Friday, September 30, 2016

TV Review: And Then There Were None (2015)

And Then There Were None (2015) directed by Craig Viveiros and script by Sarah Phelps based on Agatha Christie's novel

Ten strangers meet on a Soldier Island to either meet with or work for U. N. Owen. He's hired a couple as house servants and a woman as secretary; the others are invited under various pretenses, all of which turn out to be false. Everyone except the host is present when an album is played after dinner. An ominous voice accuses all ten people of various murders for which none of them have been punished. One by one they die under mysterious circumstances, all following a nursery rhyme that has been framed and put in every room in the house: "Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;/ one choked his little self and then there were nine...." U. N. Owen is obviously "unknown," so is there an eleventh person on the island killing them or is one of them the killer? It's 1939 and the island is private with only one boat coming and going, only it's not coming anymore. With no phone to signal the mainland for help, they are on their own, facing harsh and inevitable justice.

Agatha Christie's novel is a classic and possibly her best work (at least, it's my favorite). The characters are fascinating--sympathetic but obviously guilty. The least guilty are the first ones to go, building up the tension and the theme of vengeful justice as the story proceeds. The mystery is fascinating and the resolution highly satisfying.

This television adaptation is in three hour-long episodes. They are quite faithful to the book with some minor changes. The poem is "Ten little soldier boys," a politically correct adaptation from the version I read in my youth, when it was "Ten little Indians," though apparently the original name was even less PC. Apparently the current version of the published novel follows the "soldier boy" version. This change didn't really bother me but I did notice it. Another change was the characters occasionally dropping f-bombs, which was more surprising to me. And there's an odd scene when the last four people have a drinking and coke snorting party, presumably to relieve the tension of their immanent demises. I can see why the film makers put the scene in but it goes on too long and doesn't fit too well into the narrative.

The biggest change is a tonal shift. This adaptation is more of a psychological horror thriller. Most of the characters are haunted by their past misdeeds. In addition to flashbacks showing some of the homicides, there are scenes where the present-day characters see their victims on the island. The on-island scares go overboard once or twice but otherwise are great, adding to the tension and giving the show a very cinematic feel. But it looks more like a horror film than a whodunit.

The acting is top notch, what you would expect from a BBC production. The actors communicate their guilt, denial, fear, and suspicion with a realism that draws the viewers in. The period costumes and setting are also convincing.

Overall, this is a fine adaptation of Christie's book and definitely worth watching.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Movie Review: Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield (2008) directed by Mark Reeves

Rob's friends are throwing him a farewell party in Manhattan. They are all late 20s/early 30s types. Rob's ex-girlfriend Beth shows up but things don't go well. She leaves after some curt words are exchanged. As Rob's best friend and his brother talk to him about it out on the balcony, the building shakes precariously. Turns out Rob should have left New York earlier because some monster is attacking the city. Rob decides to go after Beth. The only problem is she lives in the direction where the monster is attacking.

The movie is a "found footage" film. In this case, the footage is a tape from Rob's camera documenting the farewell party, which turns into a chronicle of their experience of the attack. The tape has some old video when Rob took Beth to Coney Island the month before, giving the characters a little more background and empathy. Unfortunately, it looks like there are some edits (like most of the testimonials from the party?) that blow the attempt at realism and immediacy. I never got fully invested in the film like I did with Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. I started wondering if the Coney Island bits, which made sense narratively, would really be so perfectly lined up in random spots on the tape. So the found footage was a problem for me.

The other problem I had was all the hints at what's really going on. I had the impression that there was a larger, more interesting story and we were stuck following this group of semi-interesting, semi-sympathetic characters. The ultimate ending for Rob and Beth is touching if not surprising. I was expecting more from the talent behind the film (produced by J. J. Abrams and written by Drew Goddard). Some moments are startling and beautiful and terrifying but quite a bit of the film looks like stuff borrowed from other, better films.

I was surprised by how mediocre this film is. It would have been less distracting without the found footage gimmick and a better story was probably going on somewhere else in Manhattan. The isn't bad; I am still going to watch 10 Cloverfield Lane, which hopefully is the better story.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Historic Savage Mill Bicentennial, Part 2

While my daughter worked on looms (see yesterpost), the toddler and I wandered around Historic Savage Mill checking out other things going on during the bicentennial celebration. We saw the Colonial Troubadours playing lutes and whistles and such.

Colonial Troubadours

I saw a hammered dulcimer performer but didn't get to take a picture since the toddler was on the move.

A bit of the mill in action as a shopping area

Books with a Past had an author event. Local author Gene Barr talked about A Civil War Captain and His Lady. Again, the toddler was more interested in walking around than listening to someone talk. Oh well...

Author lecture

The book!

Rams Head Tavern was offering a free pint glass to all customers who bought a Fordam and Dominion draft beer. I tried the Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, which was quite delightful. Mommy had the toddler, so I could enjoy it more slowly than otherwise.

Rams Head glass...

With bicentennial theme

A new plaque was unveiled at one of the entrances. We didn't go to the unveiling ceremony because of (again) the low attention span of some family members. The plaque is quite handsome, though.

A new plaque

A detailed history of the mill is available here. We were happy to celebrate 200 years of Savage Mill goodness!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Historic Savage Mill Bicentennial, Part 1

Savage Mill celebrated its 200th anniversary in September of 2016. Visitors were treated to a custom Christmas ornament just for visiting the mill!

Free wooden Christmas tree ornament, very nice!

The mill began as a cotton factory in 1816, using the nearby Little and Middle Patuxent rivers for power. So the celebration featured cotton spinning and weaving demonstrations by the Weavers Guild of Greater Baltimore and Moon Spinners.

WGGB demonstration area

My daughter was completely fascinated by weaving and tried out various looms.

Weaving on a lap loom

Fancy works from the lap loom

Larger, fancier looms require footwork and a shuttle that goes back and forth. It looked like a lot of fun.

Big loom

My daughter started working on a bookmark using the simplest loom ever. This kept her busy for quite a while.


Nearby, another weaver showed how she weaves very fancy patterns. She used a guide that tells her which way to weave her fabric. The trick is which of the vertical threads are on top of the horizontal thread and which are below. Having a little cheat sheet helps to remember which order is next.

A thin weave with a fancy pattern

The weavers recommended LapLoom as a a good, at-home, starter loom.

A recommended loom

More from the mill's celebration in the next post!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: Batman Cacophany by K. Smith et al.

Batman: Cacophany written by Kevin Smith, penciled by Walt Flanagan, and inked by Sandra Hope

Deadshot is hired to invade Arkham Asylum and kill the Joker. As he's hauling the Joker out, another masked criminal shows up and "liberates" the Joker from Deadshot. The new criminal has a black mask with two concentric circles on the front. He never says anything except for repeating sound effects from previous panels so he has the name Onomatopoeia. He gives the Joker a lot of money and disappears into the woods. Batman gets to chase down the Joker yet again.

The Joker is on a bit of a rampage. Crime lord Maxie Zeus (who occasionally has delusions of Greek godhood) has altered Joker's poison gas into a popular street drug called "Chuckles." It's only occasionally fatal (usually overdoses), which is maddening for the Joker. As if he needs to be madder. But since the Joker has a clear agenda, Batman has a clear course of action to stop him. Unfortunately, Onomatopoeia is after Batman so plans are bound to go awry.

The plot is reasonably complex but a lot of the surprise twists are predictable. Smith brings out various aspects of Batman and Joker's relationship which have been covered in other places. Onomatopoeia is a very boring villain and comes off more like a plot mechanic than a person. It's implied he's killed a bunch of other superheroes (the most famous being Green Arrow), so maybe there are other stories that make him more interesting. He isn't interesting here. Kevin Smith also throws in a bunch of his style of sex jokes which really don't fit well with a Batman story; he should be writing Deadpool.

So I can't recommend this book unless your a Batman completist or a Kevin Smith completist. Smith says in the introduction that this isn't the best Batman story he could write and mentions The Widening Gyre as his soon-to-be-release Bat-mangum opus. I have no interest in trying it out.

Friday, September 23, 2016

TV Review: The Hollow Crown: Henry V (2012)

The Hollow Crown: Henry V (2012) directed by Thea Sharrock based on the play by Shakespeare

In 2012, England hosted the Summer Olympics. The BBC decided to have a "Cultural Olypiad" which included a series of William Shakespeare's historical play. In the first series, they presented Richard IIHenry IV Part IHenry IV Part II, and Henry V.

Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is now King Henry V. He wants to re-establish England's rule over France. His claim is a bit sketchy but when the Dauphin sends him a box full of tennis balls to mock him, Henry gears up to go. Politics mostly take a back seat to reflections on war, honor, duty, and the amazing transformation of party boy Prince Hal into noble and just warlord King Henry V.

The story is, of course, great. Hiddleston does a fine job transforming from the foppish prince to a respectable, if not respected, head of state. He's convincing in giving the great speeches and in fighting the big battles. The battles are filmed in realistic settings with all the grime and blood of war, making this very much a film version and not a stage production. Even so, the Chorus (who provides a running commentary and often asks the audience to imagine the greater scale of events that can't be presented on a theatrical stage) is retained for the production. He is mostly voice over and works for the film.

This movie is a very satisfying finale to the first series of The Hollow Crown. A second series was produced in 2016 including the Henry VI plays and Richard III. I will definitely continue on with the series!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Movie Review: Krampus (2015)

Krampus (2015) directed by Michael Dougherty

Young Max wants a normal, happy Christmas this year. He's young enough to believe in Santa Claus and write him a letter but old enough to have doubts and get pushed in the wrong direction. His older sister is more interested in hanging out with her boyfriend than the rest of the family. His dad isn't traveling this Christmas but is still taking calls from work. His mom is trying to make everything perfect (you know how that goes). When Aunt Linda shows up with her family and Great-Aunt Dorothy (the one with the drinking problem who doesn't like kids), stress levels go off the scale. His bratty cousins discover his letter and read it aloud at dinner. The letter is heart-felt and Max asks Santa to fix the family problems, which he enumerates frankly. Everyone is embarrassed and Max goes nuts. He runs off to his room where he tears up the letter and wishes his family was just gone.

Too bad Krampus, the ancient demonic spirit of Christmas, was listening. A blizzard knocks out the electricity, heat, and phones. Max's German grandmother (on his dad's side) tries to keep things on an even keel, serving hot chocolate and keeping the fire extra hot. She knows about Krampus and tries to stave off the inevitable without saying anything, but that doesn't work for long. Big sister wanders off into the storm to check on her boyfriend and doesn't come back. Some mysterious and creepy snowmen appear in the yard. All the neighbors (except the boyfriend) have left town for Christmas, so no help there. Sister doesn't come back, things start going bump in the night, and the classic knock-em-off-one-by-one routine starts. Can the family pull together before they are torn apart (maybe even literally)?

This premise could have made a pretty low-grade derivative horror film. Gremlins and The Nightmare Before Christmas both present a bleak experience of Christmas made darker by a fantasy element. This movie manages to crank up the bleakness. The bitter and snarky interactions between the family members make the movie uncomfortable and horrifying even before monsters start showing up. The dysfunctionality of the family leads to Max losing faith in Christmas. He then has the most dysfunctional Christmas ever. Santa Claus is replaced by Krampus. Presents turn evil. Gingerbread men become agents of destruction. The movie has a similar level of imaginative creativity as Gremlins and Nightmare Before Christmas and shares the comedic vibe of the other two films. But it also stands out as its own work.

If you're looking for a horror movie for Christmas that's not too bloody (certainly much less than Gremlins) and has some imagination (though not as much as The Nightmare Before Christmas), this movie fits the bill.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Birthday Burgers

Our number one cousin came to visit for her birthday. My daughter and my wife decided to make a special burger for her celebration.


This burger is no conventional burger. It is a cupcake concoction of amazing fun. Making it was a fun challenge. They started by making some lettuce--coconut shavings stirred with green food coloring!

Stirring the lettuce

Stirring so fast it blurs!

They made some cupcakes from scratch for the buns. That was probably the easiest part of the project.

Cupcakes as buns

The trickiest part was making burgers. We used a plain brownie mix (no nuts or chunks or anything inside) and cut it into circles the same size as the cupcakes. We found a round cookie cutter that was the right size.


Buttercream frosting mixed with red food coloring made the ketchup. Mixed with yellow food coloring the frosting made the cheese.

Ketchup crafting

Putting it all together

Add the lettuce!

Final product

We did test a burger before feeding one to the birthday girl.

Taste test

A fun time was had by all!

Ready to blow out the candle on a regular cupcake

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book Review: The Saga of Swamp Thing Book 1 by A. Moore et al.

The Saga of Swamp Thing Book One written by Alan Moore with art by Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Dan Day, and Rick Veitch

Alec Holland was a scientist working in the Louisiana swamps trying to invent a special formula to transform deserts into forests. Naturally, a bad guy wants the formula and bombs out Hollands' lab. Holland is coated in the formula but falls into the swamp. Soon enough, Swamp Thing rises out of the swamp. He's a humanoid vegetation horror.

Soon to be legendary for writing Watchmen, Alan Moore took over writing the DC Comic Saga of the Swamp Thing with issue 20 in the early 1980s. He had a plan for the creature, so his first issue ties up loose plot threads and ends with the death of Swamp Thing. What better way to reset a character than to kill him?  Moore reinvents Swamp Thing's identity in an interesting and creative way. Swamp Thing has a lot more character depth than a reader would expect.

One might guess that Swamp Thing is some environmental superhero. While he does fight evil, Swamp Thing doesn't wear tights or have big fight scenes. He's more like Frankenstein's monster shambling through situations where he rights the wrongs he finds. The tone is filled with madness and horror and demons (some literal demons!). The environment can be just as much a problem as a thing to be protected. The book isn't uplifting but is fascinating. It's at least as much a horror book as a superhero book.

The art is very evocative and supports the tone well. The writing is very poetic, giving a gothic horror flavor. I enjoyed the book a lot and will read more of Moore's run on Swamp Thing.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Saint Mary of the Mills Parish Picnic 2016

We attended the parish picnic at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, Maryland. The weather was perfect--sunny but breezy, warm but not hot. Everyone brought some food to share; plenty of activities kept us entertained.

Gathering for grace at St. Mary's picnic

The kids made a bee-line for the bouncy castles, which were the biggest hit for them by far. They came back twice; once they managed to get a castle all to themselves.

Bouncy castles

Jumping and falling

Big sis was a big help

Alone in his castle

Is it really good to be alone? Cf. Genesis 2:18

We ate a lot of delicious food. Even more fun was the American Heritage Girls' cake walk station where the kids won cupcakes. We ate them on the spot!

Food tents

Cake walk with other walkers

The Knights of Columbus were raffling off a car (though the drawing is not until October) so we bought some tickets. The car is a black Mustang. It isn't practical for a family of five but it does look cool.

A new car!

The Boy Scouts had some demonstrations but the star of their area was a rope bridge for kids to cross. My daughter was happy to give it a go. She did stumble once but the guys were there to catch her. She didn't give up and made it all the way across!

Rope bridge

My daughter starts

Carefully crossing

At the end

My daughter also enjoyed one of her favorites--face painting.

Her usual choice--a butterfly!

We heard some fun music by a live band, though the band never really said their name, so I'm not sure who they were.

Musicians hard at work

Another popular picnic activity was the dunk tank. It wasn't really a dunk tank, though, merely a "shower of blessings." All the clergy took turns under the heavenly spigot.

Holy cold shower, Batman!

The business end of the business

Around 3 p.m., the parish had a special flag ceremony and prayer. The picnic was held on September 11, so they commemorated the 15th anniversary of the attacks on America and prayed for all those who lost their lives that day. It was touching, with the Scouts handling the flag and an honor guard from the Knights of Columbus.

Beginning of flag ceremony (I didn't take pics during)

After a final visit to the bouncy castles, we bid farewell to a wonderful picnic. We can't wait for next year!