Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb et al.

Batman: The Long Halloween written by Jeph Loeb and art by Tim Sale

Gotham City is plagued by organized crime, The biggest crime family is the Falcones, led by Carmine "The Roman" Falcone. His father had some relationship with Bruce Wayne's father, so naturally Bruce is invited to the wedding of Carmine's nephew Johnny Viti. Carmine tries to recruit Bruce to get the Gotham City Bank to do business with Falcone Imports. Bruce refuses. He runs into Selina Kyle and doesn't refuse a dance with her. Meanwhile, District Attorney Harvey Dent is taking down license plate numbers in the garage. Later, Batman breaks into Carmine's office and finds Catwoman robbing the safe. They are both discovered and have to flee. The Roman puts out a million dollar bounty on "the Bat or the Cat." Batman has a rooftop conference with Dent and Jim Gordon, where they make a plan to take down the Falcone family. Johnny comes back from his honeymoon and is killed on Halloween night by someone who leaves a pumpkin at the scene. Thanksgiving rolls around and more members of the Falcone crime family are killed. The newspapers dub the killer "Holiday" and Batman has a tough investigation ahead of him, dealing with the crime families and his iconic villains like The Joker, The Riddler, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, etc.

The book is well written. The plot has some great twists and the book goes out of its way to make almost everyone look like a suspect (except for Batman, of course). The characters are well-developed--readers see a lot of Dent's and Gordon's families and the strained relationship between Batman and Catwoman. The book also does a great job of blending the realistic crime noir storyline with the fantastic Batman villains who keep showing up. The art supports this blend with a lot of shadows and black (giving the noir) and big splash pages of action (letting the villains shine). Fans of the Christopher Nolan movie trilogy will see many parallels and outright ripoffs Nolan took from this book (the book was written before the movies). The ending is tragic but satisfying.

This is easily the best Batman graphic novel I've read and I highly recommend it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Movie Review: Hotel Transylvania (2012)

Hotel Transylvania (2012) directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) has a daughter he wants to protect from all the horrible humans in the world, so he has a special castle built out in the middle of a spooky woods where no sensible human would ever go. The castle is also a hotel that welcomes all monsters. It's a safe retreat from the real world. Every year he holds a birthday party for his daughter Mavis and invites all his monster pals to come celebrate. This particular party is Mavis's 118th birthday--she's old enough to drive a hearse and wants to explore the rest of the world. Dracula knows how dangerous it is, so he constructs a fake village near the castle and has his hotel workers (who are zombies) masquerade as despicable humans to scare her into not going any further into the real world. The plan works, except a plucky young human hiker named Jonathan spots the village and follows the zombies back to the castle. When he walks in the front door, Dracula has a problem--if his guests discover a human at the castle, it's the end of Hotel Transylvania. A second problem develops--Jonathan (disguised as a monster) and Mavis hit it off. What could be worse?

The plot unfolds in a predictable fashion as Dracula goes through various shenanigans to keep the secret about Jonathan and break up the romantic feelings developing between his daughter and a human. The movie is aimed at children, so perhaps it isn't so bad that the plot is obvious. I found it a bit uninteresting and started noticing other things, like scenes that were clearly designed as 3D, which are less impressive in 2D. Or Adam Sandler's performance, which is lackluster. Dracula runs into several people who say, "You're Dracula, so you say 'bleh, bleh, bleh!'" which he vehemently denies, though he exhibits every other Dracula cliche (except for the sexiness, thankfully).  There wasn't anything particularly memorable or interesting about any of the other monsters or the few humans in the story.

Maybe all of this would have been less noticeable to me if the characters were more endearing or the movie had been funnier. BBC film reviewer Mark Kermode has a "six laugh test" for a comedy. I'm sure I didn't laugh six times, but the children I saw it with (at the kids' school) laughed more than I did. A few risqué jokes are thrown in to entertain the grown ups but I didn't hear any grown ups laughing at those.

This movie was a disappointing to me. I was expecting more creativity or maybe a more daring theme than "tolerate others who are different from you." If you want a kid-friendly horror animated movie, there are plenty of better ones like Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, or Halloween is Grinch Night.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Game Review: Firefly Shiny Dice by Upper Deck

Firefly Shiny Dice by Upper Deck

In Firefly Shiny Dice, each player gets three turns controlling the crew of the Serenity. The outlaws are represented by seven brown dice (since they are Browncoats, after all) and the passengers by thee white dice. Each die face represents a different character or a piece of cargo, so rolling them all generates a random assortment often with duplicates. When rolling, the player also has to roll five black dice that represent the Foes (Niska, Saffron, and Badger).

The dice

After dice are rolled, characters are placed on a game mat (which is printed on a mouse pad, so it is very durable and flexible) in the proper locations. Some dice (River and Wash) let the player re-roll other dice, which can be helpful if the initial roll is unlucky. Then the dice are locked in place and any bonuses are applied (if there are four different outlaws, the player can remove one Foe die from the board; if there are four of one enemy, each other player loses 100 points; if there are five of one Foe, the other players get the penalty and the player's turn immediately ends).

The playing mat (probably gonna use that Wash die to re-roll one of those Jayne dice)

The active player then draws a mission card, which requires certain dice to be on the board. If they are on the board, the mission is completed and a special bonus on the card takes effect. Missions also have a key word at the bottom that add an additional effect.

Mission cards

Finally, it's time for action. If the mission was a "Shiny" mission, the player deals one damage to a Foe of their choice (i.e. one die is removed). If the mission is completed, the player gets the card bonus and can discard another Foe die from the board. Then the Foes strike. If there are any Niska dice, one crew die is moved to the KO section of the board (he killed someone!). For each Saffron die, one crew member is moved to the Cargo Hold on the board (she locked them up!). For each Badger die, one supply die is moved out of the Storage area and placed next to each Badger die (he stole them!).

Now the player decides what to do with the remaining crew members. Each character can do separate, thematic actions. Zoe deals two damage to any Foes (i.e. she lets the player remove two Foe dice of their choice). Kaylee deals one damage to any foe and moves one die from the KO pile to the Cargo Hold. Simon moves one Kaylee die from the KO pile back into the Serenity. The player tries to knock out all the Foes and complete the mission card. For each Foe completely removed, the player gets 100 points in a temporary pool. If all the foes are knocked out, the player scores any supplies in the hold and has to decide to Lay Low or Keep Flyin'.

Game in action

If the player decides to Lay Low, he keeps all his temporary victory points, puts them behind a screen, and passes the dice to the next player. If the player decides to Keep Flyin', any dice in the KO area are passed to the next player and the active player re-rolls all the remaining dice (including the five Foe dice) and does another round of possibly re-rolling, drawing a mission card, taking the Foes' damage, and using the remaining crew to knock out the Foes.

Each player gets three turns. At the end, everyone counts their victory points (supplies are worth 50 points each). Whoever has the most points wins.

The game is very thematic. Each character does something that they would on the show and their symbols on the dice match them nicely (Wash has a dinosaur, Jayne has his hat). The dice are high quality and the other components are well made. The player screens have a summary of the turns and the effects of each die face, making them a great player aid in addition to hiding how much they have scored so far.

On the other hand, the game is very complicated, and too complicated for a press-your-luck style game. The mission cards are a little confusing, especially with the mission types. If the Bushwhacked mission is not completed, the player is forced to Lay Low. If the Gorram mission is completed, the player is forced to Keep Flyin' (if they even knock out all foes). If the Escape mission is completed, the player can end their turn and take their points before knocking out Foes but they don't have to. It's a bit hard to keep everything straight. The character powers work nicely but analysis paralysis can set in when calculating an optimal move. The Keep Flyin' option happens at best two times since the active player is always losing dice, because knocking out five bad guy dice gets much harder.

The other problem is that each person plays their turn solitaire, leaving the other players nothing to do. With two players it isn't so bad but a five player game is very long. I haven't had one where we played all three rounds just because of time constraints. Also, the game has no build up between rounds, making it feel like the same thing again and again. Maybe if there were a rule that let players buy dice back from the KO pile, it might make the game more interesting. But it would also make it longer, so I don't know. The box says the game plays in thirty minutes, but that must mean per player when the players are experienced enough to remember all the minutia of the rules. I think the game is better as a solitaire experience where one player tries to get the best score he can.

Zombie Apocalypse Appropriateness: The game components are fairly compact and very sturdy, so they would be easy to carry around and would last a long time. Also, I think the game is more fun as a solitaire experience, which fits well in a zombie apocalypse. And it brings back happy memories of the TV show and movie, so there's that. Once the power is out, it's a good way to relive the show.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Oktoberfest at the Kentlands 2015, Part II

More from the Oktoberfest (see the last post for Part I)

Outside of the Art Barn, we saw a demonstration of apple pressing, the hand-method by which cider is made. The fellow giving the demonstration was very informative. He let us crank a wheel while he tossed apples into a hopper. Inside the hopper, blades chop the apples into little bits which fall into a bucket underneath. After processing enough apples, the guy put a wooden lid on the bucket and used the press to crush the apples. The bucket has plenty of holes and a straining net, so the cider flows free. He told us about the different types of apples they use and how they are not allowed to serve the cider they press at the fest thanks to the local sanitary regulations. That was a bummer but we did get to take an (unpressed) apple home with us.

The crank and press

My daughter spins the wheel and crushes some apples

No cider pouring out yet

Cranking the press by hand

Using a stick to crank it even more

Cider flowing out

Further down the road, people tried samples from various local wineries at the Wine Terrace by the Kentlands Mansion. Since they had a 21 and over policy, we didn't go in.

The wine terrace with the mansion obscured by a tree

We walked back to the Main Street Stage to see our cousin's friend perform. On the way we stopped at the snow cone booth where my daughter made an egg custard/grape mix that she loved. I did not try it, so I can neither confirm nor deny its tastiness.

A yummy snow cone!

More booths on Main Street

At first, my daughter and I walked to the wrong end of Main Street and saw a steam punk band called Night Watch Paradox. We listened till the end of the song and then went the other way down Main Street.

At the (other) Main Street Stage we saw Face, the a cappella band with a member we know. He's the boyhood next door neighbor of the husband of the cousin of my wife. So you can see how close we are. Their music was very impressive.

Going the right way on Main

Face the picture

After the concert, we wandered a bit in search of cotton candy. We saw some more fun things on the way.

Main Street sculpture

A charming house

We didn't find any cotton candy, so we settled for kettle corn, which we brought home so the rest of the family could have a taste of the Oktoberfest.

Kettle corn stand with red canopy

Kettle corn safely on the way home

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Oktoberfest at the Kentlands 2015, Part I

This year we celebrated Oktoberfest at Oktoberfest at the Kentlands. The Kentlands is a section of Gaithersburg, Maryland, and has both a strip-mall, chain-store shopping area and a quaint historic neighborhood with a market square, village green, and mansion. The fest stretched between all of these spots, making it one of the larger street festivals I've seen. Just my daughter and I went since the toddler is on an anti-social napping schedule and the birthday boy had a friend coming over. The first thing we saw (after getting off the shuttle from parking) was a balloon tower.

Going in the right direction

We navigated many streets full of booths to get to the Oktober part of the fest. We had some snacks and I had a beer as we watched the traditional German dancers.


...more shopping!

Volk dancing...

...more dancing!

Beer and a pretzel

Right nearby is the Arts Barn which was having an open house, featuring all sorts of art and a chance to get a picture with the Arts Barn resident ghost.

Arts Barn

Relatively dark inside

Face painting outside

Let me have my sunglasses back, please!

Visiting the ghost was tricky. When we first went, we got to the front of the line only to discover that the ghost was going on a twenty minute break! We came back later in the day and did make it in to see the ghost. Or the ghost's shadow, which appeared on a sheet right behind us. I tried to take a picture, but as is usual with paranormal evidence gathering, the photo did not turn out well.

Knocking on the ghost's door

Waiting for the ghost

I swear the ghost appeared just behind this sheet and I saw its shadow! 

Back outside, we saw an American version of the Green Man. The Green Man is a mythical figure who represents the fertility of nature. He's often seen in architectural carvings both medieval and modern with leaves around his face or shooting out his mouth. Spring is his season. This guy is more about Fall, with red, orange, and yellow hues. He was walking around and getting his picture taken.

The Orange Man? (Red and Yellow wouldn't work)

Front view with someone photo-bombing us

More in the next post!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: The Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale

In this volume, the British officer supervising Nathan Hale's execution demands a story where America doesn't look so good. Hale tells a tale from the days of slavery, specifically about Harriet Tubman. She was one of the most successful abductors on the Underground Railroad, a system that smuggled slaves out of southern states before the American Civil War (and a bit during the war). The slaves went as far as Canada to ensure their freedom.

This story starts with her as a child. She was born Araminta Ross and her whole family was owned by Edward Brodess, a land owner on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She had many varied tasks as a child, none of which she was very good at. Her owners were hard on her, even causing a head injury that seems to have caused narcolepsy, the condition where people unexpectedly and suddenly fall asleep. During this unnatural sleep, she had strange visions of the future, including nearby dangers. This ability comes in very handy (sort of--she does fall asleep at unexpected moments) in her life. Later she married the free black man John Tubman.

She fled to Philadelphia when her family was starting to be "sold South," i.e. her siblings sold to plantation owners who lived further south where conditions were much worse. After establishing herself as a free women, she changed her name to Harriet. She then began working to get the rest of her family out of Maryland. She also led anyone else willing to escape from slavery. When the war broke out, she worked as a spy for the Union and freed about 800 slaves in a daring raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina. She went on to a "happily ever after" life of retirement with her family in New York.

The book chronicles her exploits in an exciting and engaging manner. There aren't as many jokes as in other Hazardous Tales books but it still has a light enough touch that things are never too grim to put off readers. The Underground Abductor is another great book in the series.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Movie Review: The Mist (2007)

The Mist (2007) written and directed by Frank Darabont based on a novella by Stephen King

A strange mist comes down from the hills and envelops a small New England town. Normally fog would be no big deal, but people who go out into this mist often die with frightening screams. One group is caught in the local supermarket. They would be okay (there's certainly enough food and supplies) except that the local religious nutter, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), is stirring up trouble by making apocalyptic speeches and pronouncing God's will (i.e. the mist is a punishment for sin). Under normal circumstances, people ignore her as a kook, but kooky things are happening. She seems more credible than she ought to.

Our hero, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), also comes in conflict with his next door neighbor, a big city lawyer who comes up for weekends and is not so personable. They seem to be mending fences when David gives the lawyer a ride into town but things rapidly fall apart in the mist-covered grocery store. Since he's a lawyer, he takes a strictly rational approach to the situation, a nice contrast to Mrs. Carmody's take on the situation. An interesting thematic tension is introduced...and then dropped a third of the way through the film, leaving poor David (and we poor viewers) to deal with Carmody's Crazy Cult. And the creatures out in the mist.

Other interesting themes pop up but go mostly undeveloped. For example, David's eight year-old son is with him in the store. David wants to protect him but also deal with the situation. The son is quickly reduced to a minor plot device rather than an actual character. Town new-comer Amanda is a third-grade teacher who helps out with the boy and discusses the situation with the dad and his group of helpers. She is optimistic about human nature and doesn't think Carmody is going to get any traction. All the other guys in the discussion (and yes, everyone else is male in that discussion) say that people are bad and/or dumb and they need to make a plan to deal with her or escape, maybe both. Amanda is proven wrong and quickly steps in line with everyone else, leaving another interesting theme or contrast under-developed.

The monsters in the mist are interesting but again are undeveloped. There are different types of creatures, each with odd and unnatural powers and behaviors. No cohesive explanation for them is even attempted by the film--the powers seem randomly chosen to add jump scenes and more gore to the movie. Certainly a horror movie doesn't have to explain everything, but here it just seems like more undeveloped ideas thrown in.

What should have been a tight, claustrophobic horror film turns out to be a thematic mishmash that ends unsatisfactorily for both the characters in the film and the viewers of the film. It's a shame because the film has material for three or four good horror films. Making this into a mini-series would have been much better.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Book Review: We'll Never Tell Them by Fiorella de Maria

We'll Never Tell Them by Fiorella de Maria

This novel tells the stories of two women, Kristjana and Liljana. Liljana is the illegitimate daughter of a mostly crazy woman living on Malta at the end of 1800s. Liljana's childhood is hard because of her unstable home life which makes complications in her school life. Her mother is finally taken away and Liljana begins the life of a Dickensian orphan, becoming an unwanted servant in an upper-middle class household. That situation goes poorly thanks to the shrewish woman of the house. She unjustly accuses Liljana of steal a book from their library. Liljana is carted off to the police where she is horribly abused in the hopes of getting her to sign a confession. The husband shows up and realizes how much trouble she is in and goes to save her. He and a doctor decide to send Liljana off to an English boarding school where she'll have a chance at a good education and a better life. Things go better (or as well as they can at an English boarding school) until World War I breaks out. Liljana becomes a nurse and winds up at a hospital in Malta, where she meets a patient she truly loves.

The other woman, Kristjana, is also Maltese and lives in modern-day England. Her boyfriend accepts a position at an American university. She's not happy with that or how her life is going in general, so she decides to run away. She quits her job, throws away her cell phone, and gets on a flight to Jerusalem. There she works as a nurse to cover her expenses and she meets Leo, the 90-something year-old son of Liljana. Leo is dying of cancer and needs someone sympathetic to care for him. The head nurse naturally connects two Maltese people. Leo tells the story of his mother to Kristjana. She is tempted to wallow in the century-old story rather than deal with her own problems.

The two women make an interesting comparison. Liljana is swept along by events but her quiet reserve belies her steely resolve--she tries to hide her mother's madness from the other school children and she resolutely refuses to sign the confession. A lot of things happen to her but she still has her own will. Kristjana seems more willful and in control--she drops everything to go off on her own. But she has no real plan and is ready enough to fade passively into the crowds of Jerusalem and into Liljana's story rather than determine her own life. The boyfriend reaches out through email but she only checks it once in a while and doesn't know how to respond. Not a lot happens to her and she struggles to find what she should do.

The book does a wonderful job depicting the horrors of World War I, and not just the madness of the battlefields. The hard life back home and in the hospitals is fascinating. Liljana is an interesting character and her journey from an unloving start is always interesting if not always happy.

This book was given to me as a review copy in e-book format by Ignatius Press. All they asked for in return was a review. The opinions expressed are my own.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Three Birthdays in 2015

All the children have had their birthdays this year. Mostly celebrations were low-key--family gatherings or just a handful of hand-picked friends. The pictures have been slowly accumulating. Now that there is a complete set, here they are!

Amazed by fire at the aunt and niece birthday party

Two ready to blow out the candles

A mighty wind (brought to you by Coke)

A robot for my birthday!

Getting measured for...

...a party hat!

Opening a present

Learning to read

Amazed by cake at the eldest's birthday

Taking a drink after blowing out candles (the camera was in a slow setting!)

Might have a drinking problem

One happy partier

Opening the biggest possible present ever!

Blowing out candles, brought to you by Coors Light