Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver (2017) written and directed by Edgar Wright

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver who's in debt to a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and is about to pay off that debt with one last job. He's the best driver in Atlanta and has always come through for the boss. But he also looks forward to being out of the obligation, especially since he's met a cute waitress (Lily James) with whom he hopes to make the ultimate getaway.

With all these cliches, Baby does have one thing going for him--he has tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ear from a childhood accident. To get rid of the noise, he constantly listens to music on iPods, often using the music as inspiration or motivation in his driving...or walking....or whatever he's doing in life. In the hands of director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim), this idea becomes the central conceit and artistic muse of the movie. Every car chase (and there are plenty) is set to music, along with foot chases, dramatic scenes, and comic moments. The film is not just edited to the music. Often long tracking shots also sync up with the beats and the lyrics of the songs. Visually, the movie is amazing.

The story is a bit formulaic but the cast makes the most of it. Even when they are cliched, the characters are still interesting and do have occasional moments to step up and be more human and more individual. There's nothing really deep in the movie, but it is very entertaining and well put together.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (1975)

Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (1975) written by Robert Holmes and directed by Rodney Bennett

The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) materializes the TARDIS on a space station orbiting the Earth in the far distant future. The Doctor explores with his companions Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter), only to discover the station is deserted (except for thousands of people in cryogenic sleep) and apparently sabotaged. The Doctor makes some repairs which activates the security, causing complications. Also, the repairs start the revival sequence for the humans on board. They've been set aside to avoid an apocalyptic disaster on Earth, though they should have been revived centuries ago. The problem is the Wirm, a parasitic intergalactic species that landed on the station a long time ago and is now attempting to take over all the humans. Can the Doctor and his companions save humanity?

The story has a slow start (the first of the four episodes is almost dispensable) but picks up speed as it goes along. One of the revived humans, the station's commander who is nicknamed Noah (hence the "ark"), gets infected and becomes the main villain, though he struggles to maintain his humanity even as he slowly transforms into a Wirm. The special effects are low-budget (the aliens are actors covered in green bubble wrap!) and are, at best, less convincing to contemporary eyes. The commander's struggles against transformation are overacted and also less satisfying (and there's a weird edit that's explained in the supplemental material on the DVD). Even so, his character has an interesting arc that isn't as obvious as it seems. The ultimate resolution isn't surprising but is satisfying.

Tom Baker is in top form as the Doctor. He combines the intelligence and arrogance with a sense of wonder and admiration of humans that makes him an inspirational hero. He hardly ever resolves his problems with fighting (either fisticuffs or laser guns). Often the show lets the companions do that stuff. Baker is charming and odd, with plenty of eccentricity and cleverness to see the situation through.

Recommended, though be sure to make allowances for 1970s BBC visual effects.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fort McHenry 2017

We visited Fort McHenry again (see our last visit here) and managed to see some new stuff. We were happy that we arrived early enough to participate in the flag ceremony. Every morning at 10:00 and evening at 4:00 the flags are changed and visitors can assist. During the day they display a replica of the original flag from the battle. Overnight, they have a smaller, regular flag with lights on it (because the flag is supposed to be lit after dark).

Unfolding the big flag

Base of the flag pole

Slowly hoisting it 

Two flags pass each other

Almost at the top

We walked around the pathway on the fort and admired the defensive cannons.

Cannons defending the mouth of Baltimore Harbor

"Whoa, this is serious!"

View of the pathways

From the pathways, the flag in the fort looks mighty impressive.

Viewing our work

We weren't at the fort with the Cub Scouts, so we were free to wander. My children were interested in the ammunition magazines that circle the fort. In between the guns are mounds of buried rooms where ammunition was stored to be both convenient to the guns and safe from being blown up by incoming fire. We tried to go in a couple of the magazines but didn't see much.

One of the ammo storage areas

Little more than an entrance

We did go through some of the buildings and see what life was like at the fort. The officers' mess was set up for a meal, though the room was also the sleeping quarters as well as the dining room!

A meal fit for an officer circa 1814

The interior magazine holds a lot of simulated gunpowder, which the children enjoyed seeing.

Gunpowder reserve

Just outside the magazine is one the the cannon balls from the bombardment two hundred years ago!

British cannon ball

Checking out the spare cannons

The next area had displays on the history of the fort, including Major George Armistead's request for a larger flag: "We have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." The new flag was 30 feet high and 42 feet long. The smaller "storm flag" was only 17 by 25 feet!

Checking out Maj. Armistead

Reading flag trivia

Nicer officer quarters

In one of the fort's entryways the children discovered a small passage that sneaks around. It's not so impressive in this picture but we were amazed when a child went in the small hole and came out the back hole.

Secret passage!

We packed a picnic lunch and enjoyed eating it so much that we forgot to take pictures from the Seawall Trail out on the water's edge of the park. Maybe next time!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse by C. Roberson et al.

Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse script by Chris Roberson and art by Georges Jeanty and Stephen Byrne

The crew of Serenity are drawn into a mission to save a friend imprisoned by the Alliance on an Outer Rim world. Complicating matters is the Alliance Operative sent to handle the situation who has a personal interest in River Tam. Complicating things even further is a terrorist group known as the Peacemakers who are trying to restart the war the Browncoats lost. Captain Malcolm is sympathetic with their ambitions but not with their methods, giving him hard choices to make. Misbehaving ensues.

The story is interesting and the dialogue really sounds like the show. The art is sometimes good, sometimes bad. The ending is a little unconvincing, mostly because it reads like a come on for a next series rather than a conclusion for this one.

Recommended for Serenity fans only.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Wonder Woman Cake

Having discovered a cake pan from my wife's distant past, my daughter wanted to try out making a Wonder Woman cake. The cake pan is in the shape of DC Comics's number one superheroine. Naturally, the start was making cake mix.

Wonder Woman was made out of clay, not cake mix

Pouring into a powdered pan

One of the tricks in making a shaped cake is to ensure no air holes between the pan and the cake batter. If air holes persist, the shape won't come out right. Extra care and effort were called for.


The other big trick is removing the cake gently so as to preserve the shape. Flouring the pan before cooking helps, as does careful separating at the edges.

Freeing Wonder Woman from her prison

Initial frosting

Not sure what this is

Filling in detail with colors is a fun part, with slightly lighter hair than usual for the Amazonian Princess.

Fixing her hair

Despite the best efforts, details of Dianna's face were lost on the cake. We melted some white chocolate and put it in the pan, resulting in a fabulous face mask.

Face of a hero

The best thing about the cake was the eating afterwards. Yum! Unfortunately, we ate it too quickly and didn't take a picture of the fully-decorated glory of the cake. We'll just have to make another one!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Movie Review: Free Fire (2017)

Free Fire (2017) co-written and directed by Ben Wheatley

Some Irishmen meet up with a South African arms dealer at a warehouse in Boston during the 1970s. Naturally there's some tension since money and weapons are exchanged. At least, that's what's supposed to happen. One of the low-level guys on the Irish side had a run in the night before with one of the low level guys on the arms dealer side. The higher ups try to make them patch up their differences but it doesn't work. Soon enough everyone is shooting at everyone else and crawling around the floor trying not to get shot. The movie has about twenty minutes before the bullets start flying, then the rest is the extended shootout--your standard "arms deal gone wrong" premise limited to one location and playing out in real time.

Director Wheatley gives the action more realism than is typical for an action film. There's no slow motion or people flying through the air. But it isn't too realistic. A lot of people get shot in the shoulder or arm or leg, keep moving around, and later on get shot in the same spot. The injuries at first look convincing but they get more unbelievable as the story goes on, even though they don't get particularly gorier or more outrageous (the only exceptions being the guy whose head is run over and the guy who winds up on fire). The semi-realistic violence doesn't quite work though it does make for a tonally lighter action drama.

The realism and grit are also lightened a bit by comedic elements. At one point, one character says, "I can't remember whose side I'm on." The plot is a bit messy, as if having the cool gun fight was more important than having a coherent story. The comedic elements are fun but they don't help the story or make the characters more appealing (except for the gun dealer played by Sharlto Copley, who, as an actor, tries hard to go over the top in this film).

The weak story could have been okay--a typical action film runs on a minimal plot and the appeal of the characters (which sometimes is just the appeal of the actors). This film taps into the appeal of the cast (Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, and Sharlto Copley) but their characters aren't solid enough to make them sympathetic enough. By the last third, I didn't care who would come out on top.

I can't recommend this film. It wasn't anything terrible, but it tried to go for something different and just didn't find anything particularly interesting to show viewers.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Book Review: Medieval People by Michael Prestwich

Medieval People: Vivid Lives in a Distant Landscape by Michael Prestwich

The medieval period covers a long time and is populated with a great diversity of people. This book looks at some seventy people who lived from 800 to 1500 AD. He chronicles Christians, Muslims, Huns, and heretics from many levels of society. Some were religious or civil leaders (sometimes both), some were artists, some were everyday merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. 

The biographies are short, typically three or four pages with at least one page's worth of pictures or art depicting the person or items related to the person. In such limited space, condensing a person's life is hard. The writing is occasionally choppy, like a longer biography was edited for length without any adjustments to make the narative flow naturally.

That wouldn't be so bad if many of the things left in are inaccurate, like the caption of a picture from the motion picture El Cid about the 11th century Spanish warrior. The caption claims the character was "Charlton Heston in his most famous role." [p. 39] More famous than Ben-Hur or Moses in The Ten Commandments? Plenty of other dubious interpretations and factual errors spring up, ruining the author's credibility.

If that wasn't bad enough, his treatment of spirituality is appalling. He claims Thomas Aquinas did not have mystic visions at the end of his life, rather he had migraine headaches that stopped him from writing. Catherine of Siena receives nothing but scorn, contempt, and mockery from the author. Joan of Arc probably had anorexia, which would explain her "voices" and belief that she would save France but not her few military victories.

The best thing about the book is the illustrations and pictures. It is a coffee-table size book and unfortunately fits that cliche--a book better to look at than to read.

Not recommended.