Jurassic World: Burt Macklin, Dinosaur Whisperer

Jurassic World is one of those movies where I suspect the more I talk about it, the worse it’s gonna sound. So, the bottom line: it’s fun, well-staged dinosaur mayhem. It’s also a bit smarter than I thought, setting up many of its plot points/action beats more intelligently than I expected it to.

It is also Chris Pratt’s least interesting role to date. Pratt excels at bringing a lively goofball charm to the table, but Jurassic World asks him to play it 100% straight bad-ass with only a handful of playful moments. He doesn’t fail, exactly, but neither does he truly excel. If you’re a Parks & Rec fan, this ultimately becomes hilarious in a distracting meta way; this is the lantern-jawed uber-capable manly hero of manful manliness that Andy Dwyer imagines himself as every time he slips into Burt Macklin mode.

It’s also pretty silly most of the time, but anybody expecting a cerebral science fiction exploration of how technology affects the human condition really has no business in a theater where grumpy leathery birds can fly off with full grown human adults in their slashy talons while a hybrid of T-Rex and Predator DNA called — no shit — an iRex wreaks havoc. Go for the dinosaurs, or stay home.

The best thing I can say about this movie is that going to see it did not make me regret not doing Fury Road for a third time. (And I did very much like the scene where BURT MACKLIN, DINOSAUR WHISPERER and his pack of WARBOY RAPTORS RIDE ETERNAL INTO VALHALLA, SHINY AND CHROME! WITNESS ME, SECURITY CAMERA BLOODBAG!) Recommended for anybody who has unironically pleasant memories of the first Jurassic Park; Lord knows this movie does.

Naughty Bits Optional

A brief review of Avengers: Age of Ultron:

That was nice.

I enjoyed the movie, meaning the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still batting a thousand for me. But while I saw the original Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy three times each, once is fine for Ultron.

I recall seeing an interview with director Joss Whedon about the original Avengers where he said that if he was going to do the fanboyish X vs. Y thing, he wanted it to be about something. He wanted Thor and Iron Man to have an earnest problem with each other, not just be squaring off because one of them was, say, mind-controlled.

This time out, when Hulkbuster Iron Man throws down against Hulk … well, guess what.

Mind, the Hulk vs. Iron Man sequence is a damned fine action setpiece. It’s first-rate spectacle. But the heart just isn’t there.

I found myself thinking of Iron Man 2 quite a bit — and given that it’s the weakest entry in the series thus far, that’s not a good thing. While it avoided the dull stretches that plagued IM2, it suffered from the same over-stuffed feeling of serving too many masters. Too many events and characters felt like checkboxes on the MCU’s to-do list.

Of course, IM2 had one of my favorite villains in the series, the perpetually underrated Ivan Vanko. Ultron was … fine. James Spader was clearly having fun with the role, and I liked how the character had inherited Tony Stark’s smartassery. But the character felt weirdly constrained, filled with half-formed ideas. As presented Ultron is basically Skynet, which is basically hand-waved away in favor of some energetic robot smashing.

It’s far from terrible. Both the character interactions and the action sequences crackle, with plenty of memorable moments. If you’ve been digging the MCU, you’ll probably enjoy it. But if Marvel’s superhero movies have been hit or miss for you, you can definitely afford to sit this one out.

(Though if you go, skip the credits. “The Avengers Will Return”. There. That’s the post-credits stinger in its entirety. Go home.)

A Brief Review: Ex Machina

Whoa. That was different.

An employee of Definitely Not Google So Don’t Even Try To Sue Us Google wins a lottery that lets him stay a week at the reclusive company founder’s estate in … Alaska, I think. It’s basically Fallingwater perched atop a mad-science-based supervillain’s apocalypse bunker/research center, with glaciers n’at between it and the rest of civilization. But once he’s there, he learns this isn’t just some fun retreat alone with an uber-rich and vaguely-off-putting drinking bro: he’s there to help with a test. A Turing test. Founder-bro wants the see if his robot Ava is an honest-to-god AI.

And from there, the movie goes in … ways you’d expect, ways you’d emphatically NOT expect, and ways that generally do not fail to be interesting and thought provoking.

It’s hard to discuss this movie without either giving spoilers out like they were M&M’s or being infuriatingly circumspect. Some things that I hope are vague enough to be enticing without giving the game away: Ava is neither a terminator nor Skynet. “Intelligent” does not mean “human,” and anthropomorphizing something intelligent enough to have its own agenda is not wise. Being a horrifying creep doesn’t make somebody wrong about everything. And the implied question “So, why did this guy build his AI to have very feminine tits and ass?” very definitely gets answered.

This is thinky sci-fi, not explodey sci-fi. Thinky sci-fi is notoriously difficult to pull off, as movies in general can often wind up significantly dumber than their makers intended. This one doesn’t. It explores interesting ideas and asks intriguing questions, with moviemakers who top-to-bottom know what they’re doing. It’s slow, but if you get on its wavelength, never dull.

There’s some sexual content which can get a bit squicky, if you have a thin skin for such things. Some misogynist tropes ultimately make themselves known, but as “presenting” and “endorsing” are two different things, they didn’t wreck the movie from me.

This movie is a hell of an unexpected treat. If anything I’ve said sounds intriguing, I recommend it highly as a change of pace before the summer blockbuster season gets started in earnest.

A Brief Review of Pain & Gain

Holy shit.

That was … good.

Really good.

Mark Wahlberg stars as a dim-witted, amoral body builder with big dreams who leads two other like-minded lunkheads in a criminal scheme that starts off stupid and gets worse from there. It would be wildly implausible, save that (as the film takes malicious glee reminding us) it’s all based on a true story. (And I read-up on how faithful it was to the actual events. Major liberties were taken, of course, but by Hollywood based-on-a-true-story standards it’s a goddamn documentary. Seriously, some [though not all] of the deeply insane shit that you’ll think HAS to have been made up? Wasn’t.)

It’s unbelievably funny, a dark parody of a caper movie with three protagonists who somehow remain compelling even as the story encourages us to laugh at what unfathomable dipshits they are.

And the most amazing thing … here, I’ll quote MovieBob Chipman from his “Best of 2013″ video:

“Michael Bay made one of the best movies of the year. Michael Bay. One of the best movies of the year. Michael bay. Best of the year. Yeah, that happened.”

The worst thing I can say about it is that it lasts a solid fifteen minutes longer than it should have. But even there it’s far from unwatchable, and given the quality of what came before, I’m prepared to forgive it an over-indulgent denouement.

It’s on Netflix, and if you like movies about idiotic crimes gone terribly wrong, you’ll laugh your ass off. Highly recommended.

A Brief Review: The Book of Life

It’s beautiful. Gotta give it that. This CGI animated stop-motion style Mexican folk tale has a unique visual sense that manages to be consistently fun to look at, particularly the lush sequences set in the Land of the Remembered.

But at some point, I just had the realization of “Okay, my problem is not that this is an unfamiliar story from a culture I don’t get much exposure to, resulting in unfamiliar rhythms; this just kinda sucks.” The story of a supernatural bet played out by proxies, two best friends trying to woo the same girl, never manages to get a sense of momentum going because there’s damned little internal logic. What happens next seems to be governed almost entirely by whatever would look coolest. It just arbitrarily bounces from one scene to another, burdened by a needless and unwelcome framing story that sucks all the life out of the movie whenever it’s on screen.

Recommended only if you really dig Mexican folklore and would love to see it on the screen no matter how imperfect it may be, or if you love you some eye candy.

A Brief Review: Interstellar

Christ. Is there anything as tedious as a science fiction movie that thinks it’s profound when it’s really just pretentious? Smart when it’s actually dumber than a bag of socks?

Interstellar is the modern version of 2001 in precisely the same way that Prometheus is the modern Alien. Like Prometheus, it has some sequences that are engaging, and might even be iconic if they were in a movie that was less terrible. But the movie’s “big moments” are metaphysical gibberish, mired in narratively incoherent story that brings to mind M. Night Shyamalan’s more self-indulgent moments. It could be considered visually striking, if Gravity weren’t a movie that existed.

Recommended only for Christopher Nolan completionists and hard-sf junkies absolutely desperate for a big-screen fix. Avoid.

A Brief Game Review: Level 7: Invasion: Watch The World Burn

Huge hybrid of Civilization, Pandemic, and The X-Files that has its charms, but suffers from a rigid design that offers too few decisions for the amount of time it takes.

When I was fourteen, I would have been completely psyched to play Level 7: Invasion. This is theme-first Ameritrash all the way, a big beautiful box of plastic simulating monsters descending from the skies and desperate decisions and pitched battles and beleaguered scientists trying to keep the fight going just a little longer and HELL YEAH let’s DO THIS THING! My tastes have veered more towards elegance and ease of game play as I’ve hit my forties, but part of my gamer heart will always belong to a teenage boy stomping around a battlefield in a giant robot with laser cannons for arms; I was glad to give this one a try.

On the surface, the theme is easy enough to relate to. You have a friendly alien and the last survivors of his species allied with humanity as they try to fend-off a nigh unstoppable invasion long enough to develop the superweapon that will win the war. Unfortunately, the theme gets less compelling the deeper you go into it. The “friendly” Dr. Cronos has a taste for experimenting on live humans, and was the bad guy of the previous games in what had been a survival-horror-themed series until now. The invaders have legit beef with the Doc and his buddies, and if their behavior on Earth is any indication, they universe may indeed be a better place with the Doc’s civilization dead. The game boils down to protecting a war criminal long enough for his appalling ethics-free experiments to bear fruit against an invasion that would have been avoided entirely if the invaders had refrained from shooting first and asked Earth’s leaders “Hey, mind if we take this asshole off your hands and chuck him into that cute little sun of yours?”

But, never mind that. Alien monsters, drop ships, mutations, superscience, pitched battles, nations burning, world in peril, go!

The game is semi-cooperative. You’re all fighting against the invaders, and anywhere between zero and all of you can win if you can develop the superweapon before the invaders frag you all. Meaning that one or more of you could go the cutthroat bastard route and try to be the last civilization standing in the late game if it looks like you’re going to win, which is interesting in theory but seems badly broken in practice. The players take the role of the five — AND EXACTLY FIVE — human coalitions representing the continents that weren’t wiped the hell out before the game begins. (Sorry, Australia.) If you have fewer than five players, one or more players must control multiple coalitions. In addition to being a clumsy way to handle not having exactly five people at your table, that kinda blows the semi-cooperative element to hell. If you’re playing multiple sides, setting up the player(s) only running one coalition to burn is a colossal dick move with nothing in the rules to prevent it.

In addition, the mechanics governing the superweapon creation mean that certain coalitions MUST survive into the late game for humanity to have any chance, while others don’t. Short version: if you don’t trust the other people at your table, let somebody else be South America. I don’t think the game would lose much, if anything, by declaring that everybody either loses or wins as a team, even if a few of you win posthumously.

Each coalition must manage four different resources (money, food, fuel, minerals), four different technology tracks (military, communication, social, biological), overall population, the terror level of said population, territory, and military boots on the ground. This is handled well enough. It gave the game suitably worldwide scope without feeling cumbersome, and I had one wonderful moment where I realized “Good news! Enough of my populace will die from disease this turn that there will be just enough food to go around!” But I would have appreciated a little more depth. Your four resources all figure into advancing either your technology track or the superweapon project, but that’s ALL fuel and minerals are good for. Opportunities to use them elsewhere in the game would have made them feel considerably more valuable. Hell, more opportunities to influence the events of the game in general would have been welcome.

The biggest weakness with Level 7 Invasion is that it has a lot of complexity, but not necessarily a lot of DECISIONS. Well over half the playtime wound up devoted the automated machinations of the invaders. While waiting to see where the bastards were going to show up next and what collateral damage they were going to do in the process made for some good tension, it also meant a lot of sitting on your hands and occasionally rolling dice. Similarly, once it’s time to fight back and try and drive the invaders off, your only source of potential decision making comes from friendly alien mercenaries you may or may not have hired; otherwise, the battles are purely down to the dice.

There are also some false choices that the game makes you handle. You can either advance the superweapon research that will allow the humans to win, or … you can not advance it. You can move Doc Cronos along what’s obviously the most efficient route to his next research stop, or … you can not move him that way. To be completely fair, you do have to keep an eye on your resources so that when its your turn to advance the superweapon you can take care of business, but that feels more obligatory than interesting.

The box lists a play time of 2-4 hours, which feels wildly optimistic. This is the kind of game where you and four buddies decide to kill a day with a single pizza break in the middle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve had and loved my share of marathon Civilization sessions. But I felt like I spent entirely too much of this game watching it instead of playing it to justify the time investment.

Would I play it again? Sure, I guess. If I had some friends eager to try it out, I’d take another crack at saving Earth from certain doom. But if I’m going to look forward to spending this much time on a game, I want more than a middling theme and a crapload of passive card flips and dice rolls to tell me how badly I’m screwed. If something about the theme calls to you, if a good alien invasion fires you up or if you’ve been playing and loving the other games in the Level 7 series, by all means, give it a try. But this is not a must-play. Cue my inner fourteen-year-old in his giant robot tromping away in disappointment.

A Brief Game Review: Tiny Epic Kingdoms — Tiny Little Package, Big-Ass Feel

I’m a sucker for good 4X games both on the tabletop and my PC. I don’t even want to know how many hours days weeks I’ve dumped into Civilization in its various incarnations.

“4X” describes the four basic elements in this style of game: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. You start in some little corner of the board, then you explore the world around you, expand out into it, harvest the resources it provides, and wind up in plenty of fights as your neighbors do the same thing, improving your technology and unlocking new abilities all the while. These tend to be heavyweight games; a playing time of 2-4 hours makes a game fairly lightweight within the genre.

… until now.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms, a game that overfunded to the tune of two thousand goddamn percent on Kickstarter, is by far the fasted, simplest 4X I’ve ever played, yet still has the feel of what I love about the genre. This is a marvel of efficient game design and is just a hell of a lot of fun to boot.

Each player takes one of thirteen different factions, each with their own unique technology magic track. Everybody gets a home territory the size of a postcard, two adorably tiny meeples, and a handful of starting resources, and you’re off. The fundamental mechanic is role selection a la Puerto Rico, save that there’s no inherent advantage to being the one to choose one of the options. You can move meeples on a map you already occupy, move meeples to somebody else’s map, spend resources on magic, your victory-point sink tower, or new meeples, or exchange resources you have for resources you want. If somebody selected an option that’s useless to you, you may instead harvest more resources based on what lands your meeples occupy.

When two meeples occupy the same space, they fight! Battles are won based on how many resources the players are willing to spend; high bidder wins, ties go to the defender. (There’s also an alliance mechanism I’m looking forward to seeing in action, but it’s explicitly omitted from the two-player game, and so far I’ve only played this with Jasmine.)

You win by having lots of meeples on the board. Or by pursuing your magic tree and exploiting whatever VP-based power awaits at the end of it. Or by building the most bad-ass tower. Or by camping on the most VP-giving spaces.

I love this game. The rules are simple but have enough depth to be satisfying. The varying magic tracks give the game enough asymmetry to give each faction its own feel without completely turning the rules on their head. You’re making meaningful choices constantly, and have to think far enough ahead to avoid getting painted into some really unpleasant corners.

This is a full-on 4X game that plays in thirty freakin’ minutes. The ludicrous piles of Kickstarter cash the makers are currently Scrooge McDucking their way through show in the absolutely gorgeous artwork and production values. When this thing goes on sale properly, I can’t imagine it’ll cost much more than $30, and it will take up a tiny footprint on your shelf.

If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a must-buy, either for seducing new players into the ways of 4X or as a lightweight yet delicious snack for yourself. Highly recommended.

A Brief Review of Gone Girl

I would respect any opinion of Gone Girl from “It was the best movie I’ve seen this year” to “It filled me righteous and implacable fury and I will never watch anything David Fincher directs again.”

Hell, it’s possible to walk away thinking both.

I’m being vague because discussing what’s problematic about this movie is basically impossible without giving away some huge stonking surprises. And I don’t want to spoil anybody on the movie who might actually see it because it’s really goddamn good, a tense, twisty thriller with uniformly excellent performances that kept me engaged throughout.

But the problematic bits are … yow. This movie winds up embracing some cultural narratives that desperately need to fuck off and die.

Ultimately, did I enjoy this movie? Yes. Yes, I did. But through most of it, there was an annoying douchebag MRA in my head who kept punctuating various scenes with a fist pump and an enthusiastic “AMIRITEBRO?!?!”, and I gotta admit, I never really got that guy to shut up. Recommended for fans of exceptionally well executed lurid thrillers who either do not have certain liberal viewpoints or who are willing to temporarily push them aside for the sake of a gripping story.

A Not Terribly Brief Review of 28 Weeks Later

In the wake of the catastrophe on the Isle of Dogs, this committee strongly feels that some important lessons need to be learned about effectively containing the so-called “Rage” virus and its victims, the “Infected.” Simply put, this disaster brought to light an alarming number of strategic deficiencies in the US Army’s approach, deficiencies that must be addressed if Great Britain is ever to be successfully re-inhabited or if other similar outbreaks are to be managed.

First, intra-service communication was appalling, and can be blamed as the immediate cause of the disaster. Our investigation has revealed that the “Patient Zero” for the second-wave outbreak was a survivor who had been recently brought into the safe zone who was, in short order, identified as a non-affected carrier of the virus, directly analogous to Typhoid Mary from over a century earlier. She was, in short, both incredibly valuable and incredibly dangerous. Multiple armed guards should have been with her around the clock; instead, the only security in place was a single locked door to which civilian contractors had the key. She infected a single person — her husband who, predictably, kissed her upon learning she was alive — who then set in motion the chain reaction that led to horrific carnage. Literally for want of a single bullet, over 15,000 lives could have been saved.

Second, procedures for containing the likely inevitable recurrence of the Rage Virus were revealed to be inadequate to the point of incompetence. All the civilians were relocated to a single shelter — a hastily converted “car park,” to use the parlance of the nearly extinct British — where the surprise appearance of a single Infected would prove catastrophic, which is precisely what happened. Furthermore, the safety measures in place were defeated by a single Infected victim. This utter failure to provide even rudimentary security from a predictable threat is simply unconscionable, and led directly to a staggering death toll and quite possibly the end of England as a social entity. If the persons or persons responsible for this disgraceful lapse in judgement survived the events of that night and have not yet taken their own lives, a firing squad seems the only sensible response.

In the event that future infection zones are targeted for re-settlement, this failure hammers home the grotesque inadequacy of establishing a single emergency shelter. The best solution would be for individual homes/living quarters to be fortified to stand as shelters of their own; while expensive, fortifying a civilian structure to stand against unarmed assailants is a challenge that can be met, no matter how numerous or angry those assailants are. This would permit civilians to get to a safe place in a fraction of the time a single shelter requires, comes with the facilities needed to survive a lengthy stay cut-off from outside assistance already built-in, and eliminates the possibility for a single security failure to lead to genocide. While homes are being fortified, multiple smaller shelters should be established as an interim solution.

Third, the civilian population should be kept appraised of security emergencies while they are happening. At this point it can safely be assumed that any Britons who survived the initial outbreak are well-versed in crisis management. Herding them into a garage with no indication of what’s happening and then turning off the lights would be an unacceptable way to corral maximum-security prisoners into a shelter, let alone a population of civilians.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the so-called “Code Red” protocol failed to meet every stated aim, and did so in a way that will stain the US Army’s reputation in a way unmatched in modern history save for events of premeditated genocide carried out by the likes of the Schutzstaffel or the Khmer Rouge. Commanders on the ground interpreted the last-resort order to fire upon the infected with no regard to civilian casualties as an order to actively hunt and kill friendly civilians, even when the civilians in question were exhibiting no signs of infection and were under no immediate threat of being infected. Mass insubordination should have been expected. Indeed, this committee was alarmed that the breakdown in discipline and chain of command was not even more prevalent than it was, as the Code Red protocol had devolved into what any reasonable tribunal would immediately classify as a war crime punishable by death. These men, women, and children had entrusted the US Armed Forces with their lives. It will likely be several generations before another foreign civilian populace does so again except at gunpoint. Should, God forbid, the Rage virus appear on American shores, we should expect American citizens to regard the military with an extreme and highly justified degree of skepticism and trepidation, which will only complicate containment efforts.

And despite the draconian measures taken, containment failed. A sizable number of “Infected,” despite possessing only rudimentary problem solving skills and exhibiting extraordinarily predictable behavior and threat response patterns, escaped into London, making any efforts to repopulate within the next six months even more dangerous than they already are.

The abject and utterly predictable failure in London will haunt the US Armed Forces for a long time, as well it should. May God forgive us, and have mercy upon our souls.