're important, and sees how they've been important for other people... yet it's difficult to have such a vivid scrapbook of one's life, she thinks.

Symon is still happy with his second wife, and still working at the freight job. (A job he only took originally to be close to his son's school.) He now has two grandchildren, but his five kids from his first marriage had stopped seeing him for a stretch. He's only recently back in touch with most of them. He says he sometimes wishes he'd pushed himself harder, and for better, but still, he believes one should "work to live, not live to work." He talks of things he once wanted to be -- a boxer, an actor -- but then admits he never really wanted those things. He just wanted to be liked.

Because Symon and Paul were originally in the same school at age 7, they're brought together for a reunion in this film. But mostly, the film focuses on their wives' reaction to this. Both women agree the men are family oriented, thoughtful, and not impulsive. And both "married noisy women." Closing his segment, Symon talks of the documentaries themselves. He says he loves watching everyone else, but hates doing it himself. He also says that by the end of making each film, he usually hates filmmaker Michael Apted. (Who is taking a bit of a beating this time out!)

We turn now to John, Andrew, and Charles. Well, not to Charles, who remains consistent as he has since 21, refusing to participate any more in the documentaries. This time, we don't even get the brief narration explaining what has happened to him in the past seven years.

Andrew has left the law firm he worked at for decades to go to an industrial gas company. He felt the other job was no longer challenging, and he wanted something that stretched him. (Personally, I wonder if this was a bit of rebellion after living 40 years of a quite regimented life?) His sons Alexander and Timothy are at university and boarding school, respectively. And he and his wife Jane live both in London and a country home they've been converting slowly over time. Andrew says that life is now tougher and more competitive for his children than it was for him. He sees his age 7 version reciting the map of his entire education, and says you could never get a child that age to do that today.

John continues his cycle. Present for the film at 21, out at 28, back at 35, out at 42, and now back again. And again, as with 35, it seems to be because he has an agenda to push. He's contemplating an entrance into politics, as the current government as a whole is doing great damage to the country's constitution. He's still running a charity for Bulgaria with his wife -- an endeavor he acknowledges was quite helped by 35 Up. But it seems as though his main purpose in returning to the films is to speak out against them. He likens the Up Series to a reality television show, acknowledging the voyeuristic appeal, but questioning whether they have any real value.

Lastly, as usual, comes Neil. He's left London, but remains in politics, now part of a local city council in northwest England, and planning a run for a seat at the county level. He says he moved because he no longer felt satisfied in the city, and found the country less stressful. Consequently, his friendship with Bruce has more or less ended. (Bruce says on the subject that this happens in life, that people sometimes drift apart.)

Neil's father died five years ago, but he thinks that relationship had deteriorated long ago, and that perhaps the death brought him slightly closer to his mother. He's become ordained as a minister, continuing to find relief in religion -- though he says he has no aspirations for priesthood. He remains unmarried, and says that is a great regret in his life, never having found someone. He concludes his segment, and the film, by telling a story of a butterfly once catching his eye with its beauty, and wondering if that is really all there is to life: being who you are.

And thus concludes my trip through The Up Series. I'd say it's a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Many of the individual films, particularly early on, are a bit tedious, but there's something that really captivates overall. Perhaps it's just the voyeuristic appeal John described, but perhaps it's the greater meaning and importance that Nick spoke of.

In either case, I'll certainly be checking in two years' time for the next installment.