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.


A Brief Review of Guardians of the Galaxy

Dear DC Comics,

How’s it going, fellas? Look, we know making movies based off of comic books ain’t easy. Shoot, you know that better than anybody! I mean, you have some of the iconic characters at your disposal, including the first and most successful superhero of the modern era, and you still struggle to make decent movies out of them when neither Christopher Nolen nor Richard Donner are directing. Sure, that Zack Snyder fella has his charms, but let’s be honest — watch his Man of Steel back-to-back with Donner’s Superman from 1978, and tell us which one you’d actually wanna watch a second time.

I’m not gonna say we’ve got this thing licked over on our end. But we figured, maybe, just for the hell of it, while you’re floundering around trying to find a way to make people interested in characters they’ve known since they were children and try to fish a story worth telling out of damn near a century of material, we’d give some of our C-listers center stage. You know, a bunch of characters that make most of our die-hards go “Wait, who?” But no superheros this time; we’re gonna take a stab at space opera, a genre that’s awesome in theory but generally tends to fall into one of two categories in practice: Star Wars Original Trilogy, and Bitter Disappointment. Also, two of our main characters are going to be a violent, smart-alecky talking CGI raccoon, and his best friend, a CGI tree who can only say his own name. And then we’ll round out the cast with a sitcom goofball, a professional wrestler, and a hot chick.

And … hey, whaddya know? The resulting movie is FACE-MELTINGLY AWESOME. It ain’t easy making a movie that hits this balance of dazzling and exciting visuals, playful comedy, and emotional impact — we just make it look that way. Not to brag, but Guardians of the Galaxy is a rollicking fun time, an absolute blast, and easily one of our best movies so far. And we both know that’s saying something.

What can we say? We felt like we had to raise our own bar. Christ knows you weren’t going to. From here on out, Internet smart-asses are going to compare the emotional depth of your characters’ relationships to the friendship between a cartoon fucking raccoon and a cartoon fucking tree, and will sincerely find yours wanting.

Your move. Assuming you want to pretend you’re still in the game.

— Marvel

PS: If we can put together a Black Widow movie before you give Wonder Woman her own star turn? Seppuku. It never completely goes out of style. Just saying.


A Brief and Not Timely Review: Twister

It wasn’t at all what I expected.

It’s the story of a woman (Jami Gertz) engaged to an addict (Bill Paxton) who is trying to hide from his compulsion to seek out mortal danger without actually confronting it. The success of their relationship depends entirely on Paxton not being presented with the temptation to indulge in idiotic, poorly thought out risk-taking for the resulting adrenaline high.

The movie opens with Paxton meeting his estranged wife and fellow addict (Helen Hunt), ostensibly to get her to sign the papers finalizing their divorce. By way of “coincidence,” Paxton encounters Hunt and their familiar coterie of enablers just as they’re about to indulge their usual brand of reckless stormchasing.

After offering up token resistance, Paxton allows himself to get drawn back in to his old habit, using the preposterous excuse of an “evil rival” storm chaser (Cary Elwes) who has the temerity to have “stolen” a piece of technology Paxton developed, which is essentially a garbage can filled with ping pong balls that, as the movie demonstrates at every turn, is impractical and wildly ineffective. Paxton’s need to frame his own thrill-seeking as courage and integrity runs so deep that he openly scorns Elwes for being a corporate sell-out, oblivious to the extraordinary achievement of getting corporate sponsorship for an activity that, as Paxton’s haphazard crew demonstrates, is normally funded on a shoestring.

Gertz tries to understand her fiance’s compulsion, but only winds up enabling it and can only watch helplessly as Paxton and Hunt goad each other into worse and worse decisions. Spurred by their insatiable need for that next fix, their recklessness nearly gets them killed by the very first tornado they encounter and destroys thousands of dollars worth of equipment they can ill-afford to loose. But rather than take a sober inventory of the mistakes that led them to this place, Paxton and Hunt are giddy with glee, their hangers-on patting them on the back and supporting their incompetence.

Gertz tries to accept her beloved’s disease, but it’s useless. She’s an outsider in this world, this fellowship of addicts. She at last realizes that Paxton will never even admit he has a problem, much less confront it, and leaves him.

The rest of the movie is spent validating her choice. In a surprising turn, the movie ends with Paxton and Hunt being killed when their need to manufacture one crisis after another puts them in the path of a monstrous F-5 tornado. The denouement is an extended hallucination sequence as they lay dying from injuries, letting their fantasies play out within their own terminally savaged brains. Their rival dies in the most cartoonish tornado-related event ever filmed that doesn’t involve sharks, Paxton’s ill-conceived gadget works, they get to see the inside of the obsession which has consumed and ultimately destroyed them, they kiss to the adulation of their hangers-on, fade to the sweet release of death.

It’s honestly kind of brilliant. Seriously, there are people who don’t like this?


A Brief Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The problem with going to see the movie version of a popular YA novel on its opening night is all the YAs that will be in the audience. Five-year-olds may be annoying, but at least they 1) don’t know any better, 2) generally have parents trying to shut them up, and 3) may generally be avoided by going to see later showings of the movie. Teenagers have none of those mitigating factors, but are old enough to know rudimentary theater etiquette and to be at least vaguely aware of the existence of human beings outside their immediate social circle – in theory. In practice, they’re fucking teenagers.

So, yes, The Fault In Our Stars, John Green’s novel of a teen girl with cancer who falls in love with a teen boy with cancer, manages to be very good by virtue of avoiding many of the tropes suggested by the setup and by confronting the often bleak world these kids live in head-on, while still retaining a sense of wit and humanity. I was very curious to see whether the movie could retain the book’s strengths while shoring-up some of its weaknesses, and yes, you’re very daring for sneaking gummy worms into the theater, now could you please shut up about it already? You saved two dollars. You’re not some kind of criminal mastermind.

It was a mixed bag. Jasmine felt like our male lead, Augustus, was a bit too Manic Pixie Dream Boy for her liking, whereas I felt that was actually one of the flaws in the book the movie managed to correct, and yes, of COURSE he’s “cute.” Seriously, even if you hadn’t watched the trailer like fifty times already, this is such a surprise that you need to comment on it? Hollywood has pandering to teens down to a science; it’d be comment-worthy if he WASN’T a “hotty” and JESUS CHRIST do you REALLY need to know what Kristy thinks about this? She’s sitting nine seats away from you! If it was that important to share your trite observations in real time with Kristy, why the fuck didn’t you sit closer to her?

While losing some of the emotional nuance is inevitable, I did feel like there were some moments that could have had a lot more depth than they did. In the book, the scene where Augustus gives his grieving friend Isaac permission to smash his old basketball trophies had an undercurrent of sadness and letting go, while the movie plays it as more or less straight comedy, and YES, she KNOWS that was funny, because she laughed! When somebody laughs, you can pretty much assume they found it funny! Who the fuck cares if Kristy laughed? Maybe Kristy is sitting nine goddamn seats away from you by choice! Maybe she’s sick of your bizarre compulsion to share every thought you have the moment you have it! Maybe I’d like to have a beer with this kid and see if I can’t give her some ideas for trolling you when school starts back up!

The inevitable sad parts are quite effective, and FUCKING HELL, of COURSE that just happened! Even if you hadn’t read the Wikipedia summary so that you don’t sound like a fucking idiot when your friends talk about the book, it’s a movie about teenagers with cancer! Seriously, every teen with more than two lines of dialog in this movie has fucking cancer! Did you think unicorns were going to shit magic healing rainbows onto everybody? And for FUCK’S SAKE of COURSE your friend is sad! She’s crying! You were honestly concerned those might have been tears of joy?! AND WHY THE FUCK DO YOU CARE IF KRISTY IS CRYING?! Ask her in like ten minutes when the fucking movie is over! Are you so terrified of social deviation that you need Kristy on-hand to validate your own feelings? Or has Kristy been showing terrifying signs of emotional independence lately that require constant monitoring? I’m imagining YOU with cancer RIGHT FUCKING NOW and this movie just got a whole HELL of a lot funnier!

Recommended for SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!