Friday, September 28, 2018

Movie Review: The Ghost Ship (1943)

The Ghost Ship (1943) directed by Mark Robson

Fresh from school, Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) signs on as third officer on the Altair, a cargo ship. The captain, Will Stone (Richard Dix), takes an immediate liking to Tom, seeing him as a younger version of himself. Both are popular with the crew, though most of the crew are new. Captain Stone shares some odd theories about authority, especially his wide-ranging authority as ship's captain. Tom starts to worry as small events reveal the crumbling sanity of the captain. The situation gets worse when Tom confronts the captain, who shows his true nature. The rest of the crew don't know all the details that Tom does, so they side with the captain. Tom becomes more isolated and vulnerable as the ship sails on. Soon enough, he is fearing for his life.

The movie is particularly effective because of Dix's performance as the captain and how well-written his character is. At first, he seems reasonable and genial, with only hints of oddness. And he does at times try to fight against going crazy, but it's a losing fight. Tom's slow realization is rational and makes sense to viewers. The crew's isolation of Tom also makes sense due to their lack of information that Tom has. The only odd element is the title, which hints at a supernatural presence that is just not there. Famously, producer Val Lewton was often given a title and then expected to come up with a movie based on that. This movie not only had the random title, but also a hand-me-down set from RKO's big-budget feature Pacific Liner. Lewton makes good use of the sets if not the title.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney

Fourth Doctor Tom Baker travels to Victorian England with companion Leela, who has to wear modest Victorian dress rather than her primitive leather skins. The Doctor himself dons a deerstalker hat and cape (a nod to Sherlock Holmes) as they investigate a series of disappearances of young women. They work a bit with the police but mostly with the coroner. They aren't up against Jack the Ripper--instead they face the minions of Weng-Chiang, a Chinese god. To be honest, he isn't much of a god. His lair is in the sewers underneath a theater. At the theater, Li H'Sen Chang (John Bennett) performs a magic act with his creepy dummy Mister Sin. Chiang has been given magic powers by Weng-Chiang and the doll is really a homunculus. The two serve the so-called god, who is looking for a lost cabinet that will restore his power. The cabinet is actually at the coroner's home.

The story has a lot going for it. The plot moves along at a good pace and information is dealt out episode by episode. The sets are great. The theater is an actual theater; the sewers look like sewers and not a stage-set; the coroner's home is full of knickknacks and detail. The actors are very good, especially the coroner (Trevor Baxter) who is the classic English Victorian gentleman and the theater owner (Christopher Benjamin) who is a P.T. Barnum-esque delight. Leela's primitive instincts make for great comic relief and good action.

The only drawbacks are two. First, the sewers are guarded by a giant rat, which is fairly unconvincing-looking. It's a big suit where just the mouth moves--the classic rubbishy Doctor Who baddie. Second, John Bennett gives a good performance as Li H'sen Chang, but to contemporary eyes the make-up looks too much like a white guy made Chinese. And his dialogue and accent sound like those old Charlie Chan movies. It didn't bother me that much since I understand that's the way things were done back then but more sensitive viewers may take offense.


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

USS Torsk, Baltimore

One of the Historic Ships in Baltimore is a submarine, the USS Torsk.

USS Torsk, Baltimore Harbor

The Torsk was commissioned in December 1944 and was deployed to the Pacific from April to August 1945. It torpedoed a Japanese freighter and two coastal defense frigates before the war ended. After the war, the sub served as a training boat at the New London, Connecticut, Navy Submarine School. It also served as an active vessel in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. It received commendations for service during the Lebanon Crisis in 1960 and the Cuban Blockade in 1962. The Torsk was decommissioned in 1968 and came to Baltimore in 1972 to be a museum and a memorial.

Gangway onto the sub

We started our tour climbing down to the aft torpedo room, following the instruction from the previous ship to have an adult go first on the steep stairs.

Kids coming down

We were surprised to see a bunk on top of the torpedoes. Later we learned that every last inch of space is used on a submarine, so lots of spots had bunks or food storage.

Torpedoes with a bunk above

Where they fired the torpedoes

Further on, we came to the Maneuvering Room, which showed how subs dive and surface. My kids were more interested in playing with the equipment than reading, so I took a picture to study later.

Diving and surfacing primer

Maneuvering room

At the controls

Ready to spin the wheel

Speed controls

Ready to throw another switch

Looking down the main hallway

The bunks on the boat are packed in. The After Battery Compartment (so named for the batteries that were beneath the room) had bunks for 36 of the 80-man crew. Bunks are either coffin bunks or pipe bunks. Coffin bunks have a small space beneath the mattress to store personal items; pipe bunks are half pipes attached by chains to the hull. Sailors had lockers against the hull to store their items.


Checking out the storage

Checking out the sleeping conditions

A seal

The crewmen's mess and kitchen are located nearby.

Crew dining

Coffee maker

Crew kitchen

In the middle of the boat are the radio room and the engine room.

Radio room

Too many switches to choose from!

More mysterious systems

The captain had his own quarters with a lot of non-personal items that he would use to perform his duties.

Desk with many rubber stamps

Captain's bunk

Toilet facilities

The officers had a Wardroom which served both as dining area and recreational area. Formal dishes and silver are standard in the United States Navy.

Officers' Wardroom

A separate kitchen too!

The final part of the boat was the forward torpedo room which was much the same as the aft.

Forward torpedo room

Standing by

The next ship will be the USS Taney...

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Book Review: Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk is a swashbuckling adventurer clearly patterned after Indiana Jones. She has swords rather than a bullwhip, but otherwise she has chases and fights and follows clues in search of fabulous historical artifacts and locations. She even has a jealous French adversary. And her inter-country travels are shown on a yellowed map with a dotted red line, just like Indy.

In this story, she and her faithful companion Selim run into Laurens Van Hassel, a Belgian journalist who winds up chronicling her adventure. They search for the Third Pillar of Hercules, a legendary city built and lost in times immemorial. The adventure takes them from Turkey to Algeria back to Turkey and Gibraltar, with plenty of action (that Van Hassel exaggerates in his letters back to the paper, though the adventures don't really need it).

I enjoyed the story a lot. The visual style is fun and Delilah is an intelligent and dedicated person. There's no romance and hardly any blood, so the book is kid-friendly, too. This volume is the third book in the series. I will definitely seek out the first two.

Highly recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Book Review: Horror Noir by Paul Meehan

Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet by Paul Meehan

Author Paul Meehan draws an uncontroversial but fascinating connection between horror films and film noir. The noir genre grew up in America with the pre-World War II departure of many German film makers (like Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger, among others) who were steeped in the German Expressionist movement. Expressionism used high contrast and often surreal images to create a feeling of uneasiness or dread. The style fit naturally to horror films and was used to great effect in Universal's series of classic monster films--Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, et al. The supernatural elements (vampires, curses, magic) slowly diminished, especially with the series of low-budget but highly influential B-movies produced by Val Lewton, many directed by French emigre Jacques Tourneur. Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie clearly have supernatural elements but Tourneur would go on to more great acclaim with Out of the Past, which has no supernatural elements whatsoever.

Film noir emerged as a distinct genre especially in the post-WWII era, when an air of cynicism, dread, and despair filtered into the gangster and crime drama films, first seen in WWII-era films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The genre's style was well suited to Gothic stories like Jane Eyre or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and modern versions like Rebecca. Alfred Hitchcock is mentioned early and often, even getting his own chapter that looks more deeply at Vertigo and Psycho.

Noir saw a demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The style still came out in the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes using supernatural elements, as in Rosemary's Baby or Eyes of Laura Mars, sometimes not, as in Chinatown or Peeping Tom. Horror went its own way after Psycho, with many slasher films. A serial killer craze was started in the 1990s by The Silence of the Lambs, mixing the police procedural elements of noir with seemingly superhuman killers who can barely be stopped.

The book provides an interesting history of the two genres and how they cross over. The Hitchcock and Lewton chapters were favorites. A very interesting chapter details the relationship between detective and supernatural thriller radio shows from the 1930s and 1940s and the movies they inspired that fit the horror-noir bill. The book is a very enjoyable read if you are interested in either or both genres.


Friday, September 21, 2018

Movie Review: The Leopard Man (1943)

The Leopard Man (1943) directed by Jacques Tourneur

A publicity stunt for a night club performer goes horribly awry! Spanish dancer with castanets Clo-Clo (Margo) has her act interrupted by rival Kiki (Jean Brooks) when she brings in a leopard on a leash. The audience is on edge and Clo-Clo decides to scare the cat by clicking her castanets at it. The beast escapes into the small New Mexico town, but not before clawing a waiter. Panic starts to spread as the cat-hunt starts. Other locals are unaware, like Teresa Delgado, who is sent out to buy cornmeal. The local shop is closed so she has to cross town. On her way back, she crosses paths with the leopard and is chased home, dying on her own doorstep. Kiki's publicist and boyfriend Jerry (Dennis O'Keefe--yeah, he's the guy who brought the leopard into the picture) feels guilty and reluctantly helps out in the search, especially since he owes $225 to the cat's owner. Things go from bad to worse when another young woman is killed and Jerry starts to suspect that the killer may be human.

The movie is full of pros and cons. The visual style is excellent, with many scenes of stalking and discussions of fate, cat nature, and personal culpability. The "less is more" style of Val Lewton's productions is used to full effect. Teresa's death happens on the other side of a door with only her screams and other sound effects hinting at what's happening...until the blood comes under the door. On the other hand, the plot almost literally wanders around as new characters are introduced when another character walks by their window. New sets of people show up and viewers are left wondering what they have to do with the story. While these shifts make for intriguing moments, they also rob the main characters of time for character development and make the narrative choppy. The film also hints at supernatural elements but then abandons that motif at the end for a straightforward psychological drama.

Mildly recommended.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

One Ingredient Challenge: Hummus

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.

Finding an especially good hummus is not as easy as you might think. Having bookmarked a hummus recipe from Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, we decided to make our own to see how it came out. The book is all about various foods that can be made at home and whether it is cheaper to make or buy those foods. We've had plenty of success before with the book (though vanilla bean prices have gone up, making the store-bought vanilla extract more cost-effective) and were hoping for another positive outcome.

The recipe starts with chick peas,which we soaked overnight.

Soaking peas

The next day, we prepped other ingredients, like lemon zest and lemon juice.

Zesting a lemon

Juicing a lemon

Blending the ingredients was a fun process for our daughter.

Mixing ingredients in our little food processor

Adding tahini

The final batch was a lot of humus. The taste test worked out very well!

Testing the final product


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book Review: DC Comics: Bombshells Vol. 1 by M. Bennett et al.

DC Comics: Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted written by Marguerite Bennett and art by Marguerite Sauvage and others

The DC universe is reimagined in a World War II setting. While all the men are off fighting World War II, the women have to rise to the occasion and take on typical male jobs. For Kate Kane, that means working her day job as a baseball player for the Gotham Knights and her night job as Batwoman, crime fighter. The first thing we see her do is stop the mugger before he kills Thomas Wayne, so Bruce Wayne becoming Batman is definitely out of the picture.

Meanwhile, step-sisters Kara and Kortni join the Night Witches, a Soviet all-female air force. The sisters have kept their superpowers secret until now. An accident during training forces them to reveal their superhuman abilities. At first, the Soviets think they are traitors but then use them as propaganda--the Supergirl and the Stargirl. They have an uneasy relationship with their Soviet commanders, eventually fleeing the USSR.

Also meanwhile, U.S. spy Steve Trevor crashes somewhere in the Mediterranean, discovering Themyscira, home of Wonder Woman. She pretty quickly decides to leave the island and join the war effort. She's helped by Mera, second daughter of the king of the sea, so she has no royal commitments to hold her back.

Everyone is recruited by Commander Amanda Waller, who plans to end the war by putting together a super-group--The Bombshells. Which is good, because the Nazis have the Joker's Daughter on their side. She is summoning supernatural zombie forces to the side of evil.

For all the creative reimaging going on, I found the book disappointing. The focus for Batwoman was on her lesbian relationship with the Gotham City detective who deals with her superhero persona regularly (which is certainly a conflict of interest, among other problems!). She's sent to be a spy in Europe though she does not have any real spy skills. The plot line with Supergirl and Stargirl does not make any sense at all. Wonder Woman's story follows the usual line with the interesting addition of Mera (who is Aquaman's bride in the regular continuity) as her pal. The only male characters to show up are Alexander Luthor, the Luthorcorp businessman trying to squeeze as much money as he can out of the war, and John Constantine, who gets turned into a talking rabbit and winds up as Zatanna's sidekick (which is pretty funny). She's stuck working for the Joker's Daughter but I imagine Zatanna will betray her or run away soon.

Overall, not recommended--I will not keep reading this series.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

US Lightship Chesapeake, Baltimore

The Lightship Chesapeake is one of the four ships featured in the Historic Ships in Baltimore. The downtown harbor is a crowded place, so the ship is not the easiest to spot.

The Chesapeake hiding in the harbor near the Aquarium

Lightships wers used as a floating lighthouses. The US Lighthouse Service used such ships from 1820 to 1939, when the US Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service. The Coast Guard used them until 1983. The ships served as beacons in dangerous waters where a lighthouse couldn't be built. These ships were replaced by lighthouses or buoys when the technology became available.

The Chesapeake served in the Chesapeake Bay. It was built in 1930 and served in the bay until 1971. After decommissioning, the ship was given to the National Parks Service which opened it to the public at a Potomac River berth until 1982. Then it was loaned to the City of Baltimore and became part of the Historic Ships in Baltimore.

Ready to visit the Chesapeake

Close up

Going up the gangway

On board

The ship was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989 and is quite fun to tour.

NPS plaque

Diagram of the ship

Like most ships, space is at a premium, so the stairways are steep. The ticket taker said adults should go first and guide younger visitors down. I dutifully went first.

The way down

The ship has narrow passageways that lead into larger rooms. The first room we found was the Officers Wardroom. It looked very comfy, with a large table and a plush couch at the back. We couldn't sit on the couch since it still has original upholstery. It served as the officers' mess or dining area.

Officers Wardroom

The ship typically had a crew of seventeen, with individual rooms for the officers and two-man staterooms for the regular sailors.

Officer's room

Crew's quarters

The ship has plenty of historical information on display. I enjoyed reading what I could as the kids looked at what caught their interest.

History of the boat

I saw a porthole with a view of the harbor and downtown Baltimore.


View with nose pressed up against the porthole

The engine room was off-limits to visitors but we could peek in and see the heavy equipment and some of the diesel-electric propulsion plant (including a nifty diagram) which was state-of-the-art back in the day.

Engine room

Engine design

Further back in the ship is the crew's mess with the kitchen.

Messing around in the mess hall

The on-board kitchen

The ship had two anchors, the main and a spare, to keep it on location. In 1936 and 1962, it had to ride out hurricanes powerful enough to break the anchor chain, requiring the crew to drop the spare anchor and run full ahead into the winds to stay on station.

The anchor windlass

I was less fastidious about the "adults first" rule when it came to going up stairs.

Climbing up to the pilothouse

The kids enjoyed pretending to steer, check the radar, and the compass in the pilothouse.

Turning the big wheel

Doing a Spock impression

Checking the compass bearings

The pilothouse seen from below

The harbor looks nice from the deck of the Chesapeake.


Federal Hill

Ship's bell

Our next visit was to the USS Torsk, a World War II submarine! Coming to the blog soon...