Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Book Review: This is Orson Welles by Orson Wells and Peter Bogdanovich

This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Film director Peter Bogdanovich conducted several interviews with Orson Welles from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The plan was to publish the transcripts as an autobiography. The project sat on the back burner for them and the book was only published in 1992, seven years after Welles' death. Bogdanovich turned the project over to an editor to complete. The book includes an in-depth chronology of Welles' career in radio, theater, and film, along with an appendix summing up the cuts and changes to The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles's film just after Citizen Kane.

The interviews follow Welles' career mostly in chronological order with a focus on the movies on which he worked. Welles has plenty of fun stories about productions and heartbreaking tales of conflicts with studios. Welles made a big splash in radio with The Shadow and The War of the Worlds broadcast. He came to Hollywood with a lot of ambition and naivety. He had full artistic control over Citizen Kane, resulting in a challenging masterpiece that was divisive in Hollywood. He was working on a special project in South America while Ambersons was being re-edited by the studio. The bad blood over its handling sent Welles out of the studio system as a film maker. He had to scramble to find financing for his projects, often acting in other films or courting foreign investors to get the money he needed. The interviews end discussing Touch of Evil (1958), though they do chat about his work in the 1960s and 70s throughout the book.

Bogdanovich is clearly a good friend and admirer of Welles, so he never presses too hard on difficult subjects (though Welles does occasionally complain about returning to the same topics, like Citizen Kane). Welles lives up to his reputation for bon homie and a certain fullness of himself. He's a talented guy and he knows it. He loves the craft of filmmaking (and art in general) and holds to his own principles and opinions. He's an interesting fellow though not entirely sympathetic. I had the impression that his side of the story was only one side and a lot wasn't said about the other side of the story.

I didn't read through his career or the Ambersons material, so I can't comment on those. I found the book a bit long (322 pages of interviews, another 210 of unread supplementary material) and a bit one-sided. If you're a Welles fan it's worth reading once.

Monday, February 27, 2017

National Postal Museum, Washington D.C.

The National Postal Museum is one of the many Smithsonian Museums in the nation's capital. It is very near the Capitol Building and built in the same classical architectural style as many of the District of Columbia's buildings.

National Postal Museum

The interior is also quite impressive. Most of the exhibits are downstairs from the main hall.

Main Hall

Downstairs (or escalators, as the case may be)

One of the first statues visitors see is of Owney the Dog, a lovable little pooch who is known as the mascot of the railway mail service. He wandered onto a railway car and road all over the United States back in the 1890s. Owney was considered good luck since he was never in a train wreck. He had lots of tags put on him from various post offices throughout the country.

Owney the Mail Dog

A replica rail car lets visitors try out their skills at sorting mail.

Where does it go?

Sorting it out

More of the rail car

Other modes of transporting mail are on display, representing the pre-Owney and post-Owney eras.

Early 1800s transport

Wait, I do want to be in the picture

The display stagecoach

The interactive stage coach

Not a happy passenger

The modern truck

In the cab of a modern trailer

I need a deep focus lens

In the Behind the Badge exhibit, the kids had the chance to practice their investigative skills to detect various forms of mail fraud and crime.

The "badges" part of the exhibit

Looking for evidence at the crime scene

Checking the mail for fraud and threatening letters

They also learned the often colorful history of the postal investigators. The agency was the first to use Tommy guns. Some of the crimes they investigated were rather ingenious. For example, one scheme had a man airmailing himself across the country in a trunk. On the plane, he'd get out of the trunk and rifle through the other mail, stealing valuables. He'd get back in the trunk and get delivered to his friends!

Tommy gun!

Jack in the box airmail scheme

Modern-day investigations

A small display showed the various movies about the postal investigation service, including one with Alan Ladd as an investigator helped out by nun!

Add this to the Netflix queue!

Another exhibit shows the development of the postal system from the early days through the addition of technology and ZIP codes to make the system faster and more accurate. We loved the interactive parts of the exhibit, especially the basketball-style pack sorting!

Diorama of developments (new trucks and uniforms, now in color!)

I'm sure the Post Office doesn't shoot baskets with our Amazon purchases

Trying a bar code scanner

The museum has various mailboxes from U.S. history and from foreign countries as well. We delighted in seeing old favorites from our European travels.

Domestic mailboxes

Foreign mail boxes

The upstairs exhibit includes information on stamp collecting as well as stamp design, including a "design your own stamp" station.

My daughter starts her collection

The museum is much more fun for kids than the name would imply and is definitely worth the visit. As a Smithsonian Museum, it's free which is nice when you have a family of five.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Review: Avatar The Last Airbender: North and South Part 2 by G. L. Yang et al.

Avatar The Last Airbender: North and South Part 2 written by Gene Luen Yang, art and cover by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Having avoided kidnapping by Southern Water Tribe separatists in Part 1, Katara and Sokka try to strike a balanced response to the Northern Water Tribe's activities. The Northerners are developing the south's infrastructure and social order. Katara is very cautious while Sokka is very enthusiastic. Their father Hakoda is romantically interested in one of the Northerners, causing more complications, especially as he is the newly elected head of the Southerners. The situation only becomes more tense when they find out that the Northerners have discovered a huge oil deposit and plan to exploit it for their own benefit. Can the recently arrived Avatar Aang help smooth over some pretty horrible developments?

I was very worried when the oil issue came up that the story would turn into an "oil bad, bad, BAD!!!!" political screed. Yang takes a more balanced approach, showing both sides as having both valid points and extreme, unhelpful attitudes that lead to horrible actions. The storytelling continues to amaze me and I look forward to the final volume of this story line.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Movie Review: The Visit (2015)

The Visit (2015) written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Teenage siblings Becca and Tyler go to visit their estranged grandparents in rural Pennsylvania. Their mom ran out on the grandparents when she was 19. She fell in love with an older man, the father of Becca and Tyler. He has since left for California with another woman. She'd like to go on vacation with her new boyfriend, so to give her a break, the kids agree to the visit. Becca is also an aspiring film maker. She brings her camera and plans to document their week getting to know their grandparents and hopefully find a way to reconcile them to her mom. It's a sweet idea. Unfortunately, the grandparents' behavior becomes more and more unsettling, leaving the children to doubt their safety in the middle of nowhere.

I was interested to see this since it was touted as Shyamalan's comeback movie. I did find parts of it tense and exciting but the "found footage documentary" style has been done quite a bit and I didn't see anything particularly new here, especially no solution to the "why are they still carrying cameras around?" problem towards the end. The unknown actors are all good in their parts and give their characters humanity. Shyamalan is good at writing smart kids and getting child actors to deliver good performances. I did care about the siblings but the situation is a little too familiar for really big scares or surprises.

Recommended for Shyamalan fans or if you haven't seen a bunch of "found footage" films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

TV Review: Santa Clarita Diet (2017)

Santa Clarita Diet (2017) created by Victor Fresco

Husband and wife real estate team Joel (Tim Olyphant) and Sheila (Drew Barrymore) are thrown for a loop when she dies but stays alive. They live in Santa Clarita, California, in a typical Hollywood American suburb. The neighbors are all well-to-do and run the range from nice to catty. Both next door neighbor men are in law enforcement, which is both weird and seemingly just for plot development contrivances. The next door neighbor son is a nerd. He is naturally helpful when they realize Sheila has turned into a zombie. Her main symptom is a taste for raw flesh. She also has a lack of inhibition and a lot of energy, making her behavior a bit unstable and enhancing her libido. After eating her first human, she has an insatiable urge for human flesh that raw beef and chicken won't satisfy. They have to find people who are evil and won't be missed in order to keep her fed and themselves out of custody.

The show is a comedy and I did laugh at least once in each episode, but the show has some problems. The gore is too realistic and off-putting to be funny, even though they try to make it comic. Comedy gore is not as easy as Sam Raimi makes it looks. The regular jokes are more miss than hit--for every time I laughed, there were at least two times when I thought to myself, "That was a joke at which they meant me to laugh." Weak jokes can be okay if stronger jokes earlier on set the right tone for the show, but a strong comic vibe just isn't there soon enough or strong enough to make the show funny throughout. Another problem is the many plot threads that are unresolved by the end. The final episode clearly anticipates a second season. Sadly, I am not interested in watching any more.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Grace Geocaching

We noticed a local church has four geocaches on its grounds. With some unseasonably warm weather in February, we went to find them. The caches were fun, but not as fun as the property. A big field behind the church has a playground, which was a big hit with our toddler.

Where's the toddler?

His favorite spot was the sand box, of which we didn't get any photos. My older son was happy to see a gaga ball pit.

Gaga ball pit with toddler and mommy in the distance

One of the geocaches was in the back of the field. as my older son and I headed across we discovered a scary animal.
Uhm, what's that?!?

Happily it turned out to be a fake, perhaps to scare away...someone. Not sure who...

Facing your fear

The cache was just downhill from a fun hillside slip and slide. Even with the unseasonably warm weather, it was still too cold to try it out (plus, it's not our church and we don't know the rules for the slide).
Top of the slide

Slide from below

The final cache was a fun find in some pine trees. My son found it before me which made him very happy.

Found the cache!

We discovered that we are up to 384 geocache finds--this may be the year we break into the 400s. Our toddler still isn't up to bushwhacking into remote caches, but these easier caches are good for him to come along.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Grade school histories in America are, when it comes to the American Revolution, all about how great George Washington was and what a terrible traitor Benedict Arnold was. This book delves into the history of the two men from 1776 to 1780, following their military campaigns as generals in the Continental Army. Author Nathaniel Philbrick draws an initial contrast between the two gentlemen. Washington struggled with defeats and outmaneuvering by General Howe in New York and New Jersey; he barely kept his army together. Arnold craftily fought by the Canadian border on land and on Lake Champlain; he kept the British from streaming down the Hudson and dividing the colonies in half. Both men were temperamental and ambitious but clearly Arnold was more successful.

Both men had to deal with a very difficult opponent--the Continental Congress. In 1776, spirits were running high but the new government had little else. They had no powers to tax the states' citizens, relying on whatever money and militia they could beg from each state. Often they resorted to printing more money, which just devalued the cash. The congress was also somewhat suspicious of a standing army, worried Washington or another ambitious general might try to make a military dictatorship of the new country. Plenty of generals and state leaders were more adept (and had more time) to play the political games necessary to influence congress. Washington slowly learned to play the long game and not be rattled by the interference of civic politicians in military matters. Arnold, by contrast, became more and more frustrated with the civic government.

On the military front, Washington learned to be daring but not reckless; battles like Trenton inspired the rebels to fight on even against the bad odds of defeating the British. Thanks to battlefield injuries, Arnold wound up as military governor of Philadelphia after the city was taken back from the British in 1778. He used his position to unfair advantage in an attempt to restore some of the wealth he had spent on the war. He also wanted to woo Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia socialite with sympathies for the British. He needed the ability to support her which was hard when he was passed over for promotions and Continental cash had little value.

Arnold began to falter more, coming to the conclusion that the best thing for the colonies would be to reunite with the British Empire. Thus he schemed to surrender West Point (then a major fortification keeping the Hudson River out of British hands and keeping the country united). He might have succeeded if not for the ill-luck that befell his British conspirator, General John Andre. On the way back to New York from West Point, he was captured by Americans who found the plans for West Point while searching him for valuables. Arnold managed to find out about the capture of Andre before Washington found out/ Washington was on his way to inspect West Point. Arnold managed to escape to New York and ever living infamy.

Philbrick's descriptions of the battles and conditions of the time are detailed and fascinating. I myself know very few details of the American Revolution and was glad to learn more. He seems to think that people will find shocking the back-biting and difficulties the army, and Washington in particular, faced. Other generals wanted to be in command and the congress was often the opposite of helpful. While I didn't know about those details, I hardly find them surprising.

I was surprised at the level of admiration Philbrick has for Arnold, who was a brilliant general. Philbrick credits his betrayal with reigniting the country's passion for independence. Without Arnold as the villain, the cause could have faded away. The true enemy was the average citizen who would satisfy their own comfort rather than sacrifice for their fellow Americans. Arnold's self-serving betrayal (he was going to get a lot of money if he succeeded) was a wake-up call to the Americans. The argument is interesting but I am unsure if it was THE thing that turned the revolution around.

The book is an interesting and detailed look at the history of the American Revolution through the eyes of George Washington and even more so through those of Benedict Arnold. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: Ultimate Spider-man vs. the Sinister 6 by J. Caramanga et al.

Ultimate Spider-man vs. the Sinister 6 adapted by Joe Caramanga from the television series written by Kevin Burke, Chris "Doc" Wyatt, and Jacob Semahn

Spider-man works with his web-slinging friends Agent Venom and Iron Spidey to take down Doctor Octopus. Since they are working for S.H.I.E.L.D., they bring Doc Ock to Nick Fury's helicarrier to lock him up. Unfortunately, that was part of Doc Ock's plan--he breaks out the other prisoners and promises anyone who can kill Spider-man a slot on his newly formed Sinister 6. If that wasn't bad enough, Hydra makes  the helicarrier their own base for their own nefarious purposes.

The book is based on the Ultimate Spider-man TV show, so the art is pretty much exactly like the show. I assume the plot is too. The adventures are fairly standard, with some fun quips and guest characters (like Doctor Strange). It's probably more enjoyable for kids than for grown-ups.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Movie Review: Signs (2002)

Signs (2002) written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former preacher living with his two children and his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) on the family farm some 45 miles from Philadelphia. His loss of faith is relatively recent--his wife died in a horrible car accident six months ago and Graham's trust in God completely vanished. Crop circles appear in the corn fields overnight. He thinks it's the work of vandals but very soon the television is reporting crop circles all over the globe, as well as other evidence of alien activity. Are they about to be invaded? Is this the end of the world?

The movie is a combination of an alien invasion thriller and an existential crisis for Graham. The alien invasion is exciting and tense, even though the story is told mostly through news coverage on television. Some aliens do show up in their area. The home siege at the end is particularly well executed, going for the "less is more" style famously used by The X-Files. The film also follows in the footsteps of The Twilight Zone, adding a more substantive story underneath the sci-fi trappings. Graham's loss of faith is just that--he doesn't believe God is the good and providential Person everyone assumes He is, otherwise why would He let a senseless accident rob him of his wife? Graham has taken the cross off his wall and won't waste another minute on prayer. He explains to his brother that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who take luck as a sign of someone higher up watching out for them and those who think luck is only circumstantial. The first people have a reason for hope when an alien invasion is looming. The second people have much more reason to fear. Graham puts himself in the second camp but clearly struggles with where he really stands and where his family and friends need him to be. That answer is what the movie is ultimately about.

Shyamalan is famous for his twist endings. The twist in the invasion story is a bit unbelievable though it is crafted in support of the twist in existential crisis story. I found the ending moving if not great and do heartily recommend the movie. It's not Shyamalan's best work but it is very good, like the best of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.

I was inspired to rewatch this because Julie and Scott discussed the film on A Good Story is Hard to Find. They give the usual excellent commentary and insights.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Moonbase (1967)

Doctor Who: The Moonbase (1967) written by Kit Pedler and directed by Morris Barry

Second Doctor Patrick Troughton tries to land the TARDIS on Mars, so naturally they show up on Earth's moon. The year is AD 2070 and the Earth's weather is run from a moon base near where the Doctor and companions land. The base has a virus or plague that is slowly incapacitating the workers (who are all scientists). Blame falls on the newcomers though the real problem turns out to be an infestation of Cybermen!

For two of the four episodes, the video has been lost. Animations were created to fill in for episodes one and three, much like for the Reign of Terror DVD. The animations don't really capture the amazing expressiveness of Troughton's face, though otherwise they match the visual style of the story well enough. The audio is the usual high-quality sound effects from the BBC. The Cybermen are a classic and enjoyable set of villains--they aren't shouty and over-the-top like others but still have plenty of menace. Seeing the female companion Polly asked to make coffee is nicely balanced with her coming up with a chemical concoction to take out the Cybermen. She's not just a pretty face who screams and passes out when the Cybermen show up (though she does do that too).

Recommended with the caveat that it's half-animated which may be a turn off for some viewers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Blue and Gold Dinner 2017

My son's Cub Scout pack had their Blue and Gold Dinner. Part of the celebration was auctioning off Father-Son cakes. The theme of the dinner was Pokemon, so we decided to combine Scouting and Pokemon on the cake. We needed to make some characters for the top of the cake. A video on YouTube taught us an easy way to make Charmander, a small dragon-like creature. We started with some red fondant.

Making the monsters!

We had some help from Mommy and sister to get the bellies and the feet (which are marzipan, to make a little variety).

Body with belly, legs, and arms

The video has a complicated (though great looking) way to make the flame for Charmander's tail. We passed on making the flames since we were making small characters, not a cake topper like in the video.

We didn't have the fancy carving tool either

The monsters came out well.

For the gaga ball pit, we bought some chocolate graham cracker sticks. Stacking the walls two sticks high made a good looking pit. We sprinkled in some cinnamon sugar for dirt.

Assembling the gaga ball pit

Add dirt

The final product was very satisfying for us.

Charmanders in!

With some nice piping

Overhead shot

The dinner itself was more relaxed than in previous years. It was just a dinner with the monthly awards for the boys. The bridging ceremony for the Arrows of Light (the Webelos who are moving on to Boy Scout Troops) was more elaborate, which was fun to see. We had a great time and came home with a different cake than the one we brought.

My son getting his monthly patches/belt loops from the Cubmaster