Friday, December 9, 2016

Movie Review: The Mark of Zorro (1940)

The Mark of Zorro (1940) directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Don Diego de Vega (Tyrone Power) leaves the comforts of 19th century Spain to return to his parents in Los Angeles, California. His father was mayor but has been replaced by a new and corrupt alcalde who is the puppet of Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Diego soon discovers how oppressed the regular people are. He maintains a foppish, spoiled persona by day, but at night he maraudes as Zorro. He robs from the alcalde to give back to the poor. Zorro enlists the aide of the local padre, Fray Filipe, to redistribute the wealth. Diego falls for the alcalde's beautiful niece (Linda Darnell), who is more interested in the heroic Zorro than the popinjay Diego. So the plot and main character is a combination of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood moved to 19th century California.

What could have been a run-of-the-mill, derivative action film turns out to be a highly entertaining and action packed movie. Tyrone Power makes a great, athletic hero and is also perfect as the spoiled aristocrat. Rathbone is an excellent villain (even better than his performance in Robin Hood). Their sword fights are exciting and impressive. The stunt work is also amazing. Diego's schemes to return his father to control are fun and logical, and he plays every angle he can to convince the alcalde to go back to Spain. He manipulates the alcalde and his wife in different ways to great effect, while he also woes their niece. All the while Diego keeps his parents in the dark, causing a bit of household strife. The big battle at the end is exciting and satisfying.

I'm surprised this film is not more popular. It's just as exciting as Errol Flynn's Adventures of Robin Hood (maybe more so) and is much more substantive. My son saw about one minute of this film on TV while we were in a hotel and loved it (we had to switch because it was my daughter's turn to pick what to watch). Happily our local library had it on DVD but we will probably get our own copy of this wonderful action film.

A fun bit of trivia--Eugene Pallette played Friar Tuck in the Errol Flynn film and plays basically the same role, albeit as Fray Filipe, in this film. Filipe is a more substantial character, so this film has the better performance.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Saint William of York Church, Baltimore

In honor of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we have another visit to a church--one reminiscent of the many parish churches we visited in England...

Saint William of York Church in Baltimore is a small parish on the outskirts of the city. I visited on a weekday and had to wander around the outside to find a way in. The front doors and the side door were locked.

St. William of York Church

St. Joseph in a side garden

A Marian garden in the back

The statue of Mary with children from all over the world

A nice lady saw me wandering around and came out of the parish office to greet me. I said I was interested in making a visit to the church. She showed me the way through the parish office into the church, for which I was delighted.

The old-world feel showed at the door leading into the church. I had the feeling of stepping back into England.

Church entrance from the parish office

Holy water font by the door

The nave is not very big but is wonderfully decorated. The stations of the cross are especially beautiful.


Sixth Station of the Cross: Veronica wipes Jesus' face

Stained glass window (Mendicant saints?) click to enlarge

The sanctuary is also decorated with reverence and a lot of Marian iconography.


Annunciation (n.b. not the Immaculate Conception!)

Mary crowned as Queen of Heaven

To the right is an altar to St. Joseph as well as a stained glass window of the Transfiguration with a marble bas relief of the crucifixion below.

St. Joseph altar

Transfiguration (click to enlarge)

This was a little mystifying to me

On the left of the sanctuary is an altar to Our Lady, along with a small loft for the organist (which would have been a pulpit in a European church).

Marian altar

Actually, in Europe it would have to stick out over the congregation a bit

The altar rail is beautifully carved.

Detail from the altar rail

The baptismal font is rather modest, looking more like another holy water font. The pascal candle next to it is a dead giveaway.

Humblest baptismal font ever?

The entrance doors at the back of the church have a fine window above.


In a small alcove next to the doors are the graves of William and Catherine Lanahan, who donated substantially to the construction of the church.

Lanahan graves

Above them is a stained glass window of William of York.

William of York

Who was Saint William of York?

William came from a wealthy and influential English family. His father was Herbert of Winchester. Herbert was chancelor and treasurer under King Henry I. William held several church offices and served under Archbishop Thurstan of York. When William was selected to replace Thurstan, many of the monasteries complained of secular interference in the election. The issue wound up in Rome, where the current Pope, Eugene III, had to make a determination. Eugene was a Cistercian, so he sided with the monasteries and deposed William. Henry Murdac, abbot of Fountains Abbey, was appointed to replace William. Stephen was now King of England and he opposed Henry Murdac. Stephen wanted his son Eustace to be Archbishop of York. In a few years, both the pope and Henry died. William traveled to Rome and entreated Pope Anastasius IV to be restored to York. The pope assented and William returned to his archdiocese. During his processional entry, the Ouse Bridge collapse but no one was killed. William died on June 8, 1154, a month after his return. He was buried in York Minster. A few months after his death, miracles near his grave were attributed to him. He was canonized in 1227 by Pope Honorius III. June 8 is his feast day, mostly celebrated in York.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

TV Review: Black Mirror Season 3 (2016)

Black Mirror Season 3 (2016) created by Charlie Brooker

Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series by Charlie Brooker originating on the UK's Channel 4. The stories focus on the negative impact of technology on human life. All the stories are set in the near future with many familiar elements taken to a logical (and often tragic) conclusion. The title refers to a screen (such as a smart phone or tablet) that is off--it gives a cold and dark reflection of what's in front of it. The series is deliberately unsettling and challenging.

Netflix has picked up the series for its third season. Here's an episode by episode review:

"Nosedive"--Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a socially ambitious woman in a near-future dominated by social media rankings. Everyone goes around with their phones giving people one- to five-star votes as they interact. Lacie is hovering between 4.2 and 4.3. She's moving out of a place she was sharing with her brother. The new, very upscale place she wants to move into is a little too expensive but if she can get her rank up to 4.5 there's a twenty percent discount. She has a ranking consultant who helps her get ahead and a big opportunity arises when an old friend (Alice Eve) invites Lacie to be maid of honor at her wedding. The wedding will have lots of over-4.5 people, so if Lacie can do well she can spike her popularity and make her ambitions come true. The trip to the wedding doesn't go smoothly and Lacie watches her chance slip away.

The story is a sharp satire of the shallowness of seeking others' approval. Ratings don't just come from friends and co-workers--even random people like baristas and cafe patrons give out rankings. People have a certain expectation of getting five stars all the time, regardless of the importance or depth of their social interaction. The rankings don't just effect how other people judge you, they also effect work opportunities, shopping options, etc. Everyone has a false smile and a perpetually sunny disposition just in hopes of moving a bit up the scale. But is there any true happiness in the system?

The show isn't entirely bleak. Lacie's brother has little ambition but also seems perfectly content playing virtual reality games with his friends. He sees the shallowness of her ambition and tells her so. Others she runs into along the way show ambivalence toward or even rejection of the ranking system, demonstrating that she does have other options, even if they aren't socially recognized and approved options.

"Playtest"--Cooper is an American traveler whose trying to get away from his tough home life. He's been caring for his dad who just died from Alzheimer's. Cooper doesn't understand his mom, not even how to talk to her. So he sneaks out on a world tour. In England he runs out of cash. The "odd jobs" app on his phone offers an experimental playtest of a new game being developed by a reclusive Japanese designer. The game runs through a neural interface and is designed to test how much fear the subject can endure, using information gleaned from the subject's own brain. Not a good premise for a show called "Black Mirror," eh?

The premise is fairly interesting and as always the technology seems like it's only a few years off. I enjoyed the execution up to a point but found it getting repetitive and less believable and therefore less engaging in the final five or ten minutes.

"Shut Up and Dance"--Kenny is a typical teenage boy. He's got a part-time job at a fast food restaurant, an annoying sister who always borrows his laptop, and a bicycle for transportation. His sister downloads some malware which he tries to get rid of, but the removal software lets some hackers access his computer's camera. Soon enough, he gets an email saying they will release a compromising video of Kenny captured by the laptop camera unless he does exactly as they tell him. They send a video clip (which the viewers only see the beginning of) to convince him they've got the goods. He begins complying. At first, they only want to race him across town but the situation gets worse and worse as he runs into other people who are in his same situation (being blackmailed with online content of misdeeds).

The downward spiral is fairly rapid and quite horrific. Kenny gets to the point where he has to commit even graver crimes than he already has but it never occurs to him that he's just digging himself in deeper. The shame and the hope of hiding is so strong, any common sense is lost. It's a very bleak indictment of human behavior with a very bleak outcome. I can't say I enjoyed this episode.

"San Junipero"--In 1987, a shy young woman goes to a club and meets a party girl. They strike up a friendship, meeting the next week at the same club in the town of San Junipero. The third week, it's 1980 so something weird is definitely going on, especially since the people aren't really bothered by the time disparity (though they do notice).

The ultimate reveal of what's going on is not a surprise, though the ambiguity of the ending is. Viewers are left to their own interpretation of events, whether the characters made the right choice or not. The ending could be taken as exceptionally bleak or as uncharacteristically upbeat. Bleak seems like the proper interpretation, given the show's general tone.

"Men Against Fire"--Near-future soldiers are tasked with eliminating a threat to humanity--the Roaches. Roaches are subhuman monsters (they have human bodies but horrible faces) who raid local villages for food and spare parts. The soldiers are helped by implants that link them to technical data and intelligence as well as reward them with erotic dreams. One soldier is hit by a Roach's tech weapon and his implants start to malfunction. Or are they?

Though predictable, I found the story engaging and the moral considerations more challenging than the short-hand oversimplifications often presented by modern media.

"Hated in the Nation"--A veteran detective inspector is joined by a transfer from the cyber crimes division for her next investigation. A columnist who is despised by the general populace for her hateful article about the death of a wheel-chair bound woman has died violently. The husband claims it was suicide, saying his wife tried to cut her head open before gashing him and slitting her own throat with a broken bottle. The detectives chase a lot of dead ends until another media pariah dies the next day under similar circumstances. The two dead people also share a weird on-line connection.

I found the investigation interesting but the ultimate villain, a Saw-like character, seemed more to serve the moral of the story than to be an actual character. The villain wasn't believable. The awfulness of the ending is mitigated by a slight up-beat at the end, which is surprising for this series.

Overall, I think this season was a mixed bag, which is something to be expected with an anthology show. The show is a bit tough to watch because of the relentless pessimism and, after a few episodes, it's easy to guess where some stories are going. Even so, the writing is intelligent and performances are good. "Nosedive" and "Men against Fire" were my favorite episodes. If you are interested in watching, start with those and then go in this order until you are unsatisfied:
  • Hated in the Nation
  • Playtest
  • Shut Up and Dance
  • San Junipero
The third season is available only streaming on Netflix.

Parental Advisory: The show is rated TV-MA, the small screen version of the R rating. I would say it is a very hard R, not just because of the challenging and difficult ideas but also for lots of swearing and violence and sex. I'd say the show is for mature teens and up.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Saint Nicholas Cookies

To celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas, we made some special Saint Nicholas cookies! My wife received a special cookie mold for her birthday and a book about making cookies with molds. She searched through the book for a recipe, choosing a speculoos recipe.

Naturally, the first step was to make the dough. My daughter was glad to help as long as she received the usual compensation.

Beating eggs

Adding brown sugar

A fine lump of dough

The usual compensation

The recipe recommends chilling the dough before rolling out and stamping with the cookie mold. Of it went to the refrigerator.

After the cool down, the dough was rolled out to an appropriate depth and then stamped out. After trying several methods, the final conclusion was to roll the dough onto the mold in both directions (up/down and left/right) to get the best detail from the mold. The dough was also rubbed with a little flour to keep it from sticking to the mold. The mold was also lightly painted with oil to keep it from being sticky.

Hand stamping

Needs some trimming!

Cookie two

My daughter tries the roller technique

She just rotated the mold, so she did up/down then rotate then up/down again

Trimming off the extra (for use in the next cookie!)

The recipe also recommended chilling in the fridge after stamping to help retain the detail on the cookie.

Chilling in the fridge after stamping

Baking was a snap after all that work. Some very respectable cookies were the result!

Cooling on the rack

One closeup

Another closeup

If you are interested in doing all this hard work to get fabulous results, we got the mold from the Springerle Baker and the book on Kindle from Amazon.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review: The Mansions of the Gods by R. Goscinny et al.

Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods written by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo

The Romans' latest scheme to conquer that village of pesky hold-outs in Gaul is to tear down the forest surrounding the village and put up a town center, complete with apartments, gardens, shops, and a circus. Architect Squareonthehypotenus heads off to start construction. Neither Asterix and his friends nor the Romans camped around the village are impressed with his plan. As the new arrivals start to tear down trees, Gaulish druid Getafix gives Asterix and Obelix some magic seeds to regrow the fallen trees. Comedy antics ensue.

I've read both funnier and less funny Asterix stories. As usual, the jokes are all over the place--making fun of Julius Caesar's ego, punning on people's names, fighting ridiculous fights. The premise is fun though the Romans don't get very far in their plans. They use slave labor to tear down the forest, including some Numidian slaves that look a bit too blackface for contemporary sensibilities. Otherwise the story is harmless fun.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Cute Kid Pix November 2016

Here's more pictures that didn't make their own blog post.

My toddler got a hold of the phone and managed to get some nice shots of himself.

Looking cute

Adding me in

For my birthday this month, we went to Rams Head Tavern at one of our favorite local spots, the Historic Savage Mill. We had brunch there since they have a Jazz trio playing live for Sunday brunch. I had the beer sampler, which seemed a little decadent at 11:30 in the morning. It was my birthday.

Sampler mat

For those interested, here are the beers included:
  • Gypsy Lager--A fairly standard lager, not my favorite style of beer, so this was not high on my list.
  • Rams Head IPA--Again, IPAs aren't my favorite style of beer (too bitter), so this was not my favorite drink here.
  • Oak Barrel Stout--I really liked the robust flavor of this stout.
  • Copperhead Ale--A yummy amber ale, I found this very tasty.
  • Wisteria Wheat--When I want a light-flavor beer, I choose wheat beers. This is a fun and crisp drink.
  • Seasonal Brew, Baltic Porter--Another dark and lovely beer, it made me smile. 
My favorites were the Oak Barrel Stout and the Baltic Porter.

In other news, scouts are still going strong. We had a pack meeting where the boys made care packages for those serving in the military. It was a fun meeting for the kids. We also found out that we had massive popcorn sales far exceeding expectations. Good times!

My son at the pack meeting

My daughter made a turkey at school from an apple and various bits of candy. She was quite proud and had fun eating the candy part of her turkey.

Turkey from school!

Also at school, Scholastic had a big book sale with a pirate theme called "Bookaneer." We posed with a pirate.

Pirate bird

My family with the pirate

The toddler was obsessed with the  teacher who dressed up as Geronimo Stilton, a popular character in kid's book who is a mouse. He was giving high fives and every time we moved off to look at books, he wanted to go back to the big mouse. I had to pick the toddler up every time for the high five, so no pictures of that!

My daughter repeated the school turkey project for our Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Hard to carve turkey

My older son managed to make a tower out of our full set of Wedgits. Sadly, the tower didn't last long once the toddler walked through the room. I was able to preserve it.

Ultimate tower of mega-power

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Review: Medieval Women Mystics by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard

Medieval Women Mystics: Gertrude the Great, Angela of Foligno, Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich introduced and edited by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard

This book gives a collection of writings by four medieval women who experienced mystical visions. Those visions were not just for their personal gratification but led them to live holier lives, instruct others, and give a concrete witness to the demands of Christ's love. They are not the only women mystics of the time. They have been selected to represent the variety of vocations available to women and to show a feminine response to grace. These texts are not dry, technical scholasticism. They do contain precision and show a concrete and personal response to the call to holiness.

Each section starts with a brief biography and overview of the woman followed by passages from primary texts. I am a fan of primary texts when studying someone so I like the format very much. Enough texts are provided for each woman to present various thoughts and experiences. Here is a quick overview of each lady:

Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) went as a five-year old orphan to the Benedictine abbey of Helfta. Nothing is known now of her parents; she clearly adopted the nuns as her family. She became a nun and had several visions of our Lord. Late in her life she was commanded to write down her visions. Some stories come from her own words; others are written down by others. She had a great closeness to Christ, granting her insights on His suffering and His relationship with His mother that are edifying.

Angela of Foligno (ca. 1248-1309) was highly influenced by the rise of the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, etc.), especially by the character and spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. She was a married woman of some wealth who was transformed by Francis's example. She became a spiritual mother to many and often gave others practical advice. Her words center around Christ in His poverty and humility, emphasizing that spiritual growth can only come through both the knowledge of Christ's life and the imitation of His example. Suffering is to be embraced as a means of unity with Jesus and a way to strengthen virtue.

Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) was also a married woman but she lived in high society. After having mystical visions of Jesus and His blessed mother, she spoke out against abuses and corruption among the courtly aristocrats, earning her the title "the Swedish Joan of Arc." She and her husband eventually left courtly life and went on various pilgrimages. Birgitta founded a mixed order (i.e. men and women in the same setting) and obtained papal approval. Her fame and influence all but disappeared during the Protestant Reformation and only recently has Birgitta's writings and contributions been recognized.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1420) had a near-death experience in her thirties during which she had sixteen visions of Jesus and Mary over a few days. Afterward, she became an anchorite, someone who dedicated their lives to prayer and counseling while never leaving very small quarters. Typically anchorites live in a room attached to or inside a church so they could receive the sacraments. She lived her life in Norwich at the Church of St. Julian (so most scholars don't even think "Julian" is her real name) and wrote a book about her visions and her reflections on them afterwards. Since she was not part of an order, her book was thought lost during the Protestant purges in England. She has only recently been rediscovered. She had an intense devotion to Jesus and Him crucified and is famous for writing "all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well." The quote is a response to reflections on the damage that sin causes. She is a bit controversial--she discusses the "motherhood" of Christ, which would surely garner all sorts of misinterpretations in modern media. She describes His providence and how He feeds His children from His own body, something that mothers do. So the idea isn't really as controversial as it seems.

The book is a wonderful overview and makes for a good jumping off point for further reading. I am interested especially in Julian and Birgitta and will be hunting around from more from them.