Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Movie Review: Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931) directed by James Whale

For the two-hundredth anniversary of the publishing of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, I've decided to rewatch the classic movie and give it a review!

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with creating life through scientific means. Not just any life, either. He intends to create human life. He and his lackey Fritz (Dwight Frye, who made a delightful Renfield in Dracula) collect recently buried bodies and executed criminals to get the raw materials for a new human body. Fritz steals a brain from the university where Frankenstein used to study. Frankenstein's mentor, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan, who was Van Helsing in Dracula), still teaches there and is drawn in when Frankenstein's fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clark) needs help. Henry has been avoiding the wedding until he can complete his experiments, which are clearly driving him past the point of sanity. They go to the isolated watch tower which is Henry's laboratory, where he does indeed endow a sewn-together body with life. Frankenstein clearly hasn't thought beyond that point as his creation suffers in isolation and torment (Fritz really doesn't like him and makes that obvious). The scientists debate about what to do with the creature. Dr. Frankenstein has a breakdown and is taken home, where he recovers and prepares for marriage. Waldman stays behind to take care of (i.e. kill painlessly) the monster. Frankenstein's monster breaks out and terrorizes the countryside before coming to the village and ruining Henry and Elizabeth's wedding day.

The movie was a smash hit and is rightly considered one of the great horror movies ever created. The cast give great performances, especially Clive as the obsessed scientist and Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff's performance is especially effective since he portrays the innocence and minimal comprehension of a new-born person and the menace of a tortured soul who has known little other than inhuman treatment. His appearance is hideous but he reaches toward the light when he's finally taken out of shadows. He immediately embraces companionship with a young girl who doesn't freak out at his appearance and only wants someone to play with her. Their play ends tragically, and the monster knows something is wrong as he scrambles away through the underbrush. Karloff does a great job being at turns menacing and sympathetic.

James Whale's direction is close to perfect. Large and elaborate sets (the laboratory, Frankenstein's home, the town-wide celebration of the wedding, and even the opening cemetery scene) allow the camera to wander through, focusing on details and giving wider views. The action never gets lost and a lot of plot and theme is fit into seventy minutes of film time. The really horrific moments are ameliorated by comic relief in subsequent scenes. The science is a bit iffy but the movie is really about life and death, not about technical details. And it's about the horrifying consequences of trying to play God with human life.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Book Review: Wolverine by C. Claremont et al.

Wolverine written by Chris Claremont, penciled by Frank Miller and Paul Smith, and inked by Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek

This graphic novel collects the early 1980s limited series Wolverine (four issues) and two follow-up issues from Uncanny X-Men. The story follows Wolverine as he goes to Japan to find the love of his life, Mariko Yashida. She has mysteriously cut off contact with Wolverine and has returned to her family home. Turns out she's been given in marriage by her father, a wealthy and well-connect man who incurred some sort of debt, to some jerk who treats her poorly. Wolverine has more than a culture clash when he tries to find out why Mariko is choosing duty and honor over him.

The plot is more complicated than the average comic book. In the brief introduction, Chris Claremont  describes how he and artist Frank Miller discussed Wolverine as a character and how they'd like to see him develop from the berserker killer into something different--maybe better, maybe worse. They wanted him to have a character-altering experience. This book does a great job with that. Wolverine is more thoughtful and set in contrast to another character, Yukio, a female assassin who lives life to its fullest because she might die at any minute. She's vicious and feral like Wolverine. Wolverine realizes he needs to be more if he's going to be worthy enough to marry Mariko.

The story is very well-told, with good action and nice twists. Wolverine is given more depth and humanity without turning him into a sappy, angst-ridden hero. He becomes a more three-dimensional character and, if possible, more beloved by the fans.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Webelos-O-Ree 2018

My older son and I went to the National Pike District Webelos-O-Ree at the Baltimore Area Council's campground north of Charm City (so far north, it's almost in Pennsylvania!). We arrived Friday night, before all the action. We were able to set up our tent and get some pizza for dinner with hot chocolate for dessert.

Broadcreek Campground HQ

Making hot chocolate in the dark

The next morning we started with a flag ceremony followed by a gun safety presentation at the shooting range. At the range, our Arrows of Light den picked up the map of stations and the scavenger hunt sheet. We'd use both throughout the day.

Flag ceremony

Getting the map and scavenger hunt

Our first station was a dutch oven cooking station that was fun but too early for any eating. The next station was open fire cooking, including a pig roasting on a spit! The scouts at that station also taught us about different kinds of burns.

Roasting a pig

Demonstrating a third degree burn with quesadillas

We followed our map to the next station which was actually a Webelos I station, not for the Arrows of Light. We didn't know so we practiced putting up tents. It worked out for us since one of our boys hadn't finished that requirement.

Pitching a tent

Almost done

Further on, we discovered the actual next station for the AOLs. The station had a few mental games or challenges, including one where the scouts had to get on the other side of a tarp without stepping off the tarp. I don't know what the solution was because the adults at the station were chatting us up about their Boy Scout troop.

Figuring out the puzzle

Lake-side view

Further along, the boys faced another challenge--scaling a wall where only three boys could be on top at a time. It took a while and some demonstrations by the Boy Scouts to get things working properly.

Demonstrating the start of scaling the wall

My son made it to the top!

Later, we were at the axe/saw station where my son used a bow saw, a hatchet, and an axe.

Bow saw work

Axe swinging

Landing with authority

After lunch, we went to a first aid station that included a house with some realistic-looking injuries. The boys did not actually apply first aid techniques, they just answered questions about what they should do with various injuries, including third-degree burns, axe injuries, and an arrow-pierced scout.


We visited two rope-themed stations. One of the stations was focused on making knots, including the classic square knot and the hitch knots every scout learns. The presentation ended with a tug-of-war between the cub scouts and the boy scouts.

Tug of war

The second rope station focused on lashing and had a see-saw made with bamboo and ropes. We ran into a previous den leader here so I was too busy chatting to take a picture.

We finally made it back to the shooting range. My son enjoyed it a lot and did well.

Getting pointers on pointing his rifle

On target

His target

The station after shooting was fire making. The Boy Scouts here had fine presentation skills. Building a fire was a fun group activity (even if previous stations had some overlap).

Learning about fire

The final station of the day involved a demonstration of cooking in box ovens and a big gaga ball pit. It was a great way to end the stations.

Cooking without gas

The end of the day had a flag-lowering ceremony and some instructions for the campfire. Our pack signed up for two skits.

Closing flag ceremony for the day

The campfire

That night had about ten minutes of fierce wind that blew our tent down. Unfortunately, the damage was not just knocking it over. One of the tent poles snapped off its attachment, requiring a ton of duct tape to make it through the rest of the night. Every couple of hours I woke up and pushed the tent pole back into place.

In the morning, we packed up pretty quickly when we woke up around 6 a.m. Having the tent literally falling down around you was strong motivation. Since we had everything packed up before breakfast, we decided to hit the road afterward. We didn't stick around for the flag ceremony or the camp-wide games.

It was a fun though cold weekend. We're sorry we didn't go last year.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Movie Review: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Dracula's Daughter (1936) directed by Lambert Hillyer

In this semi-sequel that's clearly out of continuity with Bela Lugosi's film, Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in Lugosi's film, though why the change from Van to Von happened is an unsolved mystery) starts off the story killing Dracula and Renfield in a modern-day London sewer.  He's busted by the London cops and faces a murder charge. Of course, he wants to tell the truth, i.e. that he destroyed a vampire who technically died five hundred years ago. The Scotland Yard folks don't think much of this defense and claim no English jury will think much of it either. Von Helsing calls on psychiatrist friend Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to defend him. Jeffrey reluctantly agrees. He has a new and interesting case on his hands--Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) needs help fighting off a special evil that has been dominating her will. Viewers know that Dracula has dominated her--she's stolen Dracula's corpse and ritually burned it in hope of releasing herself from the vampiric curse she inherited from the famous vampire. Yes, she is Dracula's daughter!

The movie sort of focuses on her attempt to free herself from the curse, but her attempts are often half-hearted. She's preys on the vulnerable but to distract herself, she works as an artist. When she sends out her Igor-like assistant to hire a new model, she winds up half-seducing the model before she gives in to her thirst and attacks the model. The Countess is the most conflicted character I've seen in a long time. Gloria Holden plays the character seriously and is effective at being creepy. The attempt to make her sympathetic and menacing at the same time doesn't work. I blame the writing, not the acting.

The film's lack of atmosphere and visual style emphasizes the mundaneness of the plot. The characters talk a bit about the relationship between psychiatry and folklore, but not nearly enough to be satisfying or thematically interesting. Either the Von-Helsing-faces-a-murder-charge plot or the Dracula's-daughter-wants-to-escape-the-curse plot would make an interesting film. The mixing of the two plots doesn't work well. Neither is developed enough to grab the viewers.

Only recommended for a Dracula completionist. I watched it as part of the Dracula Legacy collection.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book Review: Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia

Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia

Reiner Knizia is a prolific board and card game designer. This book covers dice games, focusing strictly on six-sided dice games. This little book covers nearly 150 games, sorted into various categories. I was hoping to find some interesting games, especially for playing at restaurants to keep the kids occupied while waiting for food to be delivered.

The book begins with simple luck games, often focused on getting one particular number or a set of numbers. Players have no tactical or strategic control, other than throwing the dice. The games are surprisingly diverse and engaging. Knizia often describes them as German pub games where the loser has to buy the next round.

The second set of games involve dice and counters (chips or matches are Knizia's recommendation; we might use sugar packets if playing at a restaurant). The games have a bit more complexity but the same amount of luck. We are going to try our Hungry Jack, which uses two dice, six counters per player, and a small playing board.

Hungry Jack playing board

Players take turns rolling the dice. If the number is seven, the counter goes in Jack's stomach and out of the game. For any other number, the player either puts a counter on the number if it is uncovered or takes the counter off the covered number. Players are eliminated when they run out of counters. Last player standing wins.

The next chapter covers the theory of dice. Knizia reviews the probabilities of rolling various numbers. A single die has equal chances for each number. Two dice are more likely to come to a total of seven. A total of two or eleven is much rarer. He describes how to calculate probabilities and has some helpful charts to explain the math behind the possibilities. The chapter is fairly short and straightforward, making it easier reading than you'd think.

The rest of the book goes over more complex games, including betting games, progression games, jeopardy games, category games, and bluffing games. The betting games section includes the casino favorite Craps, going into detail about the various bets that can be made, how the odds are calculated, and how the house always makes money. It's convinced me not to play Craps unless I am doing so just for entertainment value (something Knizia encourages).

Progression games involve throwing certain combinations before the player can score with other dice. Jeopardy games force players to get better scores or sets than previous players--games of one-upsmanship. Category games are like Yahtzee, where players need to strategically decide what dice to re-roll and which sets to go for. Knizia describes an amazingly large variety of games here. Bluffing games include a lot of poker-style variants.

The book is more interesting than I thought it would be. The technical/mathematical stuff is straightforward and easy to understand. The games have a huge variety, so it's easy to find something that would be fun to play.

Highly recommended--this should go on your shelf next to your copy of According to Hoyle, the classic text on card games.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book Review: Castle in the Stars Book Two by Alex Alice

Castle in the Stars Book Two: The Moon King by Alex Alice

See my review of Book One here.

The king of Bavaria is trapped in the aethership along with Archibald Dulac, his son Seraphin, the son's friend Sophie, and tagalong Hans. The ship has launched into the sky and is moving at a break-neck pace towards outer space. A key component of the engine is missing. The crew assumes the court spy who accidentally launched them took the component for his own country. The ship races beyond the atmosphere and soon they are headed to the moon. What will they find there?

The book continues the "alternate science" from Book One. They crash-land on the moon but it turns out okay since there is a breathable atmosphere when the sun is up. Repairs to the ship and coming up with a new component are the top priority for everyone except the King, who explores the moonscape with unbridled interest.

The action of the story picks up and the ending promises more story to come, though I feel like it may be dissatisfyingly slow in coming. Even so, the art is beautiful and the plot is compelling enough.

Slightly recommended.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Birthday Celebrating, Part II--The Escape Room!

A continuation of yesterpost...

In lieu of a party, my older son decided to go to an escape room. We have a couple of options in our area and decided to go with Breakout, part of a larger, nation-wide chain of escape rooms. This particular location is in an office park, so parking was easy on a Saturday afternoon.

Breakout in Columbia, Maryland

The lobby is fairly simple with a check-in desk, a water cooler, and t-shirt sales. My daughter took advantage of the water after taking advantage of the restroom.

Getting a drink

This location has several different rooms. We tried "Runaway Train." We were passengers on a trans-continental ride. The train was taken over by extremists who disabled the breaks and set a bomb in the locomotive. We started in the locomotive but were locked out from the control room. We had to solve a bunch of puzzles before we could enable the breaks and get everyone off the train.

The game was exciting. I was surprised by the number of red herrings and buried or obscure clues. We got through with a bunch of hints from the game master who was watching us via cameras. We managed to finish under the wire, at 55:38, an improvement from our previous escape room adventure in July, where we finished with barely a minute left. 

Our victory picture!

Our victory sticker

To celebrate afterwards, we went to a local bakery which just happened to have a cake sampling going on.

Oh, What a Cake!

Some of the cake samples

We made fun of the almond cake that had a warning listed on it.

No, really?!?

The store also had popcorn sales. We bought some for our preschooler, who didn't get to go to the escape room because it just wouldn't work well.

The afternoon was a lot of fun.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Birthday Celebrating, Part I--The Cake

My oldest son's birthday is in October. We celebrated by making a fancy cake and going to an escape room.

The cake was inspired by the cover of a cookbook, with a glossy frosting and chocolate ribbons.

Playing with chocolate

Getting the right consistancy

Mixing the glaze

Prepping milk and choc chip mixture for the glaze

The boiled milk and chips looks appetizing (or maybe like one of Jupiter's moons)

Adding the other chocolate

Glossy glaze finish

Prepping the ribbon was a whole other process that was fun to do.

Prepping the ribbon

Pasta machine--the ultimate flattener


Curly ribbons

Adding the ribbon

The cake didn't turn out "book cover perfect" but tasted great anyway.

Final product

A happy birthday boy!

More celebrating in the next post!

By the way, here is the cookbook cover...

I'm pretty sure this wasn't their first try.