Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Movie Review: Miss Peregrin's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Miss Peregrin's Home for Peculiar Children (2016) directed by Tim Burton from the novel by Ransom Riggs

A school for gifted children (who have superhuman/magical powers, not just good grades in English and Math) is threatened by a madman and his forces of evil. Fortunately the school has a Brit in charge whose own magical power can keep them safe. This set-up for the X-Men is switched over to a more purely fantasy story in Miss Peregrin's Home for Peculiar Children. Miss Peregrin is the Brit in charge--she can change into a bird and can manipulate time. The time-manipulation comes in handy as she has the school relive the same day over and over again. The children don't age and they don't get killed by the German bombs that destroyed the school in 1943. She winds back the clock just before the bomb hits. The locals don't bother the school and aren't concerned over them suddenly vanishing.

The movie starts in modern day with totally mundane teenager Jake living a boring life in Florida. His only claim to weirdness is his grandfather who has filled his head with stories of magic and wonder. The grandfather lived at Miss Peregrin's School, so he's not just making up stories. He has a peculiarity that his grandson has inherited, which sends Jake on an adventure through time and against other peculiars who want to harm the children at the school.

With a set-up like this and Tim Burton directing, it looks like the film should be a fantasy sensation. The visual effects are amazing to look at but some of the character designs are reruns from other films (the baddies look like the Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth and there's a bunch of skeleton warriors like in Jason and the Argonauts and some battling toys like the creepy neighbor made in the first Toy Story etc.). The other glaring problem in the film is the performances. An over-the-top fantasy story needs some over-the-top characters or acting. Only Samuel L. Jackson (as the villain) gives anything close to a story-worthy performance; everyone else in the cast acts like they are in a period drama, as if their peculiarity wasn't so peculiar after all. The time travel element gets overused, resulting in some narrative cheating by the story tellers.

This a very average fantasy film on its own and a bit disappointing as a Tim Burton film.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: Fearless: Stories of the American Saints by A. Camille and P. Boudreau

Fearless: Stories of the American Saints by Alice Camille and Paul Boudreau

This anthology of saints' lives looks at men and women who served the Christian faith and the people of North America. The stories range from the French Jesuits (Isaac Jogues and companions) who were martyred in what is now northern New York during the mid-1600s to the millionaire heiress (Katherine Drexel) who worked tirelessly to serve Native and African American communities during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As a reader might guess from the title, many of these saints faced daunting tasks. Father Damien of Molokai volunteered to serve the Hawaiian community of lepers on an isolated peninsula for sixteen years. Junipero Serra was tasked to establish a few missions on the California coast and achieved twenty-one in spite of an ulcerated leg on which he had to walk up and down the countryside. Some of these saints were humbly obedient to their superiors, even when those superiors were unhelpful or even contrary. For them all, faith in God gave them the steadfastness to work on.

Surprisingly, only three of the fourteen saints were born in America. Most were immigrants from Europe, called by their religious orders or life circumstances to cross the Atlantic and work for the salvation of souls. The immigrant experience is one of the defining characteristics of American life. Like many immigrant stories, these show the dedication and hard work that constantly renews the American spirit and more so the Catholic faith in America.

Each story is ten to fifteen pages long, so none of them are very in-depth but they do give the highlights of what the saints did and a sense of their individual personalities. The book has a bibliography for further reading if a particular saint's story makes a reader want to find out more.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Marble Bread

After making Babka using the old bread maker, my wife wanted to try a chocolate swirl bread in the new bread maker. We wanted the bread maker to do most of the swirling for us, which meant preparing the dough by hand, otherwise the loaf would be completely mixed and not swirled..

The regular dough was easy enough to make. My daughter is something of an expert (through repeated practice) at making dough just the right size.

Sizing tools--rolling pin, dough cutter, ruler

In addition to the traditional baking tools, we crafted a special roller...

A new tool that we crafted

Rolling out the chocolate dough was easy enough.

Happy to get the next layer ready

A good fit

The new bread machine has two mixing blades so she made two separate dough swirls.

Checking that the second dough was as long as the first

Getting ready to roll

Rolling two levels together

Top level almost done

To give the loaf a little variety, one set of dual dough was rolled regular side out, the other chocolate side out.

One is not like another! 

Comparing two sets of dough

The loaf came out beautifully.


The true test of any bread is in the eating. We had a demanding critic on hand to make an assessment. He was very pleased.

Trying some yummy bread

Even willing to share!

Checking on customer satisfaction

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Review: Captain Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Superhero Vol. 2 by K. S. DeConnick et al.

Captain Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Superhero Volume 2 written by Kelly Sue DeConnick with art by Scott Hepburn, Pat Olliffe, Matteo Buffagni, Filipe Andrade, Barry Hitson, et al.

Captain Marvel's brain lesion gets worse and worse (see the start of this story here), forcing her either to adapt her style or to sacrifice herself in order to continue being a hero. As she faces lots of old foes, the enemy causing the problem is finally discovered, along with his nefarious plan to destroy Captain Marvel and New York City. The story plays out at a good pace and has a very satisfying conclusion.

But wait, there's more! Captain Marvel fights alongside the Avengers and a coalition of aliens (Kree, Skrull, etc.) to stop the Builders, an ancient alien race that seems intent on wiping out the Earth. Interestingly, the book covers the same action twice, once from Captain Marvel's point of view, then from Spider-Woman's point of view. The differences are enough to make it interesting though I was surprised to see the same stuff twice. Unfortunately, the war doesn't really finish in this book which I found frustrating.

The book also has a Captain Marvel/Spider-man adventure in Boston with a young woman who isn't all she seems. The woman passes herself off as a superhero but doesn't know her own name (Spider-man makes some unhelpful but comic suggestions). The story is fun and does wrap up.

Overall, recommended.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Movie Review: Train to Busan (2016)

Train to Busan (2016) written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon

Recently divorced dad Seok-woo is a fund manager in Seoul, South Korea. His job demands a lot of time and attention, so naturally his daughter Soo-ahn wants to move in with Mommy, who lives in Busan (about an hour by train from Seoul). It's her birthday and he's bought the same gift he gave her for the last big celebration. He realizes he has to let her go but he insists on riding the KTX train with her to Busan. They board with no problem though some unrest is springing up in the city. A girl with a bite wound to her leg manages to jump on the train unnoticed. She is a victim of the unrest--a rapidly spreading zombie plague! Soon enough, the train is filled with zombies and the dad has to man up and work with others in order to get his daughter to safety.

The central relationship between father and daughter is well-written and acted, giving the movie a strong core. He clearly starts out neglectful but would be a good dad if he paid more attention. The crisis wakes him up and turns him into a better father and a better man. The theme of fatherhood is underlined by a couple who are part of the small band of survivors. The wife is pregnant and they have their own tensions. The group has to fight their way up the train to a car full of people. Unfortunately, that car has a corporate executive who takes control and incompetently manages the situation. He's what Seok-woo could turn into without becoming a decent man. Thus, the perennial zombie theme of selfishness vs. selflessness is also brought to the foreground. Thematically, the movie is very satisfying.

The action is tense and exciting, with good editing and direction. The characters use more cleverness than brute force to make their way through the train, making the set pieces more thrilling and less gory. The zombies are unnerving without being excessively gory. They have milky-white eyes and contorted limbs with black veins ruining their complexions. They do eat people but the movie doesn't have any of that tearing-limb-from-limb or pulling out internal organs like in many zombie films, so the gore isn't so extreme. Some of the supporting characters are underdeveloped and look a bit cartoony (like the corporate executive) but the main characters are very good.

Overall, an excellent zombie movie with a lot of heart at the center. Well worth seeing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (1969)

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (1969) directed by Michael Ferguson and written by Brian Hayles

Second Doctor Patrick Troughton lands on Earth in the late 21st century with companions Jamie (the Scottish highlander) and Zoe (scientific wiz). They discover the planet has become completely dependent on T-Mat, a sort of teleporting system that has reduced every other form of transportation to museum pieces. The system starts having problems because the relay station on the moon has been overrun by invaders--the Ice Warriors of Mars! Taking over the moon base is only the first step in their nefarious plan to conquer the Earth.

The six-episode series is a mixed bag. The Ice Warriors' costumes look a bit fake (baggy rubber suits that make their movement awkward) but their hissing, whispery voices (they are a reptilian race) are effective. The plot moves at a good pace and has only one or two head-scratchingly bewildering moments. Patrick Troughton is a fun Doctor, able to do comedy and drama without looking silly. Bigger issues like the overextension of technology and the need for adaptability are nice themes which naturally flow from the story.

A fun if not outstanding series.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Seward's Folly

My daughter combined science and cooking when she tried a recipe from Smithsonian Maker Lab--Baked Alaska. This recipe lets you bake ice cream in the oven without it melting! The trick is the same trick that makes an igloo work as a shelter. Snow has a lot of air in it which makes a great insulator. The meringue on Baked Alaska insulates the ice cream, keeping it from melting in the oven. Or at least it's supposed to.

The first step is to make a cake, which was the easiest bit. My daughter worked from scratch and made a fine chocolate cake.

Reading the cake recipe

Adding baking soda

Happy stirring

Tasting the chocolate

The next task was whipping up the meringue, literally! Of course, you need some egg whites to start.

Separating eggs

Whipping the eggs into a froth!

We used the cake pan to make a lump of ice cream just the right shape for the cake. Putting the ice cream on the cake was a little trickier, since it needs to be right in the middle.

Ice cream on cake!

Good job!

The next step is to spread the meringue quickly over the ice cream and cake to seal it off from the heat of the pre-heated oven (the cake serves as insulation on the bottom).

Spread the meringue

Get it all over

Finishing touches

Into the oven

After what we thought was the right amount of time, it came out to unhappy results.

Oh no, melted ice cream!?!

In the after action discussion, Mommy and daughter decided the meringue wasn't quite right. When they added sugar during the whipping process, the sugar went in too quickly. That prevented the meringue being fluffy enough to insulate the ice cream and stiff enough to stay put.

Undaunted, they tried again...this time with cookies! Actually, they used digestive biscuits, which are more like round graham crackers than like chocolate chip cookies. This time, the sugar was added slowly to the egg whites as they were whipped.

A carefully prepared meringue

An ice-cream scoop was sufficient to shape the ice cream properly, leaving an easy (if messy) process of applying meringue. With a smaller surface comes less meringue, meaning less insulation. It also means less cooking time, making the bake time a critical component for success.

Meringuing the mini-Alaskas

Making sure they are sealed

Wanna hug? Do ya?!?

Success was achieved this time, with scrumptious individual servings of Baked Alaska for all comers.

Out of the oven goodness

Plated perfection

One happy dessert eater