Friday, May 29, 2020

Movie Review: Tremors (1990)

Tremors (1990) directed by Ron Underwood

Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) are handymen in the town of Paradise, Nevada (population 14). They do a lot of odd jobs and have ambitions to move to the big city--Bixby, Nevada. They finally decide to leave. But they've decided too late! A student seismologist (Finn Carter) has taken over the earthquake equipment in Paradise Valley and has been picking up unusual underground activity. More unusual is one of the local who is up on a powerline tower with his Winchester rifle. He's died. Val and Earl run across him as they are leaving, so they bring his body back to town. The local doctor says he died of dehydration, which takes three or four days. What is so scary that it'd keep a guy with a rifle trapped for so long? Underground carnivorous worms, that's what. The worms attack a work crew that happens to be working on the only road out of the valley, leaving the residents of Paradise isolated with the increasingly menacing foes.

This classic b-movie hits all the right notes. The heroes are charming and and down to earth. Reba McEntire and Michael Gross are fun as a survivalist couple who have a fully-armed compound just outside of town. Some of the other residents are picked off to heighten the tension. The creatures are slowly revealed and pretty ugly, though in a PG-13 way (not too over the top with bad looks or gore). Even thirty years later, the effects look good. The film has a lot of POV shots of the creatures chasing the residents (even one or two "underground" shots that work surprisingly well), a classic technique in the horror genre. The movie also has plenty of humor (the best line is when Val describes their handyman work ethic--"We plan ahead, that way we don't have to do anything right now"). The plot is the standard "coming up with schemes to escape the monster" and is intelligent enough to be enjoyable. None of the ideas they used seemed dumb and the only unlikeable characters are the worms themselves.

Recommended--this is a top-tier b-movie like Deep Blue Sea.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Book Review: Mr. Higgins Comes Home by M. Mignola et al.

Mr. Higgins Comes Home story by Mike Mignola and art by Warwick Johnson-Cadwell

Two vampire hunters head to eastern Europe in hopes of cleaning out Castle Golga. A large group of vampires are gathering for Walpurgis Night; the hunters hope to get the drop on the vampires the morning after the big party. Their ace in the hole is Mr. Higgins, an old man who once visited Castle Golga by accident on his honeymoon with horrible consequences. They want Higgins to lead them to the castle's crypt. Higgins wants them to end his suffering. They strike a deal, but the plan goes awry when Countess Golga invites them to the festivities.

The story is a classic Mignola reimagining of another story. In this case, he retells a typical Hammer horror film plot. It's both fun and tragically melancholic. The art has elements of Mignola's style but is less dark and stark. The art is good but not as effective as Mignola's. The book is an enjoyable and quick read.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Book Review: The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

This book is a series of short stories featuring two "constructors" named Trurl and Klapaucius. They are robots that build other machines for their own entertainment or at the requests of others. Often, those others are government officials or royal personages, the sort of beings who can pay handsomely for the work. The two robots have many comic misadventures as they try to satisfy customers and to make the customers pay for their services.

The stories are mostly satirical. Rulers want ultimate power (with which they might oppress their people and dodge paying the robots) or fantastic entertainment. Trurl is usually the one to deliver, being both more egotistical and more gullible than Klapaucius. They travel all over the galaxy, like Aeneas in The Aeneid (hence this book's title). They encounter strange worlds (like the square planet with a square sun) and even stranger requests. The comedy has the wit of Jonathan Swift and the whimsy of Douglas Adams and the intellectual bent of Umberto Eco. Lem satirizes ideas from science, philosophy, and literature.

I found the book entertaining, though sometimes Lem goes overboard in making up words or being extremely silly. I laughed out loud a few times and was surprised by the light and comic touch. After reading Solaris, this book gives a very different experience of what the author can do.

Recommended, especially for some Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy humor taken to an Umberto Eco level.

Sample text, a minor character explaining why it can't impose Universal Happiness on others:
"If I understand you correctly, you wish us to bestow happiness upon everyone. Well, we devoted over fifteen millennia to that project alone--that is, eudaemonic tectonics, of which there are basically two schools, the sudden and revolutionary, and the slow and evolutionary. Evolutionary eudaemonic tectonics consists essentially in not lifting a finger to help, confident that every civilization will eventually muddle through on its own. Revolutionary solutions, on the other hand, boil down to either the Carrot or the Stick. The Stick, or bestowing happiness by force, is found to produce from one to eight hundred times more grief than no interference whatever. As for the Carrot, the results--believe it or not--are exactly the same, whether you use an Ultradeifact, Hypergnostotron, or even an Infernal Machine and Gehennerator." [pp. 266-267]

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington D.C.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. is part of the cluster of memorials around the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial being the most famous. The MLK memorial is the most recent, dedicated in 2011. The plan to dedicate it on August 28, the anniversary of King's I Have a Dream speech, was postponed because of Hurricane Irene. The dedication moved to October 16, 2011, the anniversary of the Million Man March.

The entrance to the memorial from the National Mall is a bit cryptic--two large stones split in two. The view of the Tidal Basin in between does not give a clue to the honoree of the memorial (though the signs give it away).

Entrance to the memorial

The side of the rock

View from the other side

A few paces in is another stone block which has a larger-than-life figure of King looking out over the Tidal Basin.

The missing block!

Looking out over the waters

The sculpture is called "Stone of Hope" and was carved by Lei Yixin. The name is a reference to part of the I Have a Dream speech where King says, "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

See how it was taken out

The wall behind the statue has many famous quotes from King, who spent his life crusading for civil rights and fighting to end poverty.

1963 quote on justice

1961 quote on equality

The flowers were blooming nicely.


King's statue seems to look straight across the Tidal Basin at another memorial.

Looking out at...

...the Jefferson Memorial

From here, we went to visit the FDR Memorial, which will show up on the blog soon!

Monday, May 25, 2020

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington D.C.

Washington, D. C., has a myriad of memorials. We finally got to see one of the lesser-known ones, the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The memorial was authorized by Congress in 1986. In 1992 they broke ground on the site, just south of the Reflecting Pool and just southeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial was dedicated in 1995. It was built under the guidance of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board (appointed by President Ronald Reagan) and turned over to the National Parks Service for ongoing care and maintenance.

The most striking part of the memorial is the set of nineteen statues representing American soldiers. The statues represent fourteen Army soldiers, three Marines, one Navy Corpsman, and one Air Force Forward Air Observer. They stand in the midst of juniper bushes with some granite strips interspersed, representing the rugged Korean terrain. They wear ponchos over their weapons and equipment, protection from the rainy and cold weather.

Korean War Veterans Memorial

A side view

Another side

The United Nations Wall lists the various countries that were part of the armed forces in Korea, along with the casualties. The Pool of Remembrance is right nearby, with the "Freedom is not free" wall as part of the pool. The pool did not have water in it when we visited.

UN Wall and dry Pool of Remembrance

Freedom is not free wall

The Mural Wall parallels the statues and is 164 feet long. The pictures in the wall are from the National Archives and depict various soldiers, equipment, and places from the war.

Statues and Mural Wall

A picture of the wall

The polished black granite of the wall makes a reflection of the soldiers, represent the number thirty-eight. The war lasted thirty-eight months and the dividing line between North Korea and South Korea is the thirty-eighth parallel.

The memorial isn't very big but it is very striking and well worth visiting.

Watching out for us

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Book Review: B.P.R.D. The Devil You Know Vol. 1 by M. Mignola et al.

B.P.R.D. The Devil You Know Volume 1: Messiah story by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie, art by Laurence Campbell, and Colors by Dave Stewart

In the aftermath of the Hell on Earth series, the remnants of the B.P.R.D. are still fighting off the remnants of the Ogdru Hem that went inert when their mother, the Ogdru Jahad, was defeated. The agents are checking the various Ogdru Hem to make sure they are dead. Creepy supernatural activity still happens around the inert, gigantic bodies. If that wasn't bad enough, creepy Russian girl Varvara is gathering people from across the world to New York City. She sends out dreams summoning them. When they get there, the people are expecting a heaven on earth, though Varvara seems bent on establishing the opposite. Didn't the B.P.R.D. just stop that?

The story is interesting but a little convoluted. I haven't read the Hell on Earth series, so I was surprised by some of the revelations (like major characters who had died) and confused by some of the new characters (who were established in the previous series I assume). My befuddlement is comparable to skipping two or three seasons of a television show and then jumping back in. I may tough it out anyway since the ending establishes the return of a central character hinted at by the title. I go on to Volume 2 soonest!

Mildly recommended--this is not a good jumping on point, especially if you are just starting the B.P.R.D. (which is the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense)!

Friday, May 22, 2020

Movie Review: The Golem (2018)

The Golem (2018) directed by Yoav and Doron Paz

In seventeenth century Lithuania, Hannah lives a small Jewish village. She is beset with problems. Seven years early, she lost her son. She's grieved for him and refused to have another child. Her husband is unhappy. He's the son of the town's rabbi. He goes for lessons with other men from the village. Hannah listens in from underneath the building; her husband sneaks books away for her to read. Hannah's sister is getting married but the ceremony is interrupted by a ruthless gentile who brings his plague-striken daughter to be cured. Without a cure, he'll destroy the town. The local healer promises to do her best. The rabbi recommends not striking back at the gentiles. Hannah has other ideas. In Kabbalistic texts (like the ones "borrowed" from the rabbi), a formula is given for creating a being out of clay that will protect its master. Hannah's chance to get her son back (sort of) and to defend the village is at hand. Of course, things don't go exactly according to plan.

Hannah is a very complicated character, eliciting both sympathy and revulsion as she makes her choices throughout the story. Other characters are less developed. The villain is little more than a bad guy (he does have a creepy bird-beak mask like the plague doctors used to wear) and just creates peril for the village. The healer once confronted a golem in her childhood (which we see at the beginning of the movie), though her experience doesn't really contribute to the situation. The husband is interesting as he is flawfully supportive of his wife and also frustrated with her. The tension between them is subtle and well developed. The boy who played the golem did a good job which is critical for the film. He doesn't talk and he has little emotional expression (like a golem). He's got enough intensity to give the movie the edge it doesn't have in other departments.

The story is fairly standard. No huge surprises happen. The backstory is told at a good pace. I found the characters a little less sympathetic than they should be, making me less engaged in the story. It wasn't bad and it wasn't great.

Slightly recommended.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

TV Review: Kingdom Season One (2019)

Kingdom Season One (2019) written by Kim Eun-hee and directed by Seong-hun Kim

Set during Korea's medieval period, Kingdom tells the story of the nation's king who has been afflicted with smallpox. At least that's the official story. The Crown Prince (Ji-hoon Ju) is suspicious since no one is allowed to see the king except for a small set of advisers...and the queen. The queen is not his mother. She is the second wife of the king. In fact, she is about the same age as the crown prince. She's also pregnant. Since the crown prince is actually the son of a concubine, the royal lineage will fall to the unborn child if he is born before the king dies.

The king did die but a royal physician was brought in with the "resurrection plant" to keep him alive. Unfortunately, the cure turned the king into a flesh-hungry, irrational monster, i.e. a zombie. Political intrigues ensue as the Crown Prince investigates and the Haewon Cho clan (the queen is a member) schemes to get rid of the Crown Prince. Zombie mayhem also ensues as the corpse of the physician's assistant inadvertently causes a zombie plague outbreak starting from the doctor's rural clinic.

The show is a good mixture of royal drama and zombie horror. The political fencing would make a good drama all on its own. The gore starts off fairly mild though that increases during the third episode. The actors are very good and the stunt work and special effects are very realistic-looking (hardly any noticeable CGI). I enjoyed the ongoing story and the action/horror elements.

The big finale had two problems. We expected this to be a self-contained series but found out at the cliffhanger ending that there's another season. So we would have been left waiting around. Luckily the second season has already released. The other problem is a surprise twist about the zombies that really does not make much sense though they may have a chance to explain it away as the characters reading the situation wrong. At least I hope that's what happens. We will watch on.


This is currently available on Netflix (as of May 2020).

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Bike Riding May 2020

My daughter and I went for a bike ride because she was supposed to go out and find evidence of animal life in different locations. We recently discovered a trail along power lines near us. That seemed like a good spot to go to fulfill a school assignment.

We looked along the trail and found some tiny butterflies, a couple of cigarette butts, some scat from an unidentified animal, and the buzzing sound of some insect.

On the trail

Maybe twenty yards off the trail, a local street crosses a bridge. Underneath is a stream that feeds into Hammond Branch. It was a different environment from the path and had different evidence of animal life.

Graffiti is a sign of someone there

The little shore had all sorts of evidence. Deer must come here to drink, leaving their hoof prints behind. We saw paw prints from other animals too. And the regrettable detritus of some human.

Can you spot the evidence?

A variety of paw prints

Someone celebrated Cinco de Mayo early

The stream winds its way through a neighborhood into a larger stream. We did not go downstream.

A river runs out of it

We went back to the trail in search of the Hammond Branch ford that my daughter had discovered on a previous trip.

Biking to a new area

The Hammond Branch, upstream from where we were previously

The water had an impressive current (we'd had a rainstorm the night before) and the waters made a pleasant sound as they rolled over a patch of rocks to the right of the ford.

A nice bit of the stream

At the ford, we found the best evidence of animal life...actual animal life!

Taking a picture

Close up of the tiny fish

We had a fun adventure and she got to complete some science assignments for her distance learning. It was a win all around!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

ClimbZone, Laurel, Maryland

We took our children to ClimbZone in Laurel, Maryland, to give it a try (this was before the virus lockdown). They had rock climbed before at a gym. That experience was more of a typical fake rock face with grips attached. ClimbZone is not a gym per se, it is a place to climb all sorts of fun and creatively-themed challenges.

ClimbZone in Laurel

Our kids suited up with harnesses and hooked on at a lot of the climbing walls.

My eldest at the steam punk wall

The Tetris wall was challenging because the pieces stick out more or less from the wall. My son managed to make it to the top with some effort.

Daughter gets a head start

Son at the top of Tetris; daughter working her way up an Alice in Wonderland challenge

We were concerned about our youngest not being able to get far. The first few challenges he tried were a bit beyond his abilities.

Tricky waves

Cargo net challenge

Climbing the Lincoln Memorial

Close up on Lincoln's steps

His persistence paid off when he found a wall that was all circles all the way up. He must have climbed to the top ten times, which was a bit nerve wracking for us parents.

Found a favorite

He's higher than his sister!

I had a hard time figuring out why I took the picture below. Can you find one of my children?

Becoming one with the wall

Some adventurous walls reminded me of Indiana Jones. I challenged the older kids to see who could make it to the small bridge first on the wall depicted below.

Shouldn't have given a head start


My youngest was happy to do something he's not allowed to do at home--climbing a bookshelf! Maybe we should install some auto-belayers at home.

Really climbing to get the toys

The kids had a great time. We may go back. I may try it out next time!