Many Hoppy Returns

If there’s anything I miss about being Fat Richard, it’s being able to pretty much drink beer without a second thought.  Granted, that attitude was largely responsible for the existence of Fat Richard in the first place, but back then I wasn’t all that worried about it.  Those days are long gone though, and while I haven’t completely cut beer from the menu, it’s a much less frequent visitor, and usually a light beer.  Dammit.

I do allow myself the occasional indiscretion however.  And today seemed like a good occasion for it, since one of our local craft beer places was doing a fundraiser for the Noah’s Light Foundation, a group that helps kids with cancer.  All proceeds from two particular drafts on tap would be going to the Foundation, and there were raffles and other ways to give money.  Drink beer and help kids?  Sure.  So I got in a good long walk this morning in order to stockpile some calories for my indulgence, headed to World of Beer, and ordered a nice tall cold one.

Yeah, I’d really missed this.  Just sitting there, nursing a beer, watching five or six screens and not really focusing on any of them.  And not really worrying about the dietary consequences.  Oh, I kept things under control; I wasn’t about to launch on some epic binge and gain six pounds in an afternoon.  But I didn’t fret over every calorie either.  I was just a guy drinking a beer, with nobody knowing how hard I worked to get to that point.

However, drinking near-water for so long didn’t exactly help with my tolerance.  I got hit.  Hard.  Like, “Oh boy this is my first beer ever!” hard.  It was a heartier beer than your average stuff, and every percent of alcohol in it came around and introduced itself to me.  I didn’t get stupid sloppy or anything, but I was grateful they had food on hand so I could balance things out.

As much as I miss the days of free-flowing beer, it hasn’t been that hard keeping it out of the diet.  It was never a compulsion or addiction for me.  It was just something I liked to have with food, something whose taste I enjoyed.  Now that I’m pretty much at my target weight, I’ll probably start allowing myself a couple a little more frequently.  Not enough to meet up with Fat Richard again, but enough so that an actual honest to goodness beer doesn’t knock me on my ass.  Because that was kind of embarrassing.

What I’d Watch 4/24/15

You have to wonder how the people behind the movies that got released these last few weeks feel about where their studios decided to slot them.  “Here, get slapped around by Furious 7 for a while before Age of Ultron finishes you off.”  Sure, there’s such a thing as counter-programming, and the idea that a big blockbuster can actually boost attendance for other films out at the same time, but that sure didn’t seem to be happening to the films that ran into Vin Diesel and company.  Furious 7 outgrossed the entire top 10 combined its first weekend in release, damn near did it again its second weekend, and easily held off Mall Cop 2 in its third.  There was a rising tide, all right, but it sure didn’t lift all the boats.  And there’s a tsunami coming next week, so it might be a good time to just get the hell out of the water.  But you’ll never see a weekend with no releases at all, so here goes nothing.

Little Boy is about, well, a little boy who tries to literally will World War II to end so his dad can come home.  He’s supposedly getting help from his faith or God or something, but from the trailers, his efforts mostly consist of him doing a Magneto impression while looking constipated.  And if I’m reading the reviews that dance around spoilers correctly, the climax comes when he looks west across the Pacific and does his Jedi mind trick right as the Hiroshima bomb — also named “Little Boy” — goes off.  That has to be the most hilariously tasteless thing I’ve heard in quite some time:  your reward for your faith is atomic death for hundreds of thousands of people so your dad can come home.  Because World War II is all about you.  And because no little Japanese boys were hoping for their dads to come home.  So yeah, let Vin and the Avengers clobber this one.

The weekend of ridiculous premises continues with The Age of Adaline, in which a woman gets in a car accident and stops aging.  If I’d known that was all it took, I’d have been running into phone poles every chance I got.  Of course, my preferred method of living forever involves sword fights and decapitations; it just seems like a whole lot more fun.  Adaline seems like it wants to be this big, lavish epic that teaches us Important Things About Life, but I’m not sure I trust the people behind the camera — a bunch of names I absolutely do not recognize — to pull off something that grand without it seeming silly and contrived.  Some would argue a talent like David Fincher didn’t quite manage it with The Strange Case of Benjamin Button, and I’m pretty sure … what’s his name … Lee Toland Krieger isn’t in Fincher’s class.  Although he does have a pretty great presidential assassin name, if he ever decides to go that route.

But there is hope for this weekend!  And it comes in the form of Ex Machina, which has been in limited release and goes wide today.  Alex Garland wrote and directed this, and while it’s his first time in the chair, his writing pedigree is pretty solid:  28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd, all films I enjoyed to some extent (Dredd in particular) and certainly not cookie cutter efforts.  Ex Machina centers on age-old questions of what makes someone — or something — human, and appears to owe a good bit of debt to Kubrick and Spielberg in equal parts, while not looking like an out-and-out A.I. riff.  It looks to have an intriguing balance of thought and thrill, and it might be the smartest film we’ll see for a while, what with the muscles set to come rolling in next week.

So I’m going to scrunch up my face and wave my hands and try to make Ex Machina do well by sheer force of will.  If it ended World War II, it can certainly boost some box office.

Top of the Pops

It recently came to my attention that iHeartRadio has a station that is nothing but replays of American Top 40 broadcasts from the ’70s and ’80s.  Needless to say, I now have my new soundtrack for work.

AT40 was my musical obsession when I was a kid.  It started off as a way to make sure songs I liked were being given their proper due.  I’d listen in every weekend, thrilled when my favorites moved up, outraged when they fell, baffled when something I didn’t like inexplicably scaled the heights to #1.  In time though, it became a way for me to zero in on new artists, since I really didn’t listen to a lot of other music radio, outside of whatever my parents had on in the car.  It was the pre-MTV days, when all we had was radio, and Casey Kasem’s endlessly cheerful voice presided over a parade of styles and genres that have pretty much vanished in today’s world of over-programmed narrowed-down sameness.

In the course of four hours, you could hear country, R&B, disco, punk, rock and pop all mixed together, and all given the stamp of legitimacy simply by virtue of Kasem putting a number in front of them.  Even though they were counted down from 40 to 1, there were also all sort of equal, all worthy of being on the list, even if they came from polar opposite ends of the musical spectrum.  For something that insisted on saying this song was better than this song because its number was lower, it was surprisingly egalitarian, with Kasem never putting down or ridiculing a song, not matter how silly it might have been.

Of course, MTV did come along, and put a good dent in AT40 and radio in general, at least as far as discovering the new was concerned.  And new ways of tracking music made it possible for songs to debut at #1, without the thrill of the climb, and stay there for epic runs that would have been unimaginable in the old days.  But hearing those old broadcasts is a shot of instant nostalgia, a reminder of lazy Sunday mornings spent with a tinny transistor radio listening to find out if “Dancing in the Dark” would finally muscle its way past “When Doves Cry” (it never did) or if “Cum On Feel the Noize” could actually make it to the top (it did).

So I’m glad I can listen to these again, even if having every week’s Top 40 list available online means there’s no more suspense in how things turn out.  It’s like a musical all-star game, where the outcome isn’t nearly as important as seeing your favorites all in one place.  Although I still have a bit of a grudge against Prince.  The Boss deserved that #1.

Board Minutes for 4/21/15

One of the necessities of buying new games is having to learn those games and then, eventually, teaching someone else how to play them.  Something which I generally feel completely uncomfortable with.  It’s a sort of catch-22:  I don’t feel capable of teaching a game until I’ve played it, oh, a couple of dozen times, but how am I going to get all those plays in unless I teach someone how to play it with me?  It’s lead to a lot of games that I own but still haven’t played.  But tonight I finally got one to the table, mostly because I told people I was bringing it and they most inconveniently said, “Hey, cool, we’ll give it a try.”  Inconsiderate bastards.

Roll for the Galaxy — Dice versions of existing games seem to be all the rage right now.  I’m not really sure why; I guess people are more familiar with rolling dice and so take to these a little more easily.  I can say that, having played this game’s predecessor Race for the Galaxy, Roll for the Galaxy does seem a little simpler; Race is a deckbuilder with game symbols that can be a little impenetrable the first couple of times you play it.  Roll has its fair share of dizzying symbology, and, paired with my fumbling, hurried explanation of things minus the game summaries I thought I’d printed for it, had us a little in the dark at the beginning of our first game.  Thoughts of ever playing this game again seemed hopeless.

What happens here is that you roll different colored dice with different symbols on them, each representing a certain phase of the game.  You then have to place these dice on a card, first to indicate which phases will actually take place this turn, then which dice will be used to act during those phases.  Some of the confusion comes from the fact that you can use a dice that doesn’t match a phase to activate that phase, but not to activate its action.  For instance, a rocket ship symbol stands for the Ship action, which I need on a die if I actually want to ship something.  But I can set a die showing an eye or a circle on the actual Ship phase space to make that phase happen.  Even there I’m probably not explaining it perfectly.  But as you use the dice, they leave your pool, meaning you have fewer dice to roll next turn and therefore a smaller range of things you can do (although you can buy dice back at the end of the turn if you have the credits).  You can build developments and colonize worlds, both of which give you victory points and abilities that can help you score more points, get more dice, or use your dice in more flexible ways.  It really is an elegant mechanic once you get past the absolute Neanderthal trying to tell you how it all works.

But I guess I didn’t do too bad a job of explaining it, because they gameplay picked up considerably as time went on and things clicked for everyone.  They even wanted to play it a second time, which was like night and day from the first go-round, since we’d already made every mistake imaginable.  So despite wedging my foot firmly in my mouth, the game was a winner.  Now I just have to hit the books and learn some more of my games so I can finally get them off the shelves.  Or hope someone else buys them so I can watch them try to teach them.

Biting the Hand

Sometimes, I really dislike my fellow gamers.

There’s a sense of entitlement that creeps into their thinking sometimes, especially when it comes to games that have expansions.  They’ll talk for months and months between new products, about what they think simply has to be added to the game, what should be removed because it’s irretrievably broken, how they’d fix all the problems with this game that, mind you, they play enough to have an intimate working knowledge of every permutation of the rules.  Despite it being a terrible game that need work.

And then, when the game company finally reveals something new that addresses some of those issues, well, that’s nice, but it wasn’t the fix the group think had decided it should be.  That’s not the model or card or patch change or FAQ answer that was discussed and agreed on, so therefore it is bad and wrong and a sure sign the game has jumped the shark and is doomed to die out any day now.

Now I’m not saying gamers aren’t allowed to have opinions or dislike things about the games they play.  It’d be a fantasy world if every single game pleased every single gamer with every single thing it did.  But what bugs me is the certainty some of the complainers have that Game Company X clearly has no idea what it’s doing, did not play-testing on any of these changes, and is completely out of touch with how their own game works.  Especially because I’ve been privy in the past to just how exhaustive the design and play-testing process is for one of these games, and — for the really good games — it’s anything but rushed and haphazard.  And usually done by people with a much more intuitive grasp of game design and balance than people complaining on a message board.

Funny thing is, the people who complain the loudest are usually the ones who are still there months later, venting about the next new thing, and how the game was so much better back when the last thing they were moaning about came along.  So they beat on, boats against the current play state, borne back ceaselessly into the patch.

And yeah, I just paraphrased the end of The Great Gatsby into a quote about gaming.  I should probably stop.

A Bright Center to the Universe

At around 2:00 Thursday afternoon, productivity plummeted, online conversations ceased, millions of breaths were held, and then released in varying gasps of amazement and joy.

The new Star Wars trailer had arrived.

Now I remember waiting for our glacially slow internet connections to download the Episode I trailer back in 1998 with similar levels of excitement.  But the signs of future disappointment — like Jar-Jar and Jake Lloyd’s acting and the awful Yoda puppet — were all there.  We just chose to ignore them in the rush of knowing Star Wars was coming back to the big screen.  Even with the Special Edition releases the previous year, Star Wars had pretty much been gone.  We’d been in the desert and any drink of water looked good.

This time around, it feels different.  Star Wars hasn’t faded away like it did in the years after Return of the Jedi.  It’s been a constant presence, never gone long enough for us to miss it.  The mere existence of a new Star Wars film isn’t enough on its own to send us into paroxysms of geek bliss.  Besides, we learned our lesson the last time around.

And yet here we were cheering and clapping and some of us even tearing up as the new teaser for The Force Awakens unspooled last week.  Because while seeing the Phantom Menace trailer made us think, “Hey, this looks like Star Wars,”  this one made us think, “Hey, this is Star Wars!”

Because instead of being overwhelmed by a parade of new names and faces, there were all our old friends:  Luke, Leia, Artoo, and then, amazingly, gloriously, Han and Chewie.  Some only glimpsed, some definitely older and grayer, but instantly recognizable as the characters we grew up with.  Woven around them were tantalizing glimpses of the new characters, who already seem to be fitting right in to the new — yet old — Star Wars universe.  This wasn’t the shiny artifice of the spotless prequels.  This was the dirty, lived-in world of the original films, now even more lived-in with the passage of years after the Rebellion.  And no firmer statement of this could be found than in the stunning opening shot of the trailer, with the massive wreckage of a Star Destroyer telling us, “This is the Star Wars you knew, but not the Star Wars you knew.”  Old and new colliding, with no idea what’s in store for us.

But the best thing about this trailer release was the shared sense of joy.  I had people gathered around my desk at work to watch it.  Within hours of its posting, YouTube videos of overjoyed reactions popped up all over the place, showing us gleeful, ecstatic faces, some young, some old, all enthralled.  The crowd at Celebration watching the trailer live sounded like part rock concert, part football game, their voices gasping and cheering before exploding into cheers and applause when Han spoke the words that summed up how we were all feeling that moment:  “We’re home.”

That shared experience is the best part of fandom.  The idea that millions of us were all sharing the same thing, the same excitement, the same joy.  For one fleeting moment, we’d all found a bright center to the universe, and everything was good and right and hopeful.

Yes, the lessons of The Phantom Menace loom large.  The adult in me wants to talk about managing expectations and the best-foot-forward nature of movie trailers.  But the kid in me wants to run around making lightsaber noises.  And I think I’ll let him go for a while.

What I’d Watch 4/17/15

This weekend sees the release of a new horror movie, a movie featuring the antics of various funny primates, and Disney’s new movie Monkey Kingdom.

Come on, you knew I wasn’t going to miss a chance at a cheap shot at Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, right?  And if I happen to hurt Kevin James’ feelings, well, he can just go cry over the $146 million the first film inexplicably made.  That said, that came out six years ago, so this doesn’t exactly feel like striking while the iron is hot.  Making those Grown Ups movies couldn’t have taken up that much of his time.  Everything about this film just screams, “Same jokes as the first film, different location.”  Which will probably be enough to satisfy those who enjoyed the first film and who want a nice big air-conditioned room in which to eat their overpriced popcorn.

Disney keeps up with their tradition of releasing a nature film on or around Earth Day with Monkey Kingdom.  I made the mistake at first of thinking this was a new martial arts film full of Chinese mythology, which, let’s be honest, I’d probably be a little more excited about.  These Disneynature films haven’t exactly been financial home runs for the Mouse — the first one, 2009’s Earth, is the most successful at only $32 million — but these have always been more about the prestige and the veneer of environmental consideration they create than making a fortune at the box office.  And hey, the casts work pretty cheap, so they likely turn a decent profit.

So it looks like this weekend by default goes to Unfriended.  Deep breath now, and sing along if you know the words:  horror films open well and make money because they’re usually cheap.  No reason to believe otherwise here.  It’s not going to come close to Furious 7, which is over a billion in worldwide gross and showing no signs of slowing down until a certain angry robot throws down with the Avengers — but it doesn’t have to in order to be successful.  And its twist on the found footage format, with the entire film taking place on computer screens, might just be different enough to pull curious horror fans in for a look-see.

Honestly though, I don’t feel myself at all compelled to get out to any of these.  If I want to see computer screens and funny monkeys, I can just hang around my apartment with my desktop and a mirror.

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