Friday, January 19, 2018

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk (2017) written and directed by Christopher Nolan

It's May, 1940, and the Germans are driving what's left of the Allied Forces in France to the English Channel. Hundreds of thousands of troops are pinned down waiting to evacuate to England. As they wait, the German land force presses closer. The German air force bombs and shoots whatever they can on the beach and also the large naval ships coming to the rescue. In a desperate attempt to bring back as many as possible, civilian vessels are used (whether the civilians will pilot them or not). This movie follows a few stories (one RAF fighter pilot, some of the Brits on the beach, and one of the civilian boats) to tell this tension-filled tale.

Nolan has a lot of experience telling stories out of order or in a mixed-up time sequence (cf. Memento, Inception, and Interstellar) to great effect. The stories here, which certainly could have been told in a strictly chronological narrative, are blended together in occasionally confusing ways. The stories overlap at various points, though sometimes it isn't clear that they really are overlapping (is that the same ship sinking that we saw earlier in a different story or not?). Such narrative shenanigans could be grating but they serve the larger story here--it wasn't just one RAF fighter squad fighting off all the Nazi bombers and fighters; it wasn't just one civilian boat that did its patriotic duty; it wasn't just a handful of soldiers on the beach who were panicked or crafty about escaping. The few faces we see are part of a larger, anonymous mass of people involved. A lot of little details are thrown in that help to paint the larger picture.

The heroism is inspiring. The conditions are very bad and few men succumb to shell shock and horror, but most keep the proverbial stiff upper lip. They look like real people who rise to the occasion. The evacuation is an amazing success.

The movie isn't perfect (less convincing moments do pop up here and there and poor Kenneth Branagh spends a lot of time staring at things off in the distance) but is an exciting experience and worth watching.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 18 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 18 by Hiro Mashima

The battle between Fairy Tail's alliance of guilds and the Oracion Seis continues as the Nirvana magic activates. Nirvana was designed a long time ago to turn darkly-motivated wizards to the light, but it also functions in the opposite way, i.e. turning light-minded wizards evil. The promise of a lot of chaotic mayhem doesn't quite play out in this issue; even so, the story and battles are interesting. Helping the story is the return of Jellal (the villain from the Tower of Heaven story arc), whose amnesia causes interesting complications. The fight doesn't quite finish in this volume but things are finally going in favor of Fairy Tail.

Recommended, though at this point readers definitely can't jump in without reading several, if not all, of the previous volumes.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Book Review: Saint Junipero Serra's Camino by Stephen J. Binz

Saint Junipero Serra's Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to the California Missions by Stephen J. Binz

Stephen Binz's Saint Junipero Serra's Camino is an eminently practical book. As the title says, it is a guide for those who want to make a pilgrimage through the missions that Junipero Serra founded along the California coast in the late 1700s. The book covers all the bases. It has a historical review of Serra's life and the founding of the missions. It looks at the spirituality of Serra and Saint Francis, since Serra was a Franciscan who took to heart Francis's simplicity of life and importance of evangelism. It also looks at the spirituality of the natives and how they were treated by the missionaries and by the Spanish and later Mexican governments. Binz is refreshingly honest about the mistreatment of the native Californians and the both good and bad impacts of European life. The last two thirds of the book describes the missions in turn.

Each description covers the history of the mission including its current condition (some were better preserved than others). Binz also provides an overview of the saint to whom the mission is dedicated (e.g. San Juan Capistrano is named after Saint John of Capistrano, a fourteenth century Franciscan who preached and taught in Europe). He describes the mission bells and the current church in detail. He's also composed some prayers for pilgrims to say at the churches. Finally, he describes any museum and grounds around the church, along with nearby points of interest.

The book makes for a fascinating arm-chair pilgrimage. I am very interested in taking my family to travel from mission to mission as a pilgrimage/vacation. This book will be very handy companion on that trip. It is thorough and compact.

Highly recommended, even if you don't plan to visit the missions in California.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Magic Mountain Playground, Coyote Point, California

The Coyote Point Recreation Area in San Mateo, California, is home to the Magic Mountain Playground (and CuriOdyssey, which we blogged about in yesterpost). The playground is fairly large with a castle full of slides and with lots of dragons waiting to gobble up kids. We went during our Christmas trip and had a lot of fun.

Here there be dragons

Here there be castles (with slides)

The kids tried out the slides but lost interest quickly. They started playing with the other equipment, like the climbers and, my toddlers favorite, the kiddie swing (though no picture of that this time).

Archway by the castle

My daughter crosses the archway

An extra-popular item was the tire swing. The tire was not an authentic car tire, but a smaller, solid plastic piece of (presumably safer) playground equipment. If kids would form a line to get on play equipment, they'd have formed a line for this one. As it was, they just kept an eye out for when the swing became free and raced to get on first. My daughter and her cousins loved riding it. They also wanted me to give them a push, which I did.

Getting on the tire swing

Riding in style

They also played on one of the dragons, which turned out not to be as dangerous as previously imagined. They did defy him to turn them into a snack.

On the nose

Testing how sharp his teeth were

My two sons were less interested in the equipment and went to throw rocks into the bay, an activity for which I have no pictures. Maybe next time!

Monday, January 15, 2018

CuriOdyssey, Coyote Point, California

Another fun adventure on our California Christmas trip was a visit to the Coyote Point Recreation Park in San Mateo, near San Francisco International Airport. The park has many attractions, but the two of primary interest to us were the Magic Mountain Playground (which will get its own post next) and CuriOdyssey, a science and wildlife center. We visited CuriOdyssey first.

Nice sign

After the entrance, we saw a bunch of exhibits on the Nature of Patterns. Our prescholar was obsessed with the air flow machine that sent foam blocks and shapes up into the air like magic. We had a hard time tearing him away from that one.

The joy of vicariously defying gravity

My older son tried out the marble maze, something he's enjoyed at other science museums.

Marble maze

My daughter cranked a wheel that let her observe water currents shifting in a tank. Mostly she made swirls in the viscous blue water.

Chaotic currents

Upstairs was an exhibit called "IlluminOdyssey" about the nature of light and color. Several white teepees were set up, which the kids enjoyed exploring. I must admit, the teepees didn't seem immediately relevant to the exhibit.

Hiding in a teepee

The walls and floors had some fantastic laser projections, adding color, patterns, and shapes for our enjoyment.

Laser projections

Further on, we discovered the Astro Botanicals, some inflatable exhibits based on ornamental flowers with imaginative design twists.

Exploring an astro botanical

A different child inside

Inside view of the ceiling, quite pretty

Some other pseudo-flowers

Further on, we found some lit-up blocks. My prescholar knew exactly what to do with them. He started stacking them and then gave a good swift kick, like every other set of blocks he's ever run into.

Blocks for stacking

Ready to kick

An even taller target

In the back hall are more science experiments, including magnets and a large variety of visual distortion panels.

Bouncing magnets along an arc

Textures, light, and altered visions

The prescholar played with one last Nature Pattern exhibit before we headed outside.

Twisting strings to make new shapes

Outside are the noisier and messier exhibits. The boys enjoyed banging on some tubes to make music.

Paddles and metal tubes make interesting sounds

A water table let my daughter alter the current on a small stream using rocks and panels. The precaution sign for a slippery floor is probably there all the time.

Curving the creek

A water wall lets visitors try to make shapes out of the water. My older son tried to make a question mark. You judge the results.

His set up

Close up of the question mark

My prescholar also had fun with the water wall, though just getting wet for free was most of the appeal.

Science is fun

We then headed over to the wildlife preserve, which was not very big.

Entrance to the wildlife preserve

Like most every zoo we've gone to, the animals were not very lively at 10:30 a.m. Some of the displays were empty, or at least looked empty until we found a dozing creature curled up in a corner.


One sedentary fellow was a Golden Eagle, who managed to look majestic on his perch. He made me think of The Maltese Falcon.

Golden Eagle from behind

"What are you looking at?"

Comparison between (l-r) barn owl, turkey vulture, and Golden eagle eggs and feathers

We saw another bird hiding out in the trees who definitely didn't want to be disturbed.

What am I looking at?

We decided to head over to the playground, which will be the topic of the next post!

Curb walking to the playground

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: Run for It by Marcelo D'Salete

Run for It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom by Marcelo D'Salete

The plight of African slaves in the New World is starkly told in this collection of four stories. These particular stories describe the fight some slaves made against their owners. Some resistance was simple, like putting no effort into work. Other resistance was more active, like fleeing or even taking arms against the slave owners. All of these are shown here, as are the reasons for rejecting the horrible life of slavery. Beatings are shown and hinted at--everyone has scars on their backs. Slave women have children because their masters raped them. The horrors go on. But so does hope, especially of escape to settlements called mocambos, areas in the Brazilian hinterland (the stories are all set in South America). The humanity of the slaves shines through even in the inhumanity of their conditions. This is a serious and unhappy but important testimony to history. More importantly, it shows the need to treat human beings as human beings.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) written and directed by Rian Johnson

The Skywalker saga continues as The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), flees from the First Order, who are trying to deal the death blow. The Resistance barely escapes one planet only to discover that the First Order has some way to track their jumps, forcing them to run away at normal speeds. While the leadership plots what to do next before their fuel runs out (which is extremely imminent), a handful of rebels sneak off to try a desperate move to end the predicament.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is in for some rude awakenings as she seeks Jedi training from old man Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Not only does she find out what drove Luke into hiding, she also discovers a telepathic link with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who tries to manipulate her into going to the Dark Side. Luke doesn't see their link but does see the great power of the Force in Rey. He thinks she isn't ready to handle a challenge from the Dark Side. Will she be corrupted as so many others have?

I went into this movie really wanting to love it. The opening space battle where The Resistance escapes is great fun and exciting, promising greatness to come. But then that story shifts into a slow and boring chase with a lot of petty squabbling among The Resistance and a completely unnecessary side quest where Benicio Del Toro shows up as a random side character. While this was going on I was sitting in the theater thinking up better ways for either The Resistance to escape or the First Order to pin down and finish off the rebels. There have been dumb moments in previous Star Wars films, but this is the first time I was ever bored by a Star Wars film.

On the other hand, the Luke/Rey/Kylo Ren storyline was a lot more interesting. I know a lot of people have complained about the shift in Luke's character, but I didn't mind since they provided a reasonable (if not fully satisfactory) explanation for his attitude. The telepathic link was a bit too contrived but it did generate more drama. The filmmakers tried to inject some comedy which fell mostly flat (Chewbacca's snack was cute and funny until they dragged it out too long; Rey's slapstick bits also didn't work). But dramatically, I liked it.

The two story lines come together at the end of the film with mixed results. Some moments were cool, some were dumb. The ending is hardly as hopeful as the characters (and filmmakers) make it out to be. I hope they will right the ship in the next episode but they have to do a lot of credulity straining to pull it off.

Recommended for Star Wars completists, but be warned--this movie is much closer to the prequels than the originals on the Star Wars spectrum.

Bonus! My Star Wars movie rankings, from best to worst (four and five on my list are so incredibly close that they change positions sometimes; six and seven might switch on further consideration):
  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope 
  3. Rogue One
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Return of the Jedi
  6. The Last Jedi
  7. Revenge of the Sith
  8. Attack of the Clones
  9. The Phantom Menace