Best Picture Reviews: The Rest

Just under the wire!

One of my self-assigned tasks was to view and provide capsule reviews for all 10 Best Picture nominees prior to the Academy Awards. I previously covered 127 Hours, The Social Network, and Toy Story 3. The rest are below.

Spoiler warning! As in, I don’t make much of an effort to avoid them. Be careful.
The Fighter

I’m a total sucker for boxing movies: Rocky is one of my favorite films of all time, and there are few documentaries I’ve enjoyed more than When We Were Kings. That said, entries in the genre tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Thank goodness, then, that The Fighter is “based on a true story”. The truth in this case isn’t necessarily stranger than fiction, but it does introduce some plot twists that a screenwriter might have dismissed out of hand were she penning the piece from scratch.

Also biasing me toward the film is the presence of Mark Wahlberg, of whom I have been a fan ever since them underwear ads. And it’s a testament to Christian Bale’s range that you can tell yourself “this is the same guy who plays Bruce Wayne!” while watching his performance, but you can’t quite get yourself to believe it.

I don’t see The Fighter winning–is the academy really going to give a boxing movie the Best Picture award twice in less than a decade? (Million Dollar Baby won in 2006, recall.) But of the ten films nominated, this is one of the few that I recommend to friends … if only to reassure them that it transcends the subject matter.
The King’s Speech

I don’t even know who is nominated for Best Actor, but if Colin Firth doesn’t win I will eat my hat. (Reminder to self: wear marzipan hat today to hedge bets.) Firth gives the definitive portrayal of “misery”–not “depression”, not “sadness”, not “brooding”, but the very specific emotion we mean when we say “miserable”, that toxic combination of frustration, defeat, and self-loathing when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable task or situation. Firth is to misery in The King’s Speech what Nicholson was to batshit insane in The Shining.

Firth’s performance is so amazing, in fact, that I am kind of conflicted on this film, at least in regards to the Best Picture award. On the one hand, I actually think this was the best of the ten nominated; on the other, I kind of think the “Best Actor” award would be sufficient, as that’s what makes the movie work. Had any other actor in the role of King George, I suspect The King’s Speech would have been a snoozer.

Also: Twitter jocularity.

True Grit

I don’t know how many Westerns I can enjoy until I can no longer say that I don’t generally enjoy Westerns, but I am one closer to that number for having seen True Grit. (Last month I saw The Proposition, which also put me closer to the tipping point.) I have no reservation about saying that I loves me a Coen Brother’s movie though, and they don’t disappoint here. The film does seem a little more straightforward-Hollywoody than some of their earlier works, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: films like Fargo and Barton Fink never let you forget that you are watching a Coen Brother’s film, but in Grit they mostly keep their eccentricities in the background, allowing the audience to instead focus on the story and performances.

And what performances they are. Jeff Bridges has mastered the bizarre skill of seemingly mumbling his words beyond comprehension while still remaining perfecting understandable, and Matt Damon is predictably great as the kinda-heroic Texas Ranger. But they, and everyone else in the film, is overshadowed by Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the 14-year-old girl at the center of the narrative. I was convinced that she, Steinfeld, could not possibly by 14, and was actually a young-looking classically trained actress of 22 or something; a glance at her IMDB pageshows she was born in 1996, though. What the amazing?!
Winter’s Bone

I saw True Grit Friday night and Winter’s Bone Saturday night. Unless you see the films back-to-back as I did, it’s probably not apparent that the movies have essentially the same plot: young girls with nerves of steel, aided by violent ne’er-do-wells, set out to right the wrongs caused by the death of their fathers.

Unfortunately, Winter suffered from the comparison. The first hour of the film reminded me of one of those multi-stage video game quests, as the protagonists goes from person to person, only to be told that her princess is in another castle. I understand that this was intended to be a kind of guided tour of Ozark drug communities, but plenty of documentaries that have already trod that ground.

Things pick up in the latter 90 minutes, but they had kind of lost me by that point. And although I had no desire to see the filmmaker go all Lars von Trier, the kinda upbeat ending struck me as a bit much.

I saw Inception twice in the theater, something I have not done that since The Matrix. It also belongs to my absolutely favorite genre of film. Given that, I’ll leave my appraisal of the film as an exercise to the reader.
Black Swan

Best Picture, rilly? I mean I liked Black Swan okay–it also falls in my favorite genre, and hey: masturbation. But this really seemed like a pretty standard thriller to me, albeit one made high-brow by the inclusion of erotica and “Swan Lake”. I mean, would this have been nominated if it revolved around the production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch or something?

I’ve always considered Natalie Portman to be a pretty good actress, so her high-caliber showing here came as no surprise. But the pretensions of the film are belied by the performance of Mila Kunis, who drags the whole thing down to the level of a high-school drama.

Honestly, the more I think about it the more I am convinced that Portman is the only element that elevates the film above that of a routine popcorn flick. Even so, I’ll be kind of bummed if this is the role for which Portman wins “Best Actress”, especially considering that Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Annette Bening (The Kids are All Right) are more worthy of the award this year. Still, it’s probably not wise to bet against her. As Angelina Jolie’s win for Girl, Interrupted proved, the academy loves a beautiful, rail-thin crazy chick (or at least, in Portman’s case, the portrayal thereof).

By the way, if you’d like to see the whole “events in the lives of actors begin mirroring the plot of their play” thing done right, do yourself a favor and watch Slings & Arrows: Season One, available via Netflix Streaming.
The Kids Are All Right

So let me get this straight: this is a movie about women, written by a woman, and directed by a woman, and it’s up for Best Picture? WE’RE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS HERE PEOPLE!

To be fair, Winter’s Bone is also about a woman, as well as written and directed by Debra Granik. So it’s a twofer this year. But was either Granik or Lisa Cholodenko, director of The Kids are All Right, nominated for Best Director? I find out I went to the Nominations page of Oscars website. Answer: Nope! But this was in the upper-right corner, so I guess it’s all good:

Well anyway, the real ground broken by The Kids Are All Right is in showing same-sex marriage to be fundamentally the same as any other, with ups and downs and joy and tedium and sperm donors. (Well, that last part is a bit unusual, I guess.) It’s also effing hilarious. I previously referred to The King’s Speech as “the best of the ten nominated”, but The Kids Are All Right was easily my favorite. ★★★★★


Hello. This is my son.


You may remember him from such posts as Holy Shit I Had a Kid! and Holy Shit My Kid Is Autistic!

Remember those posts? Remember them like it was yesterday?

Yeah so anyway. He is seven years old.





* * *

In the years since I last discussed his condition on this site, we have learned that he has classical autism rather than Aspergers (as previously speculated). Autistic kids are often classified as either “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”, but Squig falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information has a rundown of common symptoms, starting with:

Children with autism typically have difficulties in:

  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Social interactions
  • Pretend play

“A fondness for bacon bordering on fervor” is not specifically mentioned as a symptom, but Squig has that as well.

Squig is a strict pragmatist when it comes to language, and will only use it to make requests (“I want video”) or observations (“that is a dog”). He will respond to questions so long as there is a concrete answer. But he does not trade in linguistic abstraction. Ask him how he is feeling, or how his day went, and he will reply with “fine”–not because he has processed your question and formulated a response, but because he recognizes this as an acceptable answer. As with his father, he is adept at getting by without a clue as to what he is saying.

You cannot hold a conversation with Squig, But that does not preclude communication. Our most meaningful interactions are physical: wrestling, tickling, swimming, rolling skating. He is way into dancing right now.

“Difficulty with pretend play” may not seem like a big deal, and has certainly saved us a fortune in action figures, but actually has some profound ramifications. After all, the “point” of play is to practice skills. And so, as with many autistic children, Squig has difficulty learning via imitation. You can’t teach him to brush his teeth by showing him how you brush your own, you have to put the toothbrush in his hand, guide the brush to his teeth, make his do the strokes, and so forth. To get him through any complex task (and just about every non-instinctual task that people do is complex, it turns out), we use a process called chaining. Chaining involves the breaking down of a task into discrete steps, and linking them together. Rather than teach him to “brush his teeth”, we taught him to (a) get his toothbrush and then (b) turn on the water and then (c) wet the bristles and then

In the autism community, chaining is everywhere.

Sign on the Restroom Wall of the Seattle Autism Clinic

Squig’s impairments are social and not cognitive. His math skills are fine, for instance. His reading level is ridiculous. He’s currently attending a public school, with a mix of special education services and regular classroom integration, but we expect to move him to a specialized school next year.

Here he is on the first day of Kindergarten:

First Day of Kindergarten

(And because everyone asks, this is his lunchpail:

Totally awesome, I know. Though I am deeply disturbed that all of the animals on the lunchbox have associated vocalizations except for the alligator, which instead has a noise associated with an action. This seriously bothers me. WHY NO DOCTOR I HAVE NO IDEA WHERE HIS AUTISM CAME FROM!)

* * *

During a recent meeting with my son’s support team in which we were charting out his plan for the coming years, we took a moment to inventory his strengths and challenges. Number one on the list of his advantages was “charisma”.

Squig has an easygoing manner that people find endearing. His joie de vivre is infectious. Other kids are drawn to him. Like all young seven-year-old boys he has moments of defiance and aggression and omg will you stop running in the kitchen for just one second will you STOP?!! But on the balance he is just the most delightful kid to be around.

And, as a result, people will really go to bat for him. Whenever we encounter obstacles, some indefatigable member of Squig’s support team will tuck him under her arm and run into whatever endzone we are currently striving for, knocking opponents left and right. They will totally sweep the ice as he glides down the curling sheet toward a developmental house (wanted to include a sports analogy for my Canadian readers as well).

To be fair, they would do this for anyone in their care–people who work with special needs children are the most beneficent and indefatigable you will ever meet. But, even so, Squig has amassed an impressive cheering section. He is well loved.

* * *

Yesterday was Squig’s birthday. I asked him what he wanted and he said, “Fritos”. I asked what else he wanted and he said, “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. Kiddo, you got it.

Booklist 2011 – Suggestions Sought

In 2005 I asked readers of defective yeti to pick a year’s worth of books for me. They did, and I wound up reading some of the best literature of my life. I still harken back to the comments that entry when I am in need of a novel to devour.

I haven’t been reading as much in recent years, but for some reason signed on to the 2011 Tournament of Books, becoming a judge for the first time ever. And to that end, I spent January reading my assigned tomes: Model Home by Eric Puchner and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. (The details and brackets of the 2011 ToB were anounced today. check them out.)

From there I moved on to the Uglies quadrilogy, a teen sci-fi series that was recommended by a dear friend. Fun! But these novels each take like a day to complete, and I need to have something lined up if I want to maintain my momentum.

And anyway, reading a score of recommended books is a 2011 Project of mine. So I again turn my lonely eyes to you, Internet. Below are the books I have already selected; please aid me in rounding out the list to an even 20.

The Current List


Recommendations From Comments & Email

Please make recommendations in the comments; I will keep the above list updated as more are suggested. Please second those Candidates that you feel ought to be promoted to the main list (or steer me away from those that you feel I best avoid).

If you want to triangulate your suggestions a bit, I’ll tell you that my favorite books from 2010 were: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families (so good!), Little Bee, Zeitoun, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo SHUT UP I LIKED IT.

I’ll review each and every Booklist 2011 novel here on my site. That’s a defective yeti promise. Which means a promise likely to be broken. But I’ll try.

How Would You Prefer to Squander Your Weekend?

Flash game Friday.

  • King’s Guard: Fantasy-themed casual action game in which you select … well, anyway, it’s Bejeweled. It’s Bejeweled with minotaurs.
  • Interlocked: Mindbending brainteaser that will tax your spatial reasoning skills, modeled on those wooden disentanglement puzzles. Warning: combining with Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale, as I did last night, will result in ow.
  • Hack Slash Crawl: Cute, Diabloesqe RPG with procedurally generated dungeons. Hope you like clicking! Click click click click click!!

Best Picture Reviews: 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3

One of my self-assigned tasks is to view and provide capsule reviews for all 10 Best Picture nominees prior to the Academy Awards. Here are the first three.
127 Hours

I don’t know what idiot at 20th Century Fox entrusted the 127 hours screenplay to Danny Boyle–a director best known for movies about game shows and zombies–but that idiot is a genius!. Of course that assumes there was a screenplay at all, and not just a five-page treatement that said stuff like “bunch of shots of the main dude riding his bike here” and “now he screams for like five minutes”.

Like everyone I was leery of this film due to the subject matter, and fully expected it to be quasi-horror tragedy-porn or inspirational triumph-over-odds glurge. Maybe it was, originally. But between Boyle’s direction, and the unmazing cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak (Mantle also did the cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire, it winds up being more of a meditation on existentialism. Somehow.

Not Best Picture material, but waay better than I expected. That said: WTF product placements? Seriously, the guy is trapped alone in a cave and they still figure out a way to plug a credit card? Shameless. If there was a name-brand urine, that’s probably what they would have shown Franco imbibing.
The Social Network

I am probably the biggest fan of Aaron Sorkin than has never seen an episode of The West Wing (it’s in my queue, I swear!), but Sports Night is easily one of my favorite shows ever, and I thought the dialogue in Charlie Wilson’s War was top-shelf. So even though I did not know he was the screenwriter for The Social Network as I walked into the cinema, I figured it out after about the first machine-gunned 17 words.

The story and pacing of The Social Network are fairly pedestrian, and the film’s accuracy has been called into question. But, as in pretty much everything Sorkin does, the plot is mostly there just so the characters can pontificate on the philosophical implications of the plot. That’s A-OK in my book, as social media (and Facebook in particular) is a subject of particular fascination to me. (Although I’ll confess to finding the final scene of the film waaaay too contrived.) I also concur with other nerdanaylsists in declaring that, even though it’s only 2011, we are unlikely to see a better use of “wget” in a movie this decade.
Toy Story 3

My enthusiasm for animated movies is well publicised but, in the case of Toy Story 3, that zeal was perfectly balanced by my innate wariness of any film that ends in a 3 (a phobia no doubt instilled by my childhood exposure to Superman 3). Thus, I waited to catch it on DVD. But it absolutely lived up to the dazzlingly high standard set by the previous two films, and managed to do so even though the novelty of talking toys had long since worn off. And just as Andy has matured, so too have the themes explored by the series, as this installment is less a routine adventure tale and more an examination of obsolescence and mortality. That doesn’t prevent the filmmakers from packing nearly every scene with clever sight gags and references that you only catch on your second viewing, though. Toy Story will rightly go down as one of the greatest trilogies ever made.

Games: Mr. Jack Pocket

Mail call!

Hi, a few questions about games I've come across on your website. I'm thinking of getting a new game for a couple that plays together a fair amount and tend to like two minute-type games (I've already given them several from your list-- Lost Cities, etc). Do you had any thoughts on games in a similar vein to Lost Cities, which I guess I would describe as lightweight, two-player-compatible, and perhaps don't require a ton of skill/strategy/attention?

Thanks in advance for your help. T

“What are some good games for a couple?” is a question I get asked this a lot. Which is nice, because it’s one of the few in this world for which I have a ready answer. And here it is! (Many of these are reviewed here or on the Good Gateway Games page.)

That set of suggestions has remained pretty much constant over the half decade.

But then, a few years ago, Mr. Jack was released, and threatened to muscle its way onto the list. As I wrote in the 2007 Good Gift Game Guide:

There’s no shortage of games that replicate the formula of Monopoly (make money!) and Risk (wage war!). But few have gone the route of Clue, challenging players to unmask a killer via deductive reasoning. Thankfully, Mr. Jack is picking up the slack. Eight characters—ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Sir William Gull—wander the streets of Whitecastle; one of them is secretly Jack the Ripper. The Jack player knows the identity of the fiend, and works to keep it concealed; the detective strives to apprehend the criminal by game’s end. Simple, brief, and ingenious, it’s a perfect pastime for anyone who enjoys a good mystery.

The problem with Mr. Jack, though, is that it’s just a smidge too unusual to give as a gift to non-games. Well you could give it, but it would likely sit upon their shelf until the end of days.

Thankfully, the designers have released a new, smaller, and simpler version of the game that fits the bill perfectly. Mr. Jack Pocket feels like the original, but boasts fewer rules and a shorter playing time.

As before, one player assumes the role of Mr. Jack; his opponent becomes the Detective, with three Investigator at his disposal: Sherlock Homes, Watson, and their dog Toby (who is apparently canon). The game board is assembled from nine square tiles, placed in a 3×3 grid, with each tile depicting a t-intersection of roads. That means that three edges of each tile have streets leading off of them, and the fourth does not. Like so:

In the center of each tile is the headshot of one of the nine Suspects, any of which could be the killer. The Mr. Jack player knows the identity of the culprit, while the goal of the Detective is to deduce this information.

Before play begins, the three Investigator tokens are placed outside the grid. The hunt for the killer then unfolds over a series of rounds, during which the players move the Investigators around the perimeter of the grid, rotate tiles, swap the position of tiles, and take other actions. An Investigator can peer down the roads on the tiles, and see everyone until his vision is blocked by a wall. Thus, at any given moment, some of the suspects will be “seen”, and others (those that are in no Investigator’s line of sight) are unseen.

At the end of a round, Mr. Jack checks to see which of the Suspects are visible to the Investigators, and announces whether the guilty party is “seen” or “unseen”. With this knowledge, the Detective can the rule out Suspects in the opposite state. If Mr. Jack declares the killer to be “unseen” for instance, but William Gull and the Madame are visible to one or more Investigators, the Detective can exonerate these two.

The game continues until only one Suspect remains, at which point the Detective makes his collar. Mr. Jack may instead win by stalling the investigation long enough to escape. All this plays out like competitive puzzle-solving, as each player tries to figure out the best combination of actions to take to achieve his objective.

I ain’t gonna lie to you: I am dubious of this game’s long-term replayability. But that concern stems from the fact that I am playing it a lot right now. As the game can be completed in a quarter hour, it can be taught in a few minutes more, and it’s small enough to be brought to and played at a bar, my copy has already seen plenty of use since I picked it up a month ago. So it’s entirely possible that I will tire of it soon. For most folks, this is a perfect, light, two-player game, and one that I will be giving as a gift to couples for many years to come.