Tuesday, June 25, 2019

TV Review: Black Summer (2019)

Black Summer (2019) created by John Hyams and Karl Schaefer


The zombie apocalypse is just getting started and people from the suburbs are being evacuated. One mother (Jaime King) is separated from her daughter. The plan is to get to the nearby city where the military is staging an evacuation. A bunch of other people are also fleeing from the suburbs to anywhere that is not overrun by the high-speed zombies. The show follows seven or eight characters. The number keeps shifting as new people are added and old people are offed. A handful of people make it from the first episode to the final episode.

The story is fairly simple and the show is basically a string of set pieces where the group faces various challenges. In one episode, they find a school that seems to be abandoned but really isn't. Another has five survivors trapped in a diner with two zombies outside ready to eat them. Enough thought and creativity is put into the episodes to make them engaging. Characters do make both bad and dumb choices, though often they are stuck with little time to decide what to do. Panic is not a good guide. The show is shot in long takes with hand-held cameras for the most part. I don't usually like the "shaky cam" look but it fits very well with a "fleeing the apocalypse" story.

The ending isn't entirely satisfying. Some loose ends are left though it isn't really clear that they are planning a sequel series either (which is typical with loose ends). The show is set in the Z Nation tv show universe, which I haven't watched. My impression is that Z Nation is more of a comedy zombie action show, which Black Summer clearly is not. This show is more of a standard "people surviving the apocalypse" drama.

Slightly recommended--this is an average zombie show--nothing especially great and nothing especially bad about it.

Streaming on Netflix as I write this review (June 2019).

Monday, June 24, 2019

Book Review: The Medieval Myths by Norma Lorre Goodrich

The Medieval Myths by Norma Lorre Goodrich


Medieval stories can often seem overwrought and exaggerated to the nth degree. Consider Saint Benedict jumping naked into a thornbush to quiet his fleshly desires. If we are honest, though, exaggeration is a common component of storytelling (how big was that fish you caught?). Larger than life deeds capture the imagination much better than mundane tasks; they make better stories. The medieval period in Europe saw the emergence of national identities, and with that national heroes. This book retells the stories of seven heroes, whose stories have gone on to inspire other stories or even greater versions of their own stories. Getting back to the roots with early texts, the author shows us how these powerful characters became lasting icons in Western culture. Here's the heroes from this book:

1. Beowulf (Scandinavia)--Beowulf the Geat comes to the Danish lands to help King Hrothgar. The king's hall is plagued every night by the seemingly undefeatable ogre Grendel. The Danes live in fear and horror of the ferocious beast. Beowulf promises to take care of the problem, which he does spectacularly. The trouble isn't over though, for Grendel's mother comes to take revenge. Fifty years later, Beowulf is king in Geat when one of his subjects steals a goblet from a dragon's horde, inciting the dragon to attack the countryside. Like a great action hero, Beowulf gears up one last time to defend his people. The stories are exciting and full of larger-than-life actions. Beowulf is a model of heroism and his tale is well told.

2. Peredur, Son of York (Wales)--Peredur is a famous figure whose story (and very self) transformed through the ages into Percival (England) and Parzival (German) both of whom quested for the Holy Grail. Peredur didn't have such ambition, though his story is also set in the time of King Arthur. He's more like Lancelot, a young man of purity and strength who goes on many adventures that test his physical and moral abilities. Peredur's story follows his exploits wooing women in a courtly manner and defeating knights honorably. The narrative is interesting but episodic. It doesn't come to a climax but just stops. Peredur is straightforward, honest, and brave--a worthy hero who was beloved back in the day.

3. Roland (France)--Roland is a popular hero in French medieval epics. This story focuses on a major fight with Muslims from Spain. Roland heroically holds off the swarming invaders and delays in calling for backup from Emperor Charlemagne. The battle descriptions reminded me of the Illiad, with the graphic depictions of injuries, including internal organs falling out. If you are squeamish, this may be too intense. Also, the story focuses a lot more on Charlemagne than Roland. Better Roland stories might be found elsewhere?

4. Berta of Hungary (France)--Princess Berta of Hungary is betrothed to Pepin, prince of France soon to be king. Berta travels to France with a small retinue, including a mother and daughter. The mother decides to switch her daughter in for Berta after the marriage ceremony and, amazingly enough, pulls off the scheme. Berta is sent into the woods to be killed while the false Berta takes over as a horrible queen. The true Berta is not killed, however, when the knights who are sent with her refuse to do the deed. They bring back a pig's heart to prove her death. The story continues on in typical fairy tale fashion, though it clearly pre-dates Snow White and other stories that borrow from this one. This story is really well written and plotted, possibly the most enjoyable in the book. The female characters have verisimilitude and are the center of the story. This story was written by a minstrel around 1270 and we are lucky that it was written down and not just performed.

5. Sifrit (Austria)--Sifrit is Siegfried from the stories that Richard Wagner turned into his famous operas. This story is a part of the Nibelungenlied, written around 1200. Here, Sifrit travels to Burgundy and meets Chriemhilde, the beautiful princess of the land. He wants her as his bride. To accomplish this, the king has Sifrit help him to win Brunehilde as the king's bride. They have to engage in a bit of subterfuge which eventually brings tragedy back on their heads. The story is unfamiliar to me. It takes place after Sifrit defeats the dragon and gets the Nibelung horde. He is an interesting character and the unfamiliarity made the story interesting.

6. Prince Igor (Russia)--Prince Igor rides east and fights valiantly but futilely with the Qumans. He's captured and faces the task of escaping back to the Russian capital Keiv. The story here is mostly focused on storytelling itself, often invoking Boyan, a legendary bard of the Russian people who was the best poet (if he ever really existed). The current author often wishes he was as good as Boyan or credits metaphors to Boyan. The focus is different but less interesting to me. The story also has a highly nationalistic slant.

7. The Cid (Spain)--Rodrigo Diaz of Vivar was known as El Cid, or "the Hero." Often he is called Mio Cid or "my Hero," typically by those who follow him. He lived in the 1000s when Spain was still divided into many different kingdoms and the Moorish invaders (as they were known then) were still a force to be reckoned with. This story starts with the Cid's conquest of Valencia but then turns a bit soap opera as his daughters are given in marriage to some ambitious cads who wind up treating the women horribly. Then comes the Cid's retribution. The story is riveting and quite unexpected. It ends medieval style in a tournament with jousting and swordplay.

The collection gives a slice of medieval life from many different perspectives within Europe. Berta and Sifrit were my favorites, with Beowulf a close third. The other stories are also good.

Highly recommended.


Friday, June 21, 2019

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014) directed by Gareth Edwards


Two scientists (Ken Wantanabe and Sally Hawkins) have been investigating prehistoric creatures for decades. In 1999, a Japanese nuclear plant had a meltdown caused by some odd seismic activity. One of the techs, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), was gathering data and managed to escape with his son but not his wife. Fifteen years later, Joe is still obsessed with finding out what happened to the reactor. The area is under quarantine but that doesn't stop him from breaking in. His son, Ford Brody (Arron Taylor-Johnson) is grown up with a wife and child of his own. He comes back to Japan to bail his dad out again. Joe convinces his son to go back into the quarantine area because a very similar set of seismic activity is happening. They wind up at a secret base run by the two scientists, who are studying a prehistoric spore. The spore hatches, causing mayhem all around. Several monsters show up, with Godzilla squaring off against a pair of monsters trying to spawn more offspring, which would be bad for humanity.

The movie has a slow build-up, establishing characters and detailing what sort of creatures are around and what  powers they have. The focus stays on the humans and how they plan, react, and cope with new threats from the ancient past. Often, the monsters are fighting in the background or are mostly off screen, which works well to keep them mysterious and more overwhelming. The pace picks up as the monsters head to San Francisco and have a classic battle that destroys as much of the town as it does the monsters. Director Edwards indirect style makes the action more interesting and less like a CGI slap around. The movie looks great and finishes well.

The original Godzilla movie from 1954 had a thoughtful reflection on the dangers of atomic power and weapons. The sequels quickly turned into Godzilla fighting whatever monsters Toho studio came up with. This movie respects that tradition by having the sort of nuclear power plant accident everyone dreads. It moves on to a big battle scene at the end reminiscent of the "Godzilla Vs. the Next Offering from the Enemy of the Month Club" movies. This movie is satisfying all around, if you are a Godzilla fan.

Recommended.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Review: A Fire Story by Brian Fies

A Fire Story by Brian Fies


Brian Fies was one of the countless victims of the wildfires that hit Northern California is October 2017. He is a cartoonist and immediately began drawing his experience and publishing it on the web. That work became a minor hit and has been expanded into a full-length graphic novel. He starts with waking up to the smell of smoke in the early hours of October 9. He and his wife grabbed a few thing when the evacuation was called. They assumed they'd come back in a couple of hours, at most a couple of days. The fire came right through their neighborhood, completely destroying their house. He goes on to describe his personal recovery effort and how his life was changed by the loss of practically every material possession he had.

His story is very moving and full of surprising details. He remembers a lot of the stuff he'll never have again, including all of his work up to that point. He and his wife start to get new stuff thanks to the generosity of friends and family. Government and relief agencies were mostly good though in the book he gives prominence to the moments of bureaucracy and frustration. Fies is forthright about his anger and occasional misjudgments. At one point, people are waiting at the post office to get the mail that can't be delivered anymore. The workers had a system where people had to wait for their numbers before getting whatever mail might be available. Fies was pretty mad at one worker until the worker's wife came to drop off lunch for him since the worker hadn't eaten since the previous day. The worker was also a fire victim. Fies shows a very human response to a very difficult and unusual situation.

Recommended.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Father's Day at the Ball Game

For Father's Day, my son and I went to see a ball game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. They were playing the final home game (of three) against the Arizona Diamondbacks. We had won a ticket voucher at a church silent auction back in the Fall and finally cashed it in. We ordered the seats online, naturally requesting the best two available. Turns out they were in row F along the right field line. Five rows in front of us was the field! We'd never had such close seats at a game before.

View from the seats!

We arrived early. I thought the start time was 1:05 but it was really 1:35. We had plenty of time to get through security and get food. We watched the fun pre-game activities. Some kids came down to our section hoping to see and talk to a player. They had Nats jerseys on but had to customize them. The player is no longer with the Nationals, so they covered his name with duct tape (yet another use for duct tape!).

34 was Bryce Harper's number--he's a Philly now

Since it was Father's Day, a bunch of the players had their children come out to the field and catch ceremonial first pitches. The children ranged from maybe two-years old to pre-teen. Their skill level also had a wide range. They were all fun to watch.

Playing catch with daddy!

The game started. The Nats took an early lead, with plenty of good hitting from the start.

Still fabulous seats

To celebrate the day, I had an Earned Run Ale by Devil's Backbone Brewery. I am a sucker for thematic beers or ones with cool names. This was a little close to an IPA (not my favorite style) but it was good. The brewery is in Virginia and it seems like the ale is available mostly in Virginia and the District of Columbia. Cans have the Nats logo (that swoopy W) on them, so I guess it's the team's beer.

Pouring a beer

Closeup of the beer

Later on, they had the traditional "running of the Presidents," where the four guys from Mount Rushmore rush around the field trying to be the first in a foot race. This time, only three came out. George Washington was missing.

Start of the race

Once they got to a corner, Washington stepped out and offered them some fudge from Mount Vernon.

Teddy shares some fudge with Abe

While the other presidents were busy having a snack, the father of our country took off for the finish line. All by himself.

Going for the win

It certainly is easy to win a race when you are the only contestant putting in any effort!

Crossing the finish line

The game had plenty of excitement as the Nationals scored fifteen runs, including a smattering of home runs. The Diamondbacks only scored three times in the first eight innings, then started rallying in the ninth, loading the bases and getting two more runs in. The Nats finally shut them down with the final score of 15-5. The game was very satisfying for us fans and was a great way to spend Father's Day.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum

The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum is located just a few blocks from Oriole Park in Baltimore.

The house where Ruth lived (along with neighboring houses)

From the ball park, fans follow a trail of baseballs in the sidewalks to the Ruth home.

Easy to follow

When we arrived, we weren't sure which door to go in, though a small sign did point us to the right way.

My son reconnoitering 

The first exhibit in the museum we watched was a documentary about how the Star-Spangled Banner became the standard opening for baseball games.

The room includes a (reduced size) replica of the Fort McHenry flag that inspired the songwriter and a general overview of the Babe's career.

National flag circa 1814 with Babe Ruth history

Ruth started out his baseball career as a member of the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles. That team had financial woes and Ruth's contract was sold to the Boston Red Sox. Ruth became a star there. Ruth was again sold to the New York Yankees where he played from 1920 to 1934. He had one last year with the Boston Braves in 1935. He briefly worked as a first base coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1930s. Replica jerseys from each team adorn the wall.

Jerseys from all his teams

The museum has a small display of other famous Baltimore athletes. Cal Ripken, Jr.'s Baltimore Orioles jersey and MVP trophy, Ray Lewis's Baltimore Ravens jersey, Johnny Unitas's Baltimore Colts cleats, and Michael Phelps' swim cap and goggles fill a small niche. The crown in the lower right is a Babe Ruth Sultan of Swat award for Tony Armas's slugging ability--he hit 251 home runs in his career.

Other locals

Another display shows a replica of the World Series trophy. Ruth went with the Red Sox to two successful World Series appearances (1915 and 1916). With the Yankees, he went to five more winning series (1918, 1923, 1927, 1928, 1932).

A world series trophy

A nearby wall lists all of the Babe's home runs in chronological order. It is a very full wall!

714 plaques!

The museum has the original Ruth home, 216 Emory Street, with recreations of what the house looked like.

Living room

Bedroom

The upstairs also has a small display on Ruth as a family man, along with a dress from his wife and the family's radio.

Ruth's family

The back of the house, now inside!

Ruths parents were George and Katherine, both of whom were children of German immigrants. George Senior had a series of jobs. He eventually bought a saloon and lived in the apartment above. George Junior was a bit of a troublemaker and wound up at age seven being sent to St. Mary's Industrial School For Boys, a Catholic reform school. His parents were Protestant though Babe became a Catholic, carrying a set of rosary beads with him throughout his life.

Rosary 

A lot of displays chronicle his baseball achievements, especially the famous "called shot" at game three of the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. It's unclear from the films of the game, but the story goes that Babe pointed out where he would hit a home run right before he actually hit the home run!

Poster from the famous game

Several of Ruth's bats are also on display. He went through many different types to find just what he wanted.

Two bats that Ruth used

A signed baseball is also on display.

Autographed by the man

We loved visiting the museum and recommend it to all baseball fans.

Monday, June 17, 2019

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction (1963)

Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction (1963) written by David Whitaker and directed by Richard Martin


The First Doctor (William Hartnell) and his crew barely escape from Planet Skaro when the TARDIS seems to crash. Everyone is knocked out. When they come to, several have amnesia. The amnesia quickly dissipates but they are suspicious of each other. The view screen only shows pictures of previous trips, not where they are now. The doors won't open. Every time Susan or the Doctor approach the control panel, they get massive headaches. Is there some malfunction or is there a malevolent presence on the TARDIS?

The show is only two half-hour episodes. Even with the short running time it feels long and very odd.  The actors performances are off, which may be accounted for by the amnesia but really seems like they didn't know what the story was leading to. The ultimate solution is a bit of a let-down. The whole story takes place on the TARDIS, so this looks like low-budget filler episodes to offset the other stories that had a lot more production costs.

Not recommended except for Doctor Who completists.