Saturday, June 23, 2018

Book Review: Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio and Efa

Monet: Itinerant of Light written by Salva Rubio and art by Efa

Claude Monet was one of the founders of the Impressionist movement in the late 1800s. His style focuses on how light reflects off objects, how they appear to the eye. His passion became to paint outdoors whenever he could, to show the effect of the brightest light. Like many revolutionary painters, he struggled for a long time before achieving success. He wanted to work apart from the established classical system and create a new way of painting. He had many sympathetic colleagues (Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, to name a few) who joined him in setting up a rival to the Salon, the main art exhibition in France. Their work was mocked at first but eventually gained acceptance. Monet himself went through a similar arc from rejected outsider to an accepted master.

The book lovingly recreates some paintings of Monet as they tell his life story (occasionally they use other painters as well). The back of the book explains all their cribbing. The notes also say they were a bit loose with the historical details in order to make a compelling story. Even so, they are honest enough to show the unpleasant parts of the man--he was egotistical and in some periods cared much more for his art than his friends and family. The book is an enjoyable and quick read, filling in some detail for the life of the painter. I'd still like to read a more standard biography of the man.

Recommended for art fans or those curious about the lives of artists.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Movie Review: Freaks (1932)

Freaks (1932) directed by Todd Browning

A gold digger named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) has engaged guy Hans (Harry Earles) totally wrapped around her little finger. His fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles) is distraught, especially because Hans has an inheritance which seems like the gold digger's real interest. He winds up marrying Cleo, only to have some awkward moments at the wedding reception with his co-workers. The co-workers are ready to help him get revenge when it becomes clear she is poisoning Hans.

What sounds like a typical film noir is anything but typical, because the workplace is a traveling circus. The gold digger is a blonde trapeze artist and the guy is a dwarf. His fiancee is also a dwarf and they hang out with the other side show acts--the bearded lady, the bird woman, the siamese twins,  the half-woman half-man, the legless guy, the legless and armless guy, etc. They are the eponymous "freaks." So Cleo isn't exploiting just some film noir chump. He's a disrespected minority already being exploited for his abnormality. The film doesn't skimp on depicting her as a horrible person. She's romantically interested in the circus's strong man, Hercules (Henry Victor), who also mocks and laughs at Hans and his comrades. Cleo clearly plans to be with Hercules after she inherits Hans's fortune.

After they discover the scheme, the side show crowd bands together to enact a horrible revenge (viewers know this is coming because the opening shows an urban freak show where Cleopatra has wound up, though viewers don't see what has happened to her). Both Cleo and Hercules are pursued on a literally dark and stormy night. The action is tensely directed but before they are actually attacked, the film cuts back to the urban freak show where Cleo's new side-show appearance is revealed. The punishment fits the crime and is also too awful for words. The movie ends with a bittersweet reunion between Hans and Frieda.

The movie is highly sympathetic toward the deformed characters who are played by people with actual deformities. The issue of exploitation is not just internal to the plot, the movie itself blurs the line between an honest depiction and a salacious exploitation. For example, the film hints more than once at the awkwardness of sex given their various conditions. The main characters are well developed. The filmmakers strive to make their life look as normal as can be and succeed to a great extent. But the cast is large enough that a lot of people seem to be there for little more than appearance. It's hard not to be troubled by their plight and it's hard not to sympathize with them as they stalk Cleo and Hercules at the end. They have the same potential for good or evil that every other person has. In a moral sense, the movie affirms the normality of the so-called freaks. They are human beings and are (mostly) treated as such by the filmmakers if not by the characters in the film.

Recommended, though this movie is very tough to watch and not for the squeamish even though there is no real blood and minimal violence.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

St. Mary's Block Party 2018

Our church, Saint Mary of the Mills, held a block party in early June. The main reason for the party was to raise money for Saint Joseph Church, a sister parish in Carcasse, Haiti. The church and the town are still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew in 2007.

Our church has been working with Health and Education for Haiti, Global Solace, Inc., and Just Haiti Coffee to raise money and provide support for the Carcasse community. Conditions are improving but they have a long way to go.

The original plan for the block party was to celebrate in the parking lot of the church hall but that particular Saturday was rainy. So the festivities moved inside.

Inside the church hall

Display on Haiti

The Knights of Columbus were still outside grilling under pop-up canopies. They had plenty of burgers and hot dogs, which were the first course of our meal that night.

Not a good angle for the hot dog

Inside were table of foods from the various communities that make up St. Mary's, including Filipino, Caribbean, African-American, Italian, etc. In order not to offend anyone, I took a little bit of each.

Second course

The Knights also had a bar set up with beer and wine. The beer option included three beers brewed by parishioners. I sampled the Belgian brown ale and the Marzen. Both were delicious (that's the brown ale up in the picture).

Our kids liked the food but became obsessed with the corn hole game. They spent most of their time playing with other kids, making up their own teams. And their own rules. Happily, they are old enough to police themselves and were having a lot of fun. And we parents could relax and enjoy our meal.

Our children--on different teams!

Going for a high shot

It was a fun evening. We almost bought raffle tickets until we realized we weren't staying the whole evening (the party was supposed to go till 10 p.m.). We put our money in the donation jar instead.

Statue near the parish center

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Review: Experiencing Film Music by Kenneth LaFave

Experiencing Film Music: A Listener's Companion by Kenneth LaFave

Kenneth LaFave covers the broad history of music in film, starting from the first films before sound recording technology was integrated into movies. Silent films were accompanied by local musicians who used appropriate music culled from their repertoire and from cue sheets suggesting bits of music that would enhance various parts of the movie. With the advent of talking pictures, musical creativity moved from local musicians to  studio music departments where orchestrators worked with directors in crafting music to support the film. The book was published in 2017 and covers movie music all the way up to 2016, a wide span.

The book, after discussing the transition from silent to talking films, looks at genres chapter by chapter, discussing how music is used. LaFave's main idea is that "the film score's task is to be both unnoticed and indispensable at the same time." (p. xxi) That's a tricky balance. He hits a lot of highlights from movie history, usually going in depth with one or two movies per genre. The detail can get too detailed for the amateur listener, delving into chromatic and modal scales, diminished fifths, and other technical jargon. I still got the general sense of what he was trying to say even though I don't know all the technicalities.

The book is also full of his personal opinions on things, so readers' agreement will vary throughout. He admires only the score from Planet of the Apes, considering the original 1968 film obvious and silly. Concerning the main conflict in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, he says "civilization, as we all know, depends for its existence on ritually sacrificing nature." (p. 155) I didn't know that and can hardly agree. On the other hand, he does have interesting insights on many things, like the complimentary use of Danny Elfman's score and Prince's songs in the 1989 Batman film.

Overall, I enjoyed the book as a walk through the history of films with a focus on how music has contributed to the enhancement of the viewer's experience.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Father's Day 2018

We went out for lunch on Father's Day 2018 to Frisco Tap House. The appeal for me was the beer and for my wife the pretzels. The kids weren't particularly excited. Still they had a good time.

Inside Frisco Tap House

We ordered the home-made pretzel appetizer because that is our new favorite thing. We received two pretzels, which weren't hanging like at other restaurants but were still delicious. They looked like happy faces, which we thought was cool. The cheese sauce was much more popular than the mustard sauce in our family.

Smiling pretzels

 My first beer was the Peabody Heights Unforgiveable Curses Tripel (9% alcohol by volume). It was very tasty, with the nutty flavor of Belgian beers. It went well with the pretzels.

Tripel with a third of a pretzel

For my meal, I ordered jambalaya which was spicy and yummy. The kids ordered pizza and a cheeseburger. My wife had the lamb sliders which were yummy. 


I ordered a second beer that was also awesome. It was Wicked Weed's Dark Arts Rum Barrel. It was rich and creamy and super-potent at 15% alcohol per volume. I liked it a lot and didn't drive home. Also, we were a bit shocked to see it cost $15. It's the most we have ever paid for one serving a beer. It probably wasn't worth that much but it did taste awesome.

Dark Arts Rum Barrel with reflection of Jambalaya

I received a bunch of cool presents at home, including a book about saints from Africa and the board game Space Alert which we look forward to playing. The preschooler made an awesome card with home-made art...

Card front

Card back

Monday, June 18, 2018

Book Review: Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 2 by Hiromu Arakawa

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 2 by Hiromu Arakawa

Brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric are in pursuit of something to heal them. Edward has a metal arm and a metal leg from when they tried to bring their mom back from the dead. Alphonse is now a soul trapped in a suit of armor, so he needs the fix even more. One of the other alchemists was developing the Philosopher's Stone, powerful enough to do amazing transmutations. As they search for the stone, they run into other alchemists of dubious character. The worst of all is a guy named Scar, who has been killing state alchemists because he thinks they are a blight on reality. Alchemy isn't natural, after all.

The quest for the Philosopher's Stone gives these stories a larger story arc, making the ongoing story more interesting for me. The rogue alchemist killing other alchemists also raises the stakes. I guess I'm hooked and will read more.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017) co-written and directed by Guillermo del Toro

In 1960s Baltimore, a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor in a top secret government facility. She has a lonely and monotonous life. Her best friends are the starving artist in the apartment next door and another janitor who does all the talking for them both, mostly complaining about her husband. Elisa goes through the same routine, working the overnight shift at the facility. Things change when a specimen is brought in from the South American jungles--a fish man (also mute) who surreptitiously develops a connection with Elisa. The Man in Charge (Michael Shannon) is much less friendly with the creature and he's planning to vivisect it to find out as much as he can. Elisa naturally wants to free the fish man with the help of her friends. There's also a Soviet mole in the facility who is supposed to kill the creature before the Americans can discover anything valuable, but he believes more in science than in Stalin and becomes a willing accomplice for Elisa. A breakout ensues.

The movie looks gorgeous. It follows the Vertigo style of deliberately chosen color schemes for locations and characters. The creature (played by Doug Jones in a prosthetic suit) looks an awful lot like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Abe Sapien from Hellboy, which seems deliberate. He looks both amazing and derivative. He has enough character to make the love story believable. They have chemistry on screen.

The love story is the primary story among the mix of fantasy, horror, and Cold War thriller elements. The romance is touchingly told and has a nice arc to it. Unfortunately, the Cold War stuff is all Hollywood tropes and cliches, making for very uninteresting storytelling. The villain might as well just be referred to as "The Man," considering how one-dimensional he is. The movie does spend a lot of time with him which could have developed him as a character, rather than constantly re-emphasizing what a hypocritical Christian, sexist, and narcissist he is. That whole part of the drama is thin and uninteresting, which is unfortunate since that's what drives the plot forward.

So why did this win the best picture Oscar? Probably it's another The Departed, the fairly average film that won Martin Scorsese his overdue best director Oscar. Classic Hollywood musicals and other films (Elisa lives over a movie theater) play a minor but persistent role, which probably also appealed to Hollywood Oscar voters. If you want to see del Toro's most Oscar-worthy work, Pan's Labyrinth is the film to watch.

I'm glad I watched it but probably will never rewatch it. The visuals and art direction are amazing, the love story is touching, but the narrative has too many uninteresting parts that are given too much time.

Parental warning: The movie has punctuated moments of violence that put it in the PG-13 range, but the sex scenes with nudity make it R-rated and only for adults.