Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cute Kid Pix January 2017

More pics of the kids that didn't make it into a blog post...

We didn't take a lot of pictures this Christmas. Too much fun going on. My older son has been using an app to learn how to play the piano. He does a good job with some songs (though not as many or as well as his sister who is taking lessons). He played over Christmas for us and our guests.

Playing festively

Maybe not the festivist mood

Our tree after present were opened

The toddler is going regularly to the library but not as regularly to story time. The library hosts an open play time on Tuesdays which is fun but free form and not very photogenic. We did go to a regular story time with a "winter friends" theme. After stories about penguins and polar bears (though they weren't in the same stories, a relief to those particular about keeping the inhabitants of the North and South Poles in place), we had a craft involving neither. My son made a fox to take home.

Gluing the fox together

Monday, January 30, 2017

Book Review: The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens

The Life of Our Lord: Written for His Children During the Years 1846 to 1849 by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens wrote The Life of Our Lord for his family, so that his children would have a simple and straightforward way to learn about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. He never published it in his life time and bequeathed the manuscript to his son on condition that he not publish it. His son respected his father's wishes but did not lay such a restriction on his own son who published the book in 1933.

The book follows the gospel accounts, retelling the many events and teachings in Jesus's life with simple language. Each parable is followed with a paragraph by Dickens explaining what the parable meant (though not in detail--he doesn't get into the significance of the angry loyal brother in the Prodigal Son). The book is about the length of a gospel, making it easy to read in a short time.

I was a little surprised by two omissions. First, Dickens describes how, after being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus went into the wilderness to pray and fast. But he skips the temptations by the devil. Second, he misses the whole Eucharistic significance of the Last Supper! After explaining each parable in turn, it is very odd not even to quote Jesus saying over the bread, "This is My body." Maybe he thought the issue was too complicated for his children (the oldest was twelve in 1849) or he just wanted to focus on the gospel message as a model for behavior rather than a core set of beliefs. Saying anything with certainty is hard since the book wasn't published or discussed in his lifetime.

Dickens' summation at the end is typical:
Remember!--It is Christianity TO DO GOOD, always--even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbours as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to show that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in peace.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Movie Review: Rashomon (1950)

Rashomon (1950) co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa

A priest and a woodcutter are waiting out the rain in the old, derelict city gate called "Rashomon." The time is 12th century Japan, the city is former capital Kyoto. The country and the city have seen better days. A third man comes to the gate. He notices how glum they are; they tell him the most recent depressing news. A samurai was  killed in the forest. The woodcutter discovered the dead body, so he testified at the trial three days ago. The trial included depositions from the woodcutter, a bandit named Tajomaru, the dead man's widow, and a medium channeling the dead man. The varying stories don't match up, and it's very clear that the individual testimonies are given to make the witness look the best or most sympathetic in the story. The third man cynically harps on the fact that people lie to make themselves look good. The priest despairs of the existence of human goodness. Are all people selfish connivers?

The movie is very challenging in that it never spells out what happened in the woods, whether the samurai was killed by the bandit or by his own hand. Was the wife (who was raped by the bandit) complicit in the murder? Each version of the story has the characters behaving very differently. Even when the woodcutter gives a second version of his story, it still doesn't fit together with everything else. I've watched the film three times and at this point I'm fairly certain there is no way to figure out the actual details of what happened. So viewers may be frustrated by that ambiguity.

But the movie is not a police procedural. The thematic focus is not on truth but on the deeply flawed and broken way people treat the truth. The third man is very cynical and very modern in his understanding of human nature--everyone is selfish and works for their own good; either there is no evil (in which case, every action is morally okay) or everything is evil (in which case, why hold people responsible?). The priest has a classic crisis of faith--he sees no good in the world. There have been famines, fires, plagues, earthquakes. The world and the people in it are crumbling down like the Rashomon gate. The rain only adds to the dismal misery. Can anyone overcome their selfishness and act for the good of others?

The source material for the movie, author Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short stories "In the Grove" and "Rashomon" (reviewed here), clearly answer no. The movie presents Akutagawa's pessimism faithfully but adds a new twist at the end that undercuts that pessimism and gives at least one reason for hope.

The movie can also be viewed as an allegory for post-WWII Japan's situation, seemingly on the brink of ruin. Providing his countrymen with a glimmer of hope, an inspiration to get up and move on, is a beautiful thing.

Highly recommended (unless you really want the police procedural).

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Book Review: Irredeemable Premier Ed. Vol. 1 by M. Waid et al.

Irredeemable Premier Edition Volume 1 written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Peter Krause, colors by Andrew Dalhouse, and letters by Ed Dukeshire

Superman-like hero The Plutonian flips from being the greatest superhero on Earth to a murderous psychopath. He is slowly killing off members of his superhero team the Paradigm. They are hiding out and searching for any information that will give them an edge in stopping him. The leads are slim--an ex-girlfriend and vague details about his family. As a hero, he's kept his private life a secret even from his teammates. Can they maintain the balance of being in hiding and getting one step ahead of him?

The Plutonian is also destroying cities across the globe with complete disregard for human life. Millions of people are dying and governments have no idea what to do. Should they band together to stop him? Should they recruit him as leader of their own country before anyone else snags him? The Plutonian's combination of bad mood and overwhelming superpowers makes the response especially tricky.

The set-up is slow but intriguing. Readers don't see much of the situation from the Plutonian's point of view till at least half-way through this volume. The flip from boy scout to megalomaniac is extreme and not entirely convincing on the surface. The story presents many dark secrets and obsessions along the way, revealing the Plutonian's heroic character as more facade than fact. By the end it's not so surprising that he'd turn.

When this series first came out, I wasn't interested in it. The "superhero turns evil" story has been done before and those haven't been my favorites. This story does have more depth than I expected, so I may continue. The story also has a limited arc (37 issues, of which this volume includes the first eight), making it more appealing to me. It's nice to read the beginning of something that will have an end.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Phineas, Ferb, and Homer

If you are looking for a "three cartoon characters walk into a bar..." joke, look further! (And don't bother googling it, I already tried)

My daughter is a avid fan of the Disney television show Phineas and Ferb. In the show, the two titular boys spend their summer vacation building fantastic contraptions and otherwise having fabulous adventures. In the episode Troy Story, their older sister Candace is struggling through that classic of Greek literature, The Iliad. To help their sister out, Phineas and Ferb decide to reenact the Trojan War in their back yard, following the plot of the epic poem. They build the walls of Troy and put their own spin on events from the book.

Recruiting for the Greek army

While watching the episode on a tablet in our front room, my daughter asked if The Iliad is a real book. Having read it in college low those many years ago, I went over to our bookshelf and pulled it down to show her. She was amazed and wanted to read it right away. I said we should wait for bed time. Candace had a hard time staying awake while reading it, so what better bed time reading could there be?

We don't have the colorful cover anymore

That night, we started with Book One of The Iliad. My daughter's first question was why the sections were called "books" and not "chapters." I answered that it was the style back then which didn't really satisfy her. I wish I had taken a cue from Calvin's dad and told her that chapters hadn't been invented yet, so they could only divide books into smaller books.

Then we got into the story. The first thing that happens is the priest Khryses comes to the Greeks to ransom his captive daughter from Agamemnon, the main Greek general. The soldiers all agree with the priest but Agamemnon doesn't want to give up his plunder and sends the priest off without returning his daughter. My daughter's next question was why the priest had a daughter. Being Catholic, our priests are celibate (not counting some rare exceptions). My answer was that ancient priests were allowed to be married. Greek and other Eastern priests still are allowed to marry today. She was satisfied with this.

Happily, my daughter did not ask about Agamemnon's intentions with the girl, which are pretty clear from line 34:
Give up the girl? I swear she will grow old
at home in Argos, far from her country
working my loom and visiting my bed.
I was fully prepared to give my daughter the "she'll be a domestic servant, making his bed, etc." routine but didn't have to resort to that.

The priest naturally called on the god Apollo to intervene. Apollo saddled up and started shooting arrows (I explained he was an archer god) causing a plague for the Greeks and their animals.

She started reading the poem by herself and got confused around line 99:
The diviner then took heart and said:
                                                                    "No failure
in hekatombs or vows is held against us.
It is the man of prayer who Agamemnon
treated with contempt...
My daughter missed the "No failure" part and was confused why they started a new sentence without a capital letter. Also, the sentence didn't make sense to her. I explained that the poetic style was to finish out a line's length before starting a new line. I almost got into dactylic hexameter, but I didn't want that getting confused with hekatombs and vows. Progress was slow enough.

She then asked when the war was going to start. I said it already started before the book began and the Greeks were camping out, besieging the city of Troy. We talked about whether the war was real (yes), the Greek gods were real (no), Helen was real (maybe), the soldiers like Agamemnon and Akhilles were real (probably, but not with the magic skin). etc.

After one evening's reading, my wife checked our local library and found a kid-friendly illustrated version of The Iliad, which my daughter is now reading by herself. She's had no further questions so far.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Toddler Levels Up Again

Our toddler is getting bigger, smarter, and more coordinated every day. The rate of change is impressive and worrying. Luckily, we have two older siblings to help keep up with him!

He is getting better at singing and dancing, which isn't so much of a problem. His taste in music is mostly based on YouTube videos, with Pentatonix and Sandra Boynton being the current favorites.

He's even shown interest in playing baseball like his big brother, trying on a helmet at the sporting goods store. We were shopping for big brother. Maybe the equipment will still be in good enough shape to be hand-me-downs in six or seven years?

Ready for a snowy world series!

For Christmas, our toddler received some roller skates (thanks Uncle Nate and Auntie Helen!). He had his first experience on a Tuesday night during the family skate at Laurel Skating Center.

Working on his skating skills

A happy skater moving at blurring speeds

He has also figured out how to undo the strap of his highchair, which makes meal and snack times a little more hazardous exciting.

What will you give me not to get down!

Life is a joy, especially because it brings so many new, wonderful, and surprising things!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

If you ask anyone to name a Japanese film director, the most likely answer will be "Akira Kurosawa." He has directed many classics (like Seven Samauri, Yojimbo, and Hidden Fortress) that have been remade by Western directors (like The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, and Star Wars) and many classics that were remakes of Shakespeare's plays (Throne of Blood and Ran). One of his early films, Rashomon, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, putting Japanese cinema on the international stage only five years after World War II. Kurosawa's significance is indisputable.

Kurosawa wrote an autobiography in 1983. The book only covers his early life, up to the international reception of Rashomon. He starts with his earliest memories (being in a bathtub as a toddler) and describes his life in the early decades of 20th century Japan. His home followed the classic samurai model, with traditional clothes and a simple layout to the house and a simple life style. He writes of his school years which both mirror and contrast to western education. He had the usual classes and problems with bullies and friends. He also took special lessons in calligraphy and kendo (weapon fighting), often having to walk several miles in the early hours before school. His love of art and literature started early and was a great help in his later career as a film maker.

His early adulthood was full of adventure. He was interested in being a painter and joined a socialist movement after school. That did not work out well (especially coming from a traditional home) and he wound up applying for an assistant director job at Toho studio. He had a tough time getting in but was soon under the tutelage of Kajiro Yamamoto. His skills as a writer, editor, and director bloomed at Toho, though there were many problems with union strikes and with censors, especially during World War II, when anything that seemed "British-American" was verboten. The book finishes with stories from several of Kurosawa's 1940s films, finishing with Rashomon. He recommends people interested in his later life to just watch his films, since he puts so much of himself into them and they are so central to his life.

Kurosawa's writing style is simple and direct with an unassuming air. He's open about his temper and mistakes he has made. His humility is refreshing and disarming. Occasional insights about film making are sprinkled throughout the book, with the lion's share at the end. I found the book very interesting and insightful about Kurosawa's film making and about him as a person. I want to watch (and rewatch) his early films.

Highly recommended!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon writing and art by Jill Thompson

After a war with Herakles, Queen Hippolyta and her Amazon warriors flee to the island of Themyscira. They set up an all-female paradise where peace and harmony reign. The only sadness for Hippolyta is that she wants a child. The Greek gods have compassion on her grief and send her a child, Diana. Diana is the darling of the Amazons. She has too much free reign and becomes spoiled and selfish as she grows into womanhood. She is the top star among the Amazons. Diana explores the strange and dark parts of the island and conquers the dangerous creatures she finds. Her ego leads her to compete in the annual contests of endurance and skill. She makes interesting discoveries and one bad decision that changes the course of her life forever.

The main enemy for Diana in the story is her own ego, which gives her a believable character arc and a reason to go out into the world as a hero at the end. I enjoyed the story even though it was predictable in parts. The water color art style is not my favorite but sometimes it worked perfectly with the story (the dreamy or fantastical parts--Poseidon looks amazing and unlike other depictions).

Well worth reading!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) co-written and directed by Bryan Singer

The ancient mutant En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (who has been amassing other mutant's powers over centuries) is beaten in 3000 B.C. Egypt by perfectly normal, everyday Egyptians. He isn't killed, only put to sleep for about 5000 years. While investigating mutants in 1983, Moira McTaggert accidentally awakens Apocalypse who brings together his four horsemen (because he's Apocalypse, get it?) to take over the world. Can Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his students and allies stop the madman before his plans wreak havoc? Of course, the answer to that question is obvious, which does not mean the movie can't still be entertaining.

Unfortunately, the film has a lot of things working against it. Many scenes are clearly designed to be seen in 3D, which is distracting when watching a 2D version at home on DVD. The movie also has too many "this scene is so cool we are going to show it in slow motion" moments. Which doesn't even include the Quicksilver (the guy who moves at high speed, so naturally he has some slow motion stuff) scenes--they are fun in small doses but again there are too many of them and looks like reruns of scenes from Days of Future Past.

Too many characters are left undeveloped or doing nothing until the end. Poor Angel and Psylocke are little more than eye-candy combatants with no character at all. They are part of the four horsemen but don't do anything until the climatic big battle. The other horsemen, Storm and Magneto, have good development, even with Storm's minimal screen time. Still, they too have almost nothing to do till the finale. Apocalypse even has to kidnap Xavier to make his plan work, making the other four look especially useless.

Having read the Age of Apocalypse graphic novels, I had a good idea of what Apocalypse's plan was, but that's not communicated clearly in the film. Apocalypse talks a lot about the devastation he's going to cause but does hardly any until the ending, even missing some fairly big opportunities early on. He does have menacing physical presence, but his incoherent and slow scheme make him into a lesser villain, which is a shame for someone named Apocalypse.

Other characters fair better. Xavier and Magneto work well as foils for each other (if only Magneto hadn't spent so much time with Apocalypse!). Happily, they don't overshadow the other characters--Cyclopes, Jean Grey, Mystique, and other X-Men get enough character development and moments so they don't look one dimensional like Angel and Psylocke. Director Singer is good at handling a large cast of characters but this movie has too many even for him.

The movie would benefit immensely from judicious script editing/re-writing and fewer "look how amazing these special effects are" moments. While certainly not as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand, this film is definitely on the lower end of the X-Men franchise.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa was a Japanese author writing in the early twentieth century (he died a suicide in 1927). His fictional settings range through the centuries. His attitude toward human nature is mostly consistent--cynical and pessimistic. The texts are straightforward accounts where the nuances come out of the characters' actions and thoughts.

1. In a Grove--Various witnesses give testimony to a High Police Commissioner about a rape and murder in a grove off of a major thoroughfare. Some incidental witnesses give some details and the main witnesses (the bandit assumed responsible, the assaulted wife, and the dead man who testimony comes from a medium) have stories that don't sync up. The truth is hard to find when people hold their egos in higher regard. The story is more of a character study than a mystery--the enigma of what happened is perhaps unsolvable.

2. Rashomon--Standing in the rundown city gate called Rashomon, a samurai's servant is waiting out the rain. He's just been fired so he considers what he will do. Like the gate, the city of Kyoto (the former capital of Japan) is run down. The prospects of earning an honest living are minimal, so he considers becoming a thief. His considerations are interrupted when he discovers another lost soul in the Rashomon. The bleak atmosphere of the story is unrelenting and the ambiguous resolution makes for a good discussion.

3. Yam Gruel--In the remote past, mid-level (i.e. non-descript) samurai Goi has no other desire than to eat yam gruel, then considered a delicacy. Goi is shabby in appearance, clothing, thought, and will, making him the target of practical joking by his superiors and inferiors. One superior, Toshihito, decides to play a long joke and takes Goi off to his splendid mansion in a distant province with the promise of yam gruel in abundance. The author makes a big deal about Goi being the hero of the story, perhaps only to satirize the hero's journey. If so, it is a rather bleak and joyless satire.

4. The Martyr--An orphan shows up at a Jesuit church in Nagasaki. The brothers take the child in because of a rosary wrapped around his wrist and the child's sweet and silent disposition. He grows up only to find horrible accusations made against him. The final twist in the story is a little too unbelievable (though a postscript claims the story is based on true events), spoiling an otherwise interesting look at Christians in Japan.

5. Kesa and Morito--Two lovers plan to murder the woman's husband. The story is told twice--once from the man's perspective, next from the woman's. Their differing details are reminiscent of "In a Grove," with the same sort of pessimism running through it.

6. The Dragon--Ancient storyteller Uji Dainagon Takakuni collects a story from a potter much like one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales from one of the pilgrims. The potter's story involves a prankster Buddhist priest who puts up a sign by a local pond: "On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond." The sign causes a sensation all out of proportion from the intended joke, leading to massive crowds camping out on the assigned date. Even the priest starts to think a dragon may rise!

The most upbeat of the stories (The Martyr and The Dragon) are from other source materials, making me reluctant to seek out more from Akutagawa. I don't mind dark themes and stories but these are a bit too unrelenting for me. I am sure to rewatch Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which uses the story Rashomon as a framing device around the In a Grove story. Kurosawa has a more positive resolution to the story, which makes a fascinating contrast.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ice Skating Lessons 2017

Our daughter asked for ice skating lessons after a fun session during the Christmas break. My wife hunted around for the best lessons we could find, putting her in a class at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel. The center is huge with four large rinks and the National Capital Curling Center right next door. They have hockey leagues, figure skating, birthday parties, and lessons. My daughter was assigned to instructor Greg who is great with kids. He told them his first rule is "No smiling." Several kids broke the rule immediately. Greg even broke his own rule (and acknowledged it) a few times! He's good at teaching skills and creating a fun environment.

Instructor checks his list

Catching a smiler

The first skill the children learned was falling down. Everyone aced it. Then they learned how to get back up, one skate at a time.

Everyone shares a natural talent

The next skill after falling and standing up on skates was marching across the rink with skates in a V-shape. The kids did a little coasting but mostly walking. This skill was also easy to do.

Marching across the rink

Getting separated from the crowd

The final skill for the first lesson was moving back and forth by alternating from a V-shape to an A-shape. The instructor drew little fish on the ice with a sharpie. Each student had their own personal practice area. This skill was the toughest to get down.

Don't cut the fish!

The rink also has a snack bar. We stopped for some popcorn after the lesson. The treat was a yummy boost to get us home. Future lessons promise to be even more fun!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Winter Baseball Tune-Up 2017

Our older son is interested in playing baseball this summer, so we signed him up for a winter tune-up class to sharpen his skills. The class is held at the gym of a nearby high school. The class was divided in half, so they could take turns practicing batting and fielding. My son's group started with fielding.

First, they practicing throwing back and forth. Then the students practiced fielding ground balls.

Keeping his glove low

Throwing back

They also practiced running backward side to side in order to catch a fly ball. At first, they did just the running part. After a few runs, the instructor started throwing fly balls. Occasionally they hit the ceiling or the raised basketball hoops, making the balls even harder to catch. 

In action (from a distance too, hence the blur)

 The switch to batting practice required abandoning the glove and getting a helmet and bat. The very first skill taught was the proper grip. The coach told them to align the knuckles of both hands. This grip gives the batter more range of motion. The other important trick to practice is aligning feet, using a bat on the ground.

First batting skill--with the bat on the floor!

They practiced batting on tees, emphasizing keeping the eye on the ball and the "load and step" to add power to the swing.

Getting ready

Loading to swing

We had another short round of fielding which was the most fun according to my son. The kids practiced crow-stepping into a throw to get more distance after catching fly balls. He looked impressive.


My son can't wait for the next class!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 3 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 3 by Hiro Mashima

Dark Guild Eisenwald's plan to wipe out lots of people by playing the evil magical flute Lullaby gets nearer to success. The Fairy Tail team (Natsu, Gray, Erza, Lucy, and Happy) have a big battle with the Eisenwald folks at a train station with a public address system. This location is only part of Eisenwald's plan, so a lot more action happens before the end. Happily the story does end in this volume (the last two volumes both split story arcs in the middle). The author manages to pull out a cliffhanger at the very end when Natsu and Erza's battle is interrupted by a surprise visit.

The story still follows the anime series very closely. That's fine since it's so enjoyable. The story has enough depth and creativity that it doesn't read like mere frivolous fantasy action. The characters are interesting and getting more three-dimensional all the time. The book reads very quickly, which is always a plus with the minimal reading time I have.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked by David Baldwin

Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked by David Baldwin

Robin Hood has had a massive amount of mythology grow up around him. Is it possible to peel away the layers and find the historical inspiration for the many legends? That task is the central purpose for David Baldwin in writing this book.

He begins with a survey of the earliest ballads and stories about Robin Hood. The earliest is Little Geste of Robyn Hode and his Meiny. It is a compilation of five different stories (in verse) about Robin and his men. Using this and other early legends about the hero, Baldwin then examines various possible candidates for Robin. Turns out there have been plenty of people who took to the forest to fight what they thought was injustice imposed by a an unfair and corrupt government, some even named Robert Hode or Robyn Hud or other variants.

Baldwin also searches for analogues of other characters like Little John, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the King of England, etc. The search helps the author triangulate the most likely time and actual people. The result is a fascinating survey of English history in the 1200s and 1300s. Plenty of other corrupt rulers besides Prince John populate those times, as well as dramatic civil strife over the implementation of Magna Carta and the first attempts at parliamentary rule. The Robin Hood story almost gets sidetracked for a while. The book comes around at the end and makes a compelling argument for a pair of friends (Roger Godberd and Walter Devyas) who have many parallels to the exploits of Robin Hood and Little John.

The research in the book is thorough and scholarly without being boring and academic. The characters are naturally dynamic, with exciting lives of crime and redemption (to greater or lesser extents). The argument is enjoyable and persuasive while not being definitive. With such a great distance in time certitude is hard to come by; surely the bards of the fourteenth century embellished and gathered together the best elements of several stories to make the most entertain tales they could. Picking the scant evidence apart and putting together a convincing whole is a great challenge. Baldwin rises to the occasion and delivers a fascinating survey of the various and best historical people who inspired the legends of Robin Hood.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) written by Ben Aaronovitch and directed by Andrew Morgan

Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy travels to 1963 England to take care of some unfinished business. Unfortunately, two factions of Daleks (who are naturally in conflict with one another as well as the Doctor) are interested in the same unfinished business. An earlier incarnation of the Doctor had left the Hand of Omega, a Time Lord device of amazing power, hidden in plain sight. The Daleks want it for the power; The Doctor wants to keep it out the hands of the Daleks...or does he?

The story has nice bits of cleverness as the Doctor tries to get his plan to come off. He's assisted by Ace, a 1980s girl who makes her own explosives and carries around a baseball bat and a boom box. When a Dalek tries to eliminate her, she doesn't shriek for the Doctor's help. She gets the bat out! She is a refreshing change for a classic female companion to the Doctor. The episode also has lots of big, credible-looking explosions (how else can you kill a Dalek?) and is otherwise on the high end of the BBC's production values. McCoy's wit and physicality are put to great use, especially when he confronts the Dalek leader. The blend of fun and drama is near perfect.

This four-parter (about 100 minutes) is solid entertainment.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Foil Smores

Since we are always interested in trying new experiments and classic desserts, we attempted to make foil-wrapped smores in our fireplace. We had the fire on for New Year's Day and used our smore-making kit from Christmas (thanks, John and Lisa!). The kit did not come with skewers. It didn't recommend using foil, we just decided to experiment.

For those not in the know, a smore is two graham crackers with a piece of chocolate and a roasted marshmallow in the middle. So, some assembly required. Building a smore with an unroasted marshmallow was easy, especially with a very helpful assistant.

Sorting the ingredients

Putting the chocolate in...

...is easier if one cracker is on the table or counter

A little smush goes a long way

We grabbed some aluminum foil and wrapped the uncooked treat.

Like a Christmas present again

The fire was ready.

Not as impressive with the flash on

 We thought five minutes would be the right amount of time and put the foil packet right into the hot coals.

Right in the middle of the action

More ominous-looking without the flash

Five minutes turned out to be too long, or maybe we should have put the packet at the side of the fire rather than right in the middle (it was fun using tongs to put it in and out). The results were overdone.

Smore cooking than it needed

We may try again with subsequent fires.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) directed by Gareth Edwards

The Empire is looking for one good man, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to finish designing their ultimate tool to dominate the galaxy. They hunt him down on an obscure planet where he hides out as a farmer. His young daughter Jyn Erso manages to hide as her father is hauled off to complete the Death Star. She's discovered by family friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) who raises her. Saw is an extremist rebel against the Empire, so when the story jumps forward fifteen years or so, things only get worse for Jyn. She's ashamed of what her father is doing and she's been in hiding in case someone wants to use her to blackmail her father. She's brought out of hiding when the Rebels discover Galen may be introducing a fundamental flaw into the Death Star so that it may be destroyed. In order to verify the information, a long chain of contacts are established. When the information is confirmed, a small group gathers around Jyn to steal the plans for the Death Star from the Imperial Archive. Can such a bold plan succeed?

The story is a bit complicated in many ways. The Rebellion isn't a very unified group, always debating plans and being sometimes overly cautious in acting. The Empire itself has some political intrigue that is basically shut down by the strong arm of those at the top (i.e., Darth Vader and the Emperor). The mission to verify the information is also full of dark moments and differing agendas, occasionally pitting the heroes against one another. The moral complexity is very gray for a Star Wars film, which I found a refreshing change.

The action sequences are very exciting, especially since enough time is spent on the characters to make them sympathetic. The battles seem much more like World War II combat than interstellar fantasy combat both in the violence and the body count. And the deaths aren't just bad guys. There's more than just one token good guy killed (which is to be expected if you've seen the massive spoiler film called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). The tone is definitely dark for a Star Wars film, but it is not too dark.

I'd rank this number three behind Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope in the Star Wars movie rankings. Maybe this movie would be number two but one CGI character is too much a resident of the Uncanny Valley, becoming very distracting, and the movie has a lot of easter eggs, perhaps too many like in The Force Awakens.

Highly recommended!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: Troll Bridge by N. Gaiman et al.

Troll Bridge story by Neil Gaiman, art by Colleen Doran, and letters by Todd Klein

Neil Gaiman's short story Troll Bridge is given a graphic novel treatment. I haven't read the story but, as in many of his works, it reads like a familiar bit of mythology given a new twist. A young boy is out exploring the undeveloped countryside outside his English town (maybe it's the 1960s or 1970s?). He comes across a brick bridge under which a troll lives. The boy talks his way out of being eaten: he promises to come back when he is older, bigger, more satisfying to eat, and had a chance to see the world. A few times in his life he comes back to the bridge by accident, showing changes to his life but not much to his character. A fate worse than eating is in store for him.

The story is interesting and the art's spooky watercolor style fits well with the macabre events and tone. The main character is not as sympathetic as I'd like. His ultimate fate didn't resonate with me the way it should. I was fairly ambivalent. The whole thing is fairly short, making it a quick read.

Friday, January 6, 2017

First Snowfall of the Season, Last of 2016

While the cousins were visiting over Christmas week, we had our first flurries of the season (though they were also the last flurries of the year). The excitement was palpable as the toddlers looked out the window.

Looking at big sister/cousin already in the snowfalll

Must get snow gear on!

Once outside, we headed to the back yard for maximal enjoyment. That meant getting on the trampoline!

Now with 50% more fun!

The older cousins tried to catch snowflakes on their tongues or in a cup, which caused great delight if not great success. My toddler caught snowflakes in his hair.

Blissfully unaware

Everyone loved running around in the snow. We had no accumulation, so the sleds will have to wait till later in the season.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Movie Review: High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015) directed by Ben Wheatley

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a new and futuristic high-rise on the outskirts of London in 1975. His apartment is on the twenty-fifth of forty floors. The very top is occupied by Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect and owner of the building. He's also constructing four others in the vicinity with a lake planned in the middle. The building has an indoor pool and a grocery store that is used by everybody. The one quirk of the building is that all the poorer, lower-class people live on the lower floors while richer, higher-class people live higher up. Royal's intention is to create a catalyst for interaction and change. While he intends improvement, things actually start to fall apart. Living in the lower floors is Mr. Wilder. He is upset at various injustices and slights he sees--power outages that take longer to resolve down below or the pool being reserved for rich people while children (most all of whom live in the lower half of the building) can't use it. He stirs up trouble. Naturally, Laing is caught in the middle, literally and figuratively.

The movie is based on a novel by J. G. Ballard published in the 1970s as a satire of the coming economic disparity he assumed would happen under Margaret Thatcher. Laing is a bachelor and a doctor of physiology. He keeps himself in great shape and is interested in participating in all the parties both above and below him, as well as the occasional sexual encounter (it is the 1970s, after all). He's a new-comer so he gives the viewer a chance to discover things about the building. The rich people make fun of him though Royal takes a liking to Laing and shares his intentions and desires with Laing. Royal is a figurehead for the rich just as Wilder is for the poor.

Wilder is a social climber who can't get anywhere and resents it. He's a TV documentarian who has been out of work. His very pregnant wife is befriended by Laing (who winds up just taking advantage of her). Meanwhile, the building descends into chaos as the grocery store is cleaned out and the pool becomes a place for the poor people to wash clothes. Power is intermittent throughout the building; water comes and goes as well. The clash between the rich and the poor gets violent several times and conditions get so bad people wind up eating pet food from the store, and eventually the pets themselves.

As satires go, this is very unsatisfying. In spite of the claims that rich and poor are different, they both are cruel and thoughtless to each other and even to themselves. The movie tries to be realistic about the social interactions but the situation becomes so absurd that the realism is at odds with the satire. Why don't people just leave? Why aren't other authorities brought in? If the point of the film is to show how a small but isolated and stratified society will implode why are these questions brought up within the film? The film makers don't understand the role of exaggeration in satire. The satire looks really weak in comparison to movies like Brazil or A Clockwork Orange (which is clearly an inspiration and source for the movie makers). Or even Idiocracy. The ridiculous elements of the story are taken too seriously, leaving the film empty and unconvincing.

I didn't find this movie enjoyable and wouldn't recommend it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Visiting the Mall Play Areas 2016

We took the kids to our local shopping mall's playground, including a ride on the indoor carousel. The visit was good fun, especially for the toddler who is just the right age for everything.

He loves slides which the playground has in plenty.

The book slide

The ambulance slide

Calling for some help

He still likes to hold hands going down steep slides, so the ambulance required some assistance.

A big milk jug was another spot from which to slide down. The toddler needed boosts to get up and his sister was great at helping him get down.

On the milk jug

He wanted a break so we climbed the stairs. The view of the playground from upstairs is nice.

The mall playground

Back at the playground, we played with big sister on a toothbrush. The playground is sponsored by a local hospital (maybe they are hoping to get some business from it?) so it has some health-themes, like the fruit and vegetable slide and the ambulance slide.

On the toothbrush

Switching sides

After getting our fill of the playground, we went back up the stairs and down the hall to the carousel. When we came around the corner, the toddler was very excited. He wanted to ride a horse while everyone else wanted to spin as fast as possible on the tea cup.

Toddler and dad

Tea cup with the cousins

Another shot of the tea cup

We walked back to the food court for lunch (Chick-fil-A for my toddler and his brother; McDonalds for my daughter--no surprises there). On the way we passed one of those inflatable mattress stores. My toddler loves to push the "softer" button on the window every time we pass.

Pushing the largest button ever

The visit to the mall was fun, even if we didn't do much shopping (which, I'll be honest, was more fun for me).