Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: Amulet: Book Four The Last Council by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet Book Four The Last Council by Kazu Kibuishi

Stonekeeper Emily has arrived at the ancient, fabled floating city of Cielis. Her group wants to enlist anyone left in the Guardian Council, the Stonekeepers dedicated to ruling the planet. Unfortunately, things are not as they planned. Emily is drawn into a competition for a spot on the Council, which means a fight to the death with other young Stonekeepers. Meanwhile, her family and friends discover the city is gripped with fear and on the verge of falling apart. Luckily a new ally is coming, so there might be some help on the horizon.

The story's mythology grows by leaps and bounds in this book, which I find delightful. The competition does have a Hunger Games feel to it but is so steeped in the Stonekeeper mythology that its only slightly derivative. I'm enjoying the book a lot and am looking forward to the next volume.

Highly recommended.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Movie Review: What We Become (2015)

What We Become (2015) written and directed by Bo Mikkelsen

A family's extremely typical life (the teenage son is sulky and troublesome, the 10-year old daughter is focused on her bunny) becomes a lot more difficult when a virus breaks out in their Danish suburb. It doesn't spread too quickly and the government establishes a quarantine almost immediately, so the family is stuck in their house for a month while the local CDC tries to find a cure. Things slowly fall apart as the son sneaks out to check on the new girl across the street and on the situation in general. The government starts to lose control and neighbors come to seek shelter at their home, causing more tension and drama, especially since the new girl's mom has a scratch on her leg.

While the movie breaks no new ground (really, nothing that happens is surprising or original, other than the slowness of the build up and the quarantine including gigantic plastic wrap covering the houses), it is solidly engrossing. The gore is left mostly to the end when the situation gets out of control. The movie emulates the pessimistic world view of most zombie films, i.e. that we are doomed (hence the title of the movie). Even with these flaws, the characters are well-written and acted so that viewers care for them and do feel bad when the inevitable zombie apocalypse gets apocalyptic.

Recommended, but mostly for zombie movie fans. I guess if you haven't seen a lot of zombie movies, it might look original to you.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Serling by Gordon F. Sander

Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man by Gordon F. Sander

Rod Serling achieved his lasting fame in the early 1960s when he wrote, produced, and hosted the iconic science fiction and fantasy series The Twilight Zone. The series was wildly popular (and is still in syndication and streaming today) thanks to the intelligent scripts, the visual creativity, the twist endings, and the compelling nature of Serling's introductions and conclusions. The series spawned many imitators and the phrase "twilight zone" has become idiomatic.

Even before The Twilight Zone, Serling was a television celebrity, writing many dramas in the golden age of television, including Requiem for a Heavyweight (later made into a film) and Patterns (his breakout work that earned him his first of six Emmy awards in less than ten years). He wrote about both political and personal challenges of his day. He drew from his life experience as well.

Serling grew up in rural New York. During World War II, he joined the 511th Airborne as a paratrooper, even though he was too short to qualify. He had the personal ambition and strength of will to be a paratrooper. Ironically, he saw very little action for the first few years but then was part of the very intense fighting in the Pacific theater. He returned at the end of the war, as many GIs did, to college. He worked at the campus radio station where he first felt the need to entertain. He worked in radio as a script writer and made the transition to television as it became more popular. The intimacy and the immediacy of television fascinated him and, with a lot of work under his belt, he became a fine writer.

The book starts with his personal life but his writing career becomes the central focus. Serling's wife Carol fades into the background as Serling's television career takes off. Sander mentions that Serling had affairs after the family moved to Hollywood but does not delve into them. Serling was also distant from his two daughters, who are only mentioned occasionally. The real focus of this book is on Serling as an icon of television's golden age and how the collapse of that age played out in his life. Like film auteur Orson Welles, Serling started to cash in on his celebrity, doing parodies of himself and working on commercials. In the last years of his life, Serling's greatest joy was teaching college, where the students were often in awe of him, something Hollywood lost when The Twilight Zone finished. His personal life is at best a secondary theme of the book.

The book identifies Serling as "television's last angry man" in part because of his career ambitions. He wanted to write great dramas about contemporary topics. He especially wanted to write against prejudice, which he abhorred. At first, television was looking for prestige projects to validate the medium as a form of art as well as entertainment. Sponsors and executives eventually became more concerned to avoid controversy, making it a fight for Serling to produce what he wanted. Ironically, starting The Twilight Zone looked like a sell-out for Serling--he'd be making a popular entertainment show. But it really gave him a platform from which to comment on social issues and morality, albeit indirectly through placing the issues in other times or places.  The production schedule on the show was too much, leading to burn out and a drop in quality in the later years. Those factors, combined with increasing challenges with the network and the sponsors, drove Serling away from Hollywood in frustration over what he could no longer do.

I found the book fascinating throughout. I didn't mind the focus on his career (gossipy biographies are of little interest to me). His early life and military service are interesting, especially when they are connected to his writing career.

Recommended, especially for Twilight Zone fans.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Son Turns Ten

My eldest has turned ten! For his birthday, like last year, he wanted a Nintendo-themed party. The star of this year's part was probably the cake, which was in the shape of an ? Box. These boxes can be found in many Mario games. When a player hits one, a special bonus is revealed--a coin, a power-up, etc. My wife was clever enough to add gold coins inside the cake. First, she baked several layers. Then she cut the middle out of some, leaving a hollow inside the cake. Icing held it all together and kept the secret.

Layers of cake

Gold coins!

Sealing it up

Cutting out decorations

Attaching decorations (see a sample box between the wrists!)

Happy craftsman

The day of the party, we had the guests dress up just like they were making Mii characters on the Nintendo Wii. The boys were very creative.

Sorting through items

Not sure who this is

Birthday boy

Mario/Pac-man hybrid

Minimalist costume

Duh Hand

Mario/Shirley Temple hybrid

The whole gang

We had some indoor activities including a treasure hunt and a bit of actual playing on the Wii. After pizza dinner, we ate the cake, which was delightful to all.

Candles blown out

The final activity was the "boss stage" where the party goers faced off against King Boo. King Boo manifested himself in the form of a piƱata hanging in the garage. Revelers lined up for a go at knocking him out.

Ready to strike

The face of Boo

Using glasses doesn't necessarily help

Daughter takes a whack

Birthday boy goes for the knock down

The kids loved the party. My son said it was his best birthday party yet. How will we top it next year?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 13 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 13 by Hiro Mashima

After a little coda from the Tower of Heaven arc, the team returns to the Fairy Tail guild hall, which has finally been rebuilt after the Phantom Lord fight. The hall is huge and sprawling and welcomes new members Juvia and Gajeel, former members of Phantom Lord. So the newcomers aren't too popular. A reporter from a wizard magazine shows up to do a story on the new hall. The guild members make a bit of a bad impression which comes through in the article. Master Makarov, head of Fairy Tail, is not too happy, especially when his grandson Laxus comes back. Laxus is mad that the guild looks so weak, especially since he wants to lead the guild at some point. So Laxus sets in motion battles between the Fairy Tail members which occupies the last third of the book.

In addition to the main plot, the book contains some hints at future story lines--Natzu's trainer, the dragon Igneel, makes a brief appearance. Ultear, Jellal's ally on the Wizard Council, reveals she had more going on and that Zeref is not done yet. They are intriguing hints but no payoff is in this volume.

The book also has a lot of gratuitous "cheesecake." Lucy decides she want to be a star in the magazine article so she vamps it up for the reporter. Later, during a harvest festival in town, the guild hosts a "Miss Fairy Tail" contest which involves a lot of the guild members in bikinis.

The book has the usual notes in the back on Japanese culture.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Cute Kid Pix September 2017

More pictures that didn't make their own post...

The library had fun story times in September. The first one we went to had "numbers" as a theme. The craft had a squirrel gathering nuts, which is related to numbers because there are five nuts? We didn't really care.

Getting the glue ready

Attaching the nuts

All done!

The next week's word of the week was "friend." The stories were fun (Elephant and Piggie made their appearance, among others) and the craft was a bit more complex. Two arms came together to make a hug. We didn't have to staple the arms together since they had slits that interlocked. My son couldn't quite get it but I had it done in no time. He colored the face and glued on a little sentiment.

Working on the craft

How did you get that together?

I can't quite look at the camera

One night coming home, I discovered an amphibian on our driveway. He must have been asleep or too mellow to care about having a person nearby or having a picture taken.

A toad in the road

My daughter did a painting project on the front porch which happily didn't paint the front porch.

Painting with care

Joy of painting!

She also started a fencing class, which has inspired us to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood and Cyrano de Bergerac.

Fencing in action

My older son started fall baseball, with his first game on the hottest Saturday in September. His team won 8-4.

My son at bat

We went to World of Beer for lunch (it is a restaurant) and I ordered a Diamondback Leg Day, a Belgian quad with a whopping 11% alcohol by volume. The waitress took our order. A few minutes later the other waiter came with our drinks including my beer in a pint glass. I was surprised because the menu said it would come in a tulip glass (less beer to go with the higher alcohol) but drank it anyway. The waitress came by later with a dark beer in a tulip glass which I assumed was for another table, but sure enough, it was another Diamondback Leg Day. I had to taste to make sure they were both the same. I got the second beer free!

Best mistake ever!

The restaurant also had an awesome German pretzel which we all enjoyed.

Great pretzel

Friday, October 13, 2017

Movie Review: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) written, produced, and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr.

Aliens plan to take over the Earth by raising an army of the dead to subjugate the living. They amass a horde of three zombies (one played by Bela Lugosi, who died a few days into the shoot) to do their bidding--terrorizing a town just outside of Hollywood, California. The residents struggle to discover what's going on in their graveyard and in the skies overhead. Meanwhile, the U. S. military gets involved, hoping to quell the invasion before the general public finds out.

This movie is legendary as one of the worst films ever made (if not the worst). In addition to the problems of low budget effects, ridiculous dialogue, mismatched studio and location shots, and the death of Bela Lugosi (replaced with another actor hiding his face with his cape), the movie also struggles with its sense of profundity. It has a big message like The Day the Earth Stood Still (in fact, practically the same anti-nukes message) but the presentation is so obvious and so overblown that viewers shake with laughter rather than fear. Many of the speeches seem crafted to sound wise and deep but come off as ludicrous. For example, the very first speech is by the psychic Criswell, who says to the camera: "Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future." The delivery is so earnest and so laughable all at the same time. The movie maintains a similar attempt at depth throughout. The movie tries hard to be great and fails at every attempt.

Why then is the movie still popular over fifty years later, when most other poorly conceived and executed films have been forgotten? There is a certain charm about the incompetent earnestness on display. Many science fiction cliches (flying saucers, ray guns, arrogant and superior aliens who we can beat more or less easily) are used in the most stereotypical manner possible. When an actor accidentally knocks over one of the cardboard tomb stones during a shot, that's left in rather than redone correctly or edited out somehow. The movie is much funnier (even though unintentionally) than many comedies.

I can't really recommend the movie on any artistic or moral level but it does have entertainment value. If you are curious about it, you should give it a watch. At 79 minutes, it comes and goes quickly. There are other longer, more serious, more arty films that I'll never watch again (I'm looking at you, The New World), but if someone wanted to watch this, I'd rewatch it with them. Maybe I should be ashamed of that, but that's me.