Saturday, November 30, 2013

Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012) directed by Stephen Spielberg

Despite the title, this movie is not a bio-pic about American president Abraham Lincoln. Rather, it tells the story of his fight in late 1864 and early 1865 to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery in the United States. The story is dramatically told with the typical Spielberg visual flair.

Even though the film is not a bio-pic, it gives a fully-rounded character portrait of Lincoln. We see him as a father comforting his young son and trying to keep his older son out of combat. We see the turbulent relationship with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (ably played by Sally Field). He deals with congressmen, soldiers (high and low ranked), government workers, and everyday people. Lincoln often uses his penchant for storytelling to make his points. He's decisive and forceful when he needs to be. He is politically adept, which often means skirting on the edges of (if not crossing over) what's moral to achieve his ends. Viewers see his lawyerly mind working all the different facets of legal issues, especially when he discusses (though really it is a monologue) the legality and the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a great performance, capturing the voice and look and world-weariness and optimism of Lincoln. So perhaps the title is justified.

The political and moral wrangling over the amendment is interesting. Many different factions in the House of Representatives need to be satisfied--hard-lining abolitionists and Southern sympathizers and middle-grounders. Lincoln's staff works with sympathetic congressmen to make sure they don't push so hard they make it impossible for others to join the cause. They hire some men to offer patronage to wavering congressmen to secure their votes. When patronage doesn't work, blackmail is also tried. Meanwhile, a delegation from the Confederate government is invited to negotiate peace (thus placating those hoping that a diplomatic solution has been tried before the amendment is passed) but Lincoln struggles with accepting their potential offer (which would kill momentum for the amendment but end the war) and his desire to pass the amendment (which would end the evil of slavery but kill the peace negotiations). The movie gives plenty of food for thought on the right way to handle such situations and the need for compromise and chicanery in politics.

Check out more commentary on A Good Story Is Hard to Find podcast which is what inspired me to watch.



Game Review: Letnisko Summer Resort by Karol Madaj

Letnisko Summer Resort by Karol Madaj

In the 1930s the Letnisko-Falencia district saw a boom in vacation housing, thanks to a rail line from Warsaw that brought holiday seekers to the area. In Letnisko Summer Resort, players are land owners who develop their properties and woo visitors from the train to stay at their property. The more people stay, the more money an owner will have to expand and upgrade their properties. The player with the most money and most valuable properties at the end of the game is a winner.

The game is played in several rounds that represent weeks in the summer. A deck of locomotive cards is shuffled. One side of each card shows a weather forecast (sunny or cloudy); the other side shows the actual weather and how many visitors to put on the train.

Sample train cards (fronts on right, backs on left; click to enlarge)

Visitors range from students (who pay 100 zloties when they leave), convalescents (who pay 200 zloties), and socialites (who pay 300 zloties). Bad weather means the ritzier people won't come to visit (see the bottom card with two red Xs). Really good weather might double the number of visitors (see the top card with the x2s).

Players start with two forest cards, one cottage card (placed on a forest card), two cards worth 100 zloties each and two player tokens (a husband and a wife). The porter token is randomly given to one player. That player will be the last player for the first round. The tokens are used to choose actions. Players may purchase buildings or land or an automobile. Or they can invite visitors from a train car (the automobile lets one token invite two adjacent train cars but needs refueling after each run) to their properties.The visitors are choosy about where they will stay--only students will stay in a humble cottage; only students and convalescents will stay in a villa (players can upgrade cottages to villas); only convalescents and socialites will stay in pension (an upgraded villa). The green/red/blue color scheme on the cards helps to make this easier to remember. Visitors will stay in an accommodation one higher but not one lower.

The various cards--the people/money are front/back of cards  (click to enlarge)

Each round starts with flipping up the next locomotive card to see how many and what type of visitors are on the train. After filling the train, each player puts one or two tokens on an action they want to take (buying something or inviting visitors). Placing two tokens on an action triggers a discount (though that means a second action can't be chosen). The player who goes last has the porter token and can choose a third action.

After the players have placed all their tokens, they pay for their house upgrades or new items and put them in their individual play areas. Then they accommodate any vacationers they've invited. New visitors have to go into empty houses if available; if not, old visitors vacate houses and are flipped over to turn them into cash. If there are more visitors than houses available (only up to two people can stay in one house), they are returned to the visitor pile (unless someone has become president of the summer home society which allows them to accommodate extra guests).

The game is a little complex but not too hard once it gets going. It has a lot of different decision for players to make and has a nice balance of developing your own properties and competing with other players for the best resources and best vacationers. We saw it at the Spiel in Essen and our friends bought a copy. We've played it several times and really enjoyed it. The games are usually very close, making it exciting. Playtime is under an hour which we like.

An almost finished game

The game is not available in America yet but hopefully it will get some good buzz out of Essen and be picked up by an American distributor. It's a fun economic game with a great theme that goes well with the mechanics of game play. I wish we had bought our own copy in case our friends move away!

Find out more about the game at Boardgamegeek.com

Friday, November 29, 2013

Book Review: Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez

Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez

ZPAA rating

Teens and up

Gore level

4 out of 10--Considering all the horror standards (zombies, vampires, werewolves, elder gods, horny teenagers) in this book, the gore is not over the top. There's a reappearing blood spot on the floor, some battles that are bloody but not graphically detailed. There are some drippy undead folk about.

Other offensive content

Lots of bad language, including plenty of f-bombs; plenty of sex from a variety of characters; drinking alcohol; bad attitudes; smoking; occult practices.

How much zombie mythology/content

The zombies in this story are your standard shuffling dead minions. Nothing new to report here.

How much fun

The book has a lighter touch and many comic elements, including a great scene where the heroes are surrounded by a herd of zombie cows. Oh, and the occult incantations work best in pig-Latin. Ucho-may unny-fay!

Synopsis & Review

This story tells the adventure of two friends, Earl the vampire and Duke the werewolf, who drift into Rockwood, a small and dusty southwestern town. They stop at a diner for a late night snack. They stay to fight zombie assaults and repair the gas line out back. Why? Loretta the owner is charming enough and they are low on gas. What could go wrong in a backwater town like Rockwood?

Well, the town has had a lot of supernatural activity for a long time. That's why people assume Gil, the original owner of the diner, just vanished a few years ago. The diner does have that blood stain that keep reappearing whenever it's cleaned. So something fishy is going on.

The book is an entertaining read but a bit juvenile in its attitudes and tone. Surprisingly, the content is a little more mature than I thought necessary. The plot takes a little while to get going but it picked up momentum in the second half of the book. The humor is good though the comparisons to Douglas Adams on the back of the book are wildly exaggerated.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Book Review: Blessings in Disguise by Alec Guinness

Blessings in Disguise by Alec Guinness

Two things drew me to read this book. One is Alec Guinness's conversion to Catholicism. The other is his work on films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and (of course) Star Wars. So naturally I am interested in his autobiography.

The book is a little odd in its structure. Each chapter covers an event (like his early childhood with just a mom or his conversion or his service in World War II) or a person important in his life. Many of the people were friends from the 1930s and 1940s, so the chapters often cover the same time span but with different stories. The book is a little choppy and definitely weighted towards his younger days.

In his younger days he was focused on theater acting. Films were a nice side bonus but most of his work was on the stage. The stories are about fellow actors, though the famous ones (Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, etc.) are mostly side characters; other more personal friends are his focus. They are all interesting enough but I doubt I will remember them.

Guinness's film career has passing mentions throughout the book (for example, the director David Lean is referenced several times but only one or two small stories are told). I'm much more familiar with that part of his work, so I was a little disappointed not to hear more about film makers and film craft. Also, Star Wars is barely mentioned, mostly as a well-paying job. The part of his career I am most interested in was not given any depth or expansion.

His conversion is discussed primarily in one chapter, but bits of the story (including the conversion of other friends) crop up in other chapters. He ends the book by saying his proudest claim is that he never lost a friend. Maybe that is the true unifying thread in the book--the important thing in his life is the blessings he's had through the people he's encountered. I'd probably appreciate the book more if I'd read it with that expectation rather than my own.

Movie Review: Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) directed by Tommy Wirkola

Here's a turkey for Thanksgiving! Go watch a parade or a football game, not this movie!!

Updating fairy tales has been a popular past-time for decades. At first, Disney would give its spin to the classics, mostly by providing happier or more upbeat endings to the tales. Recently, some updates have been more like reversals, making the villains not just sympathetic but even the heroes of the stories. Others have moved the tales to different times and places, often contemporary times and places.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters start with a faithful if over-the-top retelling of their story of abandoning by their father, discovering the candy house, and killing the witch who was planning to eat them. The feat put them on a career path that takes up most of the movie, killing witches and other nefarious beings professionally. It also sets the tone for the movie. The witch is fairly gruesome and her death in the oven is a bit much. The scene ends with a swear-filled voice-over by Hansel about what they learned from the experience.

So there's a lot of swearing and gore and nasty creatures but it's not particularly scary, definitely not a horror film. It doesn't have enough laughs in it to make it a good comedy. Hansel and Gretel are a bit too brutal and a bit too grim to be fun action heroes. The dialogue sounds like contemporary urban characters but the setting is grungy small-town middle ages and the two never quite fit together. The same goes with their high-tech fighting gear and semi-martial arts combat moves--sure they look cool except they don't quite match the other elements. The film makers seem to have had a lot of different ideas of ways to go with the movie and then put them all in without any thought of how to blend them.

The movie is very uneven and unsatisfying.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Irish Leftovers

Here's some pictures that didn't make into other posts. I realize it's backwards to have leftovers the day before Thanksgiving, but that's the way the posts fell...

Let's start with food. At Bunratty Folk Park, we had lunch. I ordered the Irish Stew with a glass of mead (a honey-based wine).  The stew wasn't particularly good but I liked the mead.

Irish stew at Bunratty's

In Dublin, I had a much better stew with a more traditional beverage--Smithwick's Ale. Both were very tasty and a great last meal in Ireland.

Irish Stew in Dulbin

Irish brew in Dublin

I did sample many different local brews, including Guinness (which is certainly a classic but not to everyone's taste), Kilkenny (which is very drinkable, almost the iced tea of beers), and Beamish (not so remarkable).

One pub that we didn't go into (because we saw it on a Sunday morning in Tralee) is Sean Og's, where they apparently have drinking consultants!

Sean Og's, with a customer waiting to get in!

The post boxes in Ireland are pretty, I thought.

Irish post box

Not as pretty as L, of course, who is always willing to pose, including as a pirate on the ferry from Ireland back to England.

L on the streets

L the Pirate!

That's the end of Ireland, except for a few churches that will be popping up in the next few weeks or months.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Walking Dead Ep. 407: Dead Weight

The Walking Dead, Season 4, Episode 7: Dead Weight


TV rating

TV-MA

ZPAA rating

Teens and up

Offensive content

I think only one zombie was killed in this episode with a not particularly gory head shot (though its leg was shredded up a bit which was yucky); a bunch of people die, some at the hands of the zombies, others by humans; lots of betrayals; some drinking and smoking; one view of the Governor's healed-over eye.

Synopsis & Review

More of the Governor's story is told in this episode, leading up to the moment when he's peeking in on the prison where Rick and company are living. At that moment two episodes ago, I said, "uh-oh!" Then after last week, it seemed like it might be okay. After this episode, I'm back to uh-oh.

The Governor and his newly adopted family wind up in a camp where one of the ex-Woodbury guys, Martinez, is running the show. He lets the Governor in because he's with the family. Martinez has two rule: (1) he's in charge and (2) everyone needs to pull their wieght. They get on for a while though the Governor is clearly ill at ease. They ransack a cabin that has a supply of beer and liquor. They bring it all back to the camp and drink a little too much. The group scatters and Martinez and the Governor have a heart-to-heart while driving some golf balls into a field. The Governor doesn't like the weakness he sees in Martinez, who offers to share control of the camp with the Governor. He waylays Martinez and drags him to one of the zombie pits saying, "I don't want it!' over and over again. Things go from bad to worse after that.

I'm a little disappointed that the Governor has fallen back to his old, evil ways so soon but at least he made an effort to reform. Too bad it wasn't enough of an effort.

Fans of the comics probably realized when they saw the tank in camp that things would go poorly. In the comics, the Governor's attack on the prison included him riding in on a tank. Maybe that will happen in the next episode.

Dublin, Ireland

We drove to Dublin for our last afternoon in Ireland. This post will no doubt be the least representative depiction of Dublin ever. We had a long drive and arrived around 3 p.m. with little to no energy. After checking in at the hotel, we wandered around the local neighborhood.

Our hotel was Bewleys Hotel, part of a small chain of hotels in Ireland and England. Our particular hotel was once an orphanage. The building has become much more swanky since becoming a hotel.

Beweleys Hotel, Ballsbridge

Posh fountain in front of the hotel!

After getting a map and some advice from the reception desk, we set out in search of a park and a playground. As we walked down the street, we ran into none other than the U.S. Embassy to Ireland. It was a welcome sight but we did not go in.

U.S. Embassy in Dublin

We also came across a memorial to the Third Battalion Dublin Brigade, many of whom died in 1916 and following years, liberating Ireland and presumably fighting other honorable fights.

Third Battalion Memorial

We finally made it to Herbert Park. The receptionist didn't know if there was a playground there but the children's keen senses soon sniffed out the fun.

Herbert Park playground

J did a lot of high (and not so high) climbing here, which was both exciting and scary for me. Some of the equipment didn't seem like it was put together quite right since he had to climb up one spot only to come back down the same way. Or he'd cross a climber and have no where to go on the other side. Maybe it was a creativity challenge.

J's not so scary climb

Much scarier climbing (scarier for me, that is)

L had some more sedate play, climbing up a ladder that actually went somewhere and spinning on a merry-go-round with a chair built into it.

All smiles (almost) all the time

L-go-round!

The playground also has a rather strange sculpture. We couldn't quite figure out what it was supposed to be. L came up with the most elaborate theory--it is "two dinosaurs because it is so colorful."

Open to interpretation

Any guesses as to what it really is are certainly welcome.

We wanted to visit at least one church while we were here. St. Stephens Church didn't look too far on the map. We navigated the streets, passing a few more embassies. J was running out of energy so we tried to go into the first church we came across, St. Mary's. It, however, was locked.

Blue doors made us blue because we could not get through!

We walked down the street to a more populated area and splurged on a taxi back to the hotel, where we had dinner and an early bedtime so as to make it to the ferry early the next morning.

So we didn't see Trinity College or Abbey Theater or St. Stephen's Green or St. Patrick's Cathedral or Dublin Castle or River Liffey. Not even the Guinness Brewery! Maybe we'll come back and do a "Dublin only" weekend before we return to America.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Irish Geocaching

On our Ireland trip, we forgot to bring our GPS to go geocaching. The SatNav in the car has worked in a pinch before, so we tried that a couple of times so we could add Ireland to our list of countries in which we have cached.

The first attempt was in Ennis near the river. The cache we were going for is Cappucino, not named after a coffee shop or Cappuchin monks, but after the murky water in the neighborhood. The water didn't seem so murky to us, just overgrown.

Water not so muddy here, though the grass/weeds may be hiding it!

We searched to no avail around the mill wheel that still stands by the river.

The mill-less wheel

The wheel seems like it could be put back in use at some point, as a small wooden dam was all that prevented it from getting the water it needed to move. Of course, it is attached to nothing, so it wouldn't produce power for anything. Still, it might impress visitors. I know J and L would have stared in fascination.

Waiting for water

After looking more closely at the SatNav, we realized the cache was across the street and slightly up river from where we were. Also across the street was Public Works who may have been weeding the river on the other side of the bridge. We assumed the cache was inaccessible and hung our heads in defeat as we left Ennis.

We did find the Shannon River geocache in Athlone. It is, as one might imagine, along the river. We had a fine walk down the river from our hotel and found the rail road bridge under which the cache was hidden.

Approaching the cache

While I was checking among the trees, Mommy, J, and L were hanging around on the path. L asked when we would find the geocache. Two ladies were walking by and one of them immediately whipped around and said, "Are you geocaching?" Turns out her husband has been an avid cacher for ten years and she was delighted to run into another one of us in the wild. He hadn't come on the trip (she was with her sister), so she took a picture of us with the cache before saying goodbye. We did not return the photographic favor, however, so I can't show them to you.

J was ready for his close-up!

After carefully returning the cache, we headed back for more adventures, thankful that we could complete another of our 50 things to do before you're 11 3/4.

The train bridge and nearby tower

Sunday, November 24, 2013

St. Marys, Drumlish, Ireland

The parish of St. Marys in Drumlish, Ireland, is the parish of my ancestors. We came to the town hoping to see some ancient, charming little town like in The Quiet Man or Darby O'Gill, but the town hasn't stayed in the past. It's mostly a suburb of Longford now, with the modern housing and church to go with it. Still, as modern churches go, it is a fine one.

St. Mary's, Drumlish

In the front lawn is the tomb of John Canon Keville, born in 1852, ordained in 1878, and died in 1929. He began work on the church in 1904 and it was dedicated in 1907.

Keville Tomb

The church was rebuilt and rededicated in 1969. A plaque in the back indicates various donors of church furnishings, including the ambo and sanctuary lamp by a "Mrs. Noreen Kiernan and family in memory of Charles Kiernan." Kiernan is one of the family names so perhaps they are not-so-distant relatives.

Donor list

Sanctuary lamp

The nave is nothing particularly noteworthy, though the altar has a nice front-piece with Christ fallen as He carries the cross.

Nave

Altar

The baptismal font is good though probably more recent than many of my ancestors might have used.

Baptismal font

The statues to Our Lady are nice but not outstanding. One window dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes is very nice.

Our Lady and Madonna with Child!

Our Lady of Lourdes window

We walked over to the rectory after visiting the church. If the church had the usual records, we could patch in some of the holes or confirm uncertainties in the family tree. We rang the bell for daytime and there was no answer. Looking around, we found no car, so the priest must have been out on duties. On our way back to our car, we did notice a strange decoration outside.

Shocking addition to the church

We weren't sure why the church needed an AED, especially outside tucked in a corner not easily accessible. Maybe they have lots of functions on the ground, like picnics or bazaars, and someone helpfully donated the device.

It was good to visit the church even if it wasn't what I expected.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Drumlish, Ireland

Going back to the ancestral home town (on my mother's side) of Drumish, Ireland, was not what I expected. It looks like most modern towns, with neat rows of almost exactly the same houses and a main street featuring a pub, a store, a church, a library, and a post office.

One little bit of history that survives is the Old Corn Mill on the edge of town. The mill was owned by the Rogers family and ran from the 1750s to the 1950s. It was used to grind corn and oatmeal. When the famine hit in 1846 and 1847, the local oat crop helped the town suffer less than other areas in Ireland. The mill was shut down in the 1950s and has recently undergone restoration. It is still not available for tours or wandering through, but I managed to get a few snaps through the fence.

The Old Corn Mill, Drumlish

Inside the mill

The walkway along the back

Good old waterpower!

Where the stream feeds from

Right by the Old Corn Mill is a nursing home with retirees aplenty. Across the way is a playground, which is a pretty smart thing to put next to a retirement community. The grandkids can come visit and have a fun time and the old folks can get out and enjoy the outdoors without going too far.

J and L loved the playground. An Archimedes screw is down near a small stream bed, which was unfortunately dry. Even so, a small puddle provided enough water for J and L to crank the screw and deliver a little water to the top of the screw. From there, the water could go down a trough and power a water wheel. Sadly, there wasn't enough water for the wheel to start going.

Water plus science equals fun

J screws around while L watches!

In the playground is a sit-and-spin that doesn't require the parents to put any effort in. That was awesome!




The playground also has some old favorites and new favorites, like a zip line and the spinning web (which did require parental power).

J the self-powered!

Coming back for another run

L and the spinning web

Only good shot of the moving spinning web (should have taken a video)

On our way out of town, we visited the Old Catholic Graveyard but did not see any family markers.

Old Catholic Cemetery