Friday, October 2, 2015

Book Review: The Sword Vol. 2 Water by the Luna Brothers

The Sword Volume 2 Water by the Luna Brothers

Dara Brighton is on the run from the authorities and on the trail of the three siblings who killed her parents and sister. Her best friend Julie and random funeral goer Justin are along for the ride since they are accomplices to her escape from killing some would-be kidnappers in the last issue. Justin was a student of Dara's dad who remembered fantastic stories the father told in his college class: a man named Demetrios lived 4000 years ago on the island of Crete. Four siblings showed up with miraculous elemental powers and demanded control of the island. One brother, Phaistos, wanted total control so the other three plotted against him. They created a sword that could kill him and would grant the wielder superhuman powers. They gave the sword to Demetrios who did the job. Then Demetrios turned on them (since the sword would kill them too) and forced them to live in hiding for thousands of years. In later stories, one of the siblings used to hang out in the Bahamas a lot. So Dara heads there with Justin and Julie to find him. After a long trip from Washington, D.C., to the Bahamas, and several days of fruitless searching, she finds the man and they have a massive fight.

I like the overall expanding story, with more information given about the history of the siblings. But the plot runs on lots of coincidences and contrivances. When Dara and friends make it to Miami they can't afford a regular ferry ticket but they happen to meet a family that's going over on their private yacht. The family eventually recognizes her as that crazy woman from TV that killed her family and a bunch of other people, but just in time some pirates attack the yacht. Dara is able to subdue the pirates and they escape, suddenly making the family trusting and helpful. The final battle is very exciting and over-the-top in a good way, so I am going to stick around to see what's going to happen in the next volume.

Parental advisory--like the first issue, this has a lot of violence, including hacked limbs and torsos, along with some foul language and an unlikely sexual relationship (with just a little backside nudity and discussion).

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Movie Review: Ip Man (2008)

Ip Man (2008) directed by Wilson Yip

In southern China circa 1935 the province of Foshan was famous for its martial arts schools. One street had all the school. The masters had their students practice outside to entice prospective students. Just outside of town is a man so great at kung fu he doesn't even need to teach. His name is Ip Man. He lives in a fine mansion with his wife and son and plenty of wealth to spare. Occasionally a master will come to spar with him, though Ip always wins and is most gracious to his sparring partner (though his wife disapproves). One day, a gang of rough and tumble martial artists comes to town and challenges all the schools. The gang's leader beats all of the masters and comes to Ip Man's house for the ultimate showdown. Lots of fun kung fu action ensues.

But that's only the first third of the movie. The film takes an abrupt tonal shift away from comic kung fu fighting as the Japanese invade China (putting the World in World War II). The Chinese are oppressed and a Japanese general starts a program where the locals can try out their Chinese kung fu against his Japanese martial artists. Victorious locals can win a bag of rice, a valuable commodity under Japanese occupation. Ip Man is not interested in the fights until one of his friends disappears after going to the fight.

The movie has enough story to keep a viewer interested and the fight scenes are evenly spread throughout the film so it's never long before another entertain battle erupts. I did find the tonal shift a bit jarring (though not nearly as jarring as the title card at the end explaining how the Japanese left in 1945 after China won the war!). The fights are well choreographed with straightforward photography so viewers can see the action. Another surprise to me was Ip Man's historical status. He was an actual person and went on to found a school in Hong Kong where international superstar Bruce Lee learned kung fu. I imagine this movie is highly fictionalized and have no idea which parts are true and which false. It's certainly very entertaining.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ellicott City Railway Museum, Maryland

The Baltimore and Ohio Railway Museum: Ellicott City Station is located in the oldest extant railway station in America. The station was built in 1830 and was the first terminus for the fledgling railway line, 13 miles from downtown Baltimore. The first trains (which carried freight and passengers) were pulled by horses! Locomotives came later. The station was in use until the mid-20th century. It closed in the early 1970s and was converted to a museum as part of the bicentennial buzz of the late 1970s. It has remained in operation since then with occasional special exhibits and special events.

View from Main Street (darn those trees!)

Other angle

The first floor has a recreation of a freight agent's living quarters. The railroad line was used mostly for hauling freight to and from Baltimore harbor. The company housed an agent here so he could deal with the day-to-day business of running the railroad. The great flood of 1868 saw most of the station submerged in overflow from the Patapsco River. After restoring the station, the company moved the agent to a nearby house (on higher ground).

Agent's living quarters

More homey part of the living quarters

Some of the freight mixed in

I was proud to see my son reading all the signs at the museum, soaking in the knowledge made available. He read some of it aloud so I was able to hear more while keeping an eye on the other children.

Reading about the impact of the American Civil War

Upstairs, on the track level, the museum has recreations of the business office and waiting areas for the handful of passengers that used the trains. They had different rooms for men and women to wait in, since the ladies of the 1800s didn't want to deal with smoke or chewing tobacco from the male passengers.

1860s recreations of the freight agent's office, later the Ladies Waiting Room

Desk close up

Ticket and Telegraph Office

Ticket window

Inside the window

The museum has some authentic maps of the route, arrival board, and vintage graffiti.

Map of the train route (click to enlarge)

Classic train board

People just can't resist leaving their mark

There was more on the Civil War in this area, but it was hard to get a good picture that included President Washington at the top.

Best of three photos of the "War Came by Train" display

Outside is a 1927 I-5 caboose. We went inside and explored what it was like for train workers who lived at their workplace.

Vintage caboose

Sleeping area inside

Cupola viewing area

A happy train worker

The dining area

I guess they had to cook their own food

One sink to serve them all


The 1885 Freight House is now home to a massive model train set that recreates the 13 miles of track from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills around the 1860s. Union soldiers are encamped along the tracks to keep them safe. A docent in this building told us that the railways often kept supplies along the tracks in case of accidents or (during the war) sabotage. The workers could get the tracks back in service in less than a day!

Baltimore end of the model train track

Leaving Baltimore

A Union camp

Another camp with a train going by

Ellicott Mills in the 1860s

You are here! (i.e. the Ellicott Mills train station)

On our way out we saw a station bell and the children could not resist ringing it. A sign nearby said visitors are only allowed to ring it once, so we did only two ring.

Headed back to the station building

One ring

Two rings

The museum has a lot to offer and we were glad we went!

The real tracks that go over Main Street Ellicott City

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cub Scouts Fall Bike Rodeo 2015

The local Cub Scout district held a Bike Rodeo for the scouts in September. Our little Wolf cub went bright and early to have his bike checked out and participate in all the activities.

Ready for action

One of the first stations was a bike pseudo-wash which was a fun obstacle.

Put your head down and charge through!

Speed trials (in this case, a snail race - trying to be the slowest without putting your foot down) were part of a larger obstacle course. Our scout tried it out with another boy. 

On their marks

On their way

Another challenge was the classic "paper carrier" route. I wonder if kids still have paper routes these days.

Loading up with deliverables

Grabbing one at a time

On the way to glory

Nearing the end

The stations also included some check ups on tire pressure and breaks. The bike is in great shape.

Stopping on the line

At the end he was issued a license, a nice end to a fun morning!

Back of the license

Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: The Sword Vol. 1 Fire by the Luna Brothers

The Sword Volume 1 Fire by the Luna Brothers

Paraplegic art major Dara Brighton goes home to have dinner with her parents and sister. They have a pleasant evening until three strangers arrive at their suburban home. The strangers call the father "Demetrios" and demand that he turn over a sword. He denies any knowledge of them or a sword. They search the house. Finding nothing, they decide to torture the information out of dad. They use supernatural elemental powers to harm the family but the dad doesn't give in. They kill the mother and the sister and then start in on Dara. The dad grabs at them and they decide to torture him instead. The female stranger has air elemental power and uses electrical energy on him (which you'd think would go with a fire-based power, but it isn't here). She overdoes it, killing the dad and setting the house on fire. The strangers decided to leave after some of the roof collapses on Dara. They assume she'll die in the fire. She actually falls through the floor into a pit under the house where she discovers an ancient sword. She grabs onto it and her legs are healed. She races out of the house and hides the sword in their pond as the cops show up. She pretends to be crippled as they ask her what happened. She's vague about the details because she doesn't want the cops hauling her off to the nut house. Things get out of control quickly after the three strangers (who are siblings) find out Dara survived the attack. They make plans to get their sword back. But Dara has discovered that the sword not only heals her, it also gives her superhuman fighting and jumping skills, so things aren't as unevenly matched as they might otherwise be.

The story moves at a good pace and explains a lot of the mystery behind the sword by the end of this first volume. The characters are interesting and believable. The art is good, though I find the occasional blurring of an image to indicate speed a bit distracting. The violence is pretty graphic, with lots of people getting cut into pieces by the sword, but they don't dwell on the gore like The Walking Dead or Mark Millar's stuff tends to. It's an enjoyable read and I am ready for volume 2!

Parental warning: in addition to the heavy violence mentioned above, the language is very adult (lots of f-bombs, for example), and there's one mild sex scene that include drug taking (though it really has almost nothing to do with the plot). Late teens and up would be my recommendation.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015) written and directed by Alex Garland

Computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a lottery at work (the big internet search engine company, though of course it isn't called Google in the movie). The prize is to visit the reclusive founder and owner of the company (Oscar Isaac) on his remote estate for a special project. The owner's name is Nathan and his home is actually a research facility where he has been working on artificial intelligence. He's built an android named Ava and wants Caleb to give it the Turing Test (the one where a person has a conversation and has to determine whether the other conversant is a human or a robot). Something fishy is going on, because Ava is clearly a robot and Nathan is very casual and imprecise about the feedback he wants from Caleb. Nathan and Caleb have interesting discussions about consciousness, human attributes, and what the end result of the week-long experiment is supposed to be; Caleb and Ava have interesting conversations about their histories and what it means to know someone and care for them, both as a friend and with romantic intentions.

A lot of interesting issues and ideas are introduced in this movie. The pacing is slow and the photography is beautiful, giving the viewer plenty of time to think about what's going on and consider the contrast between the idyllic natural setting of the remote estate and the antiseptic artificial setting inside the research facility. The conversations and the narrative are always fascinating and left me with questions I really wanted answered. A lot of those questions were answered. But the end of the film is strangely ambivalent even while some highly dramatic events occur. It's as if the filmmakers themselves have a casual and imprecise grasp of what they want to say with this movie. Maybe they just intended to present an interesting story. If so, they were successful but I find myself unsatisfied after watching it. Repeat viewings could make it seem better or worse, I honestly don't know.

Parental warning--there's a lot of female nudity in the film, a little bit of sex and a few conversations about sex; some drinking and drunkenness; a bit of swearing and a few moments of bloody violence. With all the discussions about AI and what constitutes human behavior, I can't really see people under 15 enjoying the movie. I'd recommend late teens and up as appropriate for watching this, though I am not sure I'd recommend the movie itself as entertaining. It makes a better talking point for various issues and ideas.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Trinity War Triumph!

We played in two Organized Play events since the last Dicemasters report. We played at Trinity War Event 3, where my son J. came in second place. He won a special Shazam! card along with the Wonder Woman participation card. The Shazam! card has an interesting power (getting him to the field quicker) but with a maximum of one die, that's not a lot of action. Wonder Woman's ability to spin up characters looks a lot more useful.

Event 3 prizes

At Event 4, J. had a team of all common cards, including his favorites--Vibe and Superman. When we played in the second round, I almost knocked him out but he was able to field both Superman and Vibe at their top levels along with a sidekick, dealing a whopping 15 points of damage to me. I thought I was fairly safe with 14 points of life but I wasn't. J. won all of his other games and came in first place for the event! Firestorm was the pecial card, preventing an opponent from fielding Justice League characters while he is in the field). Martian Manhunter was the participation prize and he is not so amazing (fist characters deal him no damage?!?).

Event 4 prizes

We are looking forward to next month's big finale for the Trinity War play (and maybe some Marvel action in the coming months!).