The Surprising, Incredible Burt Wonderstone (review)

Sep 23 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

This movie genuinely surprised me.

Besides the characters and story, this is a movie about stage magic. Its writers did a wise thing: they wrote a movie that’s primarily about a failing magician getting back into his game. It is secondarily a comedy.

This brings with it certain drawbacks. But let me get to that in a minute.

The film starts with two nerdy kids who face bullies. One of them discovers stage magic. It doesn’t really help with the bullies, but it gives the two something to focus on. They become engrossed in magic, and grow up to perform a stage show in Vegas.

And that’s precisely when I sat up. The film shows us one of their illusions, a dangerous substitution trick involving one of the characters being “hanged” from a scaffold. And, without calling attention to itself, the film shows us this illusion in one shot. In other words, Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi performed the actual trick.

So the makers of this film clearly harbor a certain respect for stage magic.

The film continues to show us how Carell’s character, Burt, has grown complacent with his success, which leads to a split in the double-act. Worse, this happens in the modern day, when interest in stage magic is at an all-time low.

Enter Jim Carrey, the most outrageous and most annoying thing in the movie.

I have great respect for Carrey, and he creates a wonderfully nasty villain here in an extreme street magician who, for example, cuts his cheek open to “find” a missing card. My problem lies in the sheer amount of time that he spends in front of the camera. He stands as a certain ethical foil to Carrell’s and Buscemi’s characters, as someone who uses magic to shock audiences instead of delight them.

He ends up directly competing for Burt’s position at the Vegas hotel, which leads to even more screen time. And the problem is that his tricks are shocking and disgusting. I didn’t want to see a lot of them, but the film kept giving us more and more of them.

The film already treads a fine line by focusing on a self-absorbed character who slowly learns to be less of a jerk. It’s hard to sit through 2/3 of a movie as you actively dislike the protagonist. And Carell is excellent at acting like a boil on the backside of mankind.

But as I wrote above, the cast and crew keep to an important central theme: these characters want to delight people. It keeps them sympathetic.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Alan Arkin’s wonderful role, but revealing it would spoil the movie. I will say that he’s magnetically irascible.

I happily watched the film to its end. It has heart.

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Suspense! (review)

Sep 16 2013

Suspense! banner

Suspense! banner

Daniel Solis is a brilliant game designer. He built one of my favorite RPGs, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, a free-wheeling story-telling game of young wuxia pilgrims flying around a fantasy world, getting into trouble and helping others. Its primary mechanic is Go stones.

He recently began demoing a new game called Suspense!, a headache-inducing card game. I was lucky enough to play it with him at PAX East I felt fascinated for about 3 games, then I desperately wanted to play something else.

You work to guess each game’s win condition based on the cards you have and the cards other players have revealed.

The game consists of a set of cards that each include a number and a win condition. One card is removed and placed faced-down in the center of the play area, while the rest are dealt to the players. The players then play cards in turn; once all played cards reach a certain value (which varies depending on the number of players), the match ends. The secret card in the middle of the play area is revealed, and the player who matches its victory condition gets whatever points it states.

The headaches come as you see what victory conditions are already revealed in the played cards. If you see “Highest number in play gets 2 points” on your opponent’s played card, you know that’s not the secret card. So now you don’t care to get the highest number in play.

Certain players will adore this game. It combines the guesswork of poker with the stark limitations of a known and rapidly diminishing field of possibilities. If you like the idea of playing a hand of poker that’s inside a logic puzzle, this will probably appeal to you!

That said, keeping track of the possibilities exhausted this novice player. This is not a game to spend hours playing on the first night!

As a bonus, Suspense! is styled with retro B-movie sayings (“What is the mad doctor’s secret?”) which keeps the game light.

You can download Suspense! today as a free PDF.

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The Power and the Glory (book review)

Sep 09 2013

The Power and the Glory coverThe Power and the Glory is a difficult novel.

It’s easy to read. Greene writes florid, powerful prose that pulled me into memorable situations. His characters are complex and multi-dimensional (meaning they often have multiple opposing beliefs and values).

This is about people caught in difficult, desperate situations. People who have made mistakes, and pay for them. People who are people. They’re not trying to be evil.

This is most clearly illustrated by its main character, an apostate priest (he fathered a child) trying to escape Tabasco, Mexico during a time of great religious persecution. If he’s caught, the authorities will shoot him.

He struggles through a landscape of abject poverty, of parents starving themselves so their children can survive. He is a failed priest just trying to escape, yet many people protect him…because he is a priest. Because he can do the Mass. He barely believes in the Mass any more, but he does it because the people clamor for it.

This appears like a simple bit of irony. It would be easy to dismiss the peoples’ reaction as superstition. No; the people find meaning in the sacraments. This religion is important. It’s more than empty words if people will die for it, and people do.

The whole novel is like this. Nothing is simple. Humans are complex. Some people are driven by obvious motivations, and react predictably…but they have other motivations, too.

These themes infuse a breathless, grinding journey through a beautiful, galling country of injustice and misery. There’s very little happiness here. There is a great deal of depth.

Greene left me exhausted, as though I had lived another life while reading The Power and the Glory. What better tribute?

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Pacific Rim (review)

Sep 02 2013

Pacific Rim poster

Pacific Rim poster

I’m trying to write out my thoughts on Pacific Rim without simply restating Sam Keeper’s information-dense article “The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim” at Storming the Ivory Tower. So maybe you want to check that out.

Worse, I’m about to make many over-generalizations about things about which I know more than the average American, but I’m far from an expert in.

I saw Pacific Rim. (That’s not the generalization.) Friends learned this, and asked me my opinion. I’ve struggled. I’ve called it a “big, dumb giant robot movie,” “mecha vs. Godzilla,” and “fundamentally a Godzilla film.”

Here’s the thing: Japanese films are rooted in a certain style of visual storytelling. From kamishibai to manga to anime, Japanese storytelling revolves around imagery. Even Japanese novels include a lot of visual imagery, compared to the Western focus on dialogue. (And the over-generalizations begin…) We are Greek; they are Chinese.

This carries over into live-action film. Japanese films are low on dialogue, because you’re supposed to look at the film and understand what’s going on. Contrast this with, say, the scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace when Anakin flies the fighter into the space battle. He suddenly gets very talkative, calling out practically everything in his head. Japanese films rarely do this.

Sadly, film criticism in America focuses on dialogue. If there’s not much dialogue, the critic assumes that the film’s either shallow or “arty.” Imagery is seen mainly as an enhancer of emotion: dramatic lighting heightens tension, but cannot move the story forward.

This blinds critics to the visual storytelling of Pacific Rim. Because the film’s imagery focuses on giant robots punching giant monsters, it’s not an art film, thus it’s shallow.

Note: this is not about “paying attention.” This is about a fundamental approach to conveying information, that most Westerners just don’t see, and that Asians do. This explains the furor over Western comic book panels that set mood but “don’t move the story forward.” It explains much of why Hong Kong cinema bores most Americans to tears; because they’re not looking for the same things Asian audiences are looking for.

So. Pacific Rim conveys a lot with background details, with character stances and facial reactions. The Jaegers all have different designs. Nobody in the film explains why, because you’re supposed to figure it out by looking at them. Mako Mori is quiet, so we are told her story without words. We don’t need dialogue to understand it; we need to see her fight.

This strangeness doubles with the theme of social cohesion, which is emphasized to an extent Western audiences rarely see. We focus on loners–Becket, Mori, Pentecost–an action movie cliché. But they succeed in the end when they synchronize with others or allow others to synchronize. They win, not because of their determination or their desire for vengeance, but because of their social bonds.

One can enjoy Pacific Rim purely as a super robot movie. It paces itself cleanly and hits all the right beats as an action movie.

But it is not merely an action movie.

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The Fabliaux (book review)

Aug 26 2013

The Fabiluax

The Fabiluax

The Fabliaux is an odd little book, which I bought on a whim because it’s an odd little book.

We’ve all heard of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those saucy stories of pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Some know that Chaucer didn’t invent these stories; he cobbled them together from various stories floating around at the time. Common folk traded these profane little tales in taverns, forming the “reality TV” of its day. These were supposedly true stories, nearly always involving sex, scatology, and/or sinning priests.

In France, these were called fabliaux, and this beautiful hardback of the same name collects dozens of them that cross a wide range of experience. The translator put them into a simple, natural rhyming verse that mimics the French pattern.

(One side note: the translator chose vulgar terms for genitalia, mainly because there’s no English equivalent for the French words, and these are meant to be bawdy, shocking tales. So be ready for frequent uses of the ‘c’ word.)

The stories fascinate for two reasons. On the one hand, naughty stories always carry at least a small thrill, and it’s fascinating to see what was considered naughty six hundred years ago.

Secondly, The Fabliaux provides a window into common life in the Middle Ages. So much of what we know of that time comes from high literature: noble tales of knights and ladies, or official histories written by victors. We read of battles and courtly romance.

While that has its place, in The Fabliaux we see dusty, everyday life. Now this has its own sensationalism; these were stories meant to entertain, after all. I wouldn’t take the preponderance of extramarital sex in these stories as an indication it was that common in medieval times (any more than the family drama in a “reality TV” show is a complete accurate representation of life in America).

Those caveats aside, these stories are delightful romps in bourgeois drama: wives lusting over hot guys, battling spouses, and over-protective fathers.

And the stories are not without shock value. Indeed, the over-protective father has a young daughter whom he has carefully protected from every biological term, to protect her chastity. When he finds a boy her own age as a companion, and who expresses similar horror at such terms, the father leaves the two of them alone, presuming she is safe. She immediately asks the boy about the differences of the male body to the female, and they proceed to describe each others’ most intimate areas using only metaphor. Before long they shuck their clothes and screw with abandon.

Not so shocking, except that their metaphors make it very clear that they are both barely pubescent. Such were the realities of the times.

Other stories deal with bad priests–in fact, can’t recall a single righteous priest in the entire book–and a lot of scatological humor. I found this refreshing; we haven’t changed so much. We’ve always loved to skewer the powerful and joke about poo, for some reason.

Interestingly, the nobility in these stories are treated very much like the common folk: more wealthy, but not inherently evil. They deal with avenging spouses, rebellious children, and fickle friends just like everyone else. In general, they’re doing their best with what they have.

And they fart a lot.

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Happiness, Happiness, and Happiness

Aug 19 2013

'snow-globe' by Jenny Downing on Flickr

‘snow-globe’ by Jenny Downing on Flickr

As I learn to improve myself, I’ve been learning to unpack the idea of happiness. We use happiness in at least three ways: the emotion, the attitude, and the state.

When we’re in the state of happiness, we feel happy all the time. This is the dream world we’ll live in after we’ve won the lottery: a big home, a fast car or two, and lots of pleasurable activity. In this world, we fulfill every need. This is bliss.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this state exists for more than an hour. I don’t think anyone on this planet lives in a perpetual state of happiness, because everyone has to deal with rude people, the grimy sides of culture, and their own insecurities.

Moreover, humans recalibrate their baselines for contentment. Once you have food, you want flavorful food. And you want healthy food, because you want to live as long as possible, and you can afford it. Then you want food that’s healthy, flavorful, and an exact match to your current mood. Repeat for every other aspect of our lives.

The emotion of happiness often surprises us. We enter this state when we sit at a nice restaurant at the end of a fine meal, or as we walk around an amusement park on a thrill high. It’s that warm, expansive feeling we get when we realize we’re comfortable and content. C.S. Lewis chronicles this in his autobiography, and labels it joy. Buddhism encourages this feeling through prayer and exercises in mindfulness.

This emotion fades. While we can increase its frequency, it cannot turn into a state. It’s a burst of pleasure, like a mouthful of cheesecake, but we can’t eat cheesecake all day. Other emotions crowd in.

Then there’s the attitude of happiness. I had a co-worker who was always awake and attentive, with a ready smile to her face. She was quick to joke and ready to get down to work. I call this cheerfulness.

Cheerful people are occasionally stressed and sometimes sad. However, they separate their emotions from their attitude.

This relates to the topic of recovery. When someone wrongs you, how quickly do you return to normal? That return should not be instantaneous; feelings help us deal with the many facets of a situation. Neither should that return take so long that it robs us of other opportunities.

A cheerful person, upon feeling sadness or anger, learns to move away from those emotions towards happiness. A cheerful person seeks contentment and even joy throughout the day.

Which leads us down the road to the question: How do we build an attitude of happiness? One method I’ve been using lately is a daily reading of Just For Today, which was written by Sybil Partridge about a hundred years ago. I’ve placed this at the beginning of my daily journal, so I see it as I start every day:

  • Just for today I will be happy. This assumes what Abraham Lincoln said is true: “Most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be.” Happiness comes from within; it is not a matter of externals.
  • Just for today I will try to adjust myself to what is; not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come and fit myself to them.
  • Just for today I will take care of my body. I will exercise it, care for it, nourish it, not abuse or neglect it, so that it will be a perfect machine for my bidding.
  • Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.
  • Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do someone a good turn and not get found out. I will do at least two chores I don’t want to do, as William James suggests, just for exercise.
  • Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, speak diplomatically, act courteously, be liberal with praise, criticize not at all, nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate or improve anyone.
  • Just for today I will try to live through this day only, not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do things for twelve hours that would appall me if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.
  • Just for today I will have a program. I will write down what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. It will eliminate two pests: hurrying and indecision.
  • Just for today I will have a quiet half hour by myself and relax. In this half hour sometimes I will think of God, so as to get a little more perspective into my life.
  • Just for today I will be unafraid. Particularly, I will be unafraid to be happy; to enjoy what is beautiful; to love; and to believe that those I love, love me.

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The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book

Aug 05 2013

Bachelor Brothers' B&B Pillow BookEvery often, you stumble upon a book that precisely fits your mood.

I bought this tartan-covered novel on impulse at a used book store while I was on vacation. I wanted a light book to read. This delivered.

In The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book, Bill Richardson describes a year in the life of two bachelor brothers who operate a small B&B for bibliophiles. Not only is the house stuffed with books; guests bring piles of their own on “reading vacations.” Book clubs schedule annual meetings here.

The B&B sits near a small town in Canada that’s filled with odd characters. These characters wander into the book’s story–more so, I gather, than in the first Bachelor Brothers’ book, of which this is the second.

The main story line is punctuated with “letters” from former guests, telling their own life stories. Some are simply heartwarming; some are unexpectedly sad. Many come with recipes which I’m now eager to attempt.

Comparisons with Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon are inevitable. Both authors chronicle a charming backwater peopled by quirky characters. The difference, I think, lies in attitude: Keillor maintains a sarcastic–nearly sardonic–distance from his characters, while Richardson paints them as lovable, if odd, human beings. It’s the basic human respect that comes from an episode of Community compared to the more sarcastic tone of Parks & Recreation.

As befits its characters, The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book is an odd thing that I’d have a hard time universally recommending. It’s a celebration of simplicity, reading, and the company of others. I read it in two days.

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AttrAction (Game Review)

Jul 29 2013

AttrActionThis cannot be a review of AttrAction, precisely, because AttrAction is so simple.

Imagine a handful of rare-Earth magnets, each a misshapen cube. Spread them out on a table. Now, play a sort of billiards with them: pick up a magnet and flick it towards other magnets. It will slide across the table, pulling other magnets into a chain. Grab the chain, then acquiesce to the next player. When your turn comes around again, pull a magnet off your chain and flick that towards the remaining magnets.

This seems simple, until you discover that the magnets’ unusual shape hides a strategic feature. Balanced vertically, they attract. Once a magnet falls over, though, it repels other magnets unless they carom in unpredictable patterns. As the game continues, collecting further magnets grows hard indeed.

That’s the entire game. The official rules suggest some minor variations, such as re-distributing stones each turn and scoring chain lengths across multiple turns. But in terms of mechanics, that’s it.

AttrAction is a fairly shallow game, but this belies its strength: it’s a perfect game to start people playing something. Pull out a bag of magnets and start fiddling with them, and people will crane their necks and ask questions. Then you can get a game going. Then maybe you can get other games going.

Moreover, you can come back to AttrAction often for a casual game. Break it out occasionally for a simple, easy-to-grasp contest suitable for just about any age (though note that AttrAction should not be played around dogs or very small children; the magnets are very dangerous if inside a stomach. Apologies for the grisly image.)

In any event, I enjoy AttrAction every time I bring it out. It’s an easy game that few refuse to play.

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Oz, the Great and Powerful (review)

Jul 22 2013

Oz movie screenshotA lot of people dislike this movie.

I suspect people came into the theater with inflated expectations. I would instead urge you to go back to the classic film: it told a simple story with a vivid palette of characters in a rich, colorful fantasy world. That is exactly what Oz, the Great and Powerful does.

You likely already know the premise: a young man is swept into the land of Oz, where he must fight a wicked witch.

More importantly, the movie centers on the hero’s choice. Our protagonist gets himself into trouble, then he has to decide what to do. He could turn his back on the whole situation at any time.

The actors admirably and accurately portray their intentionally one-dimensional characters. L. Frank Baum wrote simple characters; he created archetypes. That’s what you’ll get in the film.

The end of a film like this should include at least one moment where the viewer pumps a fist into the air and yells “Yeah!” That happened for me.

It’s a kid’s film, and a beautiful one.

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Cards Against Humanity (game review)

Jul 15 2013

Cards Against HumanityCards Against Humanity has an enviable reputation. Retailers can’t keep it in stock. People rave about it. It’s modular, easy to learn, and quick to play. It’s also very, very naughty.

It’s that last aspect that gives me pause. I don’t mind adult content in games, but Cards Against Humanity encourages the players towards depraved thinking for the entire game.

Quite simply: each player has a hand of cards, each of which contain a noun or noun phrase. Play goes in rounds; in each round, one player chooses a sentence cards that contains a Mad Libs-style sentence, such as “I was so relieved when I saw _____ come through the door.” The other players pass forward a card from their hands; the chooser reads each of them out, chooses a winner, and that player gets a point. Play continues until one player amasses a pre-determined number of points.

That’s the entire game. The fun lies in the nouns, which range from the wacky to the obscene. Pair those with a sentence like “Reaching into my ______, I pulled out ______” and you can imagine how dirty the game can be.

It’s a fun beer-and-pretzels game, only to be played with those not easily offended.

I must say: after playing it for about an hour, I felt my mind training itself to see the dirtiest and most bizarre interpretation of any given sentence. The game rewards depraved thought in a subtle but significant way. I felt vaguely dirty after playing it.

Still, for an evening’s entertainment, it’s hardly going to damage you, and it can be an uproarious good time.

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