Friday, July 22, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek III (1984)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock directed by Leonard Nimoy.

This summer has lots of sequels and remakes coming out, so I'm reviewing the earlier works and seeing if they will inspire me to see the new films! 

The story of this movie follows directly from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, so if you haven't seen that (which you really should) be warned that spoilers are ahead. I'll blather on about why I chose this to provide a little buffer between this spoiler warning and the actual spoiler.

After reviewing Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and Ghostbusters, both from 1984, I had to decide which Star Trek movie to watch. Seeing Stark Trek III was made in 1984, making it sync up both with two other 1984 movies and with this week's number three Star Trek reboot movie, I could not resist revisiting this film I haven't seen probably since the 1980s.

Admiral James T. Kirk and crew are headed back to Earth after their harrowing encounter with Khan. All are still grieving the loss of Spock, who sacrificed himself to fix the warp drive, letting the Enterprise escape the blast radius of the Genesis Device. The Device was designed to be used on a lifeless planet to make it habitable. The explosion has indeed created an Earth-like planet. Spock's coffin, a torpedo tube fired from the Enterprise, was caught in the planet's gravity and landed on the planet. A science vessel with Kirk's son David and the Vulcan Saavik investigate the planet. They discover life form reading right by Spock's coffin! David and Saavik beam down to investigate.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise are informed the Genesis Device is is a political hot-potato--they shouldn't discuss it with anybody and travel there is restricted. The only problem is McCoy. He has been acting very Spock-like. After talking with Spock's father, Kirk realizes that Spock has transferred is katra or soul to McCoy and that should be brought to Vulcan along with Spock's body. If not, Spock will truly be gone. Realizing how desperate the situation is, Kirk and his main crew members steal the Enterprise and head off to the Genesis planet, where more complication ensue, because the Klingons have shown up and want their own doomsday device.

So the plot is rather busy and does look contrived at points (stealing the Enterprise by jury-rigging an automation system to run the whole ship from the bridge has so many problems with it). The Klingons are one dimensional but still fun (the Klingon commander is played by Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc Brown in Back to the Future!). The story serves to get Spock back from the dead and sets up the light-hearted Star Trek IV. So it's a good transition film but not a great film by any means. Watching it once or twice is plenty.

As for Star Trek Beyond, it looks action-packed and exciting...

This movie looks like it shares the Enterprise in peril and dealing with death elements from The Search for Spock. On the other hand, this movie looks to have tons of action (which I guess is natural considering the director is from the Fast and Furious franchise), which should be fun in a summer blockbuster way. I'm a little worried that it will lack depth (which I guess is natural considering the director is from the Fast and Furious franchise). Star Trek Beyond probably will be a more entertaining film, maybe even a better film that Star Trek III. If I set my expectations to low, maybe I'll have a stunning experience.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism by M. Mignola and C. Golden

Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

World War II Sicily is home to much hardship. The church of San Domenico has just lost its priest so young Father Gaetano is assigned. The parish rectory has been converted to an orphanage that is supported by nuns from the next-door convent. The children (a mixture of boys and girls) are taught by the nuns but catechism class falls to Father Gaetano. He has trouble connecting to the children until he discovers a puppet theater with plenty of puppets. A former caretaker left them behind. Most children are delighted to see them again, especially Sebastiano, who keeps the clown Pagliaccio as his favorite. He talks to the puppet at night when his roommates are asleep. The puppet talks back, but naturally only when children are around. While the clown is benign, the other puppets take to their roles a bit too literally. Father Gaetano transforms the puppets into biblical characters. Noah worries about the ark, David and Goliath fight. Things take a disastrous and macabre turn when Father Gaetano changes a puppet into Lucifer, who takes his role too seriously.

The "puppets come alive" trope in horror has been done many times before. Even though it is familiar, the authors do a good job building tension and crafting a great finale to the story. I enjoyed that part very much.

On the other hand, the theology is distractingly sketchy. The authors get some details wrong, like the scene where Father Gaetano is surprised by one of the puppets and takes the Lord's name in vain. Then he feels humiliated "at his breaking the Third Commandment." [p. 91] While different denominations in the Judeo-Christian tradition divide up Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 differently, in the Catholic tradition, "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain" is the second commandment, not the third. The nuns are called "Domenicans," which at first I thought was a made up order, though perhaps they are named after the Orphanage of San Domenico or the authors just don't know how to spell Dominicans. Father and the children have many discussions about free will but they are all superficial and unsatisfying. Worse yet, the discussions are barely connected to the puppet horror story, a missed opportunity.

Mignola's occasional drawings (mostly of the puppets) are fun and do give a boost to the puppet horror theme. The ultimate fate of the characters (both human and mannequin) is exciting and satisfying. Some judicious editing and rewriting could have made this a great, rather than an average, book.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Charles Carroll House, Annapolis

The Charles Carroll House in Annapolis is the birthplace of the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll. He was born on September 19, 1737. His father (also Charles Carroll) built the home in the 1720s. The younger Charles left in 1748 to study abroad. He came back in 1765 and married Mary Darnall in 1768. The couple used the home as their "city residence." Many of their seven children were born (and died) at the house. He enlarged the house and improved the gardens in the early 1770s. In April 1783 they held a large, outdoor celebration of the end of the American War for Independence. Carroll lived here while he served in the Maryland Senate (1777-1800) and in the U. S. Senate (1789-1792). He rented the property in the 1820s, staying either with his daughter in Baltimore or at the family plantation, Doughoregan Manor, in current day Howard County. He died in 1832, last of the signers of the Declaration to pass away.

Charles Carroll House, Annapolis

Local seal of historic approval

In 1852, his granddaughters gave the house and grounds to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). They added a west wing to the house, as well as building St. Mary's church and a school. The property is still owned by the Redemptorists and is available for touring on weekends.

We visited on the Fourth of July weekend, figuring it was an appropriately patriotic time to visit. We entered the side of the house where the volunteers gave us a brief overview of the property. The first room is the kitchen area with the usual grand fireplace for cooking all sorts of goodies.

My daughter ready to cook

Nearby was a storage room or wine cellar with only one lonely table inside.

Cold storage/wine cellar

Nearby was a window into another basement room that was locked. Peeking in by holding my camera up to the window, I found it was also a storage room.

The storage room that's still a storage room

A windy staircase brought us to the front room with a small fireplace and a bricked up doorway. Originally, the door led out of the house to the east yard but in the 1790s younger Charles expanded the house and made the library larger (we approved).

Current decor of the entrance

Just beyond the entrance hall is a large room where they did their entertaining (George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette visited on separate occasions).

The great hall

Not sure what this is in the fireplace

View of the other end of the great hall

View from the great hall windows

Just behind one end of the great hall is a passageway that led to another house. According to the sign, the hole in the wall was for a chair rail in the room!

Chair rail mounting

The room includes an antique chair on loan from the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore.

Loaner chair

Hallway fireplace, not as interesting as...

...a writing table! If only I could write.

The hall also has a replica of a famous painting of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull and a photo of the estate from the early Redemptorist days.

Presentation of the Declaration (not the actual signing!)

Students rowing circa 1864

My children discovered a secret door between the hallway and the great room!

A secret door!

Looking from the great room into the hallway

The door hidden in an alcove!

The house has hardly any furnishings and the upstairs was off-limits for us, so we went outside to enjoy the gardens.

House seen from the back lawn

Back lawn seen from the house

Part of the gardens had a theatrical troupe who were preparing for a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream later in the week. Entertaining still happens at the house!

Lawn with actors on it

After the house was given to the Redemptorists, they used part of the garden as a cemetery.

Cemetery with view of the water

More of the cemetery

In the back of the cemetery is a pieta that has been a bit overgrown. Just below the pieta are relics of Saint Justin, a martyr who died during Maximinus's persecutions in the early 300s. Some of the remains were transferred to Annapolis in 1873 from an abbey in Subiaco. The remains were buried here in 1989.

Pieta almost inaccessible

The pieta

Marker for the relics

View from the pieta

Further down in the garden is the final resting place of Charles Carroll of Homewood, son of the man who signed the Declaration.

Charles Carroll of Homewood, one of the many Charleses

We tried to visit the church but a wedding was going on, so we'll have to come back another day!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: The Cloud of Hate and Other Stories by F. Leiber et al.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: The Cloud of Hate and Other Stories based on characters by Fritz Leiber, written by Denis O'Neil, and art by Howard Chaykin and Walter Simonson and others

In 1973, DC Comics started a new series called "Sword of Sorcery." The first issues were about Fritz Leiber's fantasy action duo, beefy barbarian Fafhrd and scampish rouge The Gray Mouser. They live in Nehwon, "a timeless land, a placeless place, which may--or may not--be of the planet Earth." They are the greatest swordsman of the land and are always in search of great adventures, strong drink, and soft women. Issues 1 through 5 are gathered in this volume.

The stories blend fun action with fantasy plots, mostly based on stories by Leiber. In the titular "The Cloud of Hate," the boys follow a foggy mist that has pulled a dagger out of a dead body and is carrying it across the town of Lankhmar. It's Mouser's blade, so naturally they have to get it back. Also, doubtless the fog has stolen more valuable things that they can plunder. My favorite story was probably "Revenge of the Skull of Jewels" with its fun fight scenes and good dialogue. The jewel-encrusted skull of a thief wants to get back to Lankhmar's theives' guild, causing all sorts of complications and horrors.

An imaginative diversion, perfect light summer reading!

Monday, July 18, 2016

One Ingredient Challenge: Premium Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Part of an ongoing series of cooking from scratch. That is, we cook something from basic items that don't have multiple ingredients (e.g. store-bought spaghetti sauce includes all sorts of spices and maybe other stuff too; we'd start with tomatoes and individual spices and add them together to make our own sauce). See other challenges here.

It's summertime, so we wanted to make some delicious homemade ice cream. A good friend gave us some fresh-from-the-chicken eggs (free range backyard chickens=extra yum!), so we looked for a good recipe to include them.

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sugar
Combine 1 1/2 cups whole milk and 1 1/2 cups heavy cream in a medium saucepan.

Combining the first ingredients

Split 1 vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk/cream.

Prepping the vanilla

Add the leftover bean pod to the milk/cream as well. Bring the mixture to a slow boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Combine 2 large eggs, 3 large egg yolks and 3/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Mix on medium speed until the mixture is thick, smooth and pale yellow, approximately 2 minutes.

Separating eggs

Stirring constantly

After the 30 minute cooking time is up, remove the vanilla bean pod from the milk/cream. Pour out one cup of the hot liquid. With the mixer on low speed, add the cup of hot milk/cream to the egg mixture in a slow, steady stream. When thoroughly combined, pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and stir to combine. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium low heat until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Back of spoon test

Transfer to a bowl, cover with a sheet of plastic wrap placed directly on the custard, and chill completely.

Place in your ice cream maker and mix until thickened, about 25-30 minutes.

In our ice cream maker


Checking for flavor...

...highly approved!

Don't forget to lick the beaters!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984) directed by Ivan Reitman

This summer has lots of sequels and remakes coming out, so I'm reviewing the earlier works and seeing if they will inspire me to see the new films! 

Three parapsychologists have cushy research positions at a Manhattan university but their investigations into ghosts and other spectral activity get them kicked out. But not just their questionable investigations--Dr. Pete Venkeman (Bill Murray) has a style more like P. T. Barnum than Albert Einstein.  The other two, Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), are the brains in the team. After an encounter with a ghost in the New York Public Library, they realize they could capture these spectral apparitions. They decide to go into business for themselves as the Ghostbusters, a high-tech team who can undo any haunting for the right price. The business takes off, which is good because one client (Sigourney Weaver) is a pawn in a sinister plot by an ancient Babylonian deity (or is it Sumerian?) who wants to return from an alternate dimension and destroy the world.

The movie is a fun blend of comedy, action, and horror, though most of the emphasis is on comedy. I watched this movie dozens of times as a kid. Coming back, it is still hilarious. The actors all give great performances. The movie has some jump scares but overall I wouldn't call it a scary horror movie, the emphasis is more gross-out horror, though even that is played for laughs. Their ghostbusting technology is fun and the special effects hold up quite well after thirty years. I was surprised by the large number of product placements. Plenty of famous and not so famous cameos fill the movie (Larry King, Casey Kasem, Roger Grimsby, etc.) making some extra fun for people old enough and New York enough to recognize them. The movie was a big budget risk at the time but the risk paid off handsomely. In a way, the success of the movie mirrored the success of the characters in the movie. They had a good idea, worked hard on that idea, and became great successes and even heroes. It's the American dream, with plenty of gags thrown in (the way it should be!).

High recommended!

The current remake looks like a high-tech, digital re-skin of the original movie:

I'm sure this remake is a funny and exciting in its own right but I worry about it. The remake of The Italian Job is a serviceable heist movie but looks anemic and colorless compared to the Michael Caine original, which had a lot more style and edge to it. The original Manchurian Candidate is another iconic film with a fairly pedestrian remake. And let's not get into how poorly Star Trek Into Darkness compares to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. These new Ghostbusters have some pretty big shoes to fill. Maybe they can knock it out of the park like the live-action remake of Cinderella. I'm keeping my expectations low just in case.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Historic Annapolis Museum and Store

The Historic Annapolis Museum and Store building was constructed in 1791. German immigrant Frederick Grammar built the three-story brick building down by the waterfront. It has served as a store, a residence, and a pub. It almost got razed in the 1950s but a restoration movement saved the building. Eventually it became a store and museum.

Historic Annapolis Museum and Store on right

The building circa 1910

A sign inside-definitely half-store, half-museum

We didn't do much shopping but did enjoy the museum. Most of the exhibits focused on slave labor. In pre-independence America, three types of servants existed.

First, indentured servants were Europeans who couldn't afford to come to America. They worked off the cost of their passage as a contracted servant. The contracts typically lasted four to seven years. Then the indentured servants were free to work for themselves in the colonies. Legally, they had rights under their contract. The practice was abolished in 1775 when the American War for Independence started.

Second, convict servants were criminals (mostly from Great Britain) whose punishment wasn't imprisonment or death. Instead, they were sent to the colonies to pay their debt to society. Typical sentences lasted seven to fourteen years, though for serious crimes the sentence was life long. Legally, their work belonged to others until their sentence was completed. The practice was abolished in 1775 when the American War for Independence started.

Isabella Pierce was an English convict who ran away from her owner. She took some valuables and paperwork claiming she was the indentured servant Bridget Castilo. So identity theft isn't really as new as we'd like to think.

Isabella Pierce display

Third, slaves were people captured in Africa and brought to America. Slavery was a life-long sentence (though slave owners could free their slaves) and children of slave women were also slaves. Legally, they were the property of others and had no rights. The practice was abolished in Maryland in 1864 with a new state constitution. It was abolished nationally in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution.

Candis was a slave who ran away in 1798 from a Frederick, Maryland, home. She was helped by a freed black man named William Stewart who had papers for himself and his wife. Stewart took her all the way to Canada, telling people Candis was his wife.

Candis display

 Another slave, Sam Berry, escaped from a Maryland plantation in 1844. He renamed himself James Watkins and escaped to Europe. He became an author and lecturer, testifying to his life as a slave.

Sam Berry display

A display showed the various items slaves might take as they ran away. Spices like cayenne pepper were helpful in throwing dogs off the scent. Taking a horse meant faster travel, but greater punishment if caught. Lamps and flint and steel were handy but could be revealing at night. Sometimes personal items like small instruments or beads were a comfort.

Various items to take

Beads, Jew's harp, flint and steel, and the ever popular cash

Picking up something for the road

We were surprised to read that owners would advertise in local (and not so local) papers if a slave ran away.

Checking the local news from the 1700s

Reading about various practices

The museum also had a skull and crossbones stamp made as a protest against the British Stamp Act.

Stamp display

Stamp close up

In the hall was a display of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. From left to right they are Samuel Chase, Charles Carroll, Thomas Stone, and William Paca. Each of them lived in Annapolis at one time or another.

Signers of Declaration of Independence

The museum is free, so we definitely got more than our money's worth!