Thursday, January 19, 2017

Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) co-written and directed by Bryan Singer

The ancient mutant En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (who has been amassing other mutant's powers over centuries) is beaten in 3000 B.C. Egypt by perfectly normal, everyday Egyptians. He isn't killed, only put to sleep for about 5000 years. While investigating mutants in 1983, Moira McTaggert accidentally awakens Apocalypse who brings together his four horsemen (because he's Apocalypse, get it?) to take over the world. Can Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his students and allies stop the madman before his plans wreak havoc? Of course, the answer to that question is obvious, which does not mean the movie can't still be entertaining.

Unfortunately, the film has a lot of things working against it. Many scenes are clearly designed to be seen in 3D, which is distracting when watching a 2D version at home on DVD. The movie also has too many "this scene is so cool we are going to show it in slow motion" moments. Which doesn't even include the Quicksilver (the guy who moves at high speed, so naturally he has some slow motion stuff) scenes--they are fun in small doses but again there are too many of them and looks like reruns of scenes from Days of Future Past.

Too many characters are left undeveloped or doing nothing until the end. Poor Angel and Psylocke are little more than eye-candy combatants with no character at all. They are part of the four horsemen but don't do anything until the climatic big battle. The other horsemen, Storm and Magneto, have good development, even with Storm's minimal screen time. Still, they too have almost nothing to do till the finale. Apocalypse even has to kidnap Xavier to make his plan work, making the other four look especially useless.

Having read the Age of Apocalypse graphic novels, I had a good idea of what Apocalypse's plan was, but that's not communicated clearly in the film. Apocalypse talks a lot about the devastation he's going to cause but does hardly any until the ending, even missing some fairly big opportunities early on. He does have menacing physical presence, but his incoherent and slow scheme make him into a lesser villain, which is a shame for someone named Apocalypse.

Other characters fair better. Xavier and Magneto work well as foils for each other (if only Magneto hadn't spent so much time with Apocalypse!). Happily, they don't overshadow the other characters--Cyclopes, Jean Grey, Mystique, and other X-Men get enough character development and moments so they don't look one dimensional like Angel and Psylocke. Director Singer is good at handling a large cast of characters but this movie has too many even for him.

The movie would benefit immensely from judicious script editing/re-writing and fewer "look how amazing these special effects are" moments. While certainly not as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand, this film is definitely on the lower end of the X-Men franchise.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa was a Japanese author writing in the early twentieth century (he died a suicide in 1927). His fictional settings range through the centuries. His attitude toward human nature is mostly consistent--cynical and pessimistic. The texts are straightforward accounts where the nuances come out of the characters' actions and thoughts.

1. In a Grove--Various witnesses give testimony to a High Police Commissioner about a rape and murder in a grove off of a major thoroughfare. Some incidental witnesses give some details and the main witnesses (the bandit assumed responsible, the assaulted wife, and the dead man who testimony comes from a medium) have stories that don't sync up. The truth is hard to find when people hold their egos in higher regard. The story is more of a character study than a mystery--the enigma of what happened is perhaps unsolvable.

2. Rashomon--Standing in the rundown city gate called Rashomon, a samurai's servant is waiting out the rain. He's just been fired so he considers what he will do. Like the gate, the city of Kyoto (the former capital of Japan) is run down. The prospects of earning an honest living are minimal, so he considers becoming a thief. His considerations are interrupted when he discovers another lost soul in the Rashomon. The bleak atmosphere of the story is unrelenting and the ambiguous resolution makes for a good discussion.

3. Yam Gruel--In the remote past, mid-level (i.e. non-descript) samurai Goi has no other desire than to eat yam gruel, then considered a delicacy. Goi is shabby in appearance, clothing, thought, and will, making him the target of practical joking by his superiors and inferiors. One superior, Toshihito, decides to play a long joke and takes Goi off to his splendid mansion in a distant province with the promise of yam gruel in abundance. The author makes a big deal about Goi being the hero of the story, perhaps only to satirize the hero's journey. If so, it is a rather bleak and joyless satire.

4. The Martyr--An orphan shows up at a Jesuit church in Nagasaki. The brothers take the child in because of a rosary wrapped around his wrist and the child's sweet and silent disposition. He grows up only to find horrible accusations made against him. The final twist in the story is a little too unbelievable (though a postscript claims the story is based on true events), spoiling an otherwise interesting look at Christians in Japan.

5. Kesa and Morito--Two lovers plan to murder the woman's husband. The story is told twice--once from the man's perspective, next from the woman's. Their differing details are reminiscent of "In a Grove," with the same sort of pessimism running through it.

6. The Dragon--Ancient storyteller Uji Dainagon Takakuni collects a story from a potter much like one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales from one of the pilgrims. The potter's story involves a prankster Buddhist priest who puts up a sign by a local pond: "On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond." The sign causes a sensation all out of proportion from the intended joke, leading to massive crowds camping out on the assigned date. Even the priest starts to think a dragon may rise!

The most upbeat of the stories (The Martyr and The Dragon) are from other source materials, making me reluctant to seek out more from Akutagawa. I don't mind dark themes and stories but these are a bit too unrelenting for me. I am sure to rewatch Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which uses the story Rashomon as a framing device around the In a Grove story. Kurosawa has a more positive resolution to the story, which makes a fascinating contrast.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ice Skating Lessons 2017

Our daughter asked for ice skating lessons after a fun session during the Christmas break. My wife hunted around for the best lessons we could find, putting her in a class at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel. The center is huge with four large rinks and the National Capital Curling Center right next door. They have hockey leagues, figure skating, birthday parties, and lessons. My daughter was assigned to instructor Greg who is great with kids. He told them his first rule is "No smiling." Several kids broke the rule immediately. Greg even broke his own rule (and acknowledged it) a few times! He's good at teaching skills and creating a fun environment.

Instructor checks his list

Catching a smiler

The first skill the children learned was falling down. Everyone aced it. Then they learned how to get back up, one skate at a time.

Everyone shares a natural talent

The next skill after falling and standing up on skates was marching across the rink with skates in a V-shape. The kids did a little coasting but mostly walking. This skill was also easy to do.

Marching across the rink

Getting separated from the crowd

The final skill for the first lesson was moving back and forth by alternating from a V-shape to an A-shape. The instructor drew little fish on the ice with a sharpie. Each student had their own personal practice area. This skill was the toughest to get down.

Don't cut the fish!

The rink also has a snack bar. We stopped for some popcorn after the lesson. The treat was a yummy boost to get us home. Future lessons promise to be even more fun!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Winter Baseball Tune-Up 2017

Our older son is interested in playing baseball this summer, so we signed him up for a winter tune-up class to sharpen his skills. The class is held at the gym of a nearby high school. The class was divided in half, so they could take turns practicing batting and fielding. My son's group started with fielding.

First, they practicing throwing back and forth. Then the students practiced fielding ground balls.

Keeping his glove low

Throwing back

They also practiced running backward side to side in order to catch a fly ball. At first, they did just the running part. After a few runs, the instructor started throwing fly balls. Occasionally they hit the ceiling or the raised basketball hoops, making the balls even harder to catch. 

In action (from a distance too, hence the blur)

 The switch to batting practice required abandoning the glove and getting a helmet and bat. The very first skill taught was the proper grip. The coach told them to align the knuckles of both hands. This grip gives the batter more range of motion. The other important trick to practice is aligning feet, using a bat on the ground.

First batting skill--with the bat on the floor!

They practiced batting on tees, emphasizing keeping the eye on the ball and the "load and step" to add power to the swing.

Getting ready

Loading to swing

We had another short round of fielding which was the most fun according to my son. The kids practiced crow-stepping into a throw to get more distance after catching fly balls. He looked impressive.


My son can't wait for the next class!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 3 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 3 by Hiro Mashima

Dark Guild Eisenwald's plan to wipe out lots of people by playing the evil magical flute Lullaby gets nearer to success. The Fairy Tail team (Natsu, Gray, Erza, Lucy, and Happy) have a big battle with the Eisenwald folks at a train station with a public address system. This location is only part of Eisenwald's plan, so a lot more action happens before the end. Happily the story does end in this volume (the last two volumes both split story arcs in the middle). The author manages to pull out a cliffhanger at the very end when Natsu and Erza's battle is interrupted by a surprise visit.

The story still follows the anime series very closely. That's fine since it's so enjoyable. The story has enough depth and creativity that it doesn't read like mere frivolous fantasy action. The characters are interesting and getting more three-dimensional all the time. The book reads very quickly, which is always a plus with the minimal reading time I have.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked by David Baldwin

Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked by David Baldwin

Robin Hood has had a massive amount of mythology grow up around him. Is it possible to peel away the layers and find the historical inspiration for the many legends? That task is the central purpose for David Baldwin in writing this book.

He begins with a survey of the earliest ballads and stories about Robin Hood. The earliest is Little Geste of Robyn Hode and his Meiny. It is a compilation of five different stories (in verse) about Robin and his men. Using this and other early legends about the hero, Baldwin then examines various possible candidates for Robin. Turns out there have been plenty of people who took to the forest to fight what they thought was injustice imposed by a an unfair and corrupt government, some even named Robert Hode or Robyn Hud or other variants.

Baldwin also searches for analogues of other characters like Little John, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the King of England, etc. The search helps the author triangulate the most likely time and actual people. The result is a fascinating survey of English history in the 1200s and 1300s. Plenty of other corrupt rulers besides Prince John populate those times, as well as dramatic civil strife over the implementation of Magna Carta and the first attempts at parliamentary rule. The Robin Hood story almost gets sidetracked for a while. The book comes around at the end and makes a compelling argument for a pair of friends (Roger Godberd and Walter Devyas) who have many parallels to the exploits of Robin Hood and Little John.

The research in the book is thorough and scholarly without being boring and academic. The characters are naturally dynamic, with exciting lives of crime and redemption (to greater or lesser extents). The argument is enjoyable and persuasive while not being definitive. With such a great distance in time certitude is hard to come by; surely the bards of the fourteenth century embellished and gathered together the best elements of several stories to make the most entertain tales they could. Picking the scant evidence apart and putting together a convincing whole is a great challenge. Baldwin rises to the occasion and delivers a fascinating survey of the various and best historical people who inspired the legends of Robin Hood.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) written by Ben Aaronovitch and directed by Andrew Morgan

Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy travels to 1963 England to take care of some unfinished business. Unfortunately, two factions of Daleks (who are naturally in conflict with one another as well as the Doctor) are interested in the same unfinished business. An earlier incarnation of the Doctor had left the Hand of Omega, a Time Lord device of amazing power, hidden in plain sight. The Daleks want it for the power; The Doctor wants to keep it out the hands of the Daleks...or does he?

The story has nice bits of cleverness as the Doctor tries to get his plan to come off. He's assisted by Ace, a 1980s girl who makes her own explosives and carries around a baseball bat and a boom box. When a Dalek tries to eliminate her, she doesn't shriek for the Doctor's help. She gets the bat out! She is a refreshing change for a classic female companion to the Doctor. The episode also has lots of big, credible-looking explosions (how else can you kill a Dalek?) and is otherwise on the high end of the BBC's production values. McCoy's wit and physicality are put to great use, especially when he confronts the Dalek leader. The blend of fun and drama is near perfect.

This four-parter (about 100 minutes) is solid entertainment.