Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Review: Alfred Hitchcock by Patrick McGilligan

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

Alfred Hitchcock is a director whose name and appearance are instantly recognizable. Few moviemakers who spend their time behind the cameras are so famous. Perhaps it's because Hitchcock also came in front of the camera. He had cameos in almost all of his movies (of which he made fifty-three). More significantly, he hosted a TV anthology show called Alfred Hitchcock Presents where he made introductory and closing comments, often filled with self-deprecating (and sometimes sponsor-deprecating) humor. Movies like Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Rear Window are often cited in top 100 movies of all time lists.

He was born in 1899 to a greengrocer in the outskirts of London. The family had several shops and were prosperous enough to afford good schools. Hitchcock's first break in the movies was in the silent era. He designed the intertitle cards at fledgling movie studios. His meticulous nature, willingness to put in extra hours, and ambition for more soon led him to directing and writing. He had his first big hit with The Lodger in 1926. He went to Hollywood in the 1930s where he had a challenging time dealing with studio executives like David O. Selznick and with the Production Code. His movies often revolve around crime, psychology, and sex. He pushed boundaries where he could and became quite adept at "playing the game" of negotiating with the studio bureaucracies and the Production Code censors. As a filmmaker, he meticulously planned movies, often having several successive screenwriters polish and refine scripts to the point where Hitchcock had every camera move and angle planned out ahead of time. His hard work paid off as he eventually became a co-owner of Universal Studios and developed more, if not complete, freedom in making movies. He died in 1980.

This biography goes into great detail about his life, focusing mostly on his film career. Like many other director biographies, this book goes from film to film, describing the pre-production phase, the shooting of the film, and the critical and box-office reception for the films. The stories are interesting and fans of Hitchcock like me will have fun seeing the different ideas Hitchcock had for casting and for plot developments. His personal relationships with stars, studio executives, and writers is given in detail. Anecdotal evidence could show that Hitchcock was hard on his actresses, sometimes even abusively so in order to get the performances he wanted. This book tells the stories of when he did do that and when he didn't. He got along with some people quite well. The book also delves into his sexual obsessions (though he hardly ever acted on), almost too often for my taste, though such obsessions clearly resonated in his movies. McGilligan paints an honest picture of the man, not just a rehash of his public persona and famous anecdotes.

Recommended, especially for Hitchcock fans. It is 800+ pages, so be ready for a deep dive.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 15 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 15 by Hiro Mashima

The Battle of Fairy Tail continues as Laxus' small cadre of wizards, the Thunder Legion, has been defeated. He has to enter the fray himself, though few of the Fairy Tail wizards are left. Heavy hitters Natsu, Erza, Mystogan, and Gajeel are still up for more fighting. They have to contend with Laxus's lightening magic and his Thunder Palace--a set of 300 small orb encircling the town of Magnolia which threaten to release an electricity attack on the town if the Fairy Tail people can't stop them in time.

The fights are exciting and they have a lot of kung fu-type sparring along with the magical strikes. I am impressed that the battles get more and more epic as the story goes along. You'd think a limit would eventually be hit but Mashima manages to squeeze out more as he goes. He puts in a little character development and some new mysteries as well, so there's plenty to enjoy.

The book includes a side story, "Natsu and the Dragon's Egg," which is very similar to one of the filler episodes on the anime series. The other typical supplements are provided.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver (2017) written and directed by Edgar Wright

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver who's in debt to a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and is about to pay off that debt with one last job. He's the best driver in Atlanta and has always come through for the boss. But he also looks forward to being out of the obligation, especially since he's met a cute waitress (Lily James) with whom he hopes to make the ultimate getaway.

With all these cliches, Baby does have one thing going for him--he has tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ear from a childhood accident. To get rid of the noise, he constantly listens to music on iPods, often using the music as inspiration or motivation in his driving...or walking....or whatever he's doing in life. In the hands of director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim), this idea becomes the central conceit and artistic muse of the movie. Every car chase (and there are plenty) is set to music, along with foot chases, dramatic scenes, and comic moments. The film is not just edited to the music. Often long tracking shots also sync up with the beats and the lyrics of the songs. Visually, the movie is amazing.

The story is a bit formulaic but the cast makes the most of it. Even when they are cliched, the characters are still interesting and do have occasional moments to step up and be more human and more individual. There's nothing really deep in the movie, but it is very entertaining and well put together.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (1975)

Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (1975) written by Robert Holmes and directed by Rodney Bennett

The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) materializes the TARDIS on a space station orbiting the Earth in the far distant future. The Doctor explores with his companions Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter), only to discover the station is deserted (except for thousands of people in cryogenic sleep) and apparently sabotaged. The Doctor makes some repairs which activates the security, causing complications. Also, the repairs start the revival sequence for the humans on board. They've been set aside to avoid an apocalyptic disaster on Earth, though they should have been revived centuries ago. The problem is the Wirm, a parasitic intergalactic species that landed on the station a long time ago and is now attempting to take over all the humans. Can the Doctor and his companions save humanity?

The story has a slow start (the first of the four episodes is almost dispensable) but picks up speed as it goes along. One of the revived humans, the station's commander who is nicknamed Noah (hence the "ark"), gets infected and becomes the main villain, though he struggles to maintain his humanity even as he slowly transforms into a Wirm. The special effects are low-budget (the aliens are actors covered in green bubble wrap!) and are, at best, less convincing to contemporary eyes. The commander's struggles against transformation are overacted and also less satisfying (and there's a weird edit that's explained in the supplemental material on the DVD). Even so, his character has an interesting arc that isn't as obvious as it seems. The ultimate resolution isn't surprising but is satisfying.

Tom Baker is in top form as the Doctor. He combines the intelligence and arrogance with a sense of wonder and admiration of humans that makes him an inspirational hero. He hardly ever resolves his problems with fighting (either fisticuffs or laser guns). Often the show lets the companions do that stuff. Baker is charming and odd, with plenty of eccentricity and cleverness to see the situation through.

Recommended, though be sure to make allowances for 1970s BBC visual effects.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fort McHenry 2017

We visited Fort McHenry again (see our last visit here) and managed to see some new stuff. We were happy that we arrived early enough to participate in the flag ceremony. Every morning at 10:00 and evening at 4:00 the flags are changed and visitors can assist. During the day they display a replica of the original flag from the battle. Overnight, they have a smaller, regular flag with lights on it (because the flag is supposed to be lit after dark).

Unfolding the big flag

Base of the flag pole

Slowly hoisting it 

Two flags pass each other

Almost at the top

We walked around the pathway on the fort and admired the defensive cannons.

Cannons defending the mouth of Baltimore Harbor

"Whoa, this is serious!"

View of the pathways

From the pathways, the flag in the fort looks mighty impressive.

Viewing our work

We weren't at the fort with the Cub Scouts, so we were free to wander. My children were interested in the ammunition magazines that circle the fort. In between the guns are mounds of buried rooms where ammunition was stored to be both convenient to the guns and safe from being blown up by incoming fire. We tried to go in a couple of the magazines but didn't see much.

One of the ammo storage areas

Little more than an entrance

We did go through some of the buildings and see what life was like at the fort. The officers' mess was set up for a meal, though the room was also the sleeping quarters as well as the dining room!

A meal fit for an officer circa 1814

The interior magazine holds a lot of simulated gunpowder, which the children enjoyed seeing.

Gunpowder reserve

Just outside the magazine is one the the cannon balls from the bombardment two hundred years ago!

British cannon ball

Checking out the spare cannons

The next area had displays on the history of the fort, including Major George Armistead's request for a larger flag: "We have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." The new flag was 30 feet high and 42 feet long. The smaller "storm flag" was only 17 by 25 feet!

Checking out Maj. Armistead

Reading flag trivia

Nicer officer quarters

In one of the fort's entryways the children discovered a small passage that sneaks around. It's not so impressive in this picture but we were amazed when a child went in the small hole and came out the back hole.

Secret passage!

We packed a picnic lunch and enjoyed eating it so much that we forgot to take pictures from the Seawall Trail out on the water's edge of the park. Maybe next time!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse by C. Roberson et al.

Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse script by Chris Roberson and art by Georges Jeanty and Stephen Byrne

The crew of Serenity are drawn into a mission to save a friend imprisoned by the Alliance on an Outer Rim world. Complicating matters is the Alliance Operative sent to handle the situation who has a personal interest in River Tam. Complicating things even further is a terrorist group known as the Peacemakers who are trying to restart the war the Browncoats lost. Captain Malcolm is sympathetic with their ambitions but not with their methods, giving him hard choices to make. Misbehaving ensues.

The story is interesting and the dialogue really sounds like the show. The art is sometimes good, sometimes bad. The ending is a little unconvincing, mostly because it reads like a come on for a next series rather than a conclusion for this one.

Recommended for Serenity fans only.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Wonder Woman Cake

Having discovered a cake pan from my wife's distant past, my daughter wanted to try out making a Wonder Woman cake. The cake pan is in the shape of DC Comics's number one superheroine. Naturally, the start was making cake mix.

Wonder Woman was made out of clay, not cake mix

Pouring into a powdered pan

One of the tricks in making a shaped cake is to ensure no air holes between the pan and the cake batter. If air holes persist, the shape won't come out right. Extra care and effort were called for.


The other big trick is removing the cake gently so as to preserve the shape. Flouring the pan before cooking helps, as does careful separating at the edges.

Freeing Wonder Woman from her prison

Initial frosting

Not sure what this is

Filling in detail with colors is a fun part, with slightly lighter hair than usual for the Amazonian Princess.

Fixing her hair

Despite the best efforts, details of Dianna's face were lost on the cake. We melted some white chocolate and put it in the pan, resulting in a fabulous face mask.

Face of a hero

The best thing about the cake was the eating afterwards. Yum! Unfortunately, we ate it too quickly and didn't take a picture of the fully-decorated glory of the cake. We'll just have to make another one!