Doctor Strange

We live in a golden age of comic book dramatizations. Certainly, not every movie, broadcast, or streaming comic-book related enterprise is worth your time. But we live in an age where there is an unbelievable number of choices. The latest production from Marvel is the MCU’s “Doctor Strange”. Is this film worth your time and money?

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an egotistical and somewhat abrasive neurosurgeon living in NYC. He’s certainly good at his job and loves what he does. But because of his enormous ego, he can’t help but rub people the wrong way, including, on occasion, his friend and colleague, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). One evening, while using his cell phone and driving at the same time, he gets into a very serious accident. It’s a miracle that he does not die, but that’s little consolation to him since his hands are damaged to the extent that there is little hope that he could ever practice surgery again.Still, grasping at straws, he seeks out experimental procedure after procedure, talking to medical pioneers and experts, spending his prodigious wealth seeking something that will allow him the steady hands he needs to once again operate.

Still, grasping at straws, he seeks out experimental procedure after procedure, talking to medical pioneers and experts, spending his prodigious wealth seeking something that will allow him the steady hands he needs to once again operate. His search eventually leads him to a group of people, lead by a woman known as “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton). Among this group  is also Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a somber librarian known only as Wong (Benedict Wong). Together, they train Dr. Strange in the mystic arts, something which he apparently has an incredible talent for. During his training, he discovers the actual purpose of this group — to defend the Earth and its entire plane of existence from threats from other dimensions. And like it or not, Dr. Strange is drawn into a deadly conflict between the Ancient One’s people, and a former student of hers, Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen).

“Doctor Strange” is an origin story about an egotistical man and his journey to becoming a hero. We’ve certainly seen things like this before (most notably, Tony Stark/Iron Man). But this is an introduction to the magical side of the Marvel universe. God-like Thor and his trouble-making half-brother Loki has been explained as advanced science. Scarlett Witch’s abilities have never quite been explained. But here we have pure magic and mysticism, with the Marvel flavor to it. And I have to say that it’s handled very well, in that it’s easy to accept what we see on the screen, as being possible, within the context of a Marvel fantasy film. The special effects and cinematography are all very well done, and Doctor Strange is a beautiful film to watch.

The cast is phenomenal. The only problem I have is that Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent does not sound authentic (I don’t know what kind of accent he was trying to do, but  I’m from New York, and I don’t know of any accent, from NY or otherwise, that sounds like it). And that is my biggest problem — I would have rather they simply made Dr. Strange British. But ok, they didn’t. I have no problems with his acting — it’s just his accent that kind of grated on me.

I liked the rest of the cast better. Chiwetel Ejiofor is exceptional as Mordo, as is Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. Mads Mikkelson plays the enigmatic Kaecillius as someone who is a true believer in his actions, that what he does is for the benefit of mankind, even if he has to kill to achieve his goals. It gives him an extra layer of depth, which works. But really, as with many Marvel villains, there’s not a lot there. We know that Kaecillius has a history with The Ancient One and Mordo and Wong, but we don’t know many of the details. So like with many previous MCU villains, we don’t know a lot about him. But we know enough. I do think that he is still, one of the better MCU villains.

Overall, I really enjoyed Doctor Strange. I didn’t find the film to be ground-breaking. As I said, it’s visually stunning. But it isn’t as good as the best of the MCU. I’d rank it around the middle of the pack. If you’re a fan of the rest of the MCU, I definitely recommend it. It’s not among the best of them, but it’s a fun and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. I also must mention that if you go see it, to stay until the very end — there is both a mid-credit and end-credit scene, and both are well-worth the wait.

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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.

 

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.

Pandemic Legacy (game 1)

Pandemic Legacy 1.pngBack in February, I wrote a review of Pandemic.  Pandemic Legacy is a game which is based on Pandemic, and, at least at first, plays almost identically to that game. But it is a ‘Legacy’-type game. The term ‘Legacy’ comes from the very first game to do something very similar, “Risk Legacy”. The idea of a Legacy game is that you play a series of games, and the game evolves as you progress. Legacy games come with sealed components, rules, instructions, etc. that you are not supposed to look at until the game instructs you to do so. When you are told to do so, changes can happen to the game in progress and potentially future games. You may be instructed to place stickers into your rulebook, to add or change rules. You can get stickers to place on your game board, and/or game cards. You may even be instructed to destroy a card in the game, or write on a card, or write on the game board, thus making permanent changes to the game. Legacy games are meant to be played in a series from start to finish, and then never played again in some cases (though I’ve heard that Risk Legacy can be played again and again in its final state). Players may be called on to make decisions that will affect future games, so it’s possible that two different groups of players playing the same legacy game may have different experiences. Note that there are two editions of the game — Red and Blue. But both are identfical, except for the color of the box. The reasoning behind having two editions is that, if you are so inclined, you could theoretically have two simultaneous Pandemic Legacy ‘seasons’ going on at the same time with two different gaming groups.

maxresdefault (2)Because the game has a lot of secrets in it, and I do not do spoiler reviews, I can’t tell you in detail about what happened in my first game, but I can tell you the basics, and how I and my fellow players felt about our experience.

Pandemic-legacy-dossiers-secretsFirst of all, part of the fun of playing Pandemic Legacy is that you share the experience. Pandemic Legacy is for 1 to 4 players, but we had 4 players in our group, including me — 3 of our regular game group, plus one person who dropped by who wanted to join us. Normally the rules recommend that all players be experienced with the standard rules of Pandemic and that they have at least a couple of games of that under their belt before they tackle Pandemic Legacy. In this case, we’d been having such a terribly hard time trying to schedule our game, and having to cancel it time and time again, that this time, we decided to go ahead with the game and simply give the new player a brief overview of the rules, and then hand-hold him through a lot of the game. And that seemed to be ok with him, so that’s what we did.

Pandemic-Legacy-Legacy-DeckI’m only going to tell you stuff that you’d know if you simply opened the game book and started playing. Pandemic Legacy comes with an extra deck of cards called the “Legacy deck”. You are not supposed to look through the deck, and you are supposed to be EXTREMELY careful in handling the deck so that the order of the cards remain as they are set up. Note that they are marked to specify an order, but because they contain secrets that you aren’t supposed to know, the rules suggest that if you accidentally drop the deck and they become scattered, that you get someone who is not playing the game to pick them up and reorder them for you. Fortunately, that never happened for us. But I’m mentioning that so you get an idea about how the game is programmed to tell you to do different things at different times.

When we start the first game, we were supposed to start drawing cards from the legacy deck, and keep drawing until the top of the card says ‘stop’. The first thing it tells us is what the goal of the game is (and at the start, it is the same as standard Pandemic, to cure all 4 diseases). But it also tells us that the as soon as we draw and handle our second Epidemic card, that we are supposed to draw again to get new instructions. And that’s what we did (what happened then, you’ll have to discover for yourself). And that’s basically how things operate in a legacy game — you keep playing according to whatever the current rules are, at least until certain conditions are met, at which time, things can change.

I’m not going to go into great detail, other than to say that the legacy deck is there to help us tell a story. When that second Epidemic hit, there was a twist in the tale, and we had to deal with it. I won’t give any specifics, but I did have to destroy a game component… and doing that was oddly liberating. I’ve heard that some people find it slightly traumatic the first time, and maybe even subsequent times in legacy games when they read that they are supposed to destroy something in their game. Not me. I knew that it was going to happen at some point. Maybe at multiple points. I knew that because I had read about the game, read about other people’s experiences (not spoiler reviews, but just articles like this one, from that person’s point of view). I will say that a couple of my fellow players did have an almost horrified look on their face as I ripped up the card.

Now there are other things about this game that I can talk about because it’s right in the rules.  There’s something new in Pandemic Legacy that isn’t in the original game, and that is that every city has a panic level. It starts out at 0. Whenever an outbreak happens in a city, the panic level increases by 1. And that’s a permanent change. There are stickers that you put on the map, and the panic level of a city after enough outbreaks can go all the way up to 5. But in the first game, odds are that if you know what you are doing, you won’t have any cities that go beyond 1. That said, eventually, I know that after a couple of more games that that will not always be the case.

Panic level 1, the city is unstable, but there isn’t any further effect. At panic level 2 or 3, the city is rioting. Destroy any research station there — it cannot be rebuilt. Also you cannot take direct flights into or out of a rioting city. At 4, the city is collapsing — you have to discard a card of the same color to enter it via land or ocean. At 5, the city has fallen. You now need to discard 2 instead of 1 card of the city’s color to enter it. If your character is in a city when it has fallen, he is lost.

There’s actually another way that a character can be lost — if your character is in a city during an outbreak, that character gains a scar, which is a sticker you have to put on your character’s card to indicate a negative effect. If you have to gain a scar and you already are at the maximum number of scars for that character, he is lost instead. A lost character is dead — you have to tear up the character card.

Note that the game starts you with 5 basic characters — if you run out of characters, you will be forced to play a civilian. A civilian is a character that has no special abilities (But he can’t gain scars either).

Every game you play, you have a specific funding level. For game 1, your funding level is 4. You know those special cards that were in the deck that allowed you to do certain things, such as Airlift — well Pandemic Legacy has cards like that also (some are the same as in the original game, some are different). Well for every level of funding that you have, you can choose to include one of those special cards in your deck. If you win a game, then your funding level for the next game is 2 less. If you lost your first game, then the funding level is 2 greater. So that will make the game slightly easier.

We happened to win our first game, but we didn’t really have time to resolve the victory (we’ll do that next week, hopefully). Besides changes in funding, there are other results that we get to deal with. The first game takes place in the first half of January, and the whole series lasts a year. Had we lost the first game, we’d have to play a second game for the second half of January. But because we won, we proceed to February. Also, because we won, supposedly, the Legacy deck may tell us that we start with a special bonus for our next game. Regardless of whether we win or lose, we get to choose two upgrades for our next game. These can include making a research station permanent, turning a city card into an event card (it then can operate as either one), giving a character an upgrade, or giving a disease a positive mutation, making it easier to cure the next time.

20160124_172907Our game, as is often the case for normal Pandemic, felt incredibly close, but the reality probably was that we had a very good start, and luck seemed to be on our side, so the odds may have been in our favor. That said, everyone was smiling when we finally did win the game. It was an incredible feeling. And everyone was excited to play the next round  next week. Part of the excitement was that now that everyone had a feel for how the legacy system worked, that we really wanted to know what surprises would be in store for next time. I guess we’ll find out.

 

Suicide Squad

Let me preface this by saying that I really wanted to see this right when it first opened, before everyone was talking about it. But I’ve been sick with I-don’t-know-what — either with a bad cold or flu. I’m better now but unfortunately, that means I couldn’t see it without being inundated by comments from friends and acquaintances and bloggers that I listen to and so on. But I tend to enjoy comic book films. I didn’t go into this film with high expectations. I was just hoping to have some nice mindless fun. So on with my review.

You probably know the premise of the film by now, if you are reading the review. Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) is trying to create an elite team of soldiers, out of some of the worst criminals she can find. plus a few others And she’s not above using blackmail and threats to convince them, criminal or otherwise, to cooperate. The team is lead by Rick Flagg, played by The Killing’s Joel Kinnamon. His girlfriend, Dr. June Moone (Cara Delavingne) is possessed by an ancient and powerful mystical spirit — when she lets the spirit take over, she calls herself The Enchantress. There’s also Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin-for-hire.  Harley Quinn (Margot Robie) used to be a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, until she fell in love with Arkham’s most insane inmate, The Joker (Jared Leto), helped him escape, and was eventually driven mad by him (although the order that all of that happened is not 100% clear). Then there is Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a metahuman who can create and control fire. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), probably the unlikeliest one in the entire bunch, can (you guessed it) throw boomerangs. And finally, there’s Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who played Mr. Echo in “Lost”) a metahuman who has a crocodile-like skin and sharp teeth. We also meet Slipknot (Adam Beach), who can climb anything we are told (though his lack of a back-story is all too obvious a sign of things to come). And finally, there’s Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who has a magic Katana that steals souls.

It takes nearly half the movie to introduce all of these characters, giving most of them back stories. And then, without spoiling it, they have a job — things have gone horribly wrong in Midway City in (unfortunately) an entirely predictable way — I debated whether saying what the specific way that things go wrong is — on the one hand, yes it’s a spoiler, on the other hand, the movie telegraphs this right from the start. But I’ll err on the side of silence and not say what it is that has gone wrong. But if you actually watch the movie, and you don’t see it coming, you really weren’t paying attention.

Waller has tiny nanobots injected into the rest of the squad’s necks, and she explains that she can cause them to explode via remote control if Rick Flagg dies, or if any of them try to escape of if they even ‘irk’ him.And thus FINALLY the story begins.

First, let me tell you what I liked about the movie. Margot Robie is terrific as  Harley Quinn. She has a perfect mixture of madness and sexuality. She’s certainly a villain in every way. I was also somewhat surprised by Will Smith — let me say right up front that I really liked him in Ali, but I’ve never liked his more comedic or his more iconic ‘Will Smith’ roles (like in “Independence Day”, or “I, Robot”). He was better than that here and the only reason why is that he managed to avoid all of those ‘Will Smith Cliches’ which to me are like fingernails on a chalkboard. The “Oh hell no”s, etc. His performance here was a bit more subdued, and I really appreciated that. It’s a small thing, but it also surprised me in a pleasant way. And I also really liked Joel Kinnamon as Rick Flagg. He’s an actor that I thought did an excellent job in “The Killing”, and he is fairly good here as well. Most of the rest of the cast were adequate, with one exception, which I’ll get to shortly…

Now the bad… Where to start…

The writing was not good. They created a new Joker, played by Jared Leto who was not bad in his role. But he’s written more like a dangerous gangster than the over-the-top murderous but fun-loving psychopath of previous outings. Which I guess is one way of depicting him. But it’s just not as fun as either of the over-the-top performances of Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger. That said, as unexpectedly underwritten as his character was, his appearances in the movie are among the higher points, which isn’t a good sign.

Some of what happens seemed formulaic — the character deaths, even the non-deaths seemed to be by-the-numbers. The villain had to be the villain — totally not unexpected (in fact, it kind of makes Amanda Waller seem incompetent, which undermines her needing to also be entirely evil and in control for the story to work).

And then there’s the villain. Lot’s of people have complained about Marvel’s villains — with a few rare exceptions, Marvel’s villains have been relatively weak, but we forgive that because the heroes are often so much fun to watch. Well, this film has one truly horrible performance by the person playing the villain (Again, spoilers). The ‘evil henchmen’, the things that the Suicide Squad had to fight to make it to the villain just seem to die far too easily. Then the villain itself, well the actor moves in a way that is both distracting and disturbing, but not disturbing in a good way. It’s just embarrassing. I don’t know how much of this to blame on the directing and how much to blame on the actor. It’s just not good. Now as underwhelming as the Joker is in this film, this would have been a far, far better one, had they simply gone with Joker as their main villain.

I had such high hopes for this film after watching the trailers. The marketing for this film was just genius. They highlighted all of the best parts of the film — especially Margot Robie, who is just so fun to watch in almost every scene she’s in. And there is some good in this film. It’s just that there’s so much in it that’s bad that I cannot recommend it. There are parts in it that I really did enjoy. But the parts that are bad are just so incredibly bad.

Now I know that some of you may want to see the film anyway, and I’d urge you to wait until it’s on cable or netflix so you don’t have to pay full price to see it. But just in case you do decide to see it anyway (and I know that some people have liked this film a lot more than I did), then I have to tell you that there is a mid-credit scene that is worth staying to see, seeing as you’ve already paid to see it.

And now for the truly genius part of the film, the trailer:

 

Biblios

biblioslayoutBiblios is a light card-drafting game for 2 to 4 players that plays in about 30 minutes. The idea is that you and each of the other players are competing to build the best collection of books.

You start with a board and 5 dice — each die represents the victory point value of having a superior collection of books within a specific category. At the end of the game, if you have, for example, the most books in the brown category, you’ll get the number of points indicated on the brown die. And that number can go up or down, as I’ll explain later.

The game is split up into a “Gift” phase, and an “Auction” phase. In the gift phase, you start by removing certain specific cards depending on the number of players. Then you shuffle the remaining cards and remove a specific number of random cards, so no one will have advanced knowledge of what is and is not left in the deck. Then each player, in turn, will draw, one at a time, a number of cards equal to the total number of players + 1.

With each card, you’ll decide to do one of three things. You can either keep the card for yourself, put the card face up in the middle of the table, or discard it to the auction deck. You can only keep one card for yourself, and you can only place one card into the auction deck. Once you decide what you are doing with that one card, you’ll draw another and repeat the process until you’ve kept 1, given one to auction, and put a number in the middle equal to the number of other players. Then, starting to your left, each player will choose one of the face-up cards to add to his own hand.

There are gold cards representing from 1 to 3 gold — they aren’t worth points, but you’ll be able to use them during the auction phase to purchase cards from the auction deck. There are also a variety of collectable cards in 1 of 5 colors, representing the books, tomes, etc. And they will have specific values on them. And then there are church cards which allow you to manipulate the values of the different categories. They will either be +1 or -1, and they may allow you to change the values of one die or two dice.

The church cards are never added into your hand. When you get one, whether its through keeping it or taking it during the gift phase, or buying it during the auction phase, you immediately increase or decrease the values on one or two dice (as indicated) by 1. That means that you generally want to give those cards to the other players when it’s too early to guess who will be strong in any given color. The later you are in the game, though, when they are revealed, the more valuable they may be.

Once you’ve gone through the entire deck, you  shuffle the auction cards, and then in turn order, the first player turns up the first card, and players take turns bidding on the cards or passing.  If they do not want to bid. If everyone passes, and there is no highest bidder, the card is discarded, and you repeat this with the next player. Note that for gold cards, you are bidding the number of cards that you will discard to take that gold card. For every other card, you are bidding the value of the gold cards you will spend to take that card (and you cannot make change, so you may have to overpay).  Once all cards have gone to bid, you count up your total value in each category, determine who has the highest value. Total up the score, and see who is the winner. Ties in a category are broken by assigning the points to the tied player who has the card closest to the beginning of the alphabet.

This is a very clever, and quick-playing game. It’s easy to learn, easy to teach, and easy enough to get a handle on. You know you want to increase the values of categories that you  think you have the best chances of winning, you know you want to decrease the values in categories that you are sure you will lose.But there are also decisions to be made that may not be easy — do you bid on an item that you

But there are also decisions to be made that may not be easy — do you bid on a card that you don’t want to increase the amount that other players will need to pay to get them? Do you save your money waiting for that really valuable card to come out that you know you know is there? Are you satisfied that you will likely have a majority in a category, or do you continue to bid on cards in that category in order better cement or guarantee that majority? Do you keep an ‘ok’ card, or do you get rid of it to get a chance to obtain something better?

I really enjoyed playing the game, as did the person who I taught. As soon as we finished the first game, he immediately asked to play a second. There certainly is a degree of randomness to the game — at times you’ll be forced to give a really good card to your opponent, and vice versa. Some games you may end up with very little gold, or you may end up with too much gold and not enough good cards. But the whole drafting and auction mechanisms are fun. As soon as we finished our first game, my friend asked me if we could play again. And then when we finished that game, he wanted to play yet again (and that’s in spite of the fact that I shut him out in those first two games). That, in my mind, is the sign of a good filler game — even if you lose, you still had so much fun that you just want to try again.

So my verdict on Biblios is that it’s a really good game — check it out if you want something light and easy.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

20130205-135717Book 16 in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series tells the story of what happens when Rock and Roll music and culture leaks into the Discworld dimension and causes all sorts of mayhem. The novel is similar in concept to his 10th novel, Moving Pictures, which involved Hollywood movie culture.

Imp Y Celyn, a young Harpist from Llamedos comes to Ankh-Morpork seeking his fortune as a musician. Unable to pay the Musician’s guild dues, he meets up with a dwarven hornblower named Glod and a troll percussionist named Lias, to form an unlicensed band. When his harp is destroyed, he finds an unusual guitar at a rather odd music shop. They then decide to create “The Band with Rocks in”. Imp takes on the stage name Buddy (who everyone says ‘looks a bit elvish’ (ie. a combination of Elvis and Buddy Holly), and Lias takes on the name “Cliff”. At one point, Cliff actually says “We’re on a mission from Glod”, an obvious allusion to “The Blues Brothers”. This is Pratchett at his punniest. Later, the recruit Unseen University’s Librarian (an Orangutan — don’t you ever call him an ape) as a keyboard player, but he doesn’t last long. And soon, all over the Ringworld, people become obsessed with music and with “The Band with Rocks In”.

Meanwhile, Death has become obsessed and disturbed by the fact that his memory is perfect, and he decides that he wants to learn how to forget. He leaves his job behind to seek the means to forgetfulness. His Granddaughter Susan is recruited as a temporary replacement. Like her father before her, Mort, she’s not so much a stickler for rules and soon becomes obsessed with Buddy (Imp) and keeping him alive. You see, the Musicians guild wants him dead for playing without paying guild dues.

This is a hilarious book, but the kindle edition is marred by extremely poor editing. Footnotes (which Pratchett uses to great effect) sometimes point to the wrong text, which are the most annoying errors, but there are a lot of others as well. If you aren’t reading a kindle edition, this should not be an issue. But it was for me. But regardless, I do highly recommend this book. I don’t consider it Pratchett’s best, but it is pretty darn funny.

The Legend of Tarzan

tarzan

Tarzan is a character that I like to think of as an early 20th century comic book/pulp superhero. In the books (of which I read one and a half before I lost interest), his ‘superpower’ does not stem from being bitten by a radioactive ape, but from his noble birth. His nobility is what makes him superior to, not only the apes and other jungle creatures, but also the African natives.  It’s very much a product of its time and place. And most of the dramatic treatments of the stories, while somewhat modernized or Americanized, have treated him as a kind of comic book character, before the days when comic book characters were ever treated seriously. The stories and movies were fun, but never to be taken seriously. Of course, “Greystoke:The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” made a small attempt to change that, but only with limited success.

greystoke4

And now we have “The Legend of Tarzan”, which stars Alexander Skarsgård, as John Clayton, The Lord of Greystoke, aka “Tarzan”, Margot Robbie as Jayne, Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams, an American who fought in the Civil War, and a few wars after that, and Christoph Waltz, as Leon Rum, the villain of the story.

The story opens in a time after John Clayton has returned from his adventures in the Jungle. He’s a kind of celebrity, and so its obvious that a recent invitation he’s received from the Belgian government, to come and tour the Belgian Congo is a bit of a publicity stunt. Belgium is losing money in the Congo, and there are some nasty rumors about the treatment of the native peoples there, and they want to use him to put The Congo in a better light. He meets with British government officials (who are also fellow nobles) who encourage him to take the offer. An american named George Washington Williams also encourages him to accept the offer, but for entirely different reasons. His goal is to travel with Tarzan and gather evidence that Belgium is enslaving the native population.

The actual Tarzan origin story is told briefly in a few flashbacks for those who may not be familiar with his story, or who want a brief refresher on it. That’s not the focus of this movie.  It is to tell a typical Tarzan mindless adventure story. There’s no pretense, like in “Greystoke”, to be anything other than that. We learn of Tarzan’s connections to people and animals, and that he has history there, friends AND enemies. Pretty early in the film, Leon Rum tries unsuccessfully to capture Tarzan in order to sell him to one of those enemies — but he does get Jayne instead, and he intends to use her as bait to lure Tarzan into a trap.

Sure, that’s a little bit of a spoiler, but most of that can be divined simply by watching the trailers. The rest of the story is mostly action, with typical scenes of Rum menacing Jayne so that we know just how ‘evil’ he is, and of Tarzan and Williams dealing with all of the dangers of the jungle, up until the final big encounter with Rum. It’s all fun, but certainly not a deep ,or anything that can be called a quality film. But it is fun. It’s a good mindless summer popcorn movie. If you go to the theater expecting anything more than that, you will be sorely disappointed. But for good, mindless fun, you could do a lot worse. So I definitely recommend it.