Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Toddler Levels Up Again

Our toddler is getting bigger, smarter, and more coordinated every day. The rate of change is impressive and worrying. Luckily, we have two older siblings to help keep up with him!

He is getting better at singing and dancing, which isn't so much of a problem. His taste in music is mostly based on YouTube videos, with Pentatonix and Sandra Boynton being the current favorites.

He's even shown interest in playing baseball like his big brother, trying on a helmet at the sporting goods store. We were shopping for big brother. Maybe the equipment will still be in good enough shape to be hand-me-downs in six or seven years?

Ready for a snowy world series!

For Christmas, our toddler received some roller skates (thanks Uncle Nate and Auntie Helen!). He had his first experience on a Tuesday night during the family skate at Laurel Skating Center.

Working on his skating skills

A happy skater moving at blurring speeds

He has also figured out how to undo the strap of his highchair, which makes meal and snack times a little more hazardous exciting.

What will you give me not to get down!

Life is a joy, especially because it brings so many new, wonderful, and surprising things!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

If you ask anyone to name a Japanese film director, the most likely answer will be "Akira Kurosawa." He has directed many classics (like Seven Samauri, Yojimbo, and Hidden Fortress) that have been remade by Western directors (like The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, and Star Wars) and many classics that were remakes of Shakespeare's plays (Throne of Blood and Ran). One of his early films, Rashomon, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, putting Japanese cinema on the international stage only five years after World War II. Kurosawa's significance is indisputable.

Kurosawa wrote an autobiography in 1983. The book only covers his early life, up to the international reception of Rashomon. He starts with his earliest memories (being in a bathtub as a toddler) and describes his life in the early decades of 20th century Japan. His home followed the classic samurai model, with traditional clothes and a simple layout to the house and a simple life style. He writes of his school years which both mirror and contrast to western education. He had the usual classes and problems with bullies and friends. He also took special lessons in calligraphy and kendo (weapon fighting), often having to walk several miles in the early hours before school. His love of art and literature started early and was a great help in his later career as a film maker.

His early adulthood was full of adventure. He was interested in being a painter and joined a socialist movement after school. That did not work out well (especially coming from a traditional home) and he wound up applying for an assistant director job at Toho studio. He had a tough time getting in but was soon under the tutelage of Kajiro Yamamoto. His skills as a writer, editor, and director bloomed at Toho, though there were many problems with union strikes and with censors, especially during World War II, when anything that seemed "British-American" was verboten. The book finishes with stories from several of Kurosawa's 1940s films, finishing with Rashomon. He recommends people interested in his later life to just watch his films, since he puts so much of himself into them and they are so central to his life.

Kurosawa's writing style is simple and direct with an unassuming air. He's open about his temper and mistakes he has made. His humility is refreshing and disarming. Occasional insights about film making are sprinkled throughout the book, with the lion's share at the end. I found the book very interesting and insightful about Kurosawa's film making and about him as a person. I want to watch (and rewatch) his early films.

Highly recommended!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon writing and art by Jill Thompson

After a war with Herakles, Queen Hippolyta and her Amazon warriors flee to the island of Themyscira. They set up an all-female paradise where peace and harmony reign. The only sadness for Hippolyta is that she wants a child. The Greek gods have compassion on her grief and send her a child, Diana. Diana is the darling of the Amazons. She has too much free reign and becomes spoiled and selfish as she grows into womanhood. She is the top star among the Amazons. Diana explores the strange and dark parts of the island and conquers the dangerous creatures she finds. Her ego leads her to compete in the annual contests of endurance and skill. She makes interesting discoveries and one bad decision that changes the course of her life forever.

The main enemy for Diana in the story is her own ego, which gives her a believable character arc and a reason to go out into the world as a hero at the end. I enjoyed the story even though it was predictable in parts. The water color art style is not my favorite but sometimes it worked perfectly with the story (the dreamy or fantastical parts--Poseidon looks amazing and unlike other depictions).

Well worth reading!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) co-written and directed by Bryan Singer

The ancient mutant En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (who has been amassing other mutant's powers over centuries) is beaten in 3000 B.C. Egypt by perfectly normal, everyday Egyptians. He isn't killed, only put to sleep for about 5000 years. While investigating mutants in 1983, Moira McTaggert accidentally awakens Apocalypse who brings together his four horsemen (because he's Apocalypse, get it?) to take over the world. Can Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his students and allies stop the madman before his plans wreak havoc? Of course, the answer to that question is obvious, which does not mean the movie can't still be entertaining.

Unfortunately, the film has a lot of things working against it. Many scenes are clearly designed to be seen in 3D, which is distracting when watching a 2D version at home on DVD. The movie also has too many "this scene is so cool we are going to show it in slow motion" moments. Which doesn't even include the Quicksilver (the guy who moves at high speed, so naturally he has some slow motion stuff) scenes--they are fun in small doses but again there are too many of them and looks like reruns of scenes from Days of Future Past.

Too many characters are left undeveloped or doing nothing until the end. Poor Angel and Psylocke are little more than eye-candy combatants with no character at all. They are part of the four horsemen but don't do anything until the climatic big battle. The other horsemen, Storm and Magneto, have good development, even with Storm's minimal screen time. Still, they too have almost nothing to do till the finale. Apocalypse even has to kidnap Xavier to make his plan work, making the other four look especially useless.

Having read the Age of Apocalypse graphic novels, I had a good idea of what Apocalypse's plan was, but that's not communicated clearly in the film. Apocalypse talks a lot about the devastation he's going to cause but does hardly any until the ending, even missing some fairly big opportunities early on. He does have menacing physical presence, but his incoherent and slow scheme make him into a lesser villain, which is a shame for someone named Apocalypse.

Other characters fair better. Xavier and Magneto work well as foils for each other (if only Magneto hadn't spent so much time with Apocalypse!). Happily, they don't overshadow the other characters--Cyclopes, Jean Grey, Mystique, and other X-Men get enough character development and moments so they don't look one dimensional like Angel and Psylocke. Director Singer is good at handling a large cast of characters but this movie has too many even for him.

The movie would benefit immensely from judicious script editing/re-writing and fewer "look how amazing these special effects are" moments. While certainly not as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand, this film is definitely on the lower end of the X-Men franchise.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa was a Japanese author writing in the early twentieth century (he died a suicide in 1927). His fictional settings range through the centuries. His attitude toward human nature is mostly consistent--cynical and pessimistic. The texts are straightforward accounts where the nuances come out of the characters' actions and thoughts.

1. In a Grove--Various witnesses give testimony to a High Police Commissioner about a rape and murder in a grove off of a major thoroughfare. Some incidental witnesses give some details and the main witnesses (the bandit assumed responsible, the assaulted wife, and the dead man who testimony comes from a medium) have stories that don't sync up. The truth is hard to find when people hold their egos in higher regard. The story is more of a character study than a mystery--the enigma of what happened is perhaps unsolvable.

2. Rashomon--Standing in the rundown city gate called Rashomon, a samurai's servant is waiting out the rain. He's just been fired so he considers what he will do. Like the gate, the city of Kyoto (the former capital of Japan) is run down. The prospects of earning an honest living are minimal, so he considers becoming a thief. His considerations are interrupted when he discovers another lost soul in the Rashomon. The bleak atmosphere of the story is unrelenting and the ambiguous resolution makes for a good discussion.

3. Yam Gruel--In the remote past, mid-level (i.e. non-descript) samurai Goi has no other desire than to eat yam gruel, then considered a delicacy. Goi is shabby in appearance, clothing, thought, and will, making him the target of practical joking by his superiors and inferiors. One superior, Toshihito, decides to play a long joke and takes Goi off to his splendid mansion in a distant province with the promise of yam gruel in abundance. The author makes a big deal about Goi being the hero of the story, perhaps only to satirize the hero's journey. If so, it is a rather bleak and joyless satire.

4. The Martyr--An orphan shows up at a Jesuit church in Nagasaki. The brothers take the child in because of a rosary wrapped around his wrist and the child's sweet and silent disposition. He grows up only to find horrible accusations made against him. The final twist in the story is a little too unbelievable (though a postscript claims the story is based on true events), spoiling an otherwise interesting look at Christians in Japan.

5. Kesa and Morito--Two lovers plan to murder the woman's husband. The story is told twice--once from the man's perspective, next from the woman's. Their differing details are reminiscent of "In a Grove," with the same sort of pessimism running through it.

6. The Dragon--Ancient storyteller Uji Dainagon Takakuni collects a story from a potter much like one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales from one of the pilgrims. The potter's story involves a prankster Buddhist priest who puts up a sign by a local pond: "On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond." The sign causes a sensation all out of proportion from the intended joke, leading to massive crowds camping out on the assigned date. Even the priest starts to think a dragon may rise!

The most upbeat of the stories (The Martyr and The Dragon) are from other source materials, making me reluctant to seek out more from Akutagawa. I don't mind dark themes and stories but these are a bit too unrelenting for me. I am sure to rewatch Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which uses the story Rashomon as a framing device around the In a Grove story. Kurosawa has a more positive resolution to the story, which makes a fascinating contrast.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ice Skating Lessons 2017

Our daughter asked for ice skating lessons after a fun session during the Christmas break. My wife hunted around for the best lessons we could find, putting her in a class at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel. The center is huge with four large rinks and the National Capital Curling Center right next door. They have hockey leagues, figure skating, birthday parties, and lessons. My daughter was assigned to instructor Greg who is great with kids. He told them his first rule is "No smiling." Several kids broke the rule immediately. Greg even broke his own rule (and acknowledged it) a few times! He's good at teaching skills and creating a fun environment.

Instructor checks his list

Catching a smiler

The first skill the children learned was falling down. Everyone aced it. Then they learned how to get back up, one skate at a time.

Everyone shares a natural talent

The next skill after falling and standing up on skates was marching across the rink with skates in a V-shape. The kids did a little coasting but mostly walking. This skill was also easy to do.

Marching across the rink

Getting separated from the crowd

The final skill for the first lesson was moving back and forth by alternating from a V-shape to an A-shape. The instructor drew little fish on the ice with a sharpie. Each student had their own personal practice area. This skill was the toughest to get down.

Don't cut the fish!

The rink also has a snack bar. We stopped for some popcorn after the lesson. The treat was a yummy boost to get us home. Future lessons promise to be even more fun!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Winter Baseball Tune-Up 2017

Our older son is interested in playing baseball this summer, so we signed him up for a winter tune-up class to sharpen his skills. The class is held at the gym of a nearby high school. The class was divided in half, so they could take turns practicing batting and fielding. My son's group started with fielding.

First, they practicing throwing back and forth. Then the students practiced fielding ground balls.

Keeping his glove low

Throwing back

They also practiced running backward side to side in order to catch a fly ball. At first, they did just the running part. After a few runs, the instructor started throwing fly balls. Occasionally they hit the ceiling or the raised basketball hoops, making the balls even harder to catch. 

In action (from a distance too, hence the blur)

 The switch to batting practice required abandoning the glove and getting a helmet and bat. The very first skill taught was the proper grip. The coach told them to align the knuckles of both hands. This grip gives the batter more range of motion. The other important trick to practice is aligning feet, using a bat on the ground.

First batting skill--with the bat on the floor!

They practiced batting on tees, emphasizing keeping the eye on the ball and the "load and step" to add power to the swing.

Getting ready

Loading to swing

We had another short round of fielding which was the most fun according to my son. The kids practiced crow-stepping into a throw to get more distance after catching fly balls. He looked impressive.


My son can't wait for the next class!