Friday, January 29, 2016

Movie Review: Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010) co-written and directed by Eli Craig

Two rednecks, Tucker (Tyler Labine) and Dale (Alan Tudyk of Firefly fame), head out to their vacation home, a cabin in the woods. At the same time, a bunch of college students head out to the same woods for a pot/beer/sex-filled camping weekend. The two groups run across each other at a convenience store and gas station where initial impressions are negative ones. Tucker thinks one of the girls is cute but he gets tongue-tied talking to her, so he comes off as creepy. The college kids come off as stuck-up and better-than-you, none more so than Chad. That night Tucker and Dale go fishing and the college kids go skinny-dipping in the same lake. One of the girls, Allison, accidentally falls and hits her head. Tucker dives in to save her. When he and Dale call out to her friends, the friends all assume they are some sort of hillbilly psychos kidnapping their friend. The kids run away screaming, leaving Tucker and Dale to take Allison to their cabin and nurse her back to health. In the morning, Chad wants to arm up and take her back by force. Things escalate in hilarious and horrible ways from there.

The movie is an amazing blend of horror tropes and comedy. It does a great job of turning expectations on their heads. All of the kills are horrible accidents that are misinterpreted in the worst possible way by the characters in the movie. The college kids think the rednecks are offing them one by one. The rednecks think the college kids have formed some suicide pact. Grim but laugh-out-loud humor permeates the story.

The movie makers could have left this as a blood-soaked comedy of errors but were actually able to add some heart. Tucker and Allison come to an understanding of each other rather quickly as everything else around them spirals out of control. They give the movie some sane, likable characters to root for, something sorely lacking in other horror movies. They actually care about each other and try to fix the situation, though again with comic stumbles that drive the story forward. I found the writing surprisingly intelligent in these situations.

This movie is a surprising hit for me!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

TV Review: Doctor Who Battlefield (1989)

Doctor Who: Battlefield (1989) written by Ben Aaronovitch and directed by Michael Kerrigan

The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) receives a distress signal originating near the English village of Carbury in the early 1990s. Being a lad after an adventure, he shows up and discovers an archaeological dig near a fabled battlefield where King Arthur and Modred are supposed to have their final battle. Armored knights from another dimension show up and start fighting each other and the UNIT troops stationed nearby (they are guarding a nuclear missile that they brought in for no clear reason other than it becomes a plot device toward the end). With the Doctor's presence soon discovered, the UNIT people put in a call to retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brigadier goes once more into the breach for his dear friend. In the mean time, evil witch queen Morgaine has shown up, mistaken the Doctor for Merlin, and is ready to summon the Destroy of Worlds to get what she wants. Mayhem ensues.

The plot is fairly interesting if a bit daft. The actors are all good, especially Jean Marsh as the well-written Morgaine, a villain with more depth than usual on the show. Her son Modred is a bit cartoony--his maniacal laughter goes on too long in some scenes. McCoy is good as the Doctor, able to swing from the comedically absurd to the dramatically heavy without looking silly. Weirdly, the sword fight scenes are much better than the gun battles. The alternate dimension knights have futuristic guns that use fairly inferior practical effects. Classic Doctor Who fans are used to some rubbish visual effects, I suppose. On the other hand, the makeup for the demonic Destroyer is quite impressive and the Lady in the Lake moment is great fun.

This set of four half-hour episodes is well worth watching.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Lemon Cake with Lemon Curd and Cream

In another round of cooking inspired by The Great British Baking Show, my wife and daughter decided to make the fanciest lemon cake ever. They found the recipe on the BBC web site. Here it is!

This was the destination--would you like directions?

Lemon Cake (Americanized ingredients)
  • 350g/12 oz butter, softened, plus extra for greasing 
  • 350g/12 oz granulated sugar
  • 4 lemons, zest only, plus juice of 2 lemons
  • 6 eggs
  • 6 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 10 1/2 oz cake flour
  • 2 oz cornstarch
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and line with parchment paper three 8-inch cake pans.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy. Add the lemon zest and juice.

Slowly beat in the eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is well combined.

Method to ensure no shells get in the mixture

Adding the egg

Whisk the baking powder, cake flour, and cornstarch together in a bowl and fold into the cake mixture.

Combining dry ingredients


Divide the cake batter among the three pans and bake for 25-30 minutes or until risen and golden-brown. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for 10 minutes. Run a round-bladed knife around the inside edge of the pans to loosen the cakes. Remove the cakes and set aside to cool completely on a rack.

Cool cakes

For the lemon curd
  • 60g/2 1/4 oz butter
  • 225g/8 oz granulated sugar
  • 3 lemons, juice and zest
  • 2 eggs
While the cakes are cooking, make the lemon curd. Heat the butter, sugar, lemon juice, and zest in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. (Do not allow the base of the bowl to touch the surface of the water.) Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Slowly whisk the melted butter mixture into the beaten eggs until well combined.

Whisky business

Set the bowl over the pan of simmering water and cook, whisking constantly, for 2-3 minutes or until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. (It took more like 10 minutes for our curd to thicken. Possibly we used too large a bowl, which made the mixture take too long to heat. We got there eventually, though.)

Sieve the lemon curd into a clean bowl, then cover with cling film and set aside to cool.

Lemon curd almost ready

For the filling, prepare whipped cream using your favorite recipe, until soft peaks form when the whisk is removed. The British recipe uses double cream. That is a milk cream with a level of fat unavailable in America.

Place one of the cakes onto a serving plate and spread with the lemon curd.

Starting to spread the curd

Just about done

Spread over some of the whipped cream and sandwich with another cake.

Whip cream layer

Repeat the process with the remaining lemon curd, whipped cream and cake tiers. Dust with icing sugar.

Dusting the cake

Taking out a slice

Final luscious product (drizzle left over curd if you have any)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review: Morning Glories Vol. 1 by Nick Spencer et al.

Morning Glories Volume 1 For a Better Future written by Nick Spencer and art by Joe Eisma

Morning Glories is the sort of super-exclusive and super-secretive prep school that should draw more attention than it does. For example, all of the students are driven a few hours from a New York airport by a limo service, a trip during which they all fall asleep. They don't know the location of the school and their cell phone signals start to fade right after they call home to parents who completely deny their existence. The students assume their parents are part of some scheme to separate the kids from their old life but it does seem a bit extreme. Things get more extreme pretty quickly--just ask Casey, whose parents didn't want to deny their daughter's existence. She finds out about them when she's led to a chamber with their dead bodies. When another of the students is taken to the nurse's office and doesn't come back, the new students make a secret plan to get her out and get themselves away from Morning Glories.

The storytelling is clearly patterned after the television show Lost, where a set of characters are thrown into a bizarre situation with a bunch of mysteries that slowly get explained as the story goes on. As in Lost, the characters here are interesting, distinct, and mostly likable. Lost became bogged down in continually introducing new mysteries, which made the show less satisfying in later seasons. It's far too early to tell if that will happen here, though the teachers do seem to have a bigger secret project, so maybe when that is solved it will be the end (of the story, if not the world). I am more than interested enough and hopeful enough to keep reading.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Review: Heloise and Abelard by Etienne Gilson

Heloise and Abelard by Etienne Gilson

One of the most famous romantic tragedies of the Middle Ages was also a historical event--the relationship of Heloise and Abelard. Abelard was a philosopher and theologian teaching in Paris during the early 1100s. He had a towering intellect with an ego to match. His career was highly successful and occasionally controversial. He was hired by Fulbert to teach his niece Heloise. She had private lessons in Fulbert's house and the thirty-something Abelard fell in love and had an affair with the teen-aged Heloise. She was a brilliant student even before coming under Abelard's influence. When Fulbert found out about the affair, he had them separated. Heloise and Abelard continued to meet in secret. She became pregnant and went to Brittany to have the child in the home of Abelard's sister. Abelard proposed a secret marriage (kept secret to preserve his intellectual career) to appease Fulbert. Heloise objected but finally consented. Fulbert did not want it kept a secret so he announced the marriage after it happened. Abelard sent Heloise to a convent to free her from the influence of her uncle. Fulbert took this a a rejection of Heloise and had some men break into Abelard apartment at night and castrate him. Abelard decided to become a monk and argued Heloise into becoming a nun at the convent. She still pined for his love and was uncomfortable in her role as a nun and eventually an abbess. They exchanged several letters which are the primary source for their story.

Gilson draws on these letters to give not so much the history of Heloise and Abelard but a sense of them as two people swept up in their passion for learning the classics (they were as fond of Roman Stoics as of Christian writings) and for each other. Heloise realizes that, in order to be a great man of letters like Seneca of St. Jerome, Abelard needs to be chaste and focused on his intellectual work. She objects to marrying since that will certainly hurt his academic career, not so much for causing scandal or limiting his clerical options, but for creating other responsibilities that will consume his energy and time. He seems to want it both ways--to be married but not admit it in public so as to let him advance his career. His ego lets him think it will work and he persuades her to accept his judgment. When things turn out poorly, he has a change of mind and heart which causes anguish and strife for both of them.

Gilson does a great job describing them as persons. He also spends quite a while debunk others who have written about the pair from the historical-critical method, casting doubts on the authenticity of the letters. Theories range from "the letters were substantially rewritten" to "the letters were created afterwards." Gilson argues ably and interestingly against these theories, though the arguments are a bit dry and academic. They are important, however, from the viewpoint of trying to know Heloise and Abelard as they were themselves, rather than as readers would like them to be.

This book is an interesting read and makes me want to read the original letters, along with Abelard's Historia Calamitatum, which also describes the events.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jonas the Snowzilla Report

Jonas the winter snow storm (dubbed "Snowzilla" on Facebok) has hit us, along with most of the northern east coast of the United States of America. Here's a smattering of what's been going on...

It was so cold outside, even the snow is trying to get inside our house on the first day.

Back porch (that trash can is a compost bin, in case you were wondering)

It wasn't just the snow trying to get into our house the first night. Looking out the front door we saw some bird tracks in the snow that had blown onto the front porch.

Our front entrance

The tracks

The car is getting the worst of it, too.

That car used to have wheels

Not to be outdone for calamity, the garage roof has decided to make an impression on anyone foolish enough to walk under it and clap loudly.

What is that thing?!?

Avalanche waiting for some snow thunder

The children are enjoying the snow. I shoveled the front walk into one spot so they had a small hill from which to sled down. Even neighbors came over to try it.

Climbing Mount Sled

Riding to the mailbox

With all the comings and goings, I carved a path out to where the local 4x4s had packed down the cul de sac's snow. Our children can now go visit other houses more easily and their friends can get to ours somewhat safely.

By the mailbox (my hat was too wet from the last session of shoveling)

Looking back/posing

Tree assault!

We tried a blizzard style snack--maple syrup snow candy. The recipe we used is here. Basically, you boil a cup of syrup for four minutes then pour it over a pan full of clean snow.

Boiling syrup

Bringing in the snow (see, it finally did make it inside)

The instructions say to pour short, thin lines. Once hardened, eat with a spoon or a popsicle stick.

Pouring strips

We used a stick

Still a little drippy

Very tasty

If anything else interesting happens, we will be sure to let you know!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

TV Review: Marvel's Agent Carter Season One (2015)

Marvel's Agent Carter Season One (2015) created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Peggy Carter works for the Scientific Strategic Reserve (SSR), a top-level secret law enforcement agency headquartered in Manhattan. Billionaire inventor Howard Stark's inventions have shown up on the black market. Some of the buyers include enemies of America. Stark claims his basement stash was robbed by someone who tunneled in. Sounds unlikely, even to Howard, so he goes on the run. But not before recruiting Agent Carter to clear his name. They worked together previously on Project: Rebirth--the one that created Captain America. Stark offers her his English butler Edwin Jarvis as an aid. While the rest of the SSR is out to get Stark, Peggy works behind the scenes to find proof of his innocence, which potentially makes her a traitor too. The conspiracy gets bigger as the show goes on.

Peggy Carter is a great character. She is doubly an outsider--a woman working in a man's world and a Brit working in Manhattan. Her Britishness isn't such an issue (though it makes for the occasional fun interaction with the English butler). The show gets a lot of mileage out of her being female. Her work life is fairly terrible. She has to take lunch orders and is expected to do filing even though she is more than capable at investigating and fighting. She does a great job standing up for herself. Happily, she also doesn't run around half-dressed or in tights all the time, making her more believable as a person and more respectable as a woman. She is a great role model.

The plot machinations are a bit forced at times. I was never convinced the SSR had a reason to keep her off the team investigating Stark or that she needed to investigate secretly. She had plenty of opportunities to "come clean" and tell the SSR folks what was really going on, letting her use the full resources of her agency. Howard Stark pops in and out to increase the drama rather than for actual sensible reasons. So the show is less believable than it could be.

But the show is fun and the post-World War II setting gives the show a distinctive look and sound (lots of big band and Jazz). It's good, light entertainment.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Movie Review: Millions (2004)

Millions (2004) directed by Danny Boyle

A dad and two sons move to a new house (in a newly built neighborhood) after the death of the mother. They settle in quickly and the younger son, Damian, takes some of the moving boxes to make a little fort or house near the railroad tracks. Being England, there are plenty of trains going by. Settling in at school is tougher. Damian has a great devotion to the saints and can go on and on about them. Occasionally it's awkward and it seems to keep him from making friends. He has the saints as imaginary friends. One day while Damian is in the moving box house and talking to St. Clare of Assissi (he asks her if his mum has shown up in Heaven; she's not sure since she doesn't see everyone who comes in), a satchel full of money falls out of the sky and flattens the boxes. Damian shows the money to his brother Anthony. Damian assumes it's a gift from God, since he's been praying for his mum. He naturally wants to do good with the money, giving it to the poor and such. Anthony has more practical and selfish plans for the money, like impressing his fellow students and such. The secret can't last forever, though, since the British Pound is a few weeks away from being replaced by the Euro.

The movie is very charming and has a lot more going on than the relationship between the brothers and the money. Damian is innocent and imaginative but not unintelligent. He has a great moral sense and strength of character. Yet he's still a child, with a sense of wonder and what's right. He believes in miracles even though the movie seems to be at pains to provide natural explanations. Even so, it doesn't ridicule him for his belief and even ultimately affirms his view as more valuable than that of his brother or his father (who thinks his wife is gone and they will never see her again in an afterlife).

The movie is a surprisingly funny and upbeat work from the director of Sunshine and 28 Days Later...  The movie gives viewers a lot to mull over afterwards, something I like very much. I would definitely recommend the movie.

For a deeper discussion of the movie, check out A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast #123. Thanks for recommending the movie, Scott and Julie. I probably wouldn't have watched it without the motivation!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

One Ingredient Challenge: Eclairs and Puffs

Part of an ongoing series of cooking from scratch. That is, we cook something from basic items that don't have multiple ingredients (e.g. store-bought spaghetti sauce includes all sorts of spices and maybe other stuff too; we'd start with tomatoes and individual spices and add them together to make our own sauce). See other challenges here.

We have been watching a lot of The Great British Baking Show  (actually known as The Great British Bake Off in the UK). A recent episode featuring eclairs inspired us to try a home version. In the following photos you can see who in the family is the biggest fan of this show and who was the driving force behind this challenge.

We used the pastry recipe found here (thanks Martha!).

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs, plus possibly 1 large egg white, if needed (we didn't)
Boil the butter, sugar, salt and one cup of water in a medium saucepan. Using a wooden spoon, quickly stir in the flour.

Adding flour


Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, about three minutes until a film forms on the bottom of the pan.

Cooking over heat

Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until slightly cooled (about one minute). Raise speed to medium; add whole eggs, one at a time, until soft peaks form when batter is touched with your finger. We had a non-electric mixer:

Adding eggs

Testing for peaks

If peaks don't form, lightly beat remaining egg white and mix into a batter a little at a time until it does.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Transfer the pastry mix (called Pate a Choux) to a pastry bag with a 5/8-inch plain tip. For puffs, pipe dough into 2-inch rounds about 1 inch apart.

Making puffs

Gently flatten the pointed peaks with a moistened finger, rounding tops to ensure even rising. Bake until puffed and golden brown, about 25 minutes. The profiteroles should feel light and airy. Remove puffs from oven and transfer sheets to wire racks to cool completely.

Cooling completely

For eclairs, pipe the dough in 3 1/2 inch lengths on the parchment-papered baking sheets. Smooth the tops and brush with egg wash as for the puffs and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

Raw eclairs - we did 6 inch lengths, whoops

We made a simple whipped cream filling instead of bothering with a creme patisserie.

  • 1 cup heavy cream, chilled
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (we used our own homemade.  Single ingredients!)
Whip the cream, sugar and vanilla on low speed until frothy and the sugar has dissolved. Increase the speed to high and continue to whip until doubled in volume and soft peaks form.

What to do with any leftover cream (though you probably already knew to do this)

We were too tired to attempt a chocolate glaze by this point, so we just melted some chocolate chips in the microwave. Please don't tell Martha.

Filling with cream and covering with chocolate

A cook's privilege

Finished product

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book Review: Avatar The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part Two by Gene Luen Yang et al.

Avatar The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part Two written by Gene Luen Yang, art and covers by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

See my review of Part One here.

Avatar Aang is summoned to the Fire Nation capital to help Fire Lord Zuko deal with their latest crisis. Children are being kidnapped in the middle of the night by the dark spirits known as Kemurikage. The legends of these spirits go back for centuries but solid information about them is scarce. Aang and Zuko go into the Dragonbone Catacombs (where previous Fire Lords are buried) in hopes of finding some answers. In the meantime, Ukano (secretly a member of the New Ozai Society trying to overthrow Zuko) stirs up trouble in the city by forming a volunteer militia to fight the spirits. He thereby undercuts the authority of Zuko. Is he really interested in protecting the city or is he still working the political angle of the situation?

The story is more of the same goodness I've come to expect from Yang and the gang. The plot is interesting with enough action and jokes and history (albeit fake history) thrown in. Very satisfying and I can't wait for the conclusion of the story.