Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book Review: My Hero Academia Vol. 2 by Kohei Horikoshi

My Hero Academia Volume 2 by Kohei Horikoshi

See my review of Volume 1 here.

Having gotten into hero high school through the fluke of inheriting the hero All Might's power, Midoriya faces plenty of challenges. The classes are not just academic. The students face plenty of practical tests of their abilities. One test pairs up students in a two-on-two competition. Naturally, Midoriya is teamed up with the cute blonde girl he can hardly talk to because he has a crush on her. They have to face off against Midoriya's sworn enemy Bakugo, who'd like nothing less than to get Midoriya knocked out of school, literally or figuratively. A later test is interrupted by villains who invade the school in hopes of taking down All Might, who has accept a teaching position, partly so he can mentor Midoriya in using the inherited ability.

The story introduces a lot of characters, mostly students. It reads like more set up than forward motion in Midoriya's plot. Even so, I am enjoying the variety of odd powers and some clever use of them.


Friday, January 18, 2019

Movie Review: 47 Meters Down (2017)

47 Meters Down (2017) co-written and directed by Johannes Roberts

Boring older sister Lisa (Mandy Moore) invites younger sister Kate (Claire Holt) on her Mexican vacation that Lisa had planned with her boyfriend. They have some fun hanging out at the hotel. One night, Lisa admits that her boyfriend dumped her because he thought she was boring, so Kate takes Lisa on a night of fun. They meet two guys who love to go diving in a cage to watch sharks underwater. Lisa takes a lot of convincing and guilting to go on the excursion with the guys. Once they are out there, things inevitably go wrong and they get stuck in the cage 47 meter below the surface. Can the sisters make it out of the shark-infested depths?

Of course all sorts of complications set in, forcing the sisters to do various things that look...unadvisable. They are inexperienced divers and are panicking, so their behavior follows some warped or ill-formed logic. Their characters are cliche and neither the writing nor the acting gets past cliche. The other human characters, who are the diving experts, don't seem to have a clue about what to do and contribute almost no help. I understand the filmmakers wanted to keep things from the sisters' perspectives but it seemed unrealistic that the rescue effort was so slow and ineffectual. The other characters in the story, by which I mean the sharks, are completely perfunctory and just show up for jump scares. The human characters spend a lot of time narrating what viewers see, like "there's a shark by you!" or "I should take this spear gun." The movie is very predictable with only a few moments of the sort of tension that should be throughout the whole running time. The big twist at the end seems obvious given the paint-by-numbers plotting.

Watching the movie feels like the movie makers saw Jaws and loved the bit with Richard Dreyfuss in the shark cage. Then they decided to make a whole movie out of that without really researching diving or shark cages or shark behavior. It wasn't convincing or engaging. It's a shame because the premise of being trapped underwater is interesting and the film makers clearly avoided treating the sisters like eye-candy. The movie has a lot of unfulfilled potential.

Not recommended.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Twelve Games of Christmas 2018

We decided to challenge ourselves to play twelve games over the Christmas season. Being Catholic, that meant we had until January 13, 2019, which is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. That's celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany (January 6). Epiphany was on a Sunday in 2019, giving a full week after to finish. So we had plenty of extra days to get the games in. Here's what we played:

1. Patchwork Express designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published by Lookout Games

Based on his hit game Patchwork, Rosenberg strips down the mechanics to a two-player version. The game is still pretty relaxing and laid back. Players are putting together a patchwork quilt by getting variously shaped pieces and adding them to their board. Buttons are used as a currency during the game. Different patches cost different numbers of buttons. Time is also a currency, because each patch takes a certain amount of time to add. The time track governs whose turn it is. Whoever is behind on the track can buy patches until they catch up to the frontrunner, so it is possible to buy more than one patch before the opponent has a chance. The mechanics are simple and easy to learn but the variety is good with the random ordering of the patches. We like it, especially because the game easily runs under half an hour and it isn't particularly stressful.

2. Sagrada designed by Daryl Andrews and Adrian Adamescu and published by Floodgate Games

This game was a Christmas present, probably my favorite. I did a dual/duel review of it back in the summer where I compared it to Azul. Players build stained glass windows using translucent dice that are drawn, rolled, and drafted each round. The game has some tension but not very much player conflict. It plays in less than an hour, which we like because we have a hard time carving out blocks of time for gaming.

Our four-year old often insists on playing. While the mechanics are a bit beyond him, we have an easy time guiding him along. I recommend the game highly!

3. Unlock! The House on the Hill designed by Fabrice Mazza and published by Space Cowboys 

This game is a variation on the "escape room in a box" genre. The Unlock! series has several different games. Each game uses a set of cards and an app, though the app is good for all the games, so players only have to download it once. The game comes with a tutorial scenario that introduces the basic ways to use the cards. Some cards show locations and indicate other cards players "discover." Some cards are objects (red and blue) that can interact with each other causing new things to happen. Other cards (green and yellow) require the player to enter codes or other information into the app to get feedback. Players have sixty minutes to solve all the puzzles and finish the game.

In The House on the Hill, players are investigators going into a house where a bunch of teenagers read an excerpt from The Book of the Dead and unleashed all sorts of paranormal badness. The investigators need to find the book and undo the curse.

The puzzles are fun and none are too difficult. The trickiest thing is that numbers are sometimes hidden on cards, so without close examination important clues could be left out. The app asked us whether we wanted to have automatic help for hidden numbers. We said yes since it was our first time. We probably won't use that feature in the future. We finished in time with the following result:

So we finished in 48 minutes and 2 seconds with zero hints (the lightbulb). We tried two wrong combinations and got a six-minute penalty (the skull and crossbones). We had no penalties for machines (the green cards) and three penalties for wrong codes (the yellow cards). Three minutes for each penalty means that we really finished in 33 minutes of real time. We scored the full five stars at the bottom.

This was a fun game and is replayable, since the cards aren't torn up or folded like in Exit: The Game games. We'd have to wait a while so we can forget how to solve the puzzles. Or we can have the fun of watching friends play it.

4. The Lady and the Tiger designed by Peter C. Hayward, Allysha Tulk, Kevin Carmichael, Ken Maher, JR Honeycutt, and Philip Tootill and published by Jellybean Games

The Lady and the Tiger is actually five different games that use the same set of components (thus the six designers (two designers created one of the games)).

We played Labyrinth (by Philip Tootill), a two-player game where we had to move our cubs (five colored tokens) across a grid of cards to their home card. On each turn, the player moves one token and then swaps two cards, at least one of which has to have a cub on it. The trick is that the player can't swap just any cards. It has to be two of the same color or two ladies or two tigers. And the choice is further limited by only one of the two colors (blue or red) or one of the two types (ladies or tigers) depending on what was chosen previously.

The game is very "thinky" and thus prone to analysis paralysis. Happily, my wife and I aren't so ambitious that we try to work out all the possibilities. My wife won pretty handily. I'll have to have a rematch.

5. Machi Koro designed by Masao Suganuma and published by IDW Games and Pandasaurus Games

We had family over for New Year's Day and they played several games. My wife and I started Machi Koro with them, though my wife swapped out half-way through to play with the children. It was fun, maybe because I won?

The game is about building a city, starting with a Wheat Field and a Bakery. Players roll a die (or two dice later in the game), collect money if the number matches their cards, and buy a new establishment. As the city grows, players get more money with which to buy better expansions. The goal is to buy four special expansions (Train Station, Shopping Mall, Amusement Park, and Radio Tower). The first to buy all four wins the game.

It's a light and quick game that anyone can learn and enjoy.

6. Muddy Swampy Jungle Game by Martin Handford and published by Candlewick Press

If you think Martin Handford's name sounds familiar, you must have had more than a passing glance at a Where's Waldo book. This game is in book seven, Where's Waldo? The Incredible Paper Chase. We tore out the board and punched out the pieces from one of the pages. We had to supply our own six-sided die. Players roll and move along the board, hoping to get to the finish line before everyone else. The spaces occasionally make you move forward or backward, or perform silly tasks like reading one of the tongue twisters from the cards.

The game's board

Our preschooler loves the game, so we've played it several times. We probably won't play it without him, because we are that type of parents.

7. The Lady and the Tiger (again!)

We tried out one of the other games from number four above. This game is called Doors. It's a two-player game in several rounds. In each round, one player is the Collector and one is the Guesser. Both players draw one of the door cards, so they have a specific color (blue or red) and character (lady or tiger). The players deal out four of the general cards face up. The Collector chooses one of the face-up cards (which is immediately replaced from the draw pile). The Collector is trying to get four cards that match their color or character. The Guesser gets to discard one of the four face-up cards and can try to guess the color and/or character of the Collector. Successful guessing gets points; unsuccessful guessing gives points to the Collector. As soon as someone scores, the round is over. The roles then switch for the next round. Play continues until one player has scored ten points.

It's an interesting game but I am terrible at it. We played twice and, including both games, I scored four points. Yikes!

8. Sagrada (again!)

We played a four-player version with my brother and my preschooler. The preschooler enjoyed drawing dice and rolling them more than anything else. So he makes a good aid.

9. Forbidden Island designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright

This classic co-operative game is a favorite at our house. One reason is that everyone can play it. As a co-op, we work together to gather the treasures off a sinking island. The mechanics are very straight-forward--even our four-year old can play along and make some reasonable decisions. We did succeed though we played with one of the easier island shapes (there's a jpg with alternate layouts for the island on Board Game Geek). The components are fantastic and the outcome is usually positive.

10. The Lady and The Tiger

We tried out a third game, Favor, an auction game. Each player starts with five gems and a secret identity (one of the door cards). Cards from the deck are played to the center. On a player's turn, the choice is to flip up another card in the center or to call an auction. During the auction, each player gets to bid a number of gems on the whole set of cards in the middle. Whoever called the auction has the last bid, so the last chance to get the cards. If the auction caller wins the cards, his bid is split among the other players. If another player wins, the auction caller gets the bid. So the gems move around. Once the cards run out, a final auction is held. The cards that match both characteristics of a player's secret identity are worth three points; one characteristic is worth one point; no characteristics are negative two points. The two wild cards can alter attributes on one card. The game runs for three rounds. Whoever has the most points at the end wins.

I'm usually pretty bad at auction games but this went well. I still lost but I actually scored a reasonable amount of points.

11.  Machi Koro (again!)

A sweeping victory by Mommy in a tricky three-player game.

12. 13 Dead End Drive

Aunt Agatha has died with no relatives, so a bunch of friends and servants vie to inherit her fortune. Her home is full of booby traps (the fireplace, the stairs, a falling suit of armor, etc.) ready to knock off the twelve claimants. There's also a small deck of cards that are the "portrait on the wall" showing who is the most likely claimant at the time. The board is three-dimensional, so the deck of cards actually sits on the back wall like a portrait. The traps are a plastic stairs, statues, etc., that have a little lever to activate the trap and knock over the doomed playing piece.

Each player gets several of the characters to play (though the roles are secret). On a turn, the player rolls two dice and moves two of the characters (not necessarily their own characters). If a character lands on one of the booby trap spots, the player draws a card from the trap deck. If the card matches the trap, it can be discarded and that character is eliminated. Otherwise, the card is kept in secret to use later on a different trap. Also in the trap deck are detective cards, which move the detective closer to the front door. If the detective reaches the front door, the game ends. If the dice roll is doubles, the player has the option of putting the top portrait card on the back of the deck, introducing a new "likely claimant." If the portrait is ever of someone who has already been knocked off, the card is discarded and the next card is the current portrait.

The game is novel (for its time, 1993) in having multiple ways to win. A player wins if one of their characters leaves when their portrait is on the wall, or if the detective shows up when their portrait is on the wall, or if all the other characters are killed. Only the first and third win conditions are under the player's control, but still it's nice to have a variety of options.

The game is out of print, so it's super-expensive online. Maybe you can find it at a thrift store for a reasonable price?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Catching Up on Kids' Videos

A couple of videos have escaped the editor's touch for too long and are now presented here for readers' edification.

My preschooler loves to read as much as he can!

From a while back, when my older children were younger and built a fun Lego Minecraft set.

My son is still learning new material on the saxophone:

The preschooler also plays soccer!

A video from early last summer (June of 2018, if you must know) is from my son's band camp. After a week of practicing together, they had a concert with several pieces. This was the first one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Movie Reviews: Catching Up on Spielberg

I've been watching a bunch of Steven Spielberg's more recent movies that I missed in the cinema. Considering his career goes back to the 1970s, "recent" is a relative term. Here's some quick reviews:

War of the Worlds (2005) based on the novel by H. G. Wells

After an icon radio adaptation by Orson Welles and an iconic film adaptation produced by George Pal, Spielberg took on his first "aliens are evil" project (the other being the evil aliens who messed up the Indiana Jones franchise in 2008). The movie is remarkably faithful to the original novel, matching the mass flight from a major city (this time New York instead of the novel's London); the nefarious plans of the aliens (though in this movie they are never called Martians); the sequence of being trapped in a basement with a guy who plans to fight back; the "red weeds" that start growing where the aliens are active; the ultimate defeat of the aliens not by humans. Spielberg adds Tom Cruise as a divorced dad who has his kids for the weekend when the aliens show up. His plan is to make it from New York to Boston, where his ex-wife and her new husband have gone for the weekend. He's kind of a bad dad, which both his kids know, but he rises to the occasion when anarchy breaks loose.

The movie does not wax philosophical about the aliens and their menace, it's more of an immediate experience of how horrible the situation is. The story is very serious and relentlessly bleak with the humans occasionally behaving badly too. The cinematography looks very much like it was shot in the 1970s or early 1980s--it's a bit grainy and hand-held (though not overboard on the hand-held camera work, which is a pet peeve of mine (I'm looking at you, Monsoon Wedding)). At first I wondered if the film was supposed to be set in an earlier time but they have cell phones and Tivo, so the cinematography is just a style choice. It works well to communicate the immediacy and peril of the characters' situation. But there's very little depth about the aliens.

I enjoyed the film and am glad I watched it but probably won't watch it again.

Ready Player One (2018) based on the novel by Ernest Cline

In 2045, America is not the best place to live, at least not for Wade, who lives in a slum but spends all his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality that is extremely popular. The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, has died and left three challenges inside the game. Whoever can beat those challenges first will inherit both Halliday's fortune and control of the OASIS. Some corporate baddies are trying to take over the game in the hopes of monetizing it, but true fans of video games and the OASIS are trying to win to keep it the way it is. Wade does some research and eventually figures out how to beat the first test. He then teams up with five other players (who call themselves "The High Five") to complete the challenges before the evil corporation can.

The movie looks amazing and has a bazillion pop culture references. The story struck me as very paint-by-numbers plotting. The performances are good. The movie has a totally bland message about spending less time in virtual reality and more time in actual reality.

This movie is a special effects summer popcorn blockbuster, and is satisfying at that level. Like War of the Worlds, it's not a film I feel the need to rewatch.

The Post (2018)

Washington Post owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) decides to sell shares of the paper on the New York Stock Exchange to raise money to keep the paper going. At the same time, the New York Times begins publishing articles about the Pentagon Papers, documents showing how all presidential administrations since Eisenhower had been deceiving the American public about the US relationship to Vietnam. Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to publish too, though it may cause the paper and its people very serious legal and financial problems.

The movie is a well-executed drama though the script is uneven. Mrs. Graham's tricky situation is well fleshed out and Streep gives a great performance. On the other hand, Richard Nixon is the most one-dimensional villain ever--he had more character depth and nuance in Black Dynamite. Some of the speeches defending freedom of the press lack the conviction one would expect in this type of movie. In a time where there is conflict between the President and the press, I wanted more depth or nuance. The movie is entertaining but mediocre.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Book Review: Koshchei the Deathless by M. Mignola et al.

Koshchei the Deathless story by Mike Mignola, art by Ben Stenbeck, and colors by Dave Stewart

A young, poor man has no particular talents so he becomes a soldier. He discovers his talent is for soldiering, engendering the jealousy of his fellow (less competent) soldiers. They beat him near to death and leave him in the woods. A dragon comes by in the form of a man and promises to heal the soldier if he will be the dragon's servant for nine years. The guy has no choice but to agree. The dragon's affection for him grows. The dragon releases him with a magic shirt that lets no weapon harm him. So the soldier (who is Koshchei) has an even more fabulous career as a mercenary, leading him down a dark path. Eventually, he becomes the servant of Baba Yaga, the Russian witch who had many battles with Hellboy. She uses Koshchei for her own ends, especially to finish off Hellboy.

The story is told as a flashback during a conversation between Koshchei and Hellboy, who are having drinks at a pub in Hell. So the setup is weird and doesn't quite follow logically. But Koshchei's sad tale of woe has plenty of pathos and rich mythology. It's a fascinating read for all its fantastical trappings. The art mimics Mignola's dark and simple style quite well, giving the story plenty of atmosphere.

Recommended, mostly for Hellboy fans.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Movie Review: Veronica (2017)

Veronica (2017) co-written and directed by Paco Plaza

A solar eclipse is a time when darkness is stronger than light. One happened in Madrid in 1991. While everyone else at Veronica's school is on the roof watching the celestial phenomenon, she and two friends are in the school's basement. They use a Ouija Board to try and communicate with deceased loved ones. Veronica successfully contacts something, but it hardly seems to be her dad. She's hearing voices and seeing spirits, and they are getting louder and more concrete.

Veronica's already got a tough home life. Her mom runs a bar/cafe late into the night, so Veronica takes care of the younger three kids both during the night and in the morning when they all need to get to school. She's forced to be more grown up, which also makes her more isolated from her school friends. Her rough life is even rougher now that she's inadvertently invited an evil presence into their home.

The movie is a fairly typical take on the "there's a demon in my house/life" movie (Drag Me to Hell, Ringu). The plot doesn't hold many surprises. Even so, the main character (played by Sandra Escacena) is very sympathetic and well acted. The visual effects and weird things are familiar but not exact copies of things in other horror movies, so they get the job done. The movie has a lot of set up (i.e. it's slow in the beginning) but ends well enough to avoid being disappointing (which a lot of mid-level horror films don't achieve). The movie is in Spanish, so there's subtitles. I prefer subtitling to dubbing, but your preferences will probably effect your enjoyment of the film.

Mildly recommended--this is a solid B-movie horror film.