Friday, February 28, 2020

Movie Review: The Dead Don't Die (2019)

The Dead Don't Die (2019) written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

The apocalypse comes to Centerville when polar oil fracking causes a shift in the axis of the Earth, altering the amount of daylight and causing the dead to rise from their graves. Oh, and animals start acting weird too. Police Chief Cliff Robertson (played by Bill Murray, not by Cliff Robertson) rides around town observing the  meltdown of his small town society. Two zombies kill the late night staff at the local diner. The zombies are more excited to drink the coffee there than eat the people. Most of the zombies in the film go back to what they loved best in life, a trope that's been used many times before in zombie films. Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) is well aware that things are going to turn out badly though people don't believe him. He knows zombies are causing the trouble but it isn't till the whole graveyard turns out that everyone believes him. Many different little pockets of people try to hold out, but will anyone be safe?

The movie is meant to be a comedy but the jokes just don't work very well. Tilda Swinton plays a quirky mortician called Zelda Winston; Rosie Perez plays a TV reporter named Posie Juarez. That's sort of funny but not very clever. A lot of the other humor is more like social commentary than laugh out loud comedy. Most of the performances are very flat and emotionless, as if the actors are bored to be in a zombie movie. Some characters, like the kids from the juvenile detention facility, seem to be in the movie to pad out the running time--they don't really have anything to do with other characters and provide very little social commentary or humor. The whole movie struggles to be funny. Creating an unfunny comedy with Bill Murray is not the sort of achievement to brag about.

The special effects are a weird mixture. The zombies-eating-people moments are gruesome and realistic looking. The people-killing-zombies moments look like the special effects from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, i.e. bloodless, dusty, and twenty years ago. The moon has a strange glow that also looks like a home-generated special effect.

This movie really has nothing to recommend it.

Not recommended.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Book Review: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Major Impossible by Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Major Impossible by Nathan Hale

John Wesley Powell was the son of an abolitionist preacher. John grew up more interested in science than preaching. He served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, during which he lost his right arm. He became an explorer after the war. He went out west and in 1869 formed the Colorado River Exploring Expedition. He had ten men and four boats that went down the Colorado River through what is now known as the Grand Canyon. The river adventure is the main story; his earlier life and military service make up a secondary story. Both stories are interesting and he is a little known character from American history. As usual, Hale does a great job blending historical accuracy with some good comedy, making this yet another fun read.


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Plans for Lent 2020

It's Ash Wednesday again, a day "of fasting and abstinence," as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2043.  Fasting is eating much less food than you normally would; abstinence in this context is not eating meat. The point of this penance is not to punish yourself. It's to "acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart." Rather than being led around by our appetites, we practice saying "no" to them so that we are free to focus on other, more important things. Eating food is important but not the most important thing in our lives. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the two prescribed days for fast and abstinence in America, with the Fridays in Lent only requiring abstinence. So the obligation is not so great. Often, people add other days for themselves or make other sacrifices, the classical "giving up something for Lent." My plan for this year is..... I will do my usual fast from graphic novels (though, also as usual, I have enough backlog of blog posts to last until Easter).

The other traditional practice in Lent (in addition to fasting) are prayer and almsgiving. For prayer, I will pray the rosary daily. It's a beautiful prayer that I haven't done in far too long. The archdiocese sent us a little black book with daily meditations for Lent. I'll read that too.

For almsgiving, we will continue to buy something extra for the local food pantry when we shop for groceries.

For spiritual reading, I will start Friar Thomas D'Aquino: His Life, Thought and Works by James A. Weisheipl, O.P. The book is fairly big--405 pages of text and another 82 of notes, bibliography, and index. Ten pages a day will make it easy to finish during the forty days of Lent. If I finish early, I'll probably read something shorter. Maybe I'll reread Thomas More's The Sadness of Christ, a book of reflections on the passion of Christ.

We don't have any really big plans this year for Lent, just some simple stuff to keep us going down the right road.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Great Wolf Lodge, Williamsburg, Virginia

In celebration of President's Day Weekend, we drove straight past Mount Vernon (home of George Washington) and drove down to Williamsburg, Virginia, to one of the many Great Wolf Lodges across the USA. The place is a big playground for young teens and younger (and young at heart).

Entrance to Great Wolf Lodge

 When we checked in, the lady behind the desk handed out wolf ears to our kids. Two out of three children were happy to wear them.

A happy four-eared child

Twice the fun

They even posed in a fun wooden chair!

Best you can get with three kids in one picture where they have to sit on each other's laps

We checked in and went to our room, which was spacious, with a kids' area featuring bunk beds and a more traditional area for us parents.

Parents' end of the room

A fireplace and a TV!

Kid's area

Inside the kid's area

Our particular room looked over the back of the property--a view to the water park!

Out our window

In the lobby is a giant clock that has an animatronic performance. We didn't stick around too long because we wanted to get to the water park.

The great clock show

I forgot to bring the GoPro camera (which is nicely waterproof) so I only took pictures from outside the water park area.

Pools and water exploring area

Water exploring, wave pool, toddler pool

The water park was a lot of fun. In addition to the short slides in the water exploration area, the back of the building had much larger slides for the 8-year-old and up crowd. Our kindergartner was not interested in climbing lots of stairs to go down the amazing (and somewhat terrifying) water slides. Those slides required inner tubes. One slide had a custom tube that could fit five people. The older kids enjoyed it a lot, especially dragging mommy on to experience the delightful terrors of going down a dark tunnel on a vinyl tube! We eventually got the youngest to go on the family slide though it took lots of reassurances.

The other big attraction at Great Wolf Lodge is MagiQuest. Parents buy their kids wands at a magic shop that lets them interact with various areas on three floors of the hotel. A handy map is provided.

Map of the fantasy land, with locations in the hotel identified below

The magic shop also gave us paper maps to carry around with us. The first stop for any magi was a magic portal, where missions are given. We started with the Pixie and Princess mission. On the monitor, it showed the runes we needed to collect in order to complete the mission.

Where to start

Each rune has its own set of items to collect. The items are in the halls of the hotel (though just near the lobby, not through the entire hotel). Pointing the wand at an item makes it light up. A hidden speak usually announces what reward is collected for pointing at the item. If it's part of the current quest, the item itself is collected. If it's not part of the quest, sometimes the player just gets some gold. Or the announcement says you don't need it yet.

Hawk's claw

Zapping a frog

Once all the elements are gathered, we went to a portal to combine them or given them to an on-screen character. The typical result was a rune useful for continuing the quest or in other  later quests.

The princess wants to get her jewels back from...

The goblin king, who we defeated

The game is fun but we did a lot of backtracking to get items. To do all the missions takes six to eight hours. The guy at the magic shop said that people can bring the wand back on a subsequent visits to pick up where they left off. I'm not sure we will remember to bring it again if we do go again.

Non-wand action

The place is amazing. It also has a bowling alley, an arcade (like Chuck E. Cheese), a 4D movie, and a few other things we didn't try. A mini-golf course and a high-ropes course located outside were not open in February. They also had activities like yoga, crafts, bingo, and story hour at various times. The kids did yoga once. We didn't try the other stuff.

We had a good time though the older kids are on the cusp of outgrowing some of the stuff.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Game Review: Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger

Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger designed by Prospero Hall based on the book by R. A. Montgomery and published by Z-Man Games

I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books when I discovered them around the age of ten. I found as many as I could at the library and read and re-read them. For those who don't know, in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the reader reads the first few pages and then comes to a decision point for the character in the story (often the stories are told in first person). At the bottom of the page is two options with referrals to other pages. For example: "If you go down the right passageway, turn to page 11; If you go down the left passageway, turn to page 23." The reader flips to the chosen page and continues reading for another page or two and then has another decision. Eventually the story comes to an end but the books have multiple endings, so going back and making different choices leads to different endings. Those books were lots of fun and I remember them fondly.

This game is based on one of the books (which I don't remember reading, even after playing the game). In it, the player is a detective and psychic investigator. You've been having strange dreams and are called one morning by someone who just says, "I need heeelpppp!" Using caller ID and a reverse phone directory, you discover the location of the call. You head out to an estate with the eponymous house of danger behind the gates. Your first choice is to climb the gate or to search the wall for another way in.

The game replaces pages in a book with cards in a deck. A deck of large "story" cards has the main narrative; a smaller "clue" deck has supplemental items. The story cards typically refer the player to other story cards though occasional challenges might result in drawing from the clue deck. A fancy, full-color card sits on top of the deck and prevents accidentally reading the top card.

Sample story cards (click to enlarge)

Some choices and results (click to enlarge)

 The clue deck has items that are useful for meeting challenges (like a battery or a weapon or a snack) or that are useful later in the game when their meaning becomes clear (like weird gadgets or family jewelry). A few of them move the narrative along, so occasionally the player gets surprised by not getting anything.

Starter and regular clue cards (click to enlarge)

To overcome the challenges, the player roles a die and compares the result to the Danger Meter. If the die roll is equal to or greater than the current danger level, the player succeeds at the challenge and gets a reward (either a clue card or movement on a track). Playing items can boost the die roll number. Any die roll of 1 (regardless of a boost) is a failure and any item used on that challenge is lost.

The tracks

Occasional bonuses are earned if the player is far enough along the psychic meter on the outside of the track. Those bonuses are premonitions of impending danger or hints on the best way to go. The psychic track is boosted or depleted by actions taken in the game. It's also depleted when the danger track hits the top, forcing the danger marker back down to a three and the psychic track back down two spaces.

The two decks are divided into five sets, called chapters. Each chapter has a certain goal which, when achieved, allow the player to move on to the next chapter. It is possible to die in earlier chapters but the game just sends the player back to a previous card with a penalty on the psychic track. In the fifth chapter, different endings can be reached based on the items acquired over the course of the game and how far the player is along the psychic track. The more you have, the better off you are at the end.

A game in progress

The story is a melange of fun tropes--ghosts, semi-intelligent monkey, magic-like science (time travel, miniaturization, etc), mad scientists, and the American Civil War. Some decisions seem obviously bad but are fun to explore. The final chapter puts the very safety of the earth in question. I enjoyed the goofy fun of the story.

The play system is a little clunky. As story cards are drawn, they go into a discard pile. Occasional decisions send the player back to cards they already read. Sifting through the discards (which often leads to other discarded cards) is a little tedious. Like in reading the book, sometimes I'd look at a choice I wasn't choosing just to see how epic of a fail that choice would be. So I occasionally found myself lost among the cards.

Another problem with the game is the player count which is listed as "1 or More Players." This is really a solo game. Players might take turns making decisions or rolling the dice but the game has only one character and one narrative. It's not really a multi-player cooperative game like Pandemic or Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. We tried it with four players but it wasn't that much fun making group decisions and figuring out ways to give everyone something to do. I finished the game on my own.

The story is fun. The mechanics are not so satisfying and it's really a solo game, not a cooperative game. I enjoyed it for sentimental connections. I'm not sorry I played it but I'd rather read one of the books than play another Choose Your Own Adventure game.

Slightly recommended.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Book Review: Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Snow, Glass, Apples written by Neil Gaiman and art by Colleen Doran

In an imaginative reversal, the Snow White story is retold with the step-mother being the hero and the step-daughter the villain. But this isn't some revisionist sympathizing with the evil queen, it's a legitimate re-write of most of the story. The queen recognizes Snow White is a danger when the step-daughter comes to her bedroom, bites her hand, and drinks her blood. The pale white skin and ruby red lips and un-aging appearance of Snow White are there because she is a vampire. The queen doesn't act immediately which turns out to be a mistake. Snow's father is more willing to offer up his blood, resulting in his death. Once her husband dies, the queen sees she has to eliminate the vampire. Her men take Snow off into the forest where they cut out her heart, which remains beating. As the years go by, the forest is depopulated of all the dwarves and nymphs and other fantasy creatures. The queen makes a garlic-enhanced apple to solve the problem. A few years later, Prince Charming comes along, with disasterous results.

The story is an interesting alternate imagining of the Snow White story. I typically have no interest in stories that make the villain the good guy (like the musical Wicked or the Angelina Jolie Maleficent movies), so I was a little worried. This book is very imaginative and surprising. The art is fantastic though far too graphic (both sex and gore) to be a kid's book. In the afterward, the artist writes about how they changed the cover to be more off-putting for children, who are not at all the intended audience. That was a wise decision. This really is a horror story with an unhappy ending.

I admire more than enjoy this book. I'm not sure who I would recommend it to and probably won't read it again, though I did find some satisfaction in it.

Mildly recommended.

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.