Top Ten Movies of 2015!

Yesterday I published a list of my top five worst movies of the year, and today it’s time to celebrate the best ones. It’s actually been a great year for movies and I had a shortlist of just over 20 movies that I enjoyed immensely. There have also been a number of big releases, and some nostalgia films. Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have been the year’s biggest hits, but where are they on my list. Are they even on my list? At the end I’ll be doing a recap and talking about why some films didn’t make it on my list, and ones that just missed out on the top ten. I’ll also be doing a top ten of the most anticipated films of 2016, which will be posted on New Year’s Day (my birthday woo!)

Just to go over the disclaimers again, I’m in the UK so this list is based on movies that have been released in cinemas over here. I try and see as many movies as I can but I don’t get to them all, unfortunately, so there may have been a great one that I have missed. And this is all just in my opinion I’m not doing this based on anything like box office results etc. If you read my blog regularly then you probably know some of the movies that will appear on here, but I’m sure there will be a couple of surprises.

#10 – Crimson Peak

I always find the number ten slot hard to fill as it means I can’t put anymore films on the list, but Crimson Peak I liked more than the rest of the films on the shortlist. The plot is okay, if a little predictable, but what I really loved about the film were the visuals. Del Toro always makes interesting films and I loved his use of colour here. The walls of the house were literally bleeding, and the whole gothic atmosphere seeped out of the screen. The actors gave strong performances and the tone was creepy and unsettling without being overwhelmingly so, and it gets tense towards the end as well.

#9 – Mr. Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is one of my favourite fictional characters and I found the concept of this film interesting, as it placed him towards the end of his life where he’s losing his mental faculties, but has to solve an unsolved case. Ian McKellen was superb in the role and I liked that it looked at Holmes from a different angle than many other adaptations. It’s more intimate in scope than some of the other films on my list, but I really enjoyed it.

#8 – Bridge of Spies

This is one that just came out a couple of weeks ago but managed to make the list, mostly because of Tom Hanks, but also because of the message that it sends. It’s very relevant in today’s culture where people seem quick to judge people based on hearsay or rumours, and tar everyone with the same brush. The integrity of Hanks’ character is admirable and the treatment he receives is disgusting, but mixed into this is a good Cold War thriller set in Berlin, shot in a way that evokes that harrowing, harsh environment.

#7 – Inside Out

I’m not as big on Pixar as many other people (I still think Up is one of the most overrated movies of all time) but Inside Out was great fun, and I think it’s the only movie on this list to make me cry (anyone who has seen it knows which part). There were also some really cool scenes, like when they get turned into abstract shapes. Obviously emotions are more complex than what the film makes them out to be, but for the sake of storytelling I can understand why they did what they did.

#6 – The Walk

When I went into this one I was skeptical because as much as I like Gordon-Levitt as an actor I wasn’t sure the premise could sustain a two hour movie, but I was engrossed the whole time. The whole film leads up to the big stunt, where he walks a tightrope strung between the twin towers, and it’s worth all the building up. It was a film that made me gaze up in awe as I saw the impossible made real, and that struck me as wonderful because nowadays films are always trying to be bigger and better and do more amazing things with their visuals, but sometimes all you need is something as simple as a man on a wire.

#5 – The Duff

Now this is one that I think will take people by surprise, for it certainly did that to me. From the trailers it looked like a typical high school movie, and I almost didn’t go see it but I was bored one Monday evening and managed to get to it before it was out of the theatres, and I have to say that wow this movie is great. Obviously it comes with the caveat that you are interesting in teen movies, but it’s a fresh look at the often tired high school genre. Mae Whitman is a great lead and I look forward to seeing her in more films. The thing I liked most about The Duff is the core message – that it’s important to define yourself, not have others do it for you. Don’t dismiss this one.

#4 – Ex Machina

Back at university I did a course called ‘The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence’ and this film was basically a visual representation of that course. The three leads are amazing and there are layers of mystery that are peeled away, leading to an explosive climax. It’s a thoughtful film that provokes discussion, and unfortunately I think it’s going to be one of those films that are going to get lost in the shuffle, but if you get a chance then check it out.

#3 – Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Perhaps the only surprise here is that it isn’t higher on my list, but yes, the biggest release of the year comes in at number three. This was the one that I thought was going to be top, and I did really enjoy it. I went to a midnight showing and had a grin on my face for most of the film. The opening was awesome, I loved the new characters, and seeing the old ones again was great. But, invariably, whenever I talk about this film there’s as much griping as there is praising, and most of the problems I had with the film were small, niggling things that could have been fixed easily. And as much as I enjoyed it, I felt like I had seen the movie before, and I almost enjoyed the promise of the next one more than I did the actual film. But I still really enjoyed it and it did still beat out most of the other films I’ve seen this year. But there are still two more…

#2 – Whiplash

This was one that was in contention for the Oscar. It’s a ninety minute movie that’s minimalist in nature but it was one of the most tense experiences I’ve had watching a movie. I was completely enthralled from beginning to end, and my heart was racing along with the drumbeat. Teller and Simmons were absolutely fantastic and after the film had finished I felt drained, but in a good way, like I had to catch my breath. I knew after I watched it that it would be high on my list, and so it proved to be. But it is not the highest! That honour falls to…

#1 – The Martian

Yes. I knew after I watched this that it would most likely be my number one of the year, and the only one that threatened it was Star Wars. I initially wasn’t fussed about seeing it because I haven’t been impressed with most of Ridley Scott’s recent work, but I saw it at the end of a four-movie marathon and it just had me all the way through, like Interstellar the previous year. Matt Damon was amazing, I loved the humour in the film, loved the scenes on Earth and Mars and in space, just loved EVERYTHING! It was one of those films where I was completely engrossed from start to finish, like Whiplash but I also loved the wider message about humanity and how we strive to survive and help each other. Just an excellent, excellent film.

And that wraps up another year. There are some notable exceptions of course. This is a rare year where there are no superhero movies on the list. Avengers: Age of Ultron was never going to make it. Ant-Man and Big Hero 6 were close though. Some people may be surprised that Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t get a mention, but although I enjoyed that film I think it’s so overrated and in a few years it’ll be forgotten. Other films that were close are No EscapeThe Visit, and American Sniper. It was tough to leave them out, but next year is going to be even tougher, as you’ll see when I put up my top ten most anticipated movies of the year, so look out for that.

Other than that let me know what you think! What were your favourite movies of the year? Do you agree with my list? Which films took you by surprise?

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Top 5 Worst Movies of 2015!

Yes it’s that time of year again for the round up of my movie watching experiences in 2015. I was going to do a top ten of this but I looked at it and the latter ones were just on there to make up the numbers, so I decided to condense it. I try to see as many movies as possible but I don’t manage to catch them all, so this list is just made of from those I have seen. Also, I’m based in the UK so these movies are ones that have been released in the UK over the year. Now, I use ‘worst’ in my title for the sake of brevity, really it means most disappointing or most disliked. On a technical level there has no doubt been objectively worse movies released than those on these list, but of the ones I have seen this year these are the ones that I have disliked the most. I’ll give brief thoughts on them but if you want a deeper analysis then go check out my reviews! Right, that’s all the disclaimers over and done with!

#5 – Jupiter Ascending

Before the year began I was expecting Jupiter Ascending to be on my top ten list. I loved Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis’ previous movie, and I’m a sucker for space opera. This looked like an expansive story with philosophical undertones…but in the end it was just a mess. It looked pretty, sure, but the story was eye-rollingly bad. I mean, I still can’t over the fact that they actually had a scene where bees swarmed around Mila Kunis’ character because ‘bees recognise royalty’! Eddie Redmayne did a complete 180 from his performance in The Theory of Everything and as much as I wanted to like it I couldn’t even justify any of the terribleness that was present in this movie.

#4 – Foxcatcher

Another one that I expected to like as I enjoy the three leads, but this was another where I simply didn’t understand the hype (spoiler alert – there’s another on the list lower down). It was relentlessly boring and it was one of the few times where I wanted to walk out of the theatre because I just wasn’t having a good time, and the only thing I felt when it was over was relief.

#3 – Birdman

Okay, so that other film wasn’t that much lower down. Yes! Yet another year where the winner of the best picture Oscar makes it onto my worst of the year list, as did 12 Years a Slave. As with Jupiter Ascending I thought this would be one that I really enjoyed. I love superheroes, and stories that deconstruct them, and the fact that Michael Keaton was in the titular role was ingenious casting given his obvious ties to the caped crusader. But the end product was just weird and didn’t seem to say much more than the usual ‘actor struggling with fame’ angst. Yawn.

#2 – 50 Shades of Grey

Ah yes, any of you who follow my blog would know that this was certain to be on the list. There have been many more intelligent people who have written essays on this film about why it presents such a warped view of what constitutes a dom/sub relationship and romance, and I urge you to check those out. But aside from all those problems it’s just a boring film as well. The actors are bland and vapid, the romance is insipid and the only reason it isn’t number one on my list is because it has at least one redeeming feature – the music, which I thought was enjoyable. But otherwise it’s a horrible film, and the message it sends is not one that should be spread.

#1 – Fantastic Four

Sometimes movies come along and you read the reviews and you think, ‘nah it can’t be that bad’. That’s not the case here. As much as I dislike the previous entry there’s no way that Fantastic Four wouldn’t have been top as it’s not only a bad film in my eyes, but there are also objectively bad problems. I’ve heard it described as a broken film before, and that is wholly accurate as you can actually see the seams in the film where the reshoots have been stitched in in order to salvage some of the mess. The plot is all over the place, there are so many flaws, Dr. Doom is ridiculous, his plan is nonsensical, everything is just bad. Really, really, bad. And I wouldn’t even urge you to be tempted to watch it out of curiosity. Do something better with your time. I haven’t even mentioned the bit that really pissed me off, where the three guys wait a few hours for Reed’s buddy to show up (who two of them have never met) so he can go on the mission, but none of them think to ask Sue! Ugh, this film is so bad it makes me angry thinking about it.

And that’s why it’s top of my list.

So that’s that for another year! It’s actually been a pretty good year for movies and I had far more on my top ten of the year, which will be posting on the 31st. But what do you think? What were your worst movies of the year? Do you think there’s been anything that’s been as bad or worse than Fantastic Four? Let me know in the comments!

Pandemic Legacy First Impressions (No Spoilers)

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Today I’m going to be talking about Pandemic: Legacy! If you’re into board games at all you’ve no doubt heard about this as it’s been the biggest release of the year, and has received almost unanimous plaudits. Pandemic is a co-operative game in which players are trying to prevent and cure diseases from spreading over the world. The legacy part is a system whereby the game changes over time. New rules get added, secret compartments are opened, stickers are placed on the board etc.

Risk Legacy was released last year to much acclaim but, with all due respect to that game, it’s still Risk. That campaign lasts for 15 games, and so far I’ve done three of those. Already I’ve played Pandemic Legacy six times. It takes place over the year, so there’s a minimum of twelve games, but if you lose a month you replay it once before moving on, so a maximum of 24 games.

There are some people who find this idea incredulous, and I can see why. After all, usually if you buy a board game then it’s yours forever, or as long as you want it. Pandemic Legacy is consumable, so it’s understandable that people may be unwilling to part with around £50 for a game that they’re only going to be playing a finite number of times. But I think it’s important to note here that you’re not necessarily paying for the game, you’re also paying for the experience.

That’s where I’m coming from anyway  (even though technically I didn’t pay anything for this because it was an early Christmas present, but had I not received it as a present I was going to get it myself eventually anyway). Games are a form of entertainment, and while some are going to be there to be played whenever I want, others are not. I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes consulting detective, and that only has ten cases in the box but every time I’ve played it I’ve had a great time.

Playing Pandemic Legacy gives me the same sort of feeling as binging on a tv show. I play with my two friends Dave and Dan, and we had a run where we just didn’t want to stop. Sometimes new things get added into the game in the middle of the game, other times it happens in between. The game comes with some secret dossiers and a whole legacy deck that adds new characters and all kinds of cool things, which I’m obviously not going to go into here (and it’s kind of a pertinent discussion about spoilers since Star Wars came out last week, and I’ve read more than a few reports about people spoiling the movie for others. I haven’t heard any reports of that happening with this game) but they make you want to keep playing.

I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t a huge fan of Pandemic before I played this, and it was mostly the legacy aspect that attracted me to the game. We played one normal game to get the rules straight in our minds before delving into the main campaign, and that game was alright, but once we started the campaign I was hooked. So far it seems a bit different from Risk Legacy in that there are more things added to the game, it feels much more active (although admittedly I have a long way to go with Risk Legacy). Naming characters is cool, as is naming the diseases if you eradicate them. The game is straightforward enough that the rules are easy to keep straight, and the new ones that get added so far haven’t added any major complexity.

I always get a thrill when we get to open a new packet and we all take turns. It’s a little strange to write this many words on a game without actually talking about what happens in the game, but I think that speaks to the strength of the experience it provides. The three of us were huddled around the table, pumping our fists in triumph or holding our head in our hands as things got out of control, discussing what to do next, then laughing in disbelief at something we just read on a new card.

I can’t recommend this highly enough to be honest. I know it’s a steep price, but if I were you I’d suggest splitting it between the people you play with. Obviously I can’t say if it’s going to be worth it for you, but I think if you’re on the fence about this because you’re not a big fan of Pandemic then that’s not so much an issue. The game is continually evolving so it doesn’t have that ‘samey’ feel that comes with the regular game. The legacy aspect feels such a natural fit with the theme that now it’s hard for me to imagine Pandemic without it. It works so well, and flows so seamlessly. Already we have a narrative forming and there’s still a little over half a year to go, so I can’t imagine what’s going to happen next, and I can’t wait to find out.

What do you think? Are you put off by the idea of only being able to play a game a certain amount of times? Do you not like Pandemic at all? Have you played it and thought that the game is totally overrated?

 

Brief Board Game Reviews 2

Yep! Time for another batch of game reviews that I’ve been playing recently.

First up we have Arcadia Quest. This is a campaign/skirmish game that’s all about rolling dice and killing the other players. The campaign mode is made up of six scenarios, and after each one you get to level up your characters with new items. Each character has their own special ability, and each scenario has a specific quest that may grant a reward or title that will have a benefit later on in the game.

There’s so much variety in this game its unreal, and it’s so much fun. You move, roll dice, die, do it all again. And when you die you’re only out of the game until  you rest (and even then you have three characters in your guild so if one of them dies you still have two to move around). There are some really cool mechanics in the game, like when you die you get a death token, and this means that you’ll get a death curse that may affect you in the next game. The monsters can respawn, the dice explode (when you roll a critical hit it counts as a hit and you get to roll it again). The upgrade phase is great as you draft equipment, so you see things you want but also things that you don’t want your opponents to get.

Sometimes turns can get long, for example at one point my friend was rolling 14 defense dice, so it can bog down, but otherwise it’s a fun, fast-paced game, and I love that you can have little vendettas with your opponents but they never last. It does require a lot of set up time and take down time, and it can take a while to explain the rules (even though once you get started its pretty straightforward).

Biblios –

A change of pace now as you’re abbots in a monastery sorting books! The game is played in two halves, the first being a kind of drafting mechanic, you draw cards (number depends on the amount of players), keep one for yourself, send one to an auction, and then give the rest to the other players. Once you’ve gone through the deck you use the cards you collected in the auction, and at the end of the game you’re trying to have the most cards in a set. The cool thing is that the points value of each set is based on the face of a die. Each set starts as three, but you can manipulate them as you go through the game, and this adds a little bit of depth. It’s a very quick game as well, plays in about 30 minutes, and it’s pretty cool!

Lost Legacy –

This is like Love Letter. It’s a small card game where you’re trying to guess what your opponents have, but this time there is a ruin pile where cards can go face down. It was pretty good, but I still prefer Batman Love Letter.

Blueprints –

This game consists of three rounds in which you’re collecting dice to build a secret blueprint. You get bonuses for the types of dice you use, and whether you’ve actually succeeded in building the blueprint or not. It’s fun and quick and I was completely terrible at it, but it’s cool to build a little structure with dice, and there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made when you’re choosing the dice. There’s also turn angst as well, as the other players go around and you’re silently thinking ‘don’t pick that die don’t pick that die don’t pick aaahhhh why did you pick that one!’

Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Stars: Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Peter Mayhew, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Oscar Isaac, Gwendoline Christie

…Yeah I’m not going to give my usual plot overview. I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.

Obviously The Force Awakens has a lot of hype and a lot of weight surrounding it. So many things could have gone wrong. It has to introduce new characters while including the old, and try to recapture the magic of the original trilogy without seeming clichéd. I was concerned that it would be derivative and that it would basically be a highlights reel of ‘things we loved in Star Wars,’ and while it’s not a flawless film it is a fun film, and the energy of the original trilogy is back.

The main strength of the film lies with the characters. Rey (Ridley) and Finn (Boyega) are a good team, and Rey especially is a badass. I liked both their arcs, and both were sympathetic characters. The opening scene that introduces us to Finn and gets the plot moving is engaging and instantly creates a bond to the character. Rey’s introduction is more sedate, but through the film she shows herself to be a strong-willed character, and there are hints to her backstory that are intriguing. Po (Isaac) made an impact on me even though I was surprised at how little he was in the film. I look forward to seeing more of him.

With how good these new characters are, it meant that I wasn’t simply waiting for the cast of the original trilogy to show up. I of course wanted to see them and was excited when they finally appeared, but I was never getting bored of Finn and Rey (or BB-8, who was a completely endearing character). Kylo Ren is a menacing bad guy, and the film manages to give him a compelling and tragic backstory in about 10 seconds, and the prequels couldn’t do that with Anakin in three movies!

However, not all the character work is good, and here I must mention Christie as Captain Phasma. There was literally no point to her character. She could have been any generic stormtrooper and it wouldn’t have changed the film at all.

Shall we get to some more negative things? Sure!

While The Force Awakens isn’t just a highlight reel, it does follow the same template as A New Hope so the plot beats are predictable, and while there were a couple of moments that surprised me it’s the kind of film where you can see how things are going to play out fairly early on. There’s some wonky science, which doesn’t bother me so much because I’ve always seen Star Wars as space fantasy, and I’m willing to give a lot of poetic license, but some people may be bothered by that. I was a little disappointed with Jakku because it was basically Tatooine by any other name, and I’d rather there be new environments (say what you will about the prequels but there were some cool planets in there).

Another little thing was a moment with R2 but that’s all I’ll say there…

And the big thing is that the film went bigger instead of going deeper, and yeah Star Wars is bombastic and over the top etc but it just feels like it has to top the other films instead of taking a different angle, and it verges on the ridiculous.

The other big disappointment were the lightsaber duels. They lacked the gravitas of the ones from the original trilogy, and the frenetic choreography of the prequels, so there’s definitely room for improvement there.

I was also hoping that the situation would be reversed and that the Republic would be the expansive galactic force, while the remains of the Empire were a small band trying to reclaim their glory, but there wasn’t much time given to developing the new state of the galaxy (which I can forgive to some extent because the prequels were bogged down by the political state of the Republic, but I’d still like to know how the First Order were allowed to become as powerful as they were).

I did like the exploration of the force and how the light side and dark side oppose each other, and there’s always a tug of war between the two, and the Awakens aspect of the film was done well. There are also seeds planted for the next film in this new trilogy and the other thing I really really REALLY hate about the film is the ending because I just want to see the next one right now!

While I have my complaints (some of which I didn’t go into here because of spoilers) The Force Awakens is a really fun movie. It retains the visual appeal and includes frenetic space battles, but it also has great character work, on a par with that seen in The Empire Strikes Back. It would have been easy for the film to be underwhelming, or to not strike the right balance between the old and the new, but it manages to pull it off and for the most part I was sitting there with a big grin on my face. It was always going to be one of the biggest films of the year, but it’s also one of the best.

 

 

Book Review – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Americanah is presented as a love story about two star-crossed lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who separate after Ifemelu moves to America. It’s also a story about immigration, cultural differences, the difficulty and dangers of assimilating to a new culture, race, prejudice, and a lot more.

It’s a very deceiving book. First of all it’s 477 pages but the font is very small, so it took me a lot longer to read than I initially thought it would, but Adichie kept me engaged, for the most part. I was expecting a romance story but it’s not strictly that. The love affair between Ifemelu and Obinze is in the background for much of the story, and Ifemelu gets most of the pagetime.

Rather than a romance the book is more a vehicle for Adichie to talk about issues that interest her, and it becomes quite clear that Ifemelu is a proxy for her, and the novel is semi-autobiographical. The character is a professional blogger and some of the blog posts are inserted into the story. Along with this, there are many scenes in which Ifemelu is at a dinner party and engages someone in a discourse about a particular issue, so at times it can feel like you’re reading a collection of essays rather than a story.

And that’s where the dividing line is going to be regarding how people are going to feel about this book, I think. The observations that the author makes are interesting and her commentary about how different people are viewed and the class structure in America comes across as informed and passionate. Through Obinze she also comments on England as well, and then both characters explore the way the outlook on race and economics have changed in Nigeria as well. Many of the scenes feel like they have been captured from real-life experience, especially in the way Ifemelu talks about her relationships. But at times it does come across as though Ifemelu is smug and has everything worked out, and that other people just need to hurry up and agree with her, and she does became a thinly-veiled mouthpiece for the author, which is fine I mean, it’s her book she can do whatever she wants, but she becomes lost in her lecturing and loses focus of the actual story. When she does return to it the love between the characters loses its shine, and I went from rooting for the characters to being indifferent. Even in the last ten pages Adichie is introducing new characters and discussing the state of Nigeria when it felt like she should have been wrapping up the climax of the story.

So I think if you’re looking for a romance story about star-crossed lovers then this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you want to read an expansive novel that covers all kinds of important issues then definitely check it out. This review may seem overly critical but I did actually enjoy it a lot, I just feel like it could have done with some editing (the scenes in the salon especially felt repetitive). It’s a book that does require some effort to read, but if you have a little patience and you’re interested in exploring the issues the book presents then it’s a must-read.

Movie Review – Noel (2004)

Director: Chazz Palminteri

Stars: Susan Sarandon, Paul Walker, Penelope Cruz, Alan Arkin, Robin Williams, Marcus Thomas

It’s Christmas Eve, and not everyone is feeling the Christmas spirit. Rose (Sarandon) tends to her ill mother and ignores the invitation to spend the holidays with her ex husband and his new wife. Nina (Cruz) and Mike (Walker) are looking forward to getting married, until his jealousy gets in the way of his happiness, and then Mike is harassed by a man (Arkin) who claims that Mike is a reincarnation of his ex-wife. Then Jules (Calvert) tries to get into the hospital to recreate his happiest Christmas, but they won’t admit him unless there’s something wrong with him…

This is my first Christmas movie of the season and it’s more of an alternative movie because most Christmas movies focus on the people who have the idyllic Christmas, but that’s not true for everyone, so I like the concept. The execution however, not so much. And it’s a shame because I love A Bronx Tale, also directed by Palminteri, but Noel just doesn’t quite come together as it should.

For starters Rose’s story is far more interesting than the others, and Sarandon was excellent in the role. The other stories were uneven though. The story about the couple felt like it moved very quickly, and too much drama happened with them too quickly without developing them beyond the basic characters of jealous cop and pretty girlfriend. Walker had some good moments later on, but notably with Arkin rather than Cruz. Arkin’s story was different, I’ll give it that, and Jules’ felt like an afterthought. None of them had the substance of Rose, so the anthology nature of the film doesn’t do it any favours because not all the stories are strong, and it does feel like Rose is given the majority of the screen time.

Perhaps a longer runtime would have been beneficial so that some of the other stories could have been fleshed out.

The other problem I had with the film is that there seemed to be an unhealthy focus on jokes about Paul Walker’s character being gay, and him having to deny it. It’s a weak source for humour and, like, if you want to have a homosexual angle in your film then just have a prominent homosexual character.

The concept of the film, to focus on those people who maybe don’t have large families or people to embrace them on Christmas Day is interesting, and it’s always good to be reminded that Christmas shouldn’t be about the presents but the people you share your life with. However, the film has a couple of fundamental problems that I just can’t look past.

Movie Review – Batman vs Robin (2015)

Director: Jay Olivia

Stars: Jason O’Mara, Stuart Allen, Kevin Conroy, Robin Atkin Downes, Grey Griffin, Sean Maher, David McCallum, Jeremy Sisto

Next year is Batman vs Superman but this year the battle is close to home. Batman has been caring after his son, Damian Wayne, but is still trying to instil in him the same sense of morality. Damian is struggling with Batman’s insistence not to kill, and this causes tension between them. When the Court of Owls try to woo Robin in order to take out Batman, Bruce is haunted by his past, and fears that he is losing his son.

The film begins with a raid on an old toy shop in which the Dollmaker is holding children. It’s very creepy to see the Dollmaker and some of the children wearing masks made out of dolls, but it ties in thematically with the film, and how trapped Damian feels. Given that he’s so reckless Batman decides to try and put a leash on him, but this only makes Damian more frustrated and he eventually is seduced by the Court of Owls and their vigilante – Talon.

I’ve always enjoyed discussions about morality when it comes to heroes, and this film carries over some of that discussion from the previous film that introduced Damian. I liked how it ties in with Bruce’s past as well. He lost his family and the struggle he has with his own son takes its toll. I also enjoy how Damian is contrasted with Nightwing. Batman tried to build himself a family and Dick was like a son/brother, but now he actually has a son but Damian is much harder to control. The film even delves into Bruce’s subconscious in a compelling sequence that gets to the route of his fears. It’s a similar thing to what we’ve seen when he’s under the influence of Scarecrow, but it is effective.

The Court of Owls are made up masked individuals and their foot soldiers, who are kind of like zombies but it’s not really gone into any great detail. They’re basically cannon fodder, although there are some fairly intense action scenes. The ones I have to comment on are the fights between Damian and Batman/Nightwing. I know it’s a comic book film but Damian is only ten years old, so it’s a little unsettling to see two grown men fight him. I know he’s been trained by the League of Assassins and in some ways he’s not a child at all, but it’s still weird to see Batman fighting him.

I enjoyed the character of Talon as well, showing Damian what a version of Batman could be like if he didn’t have the strong moral code. There was a revelation at the end that could have been done away with as I didn’t think it added much to the story, and it happened so late in the game that it wasn’t able to be explored, but Talon was a cool character. Alfred had some good moments too, and it was a nice touch to have Kevin Conroy voice Thomas Wayne in flashbacks (yes, we get to see Thomas and Martha get shot down again).

Batman vs Robin is a story with a lot of substance. I like how it deals with the issue of Batman trying to be a good father, but the lines are blurred between father and son, protege and mentor, hero and sidekick. The Court of Owls provide an interesting adversary, although that’s mainly due to the development given to Talon.

Brief Board Game Reviews

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a board game review on my blog and I regret that, so to make up for it here are some quick reviews of board games that I’ve played over the past few months. Being a director with Board in the City CIC, one of the duties is to play games so that we can decide whether we’re going to feature them in our cafe or not.  There may well be a few more posts like this since we’re going to have to play around 200 games over the next few months!

Twilight Struggle –

May as well start with the #1 ranked game on Board Game Geek. This is a 2-player Cold War simulation, in which the players take on the roles of the USA and the USSR. I’d been itching to play this for a long time. The rule book is daunting but it’s actually intuitive to play. The game consists of 10 rounds, made up of a certain number of turns. On each turn players play a card from their hand and take an action, like perhaps they’ll spread influence in a country or they’ll advance in the space race. The trick comes with the fact that each player shares the deck, so come cards you play will  have an event that helps your opponent.

This is the thing I loved most about the game, as you have to figure out when is the best time to give your opponent a hand, or the time when it is going to hurt you least. It gets really tense, and the tug-of-war scoring is a great mechanic. And despite its serious theme, there are some funny moments, like how boycotting the Olympics could end up in Nuclear War.

It’s an amazing game, with loads of tough decisions, and the stress that comes from the game is the good kind of stress.

Splendor –

This is a resource-collection/engine building game in which you are gathering resources to buy cards that will give you discounts on future purchases. The better cards will give you points, and the first player that reaches 15 points is the winner.

I like Splendor but it’s not perfect. The cards are pretty and the poker chips are great, much better than using cubes or cardboard tokens, but I was looking forward to the engine building aspect of the game and it seems like it is downplayed. I think it’s because of the points threshold, as 15 points is quite quick to get to. I’ve found that just as my engine is going the game ends, so it’s a little disappointing in that regard.

But it’s quick to pick up and there’s a lot of table talk that comes from players taking the card you want, or reserving a card that someone else was looking to get, and it’s one that people new to the hobby can grasp quickly. Plus it doesn’t take too long to play so I’m not too sad that I don’t get to see the results of my engine.

Batman Love Letter –

The title brings about chuckles but I actually prefer this version to the original (but that’s probably just due to the fact that I’m a comics geek). Love Letter is a small card game in which you’re trying to guess what other players have, and be the last person holding a card. This version has an added mechanic in which you get a token if you eliminate another player using the Batman card (basically guessing what card they’re holding), and this speeds the game up so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The artwork is good, the tokens are amazing, so yeah it’s going to get a lot of laughs but it’s not just a cash-grab with the Batman theme slapped over the framework of the game.

The King Commands –

Arthur has died and the remaining knights of the round table are vying for control of the kingdom. It sounds epic, but it’s another small card game in which you’ll be playing swords to try and steal gold from other players. There are also crowns and crystal balls in the deck that have other effects.

This was pretty cool. The only problem I had was that there are different attacks you can make like pokes, thrusts, swings etc, which require different combinations of cards, and at first I had to keep consulting the cheat sheet to see exactly what I could do, and this slowed the game down somewhat. A lot of time you’re mostly guessing as to who has gold, but it’s only a quick game, and there are a couple of ways to find out what people are holding in their hand so it was pretty fun.

Destination: Southampton –

Yeah…not all the games we play are good ones. This is a game in which you are a taxi driver trying to race around the board and collect fares, this time it’s in Southampton, which is of course where I live.

The components in this are horrible. Paper money, the rest is cheap card, and it just feels horrible. The game itself is boring. You’re just rolling dice and going to the tickets you get, and you can spend £150 to become a turbo taxi (roll two dice) but I don’t know why you wouldn’t do this. There’s also an annoying rule in which you need to go to the petrol station so you can fill up, but you can only have 5 fuel cards at any one time, and you always need to keep one in hand otherwise you break down, and you’re spending a fuel card every time you reach a destination, so every four fares you collect you then have to make it back to the petrol station.

Very repetitive, and the board doesn’t even match the actual layout of Southampton so it kinda defeats the entire purpose of the game! One of those that I will never play again. Far too long, and it’s just an exercise in monotony.

Scorpion –

This is a game from 1983, which makes it three years older than me. The board is an ‘s’ shape with a yellow track and a black track. Players have 4 scorpion tokens and the winner is the one who can get all their tokens off the board. You roll dice and can choose whether to move on the yellow or black (if you have scorpions on the respective tracks). Sounds simple, right? It is, but there’s a wrinkle, if you land on another scorpion you can push it onto the opposite track! So someone may be just a few spaces from coming off the board but you bump them back to the start! And if you land on your own pawn and don’t want to move it, you can piggy back off it and roll another die.

It’s always fun when you get to piggy back off people, especially if you can do it two or even three times in the same go. I get that the idea of being knocked back when you’re close to escaping sounds awful, but the board is small enough that you’re never that far behind, and if you want you can roll two dice at once to move your scorpion forward pretty quickly. It’s also interesting to decide when to put your tokens on the board, do you want to get all four of them out as quickly as possible or hold off?

If the board was bigger this could be dragged out, but its the perfect length to make this a really quick game filled with laughs. And of course with more players (it plays 2-4) its even more hectic. Really impressed with this one and if you see it in a charity shop, or in the back of someone’s cupboard, you should definitely check it out!

Forbidden Island –

Back to modern board games. This is a co-op game from Matt Leacock, who has made these types of games his speciality. Each player gets a character card and the object of the game is to collect four treasures, then make it off the island, which is made up of tiles. The tiles are going to be sinking so you have to try and shore them up, so there’s a puzzle element to it.

I liked it the first time I played it, but I think I’m done with it now. For me it lacks some tension and it feels like the decisions you should make are obvious, and often you’re at the whim of the cards. BUT for people new to gaming, and for kids, this game is fantastic because it gives a flavour of what modern games can offer. So it’s definitely going into the cafe, and it’s been a hit in our community work, but on a personal level it doesn’t do anything for me.

And finally today let’s thank god it’s…

Friday –

A solo deck-builder, this game has you as Friday, trying to help Robinson Crusoe escape the island. I love deck-builders, so my curiosity was instantly piqued, and I don’t mind a bit of solo-gaming here and there either (you could play it with more if you wanted, and just share in the decision-making). Basically there’s a fighting deck and a hazard deck. You’ll draw a hazard deck and then draw cards from the fighting deck to try and beat it, and if you do succeed then the hazard will be flipped around and be added to your fighting deck. But if you lose you won’t get it and you’ll lose life points, however you can use these points to get rid of the weak cards of your deck.

But the third deck is an aging card, and every time you go through your fighting deck you’ll add one of these cards into it, and they have bad effects. Also, once you go through the hazard deck you’ll re-shuffle and then move into the second phase, which are more difficult, and finally the red phase. After you’ve gone through that deck you have to fight off two pirates, and then you win the game!

A lot of solo games are still complex to set up (like Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island) so I appreciate that this is just a bunch of cards. The deck-building works well and I like how the hazards became fighting cards if you succeed at them, so when they come out you’re looking at what it will offering you and weighing up whether it’s worth you losing in that instance to thin out the deck. It plays quickly, and there’s a whole deck of pirate cards to fight as well, but you’ll only use two at any one time, so there’s some variability there as well. Really good game.

And that’s all there is for today! Like I said I’ll probably be doing some more of these short reviews, so keep an eye out from then. Until then, happy gaming!

Book Review – The Book of Tomorrow by Cecilia Ahern

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Tammy is a bit of a spoilt brat but her world is turned upside down when her father commits suicide. Her mother falls into a depression and the two of them are forced to retreat to her Uncle’s home in the middle of nowhere. However, while being taken care of by her Aunt Rosaleen, Tammy begins to suspect that there’s something nefarious going on, and then she finds a diary that is telling her the future…

First of all, I love the cover to The Book of Tomorrow. I always enjoy it when there are little windows in book covers. But shortly after that the book is filled with quotes telling me how great Ahern is and how well her books have been received, which is all well and good but I found it rather off-putting. Just let me get to the story and it’ll speak for itself. At the end there’s a Q&A with the author, and I always like those so that was appreciated too.

Now to the story itself. It takes a while to get going and the writing has a stream of consciousness feel about it, but Ahern is gifted with a pleasant flowing style that makes the book easy to read. The book begins with a tragedy and the protagonist is trying to deal with the loss of her father as well as the loss of the world that she was used to. I found Tammy interesting for the most part, although early on there were some repetitive parts.

The supporting cast were fairly interesting and its perhaps Sister Ignatius who is the most memorable, but Ahern has a good talent in that she can give substance to characters who are basically plot devices (like Marcus). Speaking of plot devices, the big one is the concept of a diary that writes itself. The conceit is that this diary tells Tamara the future, but its her future self that is writing it. And this is where my two main complaints come in. I’m not sure how the timeline is working here because the future-Tammy who is writing the diary then doesn’t exist because past-Tammy is changing her actions based on what future-Tammy wrote. But I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek and read many comics so fine, time travel is convoluted I’m not going to waste too much brain power agonizing over the mechanics of it.

But there’s no explanation as to why this is happening. There’s not even a hint of magic in any other aspect of the story and it’s just that this magic book exists for some reason (the reason being that the story wouldn’t exist without it). And for some people that’s going to be okay, probably because they’re not as picky as I am, but with stuff like this  I like a reason or for it to be a bigger part of the story. I’d have like to have seen more wonderment about it all.

And there are a couple of times when Tammy tells us that we won’t believe her story, but the actual plot and the resolution of the mystery is believable. It’s well-seeded and I liked how the clues gradually trickled through the prose so that I found out pretty much at the same time as Tammy, but it wasn’t some revelatory thing that I’d never read before. The only thing that required a suspension of disbelief was the book itself, and that’s because there was no exploration of its existence.

Do I recommend the book? Hmm. I think there are a lot of people who will like it, and I certainly think it’s well-written but it’s not for me. The build-up of character and tension was good but the release was anti-climactic and I would have liked more of a magical feeling to the story.