The Magnificent Seven (2016)

“The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of the 1960 John Sturges film of the same name, which in itself, is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, “The Seven Samurai”. The first film is considered by many to be one of the greatest movies of all time and appears on several top movie lists. The second film, while not quite so applauded, is a good western with a fun cast and a lot of heart. I definitely recommend that you see those two films. The question is, should you see this new one?

This new film, which is directed by Antoine Fuqua starts by showing a meeting at a church between the townspeople of Rose Creek. A “Robber Baron” by the name of Bartholomew Bogue owns a gold mine outside of town, and his operation is resulting in the poisoning of the river water, so all of their crops are dying. People are scared of him because he has a crew of armed mercenaries that roam the town. Some people just want to move away. Some people think that they can reason with Bogue. One young married man (Matt Bomer) wants people to stand up to him.

In the middle of the meeting, Bogue comes in with his mercenaries and makes a huge scene, getting everyone even more scared and riled up. A few people end up getting shot, including the young married man. His wife Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), and another young townsperson decide to try to hire themselves some mercenaries to kill Bogue and end his tyranny over the town.

Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt play Chisolm and John Faraday, the first two mercenaries that she hires. Chisolm is an actual bounty hunter and lawman, while Faraday is a gambler. It seems unlikely that Faraday would be recruited since he shows neither Emma nor Chisolm any signs of skills of any kind. It makes no sense, really to hire a gambler for this job. They eventually end up with a team of 7, including a Civil War veteran/sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his Chinese friend/manservant Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), a Mexican bandit Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a native-American warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and a hunter Jack Horne (Vincent Donofrio).All of these characters are introduced in very brief scenes that really don’t tell you much about them except in very broad strokes.

All of these characters are introduced in very brief scenes that really don’t tell you much about them except in very broad strokes. We get a little bit of flavor here and there for some, while others (like Red Harvest and Vasquez) we know almost nothing about. They are treated like throw-away characters. It gives the film a shallow feeling at times.

And I find a lot of the film to be lazy like this. Some of the action scenes are fun, one near the end is not quite believable. Overall, you can go to the film and just enjoy it as a popcorn film, ignoring how shallow it is, or some of its implausibility. There is definite enjoyment to be had. Just don’t go there expecting much. Just watch out for one TERRIBLY cheesy line near the end — it’s painfully bad. If you don’t cringe like I did, I’d be surprised.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad film, just that there are better ways to spend your time. If you want to spend the evening watching a good, exciting western, and you haven’t seen the John Sturgis version, you should rent it instead. Or better yet, watch the Akira Kurosawa classic “The Seven Samurai”. Or watch both. But don’t pay full price for this film — wait for it to come onto Netflix or Amazon Prime instead. That’s my recommendation.

 

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Ticket to Ride

ticket-to-ride-boxI’ve been a board gamer since I was in High School. I remember discovering that there was this sub-category of board games that had a cult following. I’m talking about railroad games. I never got into the heavier railroad games, but I did enjoy games like Empire Builder and Eurorails — a family of railroad games where you drew rails on the board with erasable crayon and competed to complete routes.

Empire Builder, Eurorails and that whole family of games were fairly popular. But in recent years, more streamlined, and lighter games have supplanted them in popularity. The chief one among these has been Ticket to Ride, along with all of the variants, and alternate maps. I discovered the computer version of the game about 2 years ago, and since I’ve gotten back into board gaming, I purchased the basic game to play with friends. And I’ve recently gotten a chance to do so. This is how the game works:

ticket-to-ride-1024x577Ticket to Ride is a game for 2 to 5 players. It has two decks of cards and a map of the US that is crisscrossed by potential routes. Each connection between cities is between 1 and 6 in length, and may be grey, or one of 7 other colors (red, orange, yellow, black, white, purple, green). There are also 8 types of train cards in the train deck — one is wild, and the others match the colors of the routes (other than grey). Each player starts with 4 random train cards and 3 route cards. At the start of the game, each player may, if they wish, discard one of the route cards of their choice. There are also always 5 face-up train cards that are available to players on their turn. The goal of the game is to have the most points at the end of the game.

On your turn, you may do one of the following:
1. Take a face-up wildcard.
2. Take two train cards, any of which may be from the face-up cards, or from the deck of face-down cards, so long as the face-up card you draw is not wild. Face-up cards taken are replaced immediately.
3. Discard 1 to 6 cards of the same color to build tracks connecting two adjacent cities. The color of your cards must match the color of the route, and the number must match the length of that  route. You can use any color if the route is grey, but all your cards must be the same color.  You build tracks by placing your train tokens on the board on the individual spaces (see image below). You can, of course, substitute wildcards for any color.
4. Draw 3 new route cards, discarding up to 2 of them if you wish.

ticket-to-ride-connectingNote that at any time, if there are three wild cards face-up, you must discard all of the face-up cards and replace them from the deck.

The end-game is triggered once any player is down to 2 or fewer train tokens. At that point, every player gets one more turn, including the player who triggered the end-game. You then add up the scores, getting points for every route completed, minus points for each route not completed, and 10 bonus points for the longest contiguous route. And that’s basically it.

The game is easy to teach, and it plays very fast. The people I’ve taught it to were able to grasp the basic strategy very quickly and told me that they liked the game. One of them actually asked to play it again. It’s a great entry-level game for those who are new to board games. Even though there is some strategy to the game, I will say that there is a lot of luck as well, plus I’m not quite good enough that I can consistently beat newcomers (one of the people I taught, won his first two games in a row). That said, anyone who is looking for a game with a lot of depth to it, will probably not be satisfied. Games generally last 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how many players there are.

ticket-to-ride-comp-gameKeep in mind that Days of Wonder, who currently makes Ticket to Ride, also sells a number of versions of the game, including a children’s version, alternate route decks, alternate maps with special rules, and so on. There are maps for Europe, Pennsylvania, India, England, and so on, plus a new children’s version that will only be sold at Target. There are also both a mobile version and a version for the PC. I have played the PC version, and own all of the available maps and alternate decks for it, and I’ve enjoyed all of them, though Europe and Pennsylvania are my favorites.  The computer AI is not very good, but thankfully, the game does include online play. At least games against the computer are a lot faster. And scores are stored on-line, should you want to compare your high scores to other players.

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I definitely recommend this game in all of the incarnations that I’ve tried so far. I have not actually seen the 10th Anniversary edition, so I can’t comment on that one. But I do give thumbs up for both the computer edition and the standard edition (with the US map). I do plan  on eventually buying Europe and Pennsylvania/England. Each map adds a few extra rules, but the core gameplay is the same. Based on my experiences in the computer game, those are the best. If you are going to only buy one, I’d recommend Europe. the mini-expansions with alternate decks of destination cards are also good (again, only based on my experiences with the computer game).

Sully

Clint Eastwood’s film “Sully”, tells the story of the forced landing (or crash, as some people characterized it) of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson river on January 15, 2009. Tom Hanks realistically portrays Captain Sullenberger as a competent and confident pilot who finds himself in some unfortunate situations, both dealing with losing the thrust in the engines of his plane after hitting a flock of birds, and also having to deal with the aftermath, with the investigation by the NTSB.

We all know how it turns out because we’ve all seen the photos, and the real Sully being praised as a hero on TV. So there really isn’t a lot of uncertainty for us as the viewer as to how everything is going to turn out. What the movie is there for, is to show us HOW it turned out how it did. How the NTSB investigated, and how Sully and his wife Lorraine (played by Laura Linney) deal with it all.

There are a few flashbacks showing Sully learning to fly as a teenager, and also a little bit of his military career. And we also see the entire flight, from the points of view of Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), as well as from the point of view of a few of the passengers and the rest of the flight crew. What struck me the most is just how fast everything happened, and how quickly Sully had to come to his decision. Also, I didn’t remember just how many people came together after the crash to rescue the passengers from the planes.

I don’t know to what extent the truth is stretched in this film, but it’s an excellent story. I’m not sure that all of it works perfectly. The phone conversations that Sully has with his wife don’t feel natural. I’m also not quite sure about the reality of the degree of doubt that his superiors had about his decision to land on the Hudson, how close did he actually come to being treated as the one responsible for crashing a plane, instead of what happened, being treated as a hero who saved all of those passengers lives. Maybe it’s true, and if it is, then I’ll apologize for my doubts, but it seems like that was contrived to create drama. But I could be wrong. On rare occasions, reality can feel contrived.

Overall, this is a feel-good movie. And it works on that level. This is not one of Tom Hanks best roles, and this is not one of Clint Eastwood’s best films. But that would be expecting too much. It definitely is a movie that you should see, if you want to relive the “Miracle on the Hudson”, or learn more about it. The only thing I will add is that it was a very pleasant way to spend some time at the movies. And if you were amazed the first time you heard the story on the news, you’ll be amazed all over again. Now here’s the trailer.

Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart

wesley_dodds_001DC Comics had a number of different characters dubbed “Sandman”, going back to ‘Wesley Dodds’ in the 1930s. That early character fought crime, wearing a gas mask and a fedora, and eventually becoming a founding member of the Justice Society of America. In the 1970s Joe Simon and Jack Kirby developed their own Sandman comic book. This one, Garrett Sandford, was supposed to be the Sandman of myth. This one also became a sort of superhero, eventually becoming an honorary member of The Justice League. There was yet another Sandman named Hector Hall, that first appeared in DC comics in the 1980s — he succeeded Sandford as the Sandman after he killed himself.

 

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Dream

But the Sandman of this series, aka Morpheus, aka Dream of the Endless, is a creation of Neil Gaiman. It was eventually retconned that those other Sandmen were creations of the activities of Morpheus in the waking world. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, there are 7 siblings who are called “the Endless”. They are immortal beings that personify various aspects of reality. Besides Dream, there’s also Death, Desire, Destruction, Destiny, Despair, and Delirium (who formerly was Delight).

 

 

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One of Dream’s siblings, Despair

Morpheus rules the land of Dreams over which he has dominion. But he’s also the lord of storytelling. And much of his comics deal with stories and myths and dreams. These are not your typical superhero fare. Some of the stories are personal, some mythic, some dealing with the nature of reality itself, and Dream’s place in it. While the early comics in the series shows Gaiman finding his legs, there still is a hint of his brilliance. As the series progressed, Sandman gained much in the way of recognition, not just as a great comic book, but as a literary work. Because of the more mature nature of some of the stories, Sandman was moved to DC’s Vertigo imprint, which was reserved for titles that would appeal more to an adult audience. The comics have won numerous awards, and really epitomize the endless potential of that medium. “Sandman” is the book I always point to when someone tells me that comics are for kids or that they are poorly written or somehow inferior to ‘more serious’ writing. Certainly, there are a few others that I could use as examples, and they are all great works in their own ways: “Maus”, “Watchmen”, “The Dark Knight Returns” are among the giants. Even “Cerebus” had its moments of genius, and I’m sure that others have their favorites. But this was my introduction to seriously good comic book writing.

The Sandman
Morpheus and his favorite sibling, Death

 

Gaiman concluded his series in 1996. Since then, there have been various one-shots, and spin-offs of the series, not all with Gaiman’s involvement. There was “Dreamhunters”, “Death and the High Cost of Living”, the spin-off comic “Lucifer” (which now has a television show loosely based on it). And most recently, there is this book.

sandman-overture-coverThe premise of Sandman Overture is that at some time in the past Morpheus had a lapse in judgment. And as a consequence to that lapse, all of reality may be coming to an end. Dream, and all of his aspects from different parts of reality, find themselves (himselves?) drawn to a mysterious location, and through conversations with his different aspects, he decides on a course of action, not because he cares that reality is ending, but because he cares that he may be responsible for that ending. One of his aspects in the shape of a cat, joins him on his quest to, against all hope, save reality, or at least make up for the mistake he made so long ago. Eventually, he’s joined by a young female humanoid named Hope and the three travel together.

sandman-overture-hopeThe magic of the series is here. If you are a fan of Gaiman or his Sandman stories, I think you will greatly enjoy it. Note that I first tried reading this in Kindle format. As much as I love my Kindle, I find that it is not a great format for graphic novels. While the free PC Kindle reader that Amazon publishes is a bit better, mostly because of the size of the screen, it still is much easier to read this in physical form. So I ended up purchasing the hardcover edition after all.

sandman1pg2and3-clrI’m not one of those people who lives and dies by the artwork in graphic novels, but the artwork here is definitely beautiful. The writing is up to Gaiman’s high standards. The story itself is epic, yet filled with personal moments that I won’t spoil for you. I simply loved this, and now I want to go back and reread all of the original series.

If you have not ever read Sandman before, I recommend that you read the entire series from start to finish. There are a few good options for this: there is a set of 10 trade paperbacks, starting with Preludes and Nocturnes, and ending with The Wake. There’s also a 5 volume ‘Absolute’ edition. Or, you can opt for the 2-volume hard-covered Omnibus edition, which I’ve heard is excellent (I may purchase it for myself, eventually). The other books I mentioned (spin-offs, etc.) are also worth reading (Lucifer, for example, is excellent, much better than you might expect based on the TV show). But I definitely recommend that you read the main series before you read this book. As I mentioned earlier, it does take Gaiman a little bit to find his footing, but once he does, I suspect that you will be impressed. Or at least I hope so.