Monday, August 13, 2018

Bulls & Bears Board Game on Kickstarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie and TV Reviews: Lady Bird, The Post, Molly's Game, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Westworld, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

See all of my movie reviews.

Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig's first outing as a director is a smashing success. I have complicated feelings about Greta, in that I admire her intentions in writing and playing in quirky comedies, such as Frances Ha. However, I felt that her movies were not quite there yet, not quite jelled. The characters were too unrelatable, and the plots too chaotic and off-putting. This is the first one she really gets right.

Christine is a teenager who calls herself "Lady Bird" for no discernible reason. The movie is basically an arc in the life of Christine and her relationship with her mother as she navigates the last year of high school in Sacramento. She makes and loses friends, fights, makes up, and fights with her mother, and tries to get into a college on the East Coast that will get her far away from her family.

I have been a big fan of Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement to Hanna to Brooklyn. She and Laurie Metcalf, as well as the rest of the cast, give perfect performances. If there is any flaw to the movie it is that it could have been more: more sweeping, maybe have another deep relationship arc in addition to the main one. But that's hardly a flaw. Worth watching.

The Post: Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg give us another newspaper drama, this one about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers that broke the story about how a series of US presidents and higher ups were all lying about the Vietnam War, pretending that the US was fighting to liberate South Vietnam when they knew all along that the war could not be won and the real aim was to broadly fight China.

It's a good movie, if not a great one. Roughly on par with other newspaper movies I've seen, including Spotlight and All the President's Men., but with a narrower aim. The main conflicts are a) publish or not? and b) can Streep's female character assert authority at the paper without making a major blunder? Streep plays the owner of the Washington Post, a position she inherited from her late husband, and a woman bullied by her all male board. She is seemingly willing to let them bully her until she finally takes a stand. Hanks plays the chief editor who is pushing to report a story while the government wants to sue them for espionage.

If you happen to draw a parallel between the historic ideals of freedom of press versus a tyrannical, corrupt president and anything happening today it's because we once trumpeted these ideals very clearly. Reality has a bias toward the truth, which any amount of modern obfuscation cannot truly suppress. And it is good not to lose sight of the ideals for which we stand.

Molly's Game: If it's been a while since you've seen a Sorkin picture, you'll find it is like riding a bicycle. You will immediately be expecting to see Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborne walk in from some corner of the screen.

This is the story of a woman who uses some incredible insight, people skills, and brass balls to end up running a high stakes poker game for important celebrities and executives, first on the West Coast and then on the East. The enterprise lasts until the feds and the mafia move in on her. The story is told from a series of flashbacks interspersed with her finding a lawyer and navigating her legal case. It is based on a true story.

Jessica Chastain does a fine job in the lead role. Everyone else does fine, except Kevin Costner who seems out of place as her often distant but high pressuring father. Regardless, it is a Sorkin story, which means witty, clever, entertaining dialog and characters who are ten times brighter and more accomplished than most people you will ever meet. Well crafted with great cinematography.

Goodbye Christopher Robin: The story of A.A. Milne, his wife, and his son Christopher Robin, how the Winnie the Pooh books came to be, and the effect they had on their lives. Spoiler: on the one hand the books are the most successful children's books of all time. On the other hand, they destroyed the life of Christopher Robin and his relationship with his parents. The movie actually gives us a slightly happier ending than the real life events.

Milne's wife is shown to be a bit of a shrew, with just enough redeeming moments to make her two-dimensional, but not really likable. Alan Milne is more sympathetic, although he blatantly and blindly uses his son poorly without much thought. It's all pretty tragic.

It's a decent movie for what it aims to be, somewhere on the same level as Becoming Jane or Miss Potter. It is well acted and lovingly directed and filmed. It tells its story well enough. But it's not a very important story or movie, for all that, and only the falsified, slightly happier ending gives the viewer any kind of comfort.

Westworld (season one): I saw a few episodes of Humans and couldn't get into it. I was a little concerned about the level of violence I heard about in this series (I won't watch Game of Thrones). Somehow, the fact that the violence happens to robots makes it easier to take, although the question remains exactly whether the robots are or are not conscious, so you have to decide that for yourself if the violence is watchable or not.

I am a huge fan of Evan Rachel Wood; she and everyone else do fine jobs. Unlike Humans, the stories are quite captivating, with a number of whodunits and what's going to happen nexts that got me hooked. The stories take place in the facility that creates and maintains the robots, as well as in the play world of Westworld, and they include scenes that occur as flashbacks from the robots' perspective, despite the fact that the robots are not supposed to have memories.

There is nudity, but respectfully done and never gratuitous. The sex scenes are all pretty unsexy.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (season one): The next series from Amy Sherman Palladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads), this one succeeds better than Bunheads did. Bunheads had a few great scenes, but it was too unrestrained in ridiculous plot and ridiculous dialog, which made it hard to relate to. This series only has one Bunheads-style conversation that set my teeth on edge in episode two. Thankfully that was the only one.

Midge is a perfect 1950s Jewish housewife who is supported by her husband and who in turn supports his occasional forays into standup comedy. He's not good at it, and one day he decides that she is not supportive enough of him and he leaves her. She then discovers, albeit reluctantly, that SHE is good at comedy. Cue a lot of denial, drinking binges, and attempts to make a go at standup comedy, all the while continuing to navigate her 1950s Jewish family, neighbors, friends, children, and still husband, all of whom remain blissfully unaware of her secret life as a comedienne.

It's not as good as Gilmore Girls, which had the great triple relationships between the three women, as well as their suitors, husbands, and the funky Connecticut town Stars Hollow as color. The supporting characters here are not as fun, there is no funky community background. But we have a few great scenes with a young Lenny Bruce. The best scenes are the ones where she does her Lenny Bruce style-standup, something which could not really have happened in the time period of the show, and so represents a kind of wish fulfillment on the part of Amy and for the viewers.

Amy's dialog is distinctive, and it's fun to hear. I just wish the show also had a teenage daughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 10, 2018

Movie Reviews: Wonder Woman, Logan, Personal Shopper, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Jane Eyre BBC (2006)

Wonder Woman:  Gal Gadot stars as Wonder Woman (aka Diana aka Diana Prince) in the first good DCEU movie. Unlike the last DCEU movies that were filled with grim, grit, and sadness, this film mixes the grimness with as much high popping fun, action, and even a little introspection about the good guys.

The movie is lovingly shot and detailed, with great settings and a large cast of background characters, at least some of whom sport two dimensional characters instead of the usual one dimensional. There are some assorted tokens of various races, but they are not caricatured. WW is not just a cardboard cutout of every other hero with a simple quirk of personality. She is another being altogether.

The plot: WW is created out of clay but somehow also the daughter of Zeus. She is raised on a secret island paradise of Amazon warriors and eventually trains to be the best, not only because some of her guardians believe that Ares will return to eradicate mankind and kill her, but because she has special powers that she keeps uncovering by accident.

Outside the island it is WW1 (a departure from the original mythos). Enter Steve Trevor in a downed plane, a British spy who stole a German cookbook for poison gas, followed by nasty Germans. The Amazons experience some real losses, but rather than do anything about it (um, wasn't that their entire purpose??) they waffle, so Diana rescues Steve, convinced that Ares has returned and it is up to her to stop him. Cue a lot of fish out of water scenes, as well as badass fearless and fearsome fighting woman scenes, as Steve rallies a cast of misfits to try to attack the German gas manufacturing base.

Gal owns the character of Wonder Woman, and in fact just about everyone does a fine acting job. The shooting and directing are lovely. There is time for some actual character moments between fighting - not a great amount, but some - and even some of the fighting is original - although a lot isn't. The breaths of sunshine and exuberant camaraderie enabled me to endure and even appreciate some of the longer fighting scenes.

Wonder Woman succeeds in something that Thor and Loki in the Marvel movies never did: she actually comes off looking like a demigod, rather than a petulant clumsy tough guy who is hard to hurt. And that's something new and refreshing.

But there are a few problems, at least for me. The movie's characters are still pretty lightweight, because the script is afraid to go into too much depth without another action scene. The movie's message seems to be that we are all equally evil or good or a mix, and tries not to take sides in WW1. Really? I think, just sometimes, you can take sides. Simultaneously and paradoxically, WW kicks the crap out of - and kills - German soldiers like they are meaningless video game characters, which contradicts her character and the previous problem. This story is a bit of a disservice to the veterans of WW1 who were not simply fighting Germany because they - or the Germans - were under mind control. And, when the war was over, we didn't all suddenly realize how much we all loved each other. So it is morally wishy-washy, not to mention possibly going to leave children pretty confused about what actually happened in WW1.

And, if WW1 was so bad, where was WW during WW2? Went back to her island to take a nap?

Anyway, you can try to suspend these problems and enjoy the movie. It's about on par with Iron Man in my mind, which is a good, solid comic book movie. Not on par with the great movies, such as The Dark Night or Terminator 2, but solid and enjoyable. Actually makes me want to see Justice League.

Logan: This is the second of the new R-rated Marvel movies, the other one being the shallow, violent, and insipid Deadpool. I'm well aware that Deadpool is loved and was a box office success. It had wall-to-wall juvenile humor, lots of cursing, on screen blood, explosions, punching, big things crashing and falling apart, and some sexy. Whatever.

This movie also has lots of cursing, and has even more on screen blood, stabbing, and limb severing. Worse, the stabbing and severing, as in Kick-Ass, is often performed by a young girl. It is also nearly wall to wall misery and humorlessness.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) is Wolverine, who has lived for a long time and has wanted to die in the past, but who is theoretically immortal since his body automatically heals (aging is cell damage, after all). He also has an adamantite skeleton that was inserted in place of his bones, a process that was uniquely able to be done on him due to his super-regenerative abilities. These include adamantite claws that protrude or retract into his hands and can be used to slice and dice enemies.

Now the adamantite appears to be slowly poisoning him, and now his regenerative properties are beginning to fade; he may actually soon die. In the meantime, he is caring for Professor X, the mutant with massive telepathic abilities who must be sedated since he, too, is suffering from old age: a degenerative mental condition which makes him a danger to anyone in a wide radius when not drugged up. A third mutant is some kind of albino that can track people at a distance but suffers massive skin burns when exposed to sunlight. And apparently they are three of the last mutants alive. It's not entirely clear what happened to all of them, but it is eventually revealed that Professor X killed some of them when his mental disorder first began.

The movie is basically a road trip. Logan is tasked with taking the young girl mutant, Laura, across the US to a supposed safe haven, which may not actually exist. In the meantime, Laura is being hunted. Lots of mayhem ensues.

Logen is not a great movie, but it is far better than Deadpool. For the first three fifths of the movie, the screenwriter simply makes everyone miserable, on the false assumption that misery conveys character and engenders empathy. Unfortunately, it doesn't. It's just misery; it didn't work for the first three DC Comics movies, and there is no reason, other than misplaced loyalty by Marvel fans, that one should believe that it works here. Still, I'll take misery over repulsive juvenile plastic immorality and sick/ugly jokes any day. At least it tried.

The cinematography was well done, and the acting was very good. Dafne Keen does a good job as Laura; I constantly reminded of Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things.

The movie picks up just a bit in the last two fifths, where we finally begin to show a budding relationship between Logan and his young charge. Just flashes of a relationship, which is enough to finally engage the sympathy of the viewer. Not quite enough to bring the movie up from its first acts, because the movie ends and the relationship is severed before any real sympathy kicks in, which is quite a shame. If the relationship-building scenes had come earlier in the movie, and were followed by many more, the movie really would have been something.

As it is, the strong language adds nothing to the movie; in fact, most of it seems as awkward and out of place as Spock's use of bad language in Star Trek IV. The violence is more bloody and more up close, some of it so brutal that I turned my head away and waited for the sounds of scraping metal and punctured flesh to subside before I looked back again. More visceral violence also didn't add anything to the movie; I'm sure people raised on bloody video games thought nothing of it, but for me, pornographic violence deadens my soul. I don't enjoy seeing people hurt, and don't take pleasure out of seeing them die in various ways. Sorry. These scenes were supposed to be entertaining, I guess, but I kept wanting to get back to (or start) the actual story.

So meh. Not going into my re-watch list.

Personal Shopper: After making the lovely Clouds of Sils Maria, the director Olivier Assayas kept Kristen Stewart around for another movie. Unfortunately, this one isn't that one. It's not a bad movie, and I must disclose that it is also a genre of movie that doesn't really interest me.

In this one, Kristen is waiting around in France to make contact with the spirit of her recently dead brother. Both of them believed in the spirit world, him more than her, and she wants to be sure that he has had enough time to make contact before moving on with her life. In the meantime, she is the personal shopper for a fabulously wealthy but obnoxiously oblivious and unapproachable celebrity of some kind. Some kinds of contact with the spirit world are made, or maybe not, and then other random things happen, some spooky, some violent. But these are few and far between the wanderings around of the protagonist.

In CoSM, there was a definitive, progressing story-line with interesting characters interacting and evolving, supported by an overarching metaphor and some lovely scenery and acting. The acting in this movie is good, but the plot is disjointed, the characters kind of wander around in a screenplay that seems to be cobbled together from a few interesting moments and a lot of stereotypical French cinematic cliches (shots of motorcycles and traffic, smoking, turtlenecks, and pointless conversations). I wasn't impressed.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Not much to say about this except that it bored me and I couldn't finish it. Johnny Depp provides the only on-screen character and charisma. Everyone else is just a one-dimensional cardboard figure; as a result, the action scenes were like watching building fall down with no characters in them. The plots and action sequences are convoluted and entirely uninteresting, since we've seen them all before, or just about. And there is nothing else there. It's possible I could make another go of it, since it's not bad, exactly, it was just boring.

Jane Eyre (BBC): I don't know if the link is to the full 4-part miniseries, but that's the one you should watch. This is the best version I've yet seen, and possibly the most faithful.

Like all versions, it glosses over Helen's Christian moralizing, so important to the story but absent from any film version. Still, nearly everything else I remember is included, although not always in the right order. The other film versions drastically shorten the initial conversations between Jane and Rochester; this one leaves enough in to not ruin it. The movie doesn't seem like it hurries to get to the action scenes. But it is never dull.

It is all finely acted and produced. Jane really holds herself to be plain, so that you almost believe it. A greatly entertaining visit to the world of Jane Eyre, when you don't have the book about you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry guys; five disappointing movies ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's the movie. Okay...

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

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

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

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