Monthly Archives: May 2011

Three-Word Review of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’

 

Stronger than bamboo.

Captions don’t count: KFP2 treads boldly into territory that usually belongs only to Pixar. This soulful film swings confidently between heft and lightness, humor and pathos, which until now has been only Pixar’s playground. I’ve blogged here before about how the original KFP out-Pixar’ed Pixar that year and sent Wall-E to the rust bin of history. I’ve also been clear that I didn’t care about this sequel, because the original did its job so well … and since when has a sequel to a children’s franchise been anything other than a mediocre cash-grab anyway? Since KFP2, that’s when. Featuring fewer kung fu kicks, but more meaning, this movie also deals in one of my favorite themes: Self-determination and the notion that destiny is not in charge of you – YOU are. Panda Po comes into his own as a fully fleshed out personality, a magic combination of self-confidence and self-deprecation, of gravitas and goofiness. This is not just a great sequel, it’s a great movie.

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Stealing a little thunder: How I’d inject some extra electricity into ‘Thor’

“Thor” seems to be enjoying a sort of hotness, seemingly embraced by the geek community at large, which is notoriously harsh to those who mishandle beloved properties. A Facebook friend of mine recently announced, “Thor was actually pretty good. Don’t act like you’re all above it.”

I’m not above it. I swear. I am, however, confident in saying that while this is a very fun movie, it is not a very good movie.

It’s not that I can’t enjoy a good popcorn film. I’ve been pretty clear that I can support the poppiest of popcorn movies without being snobbish about it. The kink in my craw comes when I actually start to get my expectations up. When I get an inkling that something might be uncommonly good – either thanks to a distinctive trailer, good nerd-of-mouth buzz, or a perfectly paired actor or director – that’s when I want a story to rise to the occasion. Come on nerd culture: We can expect our media to be a cut above.

So it was with “Thor.” I never cared about the character (as a comics superhero, at least), and had written off this movie the instant I heard it was greenlit. But then Kenneth Branagh took the director spot — that is, Kenneth “Once more unto the breach” Branagh — and I thought, “Oh. I see. Marvel wants this movie to be good, not just some slam-bang cash-in. They have expectations.

Certain of my expectations were met by this movie: When a god of thunder hits things with his big, fat hammer, there should be big, fat explodey on the screen. On this, Branagh delivers. The boomboom scenes look pretty; very pretty indeed. My favorite scene is one that rests lightly (relative to the rest of the movie) on computer graphics: A cannon-faced automaton is destroying a little Arizona town, while a cast of Asgardian heroes has a dickens of a time containing it. It’s got all the visual surprises and dead-sexy ultraviolence a superhero movie should have.

But in this story of Norse gods, the devil is in the details, and the details of character development must have been left on the editing room floor. The whole point of this “origin story” for Thor is that the cocky god-thug must learn humility and a genuine affection for the human race before he can truly be a hero. After what appears to be a single day in the Arizona desert, he ends his vacation on Earth with an inexplicable, unconvincing commitment to heroism and humans. Natalie Portman plants a kiss on Thor as he departs our world, and in no way do you believe that these two share a meaningful relationship beyond lusty desire (hers) and bemused curiosity (his). After all, Thor’s had centuries to snog hearty Asgardian dames like the lovely and talented Sif (Jaimie Alexander) … so after 24 hours with a slightly scattered, flustered and, uh, breakable Earth girl, he’s got real Capital-L Love and a hankering for humanity?

That’s not change we can believe in.

What I’d have whispered in Branagh’s ear as he sat down with his storyboards: Thor needs to have an ironclad reason to don his Team Earth shirt, and it needs to come from Natalie Portman directly. She needs to wow him with some behavior or act that is distinctly human. This happens all the time in science fiction, where supposedly superior beings encounter Earthlings and find something quaint and endearing about us, causing them to find us endlessly fascinating. Think of, say, Q from Star Trek (an omnipotent being who couldn’t stop the comparatively prosaic compulsion to stick his nose in Capt. Picard’s business), and Dr. Who (who at tense moments often interjects his enthusiasm for human spirit, gumption, adventurosity and the like).

So in the middle third of this movie, we needed to see Thor try to solve a problem in his Asgardian way, and Natalie Portman needed to show him – with the confidence of a woman worthy of a god – a better way. She needed to to appeal to his head and heart, not just to his other godly bits.

She could use her smarts. She is an astro-meteoro-cosmo-something-or-other scientist, after all, though most of the movie she acts like a headless chicken with a schoolgirl crush. Perhaps she could solve a problem with forethought, caution and wit, which would be the exact opposite of Thor’s quite literal smash-mouth solution to problems.

She could use her heart. Since Thor has been cast out for cruelty, she could model some behavior that proves to this superior being that he’s actually inferior in ways he’s yet to learn. Perhaps she exhibits forgiveness of someone (maybe Thor himself), giving the god a peek into how mere mortals must solve conflict without using hammers. Thor’s strained relationship with his brother Loki is central to this movie. So have him learn the power of forgiveness from an Earthling!

She could use her muscles. Though by muscles, I really mean bravery. This thin little woman could find herself in a perilous situation where she must show godlike courage without godlike power to back it up. This demonstrates to Thor the audacity and pluck that even we frail mortals can muster when our hearts are at stake. It’s one thing for an impervious deity to smash through an enemy’s skull, but what does it take for a human to do the same for the sake of another?

One of the most convincing “change of heart” moments I’ve ever seen on film comes from “Ice Age.” Yes, the 2002 cartoon from 20th Century Fox. It’s a brilliant movie all around, and if anyone wants to give me grief about it, I’ll see you outside by the bike racks after school. One reason this movie is so solid: One of the main buddies in this buddy flick is a deadly sabertooth who is secretly plotting to lead his companions into the maw of a sabertooth pack ambush. Hello, that’s an unusual theme for a “kid” movie! Over the course of the story, this cat must be given a cause to betray his pack and side with the heroes, and the moment comes, convincingly, at the end of the second act. The woolly mammoth nearly dies saving the cat from a lava-filled death trap, and the cat asks, “Why did you risk your life for me?” The mammoth replies, “It’s what you do in a herd.” When the cat realizes this new herd cares more for him than his original pack, he has a believable, rewarding, satisfying change of heart.

Thor needed to have a good reason to believe his new herd of Earthlings are worth getting hammered over. I don’t believe he did, and now I have to relegate another high-potential geek movie into the “popcorn flick” category, rather than hailing it as truly one of the immortals.

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Game Night in America: Are you ready for some boardgame?

We fill the long slog of winter nights with games whenever we can. Those damn nights are so dark so early, and even when the light comes back, this is still Chicago, and that means winter lasts until … well, let me put my head out the door. Yep, until about now.

But games, man, games. We love ’em in this house. They’re fun, they warm the brain, and they give me something to do with kids that doesn’t automatically end in me throttling, yelling or banning desserts from all involved. (Those things might still happen, but games have the potential to delay Daddy’s snap.)

Last Christmas, Santa did his usual augmenting of the game closet, and we’ve had great new games in heavy rotation ever since. Here’s how we spent many a night this past winter, with our clothing-optional game nights before the roaring fire:

To be fair, they put their shirts back on after the resin-rich fatwood burned off. I mean, that stuff is the kindling from HELL.

If you’re at all interested in sharing moments of strategy, tactics, dumb luck and sick laughter with your family (preferably with the preponderance of your clothing on), consider this hit parade:

Pizza Box Football

The official BoardGameGeek entry on this dicefest game says that it’s suited for kids 12 and up, and many reviewers insisted only older kids would enjoy it. But they never met my 8-year-old son. When he daydreams, it’s of all-star baseball match-ups, buzzer-beating jump shots and Hail Mary passes into the end zone.

Pizza Box can intimidate, with pages and pages of laminated charts, and a bag full of dice in many colors and sizes. But once you crack the system, it flows. By the end of our second game, we already memorized some common dice results, and the game blazed by. The defense decides what kind of play it thinks the opponent will choose (run, short pass, or long pass), and chooses one of three colored dice in secret to reflect how it will line up. The offense announces which of those three it will run. Then dice are revealed and rolled. Charts are consulted. Plays unfold.

The charts! They could probably paper a bathroom wall with their pages of contingencies, cross-references and special cases. If I roll poorly on my long pass, I might get a result of “QB Pressure.” Quick, check the QB Pressure chart! Another roll, and you might save the day with a scrambling completion … or just get your sorry ass sacked. Whatever happens, move the down marker and march the peg on the “time clock” another tick closer to the end of the game. Hope you can hold the ball (or wrest it back) with smart decisions and hot dice.

It’s not for everyone, all this rolling and chart-consulting. But my little Butkus and I get a lot of energy from the back and forth slugfest that really does capture the feel of a pigskin brawl. In our second game, with the final “seconds” ticking away on the time track, and the ball on the 13, my son needed a touchdown to win the game. I lined up for the pass, and he surprised me with a run. A bushel load of dice rolled across the table. When all the modifiers were applied and the charts had spoken, he gained 12 yards on the final play of the game. I had stopped him at the 1.

How great is that? We still talk about that game, and how he came back in the rematch to stomp me like a narc at a biker rally. Pizza Box Football is probably a bit dry and abstract to most, but to the sports nut it’s the next best thing to Monday morning quarterbacking.

Enchanted Forest

Usually memory games are a big zippo for me. Who has fun matching pairs of butterflies and hot dogs? But Enchanted Forest makes it fun by adding really nifty plastic trees and wooden pawns that are fun to manipulate. This is the kind of game that my daughter will remember in 30 years, and get all nostalgic and go on eBay and pay too much for it.

This is a simple game. Roll the dice, get to a tree, peek under it, and try to remember the fairy tale image underneath. Meanwhile, there’s a stack of cards over at the king’s castle, and the topmost card informs you which image you’re looking for. Once you peek under the correct tree, you must race over to the castle and declare which tree hides the matching image. There’s some gamesmanship afoot (“Uh-oh, Daddy’s heading for the castle! That last tree he peeked under must be the one!”), and an interesting roll-and-move variant that lets you choose to move backward or forward in any combination of the two dice. Just enough analysis to give little minds something to noodle, and it plays mercifully fast for my waterlogged memory.

Summoner Wars

This smart card game has been in solid rotation since last summer, but Santa saw fit to drop a couple of new decks in Oldest Boy’s stocking. At Christmas, who doesn’t want to find undead hordes lurking by the chimney with care?

The new decks are killer great fun, and they only further my opinion that Summoner Wars is one of the best two-player cards games since Fifty-Two Pickup. Combine miniatures games with “Magic: The Gathering” and throw in the essence of chess, and you’ve got 30 minutes of tense dueling on a table top. What’s so refreshing about this game is that you can get a couple of decks for cheap and enjoy it just fine; and if you want to add some variety, you can stir in a new deck every so often for another 10 bucks. Decks are complete — unlike most collectible card games, there is no “blind buy” or hunt to find a rare amid the common cards  — so the allure of collectibility and customization are there without the expense.

The only problem with this game is that since Christmas morning, I’ve gone 0-8 against the boy. In fact, I played the first 7 games with one of the new decks (a pack of healing humans called “Vanguards”) vowing that I would win with them once before trying a different deck. Then he said, “Dad, I’m gonna play the Vanguards against the army of your choice, and I’m gonna win.” The little snot was right.

This will sting less if Summoner Wars sparks his career as a brilliant military tactician.

Coloretto

Cool and abstract, this set-matching card game came highly recommended from my gaming adviser, BoardGameGeek. Santa thought my daughter would really dig a rainbow-colored pastime — but it was kind of underwhelming to discover that the cards come in an odd palette that included gravel gray, pressboard brown and spray-tan orange. With a stoic chameleon blending into the textured “art school photography class” backgrounds on the cards, “cuddly” and “fun” aren’t words I’d use for this aesthetic.

Gameplay is clever, however. Players draw cards from a deck and lay them down in the set of their choice; over a round everybody will have to claim one of these sets. The idea is to specialize in three colors, while collecting as few extra colors as possible. (These will count against you in the final scoring.) Players have nice, compact little decisions to make about where to put each colored card they draw; they try to put it in sets that either serve themselves, or frustrate their opponents. It isn’t flashy, but with simple mechanics that run just deep enough, this one has been a quiet success.

Zombies!!!

Totally ridiculous and chance-driven, this basically brainless game (yuk yuk — see what I did there?) is still a hoot with the right crowd. And with two boys aged 8 and 11, I always have the right crowd. In Zombies!!!, you’re a guy in a zombie-infested town, and you’ve got to bash your way to the helicopter, one undead obstacle at a time. You’ve got nothing but the bullets in your pocket and the 4s or higher on your six-sided die. It doesn’t get much deeper than that. (Well, maybe it does. Do you dare raid the zombie-filled hardware store to play the coveted “chainsaw” card? If you care about theme, yes, you do.)

Not for every family, as some of the card artwork is pretty gruesome. I just hope my children will tell their therapists some day what an awesome dad I was for screwing them up with fun games like this.

Heroscape: D&D style

My continued admiration for this miniatures wargame continues with this most recent set, a D&D-themed group of sharp-looking trolls, drow elves and shiny sword-bearing heroes. The game has a nice stand-alone feature that replicates the feel of walking through a D&D “dungeon crawl,” but as always, Heroscape is at its most fun when you mix the armies of different sets. If you’ve ever wanted to see Hulk and Spider-Man team up to take down a gnarly black dragon, then Heroscape is your game. The rules are simple enough for my boys to play, but deep enough to warrant some meaningful decision-making each turn.

Lost Pyramid

Note the addition of water glasses to hold down the egdes of the board. It just didn't want to lie flat. A small complaint.

I almost ignored this box at Toys R Us, because it was all alone on a bottom shelf — like a wallflower at a school dance, this game was begging to be treated like a loner. Plus the box artwork was miserably fuzzy. Who produces a boxed board without high-res art?

But the deeply discounted price tag – $7! – made a tempting temptation.

That crazy low price works both ways: Like seeing the box alone on the bottom shelf, a next-to-valueless price seems to project a low self esteem that’s hard to get cozy with. But there was something kind of interesting about the photo of the game board, and heck it was only $7 …

So imagine my surprise when we finally cracked open the game board, and it unfurled like a Robert Sabuda pop-up book. Look at that photo up there — that’s the game board right out of the box. That’s so cool.

The game play is interesting enough that I felt super bad about dismissing this box before I got to know it. It’s a move-around-the-board game, normally a pretty boring concept, but it twists the usual roll-and-move mechanic. Instead of rolling dice, players use cards that have multiple uses – for example, some cards bear both a stated movement value, or instructions for disabling a trap. It’s your choice how you want to use it.

Players must deduce the locations of all the pharaoh’s treasure while avoiding the mummy chasing after them. As they move, they face blocked paths or sliding hallways that can be moved in their favor – or against their enemies – by playing the right card.

Which proves that even though good games can comes in big, beautiful boxes, sometimes the awkward girl in head-wrapping orthodontics and taped up glasses is worth asking to dance.

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