Friday, February 21, 2020

Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) directed by John Frankenheimer

An American patrol unit is captured by the Chinese Army during the Korean War. The Chinese take them into Manchuria, where the Americans are given psychological conditioning. After three days, they are returned to Korea with no conscious memory of what happened, only a cover story that Lieutenant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) took out a Korean unit single-handedly and saved the patrol after they had gotten lost. Shaw returns to the United States and receives a Medal of Honor from the president. His mother (Angela Lansbury) and step-father (James Gregory) try to horn in on the photography at the ceremony. His step-father is Senator Iselin, a fire-brand anti-Communist who is campaigning for a higher office in the upcoming party convention. Raymond can't stand him or his ideology, which he calls Iselinism (clearly meant to stand for McCarthyism). Raymond takes a job in New York with a newspaper that opposes Iselin's ideology. Then Raymond gets a call from his mysterious Chinese friends, who bring him in for testing to make sure he's still ready to be used as a assassin.

Meanwhile, the captain of the patrol, Marko (Frank Sinatra) has had a hard time adjusting to State-side duties. He constantly has nightmares where he half remembers what happened in Manchuria, including Raymond killing two of his fellow soldiers. Marko knows Raymond was unpopular and a cold fish but also says, "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life." Marko's work in the military PR department is very stressful. We see him failing to manage a general who gets shouted down by Iselin who demands to know how many communists are in the department of defense. Marko's superior sends him to New York City on leave, where Marko looks up Raymond, only to find the mystery of the dream becoming more odd and sinister.

The story has many twists and turns. It's also soul-crushingly bleak. The black and white cinematography creates sweaty, oppressive environments, adding to the tension. Frankenheimer's camera angles are often very stylish and evocative. The visuals make the genuinely shocking moments all the worse. The ending is tough to watch in a heartbreaking way. The story comes to a satisfying if unhappy conclusion.

Harvey and Sinatra give great performances. Their characters are very odd but still have humanity and sympathy. Angela Lansbury also stands out as the manipulative and horrible mother. The rest of the cast is good, each with their own little quirks or oddities. Janet Leigh plays a proto-manic pixie dream girl--her character is a girlfriend for Marko, providing some comic relief and someone for him to bounce ideas off of.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Book Review: Scottish Myths and Legends by Rosemary Gray

Scottish Myths and Legends selected by Rosemary Gray

Scotland has had a long tradition of telling tales of fairies and the fantastic. This book gathers dozens of stories centered in Scotland. They are all entertaining, some more so than others. Only one or two are written with a strong Scottish accent, giving the reader a taste of that style without making the whole book that style. I enjoyed it a lot, especially the diversity of the tales.

The book starts with myths that explain the weather, the seasons, and the geography. Beira is the Queen of Winter whose grip on the weather is only broken in the spring, when she leaves to a sort of Fountain of Youth to become young again. She has many children who helped make the mountains and lochs of Scotland and have many adventures.

The book has an assortment of stories about fairies, merfolk, brownies, witches, and other mystical beings. Mermaids are quite different from what Americans are used to--the Scottish variety can shed an outer skin to visit the surface world and it is a great woe to whatever merperson who loses their skin because they cannot return to the land under the sea. Brownies are like fairies but are always helpful. They don't want praise for doing good deeds and will leave if they are given gifts or other tokens of gratitude. Ghosts and giants also populate the stories.

Mixed in are some familiar tales of young boys going on quests (eg., do three tasks to get the girl), royalty mixing with commoners, and a few nautical adventures. Fantastical elements may or may not be part of the story. These are a lot of fun too.

The stories have a great mixture of history, humor, and horror.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (1967 and 2019)

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (1967 and 2019) written by Ian Stuart Black and directed by John Davies (1967) and Charles Norton (2019)

The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) arrives at a futuristic Earth colony somewhere in space. The colony is idyllic in appearance. The workers are happy and well-fed with celebrations almost every night. Cheery music announces work shift changes. The only problem is the occasional worker who claims he sees creatures crawling around at night. A worker named Medok is just such a fellow. He's been assigned for "re-education" but flees imprisonment. When the TARDIS lands just outside the colony, Medok bumps into it. The Doctor and his companions (Jamie (Frazer Hines), Polly (Anneke Wills), and Ben (Michael Craze)) subdue Medok. His pursuers thank the Doctor for capturing the insane criminal. The Doctor isn't so sure Medok is crazy. They all go back to the colony where the strangers are feted by the locals. The Doctor is still curious about Medok and the overly Utopian nature of the colony. His investigation reveals some darker secrets.

This series of episodes is another case where the video has been lost but the audio survives. The BBC created animation based on production photos to pair with the audio. Since the animation is not interwoven with leftover footage from the Troughton series (which was filmed in black and white), this series is in color (or colour, I suppose). The animation isn't great but it gets the job done and the Macra creatures probably look better than they did in the original broadcast.

The story is a little slow, a reflection of the pacing back then. It's a standard Doctor Who plot and well executed. Troughton is delightful as always, even in animated form.

Recommended for classic Doctor Who fans, if you are okay with the animation replacement.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum, Baltimore

The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum is located just outside the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. The building is an inconspicuous brick building.

Frederick Douglas-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum

The park has several works of art dedicated to the two men. Frederick Douglass was born a slave and came from an Eastern Shore plantation to Baltimore in 1826 when he was eight. His master had a house in the city. Here, Douglass learned to read. He escaped north when he was twenty and became a passionate speaker against slavery. Isaac Myers was born a free man in 1835 and worked caulking ships when he was young. Later, he and fourteen other African-Americans bought a shipyard which they owned and operated for eighteen years. They called it the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company.

Tiles of the two men

A sculpture of Douglas

The museum inside the building is dedicated to the two men's lives and to information about the business (which was located near by). A lot of work went into maintaining ships. The yard not only shipped goods but refit the ships as well.

How to make a mast for a ship

Primer on ships back in the 1800s

A model ship

From one of the ships

Repair equipment and a ready worker

An upstairs room is divided in two sections, one dedicated to each man's life. We walked through the Douglass side first. A wall mural showed the plantation where Douglass grew up.

The farm

A map shows all the places where Douglass spent his time, including his home and church.

Fells Point map

Cases show various items from the mid-1800s.

Playing cards and a bio of Douglass

Abolitionist newspaper and toy trolley owned Douglass's grandchild

A painting shows the wedding of Frederick and Anna Douglass.

The Wedding

On the other side of the room, we tried out being a caulker like Isaac Myers. A loose rope of fiber was driven between the planks of the ship. Those seams were then covered with pitch, a sticky black pine tar paste. With both in place, a ship would be water-tight.

Working at the museum

A random 1800s stove

Myers was a member of the Prince Hall Masons, an African-American social group in Baltimore.

Masonic gavel and jewels

Nearby, a puzzle had my children figuring out which pieces of wood went into which part of the keel to make the skeleton of a boat.

Building a boat

A meeting of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company

In the center of the room is a canoe found in La Trappe Creek. The boat was discovered in Talbot County. That spot was also an encampment for slaves from the late 1700s to around 1830. Slave owners often did not give enough food to workers, forcing them to find other nourishment like fishing local streams. The boat might also have been used for visiting other slave camps when families were separated by distances too long to walk.

La Trappe Creek Canoe

Other items, like a pipe, a cup, and a toothbrush were found in the area.

More stuff

The museum is not too large and easy to explore in an hour or so. The building also has classrooms and rental space for events. The view of the harbor is nice and the neighborhood (Fells Point) has an old feel to it. It's just another charming part of Charm City.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Book Review: The Umbrella Academy Vol. 1 by G. Way et al.

The Umbrella Academy Volume 1: Apocalypse Suite story by Gerard Way, art by Gabriel Ba, and colors by Dave Stewart

A freak incident has forty-three children born at the exact same time across the world, mostly to single women who were not pregnant. Seven of those children were adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a famous and wealthy inventor. Six of those children show extraordinary powers. He helps the children develop their powers at his Umbrella Academy. Ten years later, they are a band of heroes who help to avert the end of the world. One emergency they stop is an insane Eiffel Tower, which starts tossing people off of itself. The story picks up again with the death of Hargreeves many years later. By this point, the team is broken up and scattered across the Earth (except for Spaceboy, who has been working on the moon). They come together for the funeral and are forced together to face a new threat. The one child who seemingly didn't have any powers (other than playing the violin) has been recruited by a doomsday orchestra that is ready to destroy the world with a special piece of music, the eponymous Apocalypse Suite.

The story is extremely quirky with a creative visual style. The author was clearly bursting with ideas. Unfortunately, the storytelling is very choppy and a bit hard to follow. Each child's powers are shown only through action and it is difficult to sort out who does which thing. Other than being highly original, this book is not very satisfying. I can see how its creativity made it popular and I will try the next volume, but my expectations are a lot lower.

Slightly recommended.

UPDATE: I just read the second story and it has the same "throw in everything I can think of" feeling that I found so unsatisfying in the first story. So I am not going to read volume 3. I still might try the television show.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Movie Review: Yesterday (2019)

Yesterday (2019) directed by Danny Boyle

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling songwriter and singer. He plays the pubs and street corners of small town England and can't get noticed. His manager Ellie (Lily James) is a grade-school maths teacher who drives him to gigs and believes in him and his music. One night as he is biking home from a gig (he's about at rock bottom), a world-wide blackout happens and Jack is hit by a bus in the darkness. He loses his beard and some teeth but soon discovers that the world has lost something much more significant--the Beatles! No one remembers the Beatles or their songs and even the internet has no information. Once Jack figures out this is not elaborate practical joke, he sings the Fab Four's songs and claims them as his own. He gets noticed very quickly and is soon swept up into the professional music world. Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran) hires Jack as an opening act. As soon as Ed's manager (Kate McKinnon) hears Jack, she works to turn him into a pop sensation. Jack agrees which means he has to leave Ellie and his other friends behind. Is it worth it for a life that is a lie?

The movie starts off wonderfully. Jack and Ellie are charming and the wacky "no Beatles" premise creates interesting possibilities and dynamics. Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis (of Love Actually fame) do a brilliant job capturing the magic of Beatles songs and the hollowness of the corporate music industry. The movie is a bit predictable and the ending is a little too conventional to be great. I was expecting something more for the finale but they seem to have run out of creative ideas. The film is nine-tenths entertaining, which is great by modern standards.


Thursday, February 13, 2020

National Museum of American History, Part II

A continuation of yesterpost...

The American Enterprise exhibit showcases inventions and advertisements from the past 200+ years of American history (though not everything is from America!).

Ads outside the exhibit

Seatbelt-safety ads featuring talking crash test dummies won awards!

One display shows how American products are adapted for other cultures or by other cultures. McDonalds has franchises everywhere, including Japan.

Japanese McDs!

A Turkish food maker decided to take on Coca-Cola with their own cola that appealed to "positive nationalism." Turkey must have some better local beverage than soda, right?

Which would you drink?

Home computers became popular in the late 1970s when microprocessor became small enough and cheap enough to be affordable. The museum has an Altair 8800 and a TRS-80, along with a Superman comic touting the value of computers!

Early computers

I found another display of kitchen devices featuring a refrigerator.

Kitchen items

A tractor

Items on display go all the way back to Eli Whitney's cotton gin, an engine that enabled growers to get the seeds out of cotton easily, making the crop much more profitable.

Cotton gin

I took our youngest into the Wonderplace, an interactive exhibit aimed at preschoolers up to first graders. He enjoyed exploring and using his imagination.


Switches and knobs

Building a treehouse

Treehouse with farm

Cooking in the play kitchen

Toy tractors in the kitchen

We walked through the On the Water exhibit and the America on the Move exhibit. The kids were getting hungry, so we didn't see too much. The exhibit focuses on vehicles used in the past 200 or so years.

A model ship

A full-size locomotive 

A stuck car

A fancier car

Boats from New York harbor

On our way to the basement cafeteria for lunch, we found a Lego Statue of Liberty! The replica is nine feet, five and a half inches tall. The actual statue is 151.1 feet tall. It was shipped to the United States in 350 pieces that were put together over seven months. The Lego statues has approximately 25,375 pieces and took 292 hours to construct.

Lego Liberty

After lunch, we went upstairs to see more items. I was surprise to see Felicia Day's costume from her web series The Guild. The show was a spoof of The Office with the co-workers being people who play an online clone of World of Warcraft. They are all members of a guild within the game but they meet each other in real life, causing comedic situations.

The Guild costume

An upstairs exhibit has a display of musical instruments. One side display shows various instruments used by jazz musicians. Another has a set of stringed instruments crafted by Stradivarius.

Jazz instruments

Stradivarious instruments

The big draw on the third floor is a pair of the ruby slippers from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The display shows stills from the movie and how the museum has preserved the pair of slippers they have.

Scenes from the movie

Working on the shoes

This display

The filmmakers had several different pairs of slippers made and this particular pair is a mismatched set. The display challenges visitors to find difference between the two but the only difference I saw was the bows were a little different.

The museum has a lot of other exhibits. We only saw about half and may go back again someday.