Sunday, October 15, 2017

Scary Movies:Tales of Terror

Tales of Terror is one of a series of several horror movies Roger Corman directed in the 1960s based on Edgar Allen Poe stories. Actually, this movie is an anthology, with three stories--the first based on the Poe short story "Morella," the second a sort of mix of "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado," and the third based on the short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Richard Matheson, probably best known for writing a number of the Twilight Zone episodes (although he was also a prolific horror and SF novelist), wrote the screenplay.

The movie doesn't lack for star power, as it features Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. Quite a line-up! I found the first story forgettable, while the third, about a man hypnotized on the brink of death and not allowed to die by his hypnotist, is somewhat creepy but slight (although my daughter found it frightening.).

The second story, however, is immensely entertaining. In it, Peter Lorre plays a wicked old drunk named Montresor Herringbone, who's always trying to wheedle more drinking money out of his wife, while never failing to kick her black cat out of the way. One day he comes across a wine-tasting event, where he matches famous oenophile Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price) drink for drink in a hilarious tasting contest. Fortunato takes him home, where Montresor passes out. Fortunato really hits it off with Montresor's long-suffering wife, and soon she's cheerfully giving Montresor drinking money so she'll have time alone to spend with Fortunato. The other drunks  at the bar clue Montresor in to his cuckolding, however, so one evening he gives Fortunato a glass of amontillado (his favorite) with sleeping powder in it. When Fortunato awakens, Montresor has chained him and his wife to a wall in a niche in the basement, and bricks them in alive. Montresor thinks he's committed an unsolvable murder, and practically invites the police to search his house for the missing persons. He overlooked only one little thing--the black cat was bricked in too, and begins yowling as the police search the basement, giving away Montresor's secret.

Tales of Terror (1962)

Story/Plot/Characters--A top-notch script and great acting, with Vincent Price in the second story really outdoing himself as the foppish Fortunato. It might have been nice if they'd found a way to tie the three stories together in some way. (3 points)
Special Effects--The effects do what they have to do and are in line with other 1960s films. The color-wheel hypnosis machine in the third story is eerie. (1 point)
Scariness--The first two stories aren't really scary, while the third is moderately creepy. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Great atmosphere--the creepy mansion in the first story is the only good part of it, while the twisting streets of 19th century Boston in the second story really support the "drunk" viewpoint of Montresor. The third story gets definite points for freakiness. (1.5 points)
Total=6 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1942)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Friendship Experiment

I guess The Friendship Experiment, by Erin Teagan, is actually a middle grade novel, rather than a YA, as I have it tagged on this post. Maybe I need to create a separate middle grade tag, as I may be reading a lot more soon. TFE is the first book of the year assigned in the Parent-Teen Book Club at my son's middle school. I have to imagine most of the other books in the club we'll be reading will be middle grade as well....

Maddie's grandfather, a famous scientist and the person she most looks up to in the world, died over the summer. It was her grandfather who showed her how to write a standard operating procedure (SOP) for tackling any difficult problem in her life. It was her grandfather who encouraged her most in swabbing gross things she finds so she can culture them in agar later and see what grows. And she could really use his advice now, because Maddie just started sixth grade at her new middle school, and things are not going well.

Her best friend from elementary school, who wants to be a scientist just like Maddie, is going to a private school so they hardly ever see each other. The new kids in her classes are weird, especially Riley, who went to Space Camp over the summer and wants to be an astronaut, but is really just a show-off. And her older sister's Von Willebrand Disease (a type of hemophilia), which Maddie also has, seems to be getting worse. Things are so much more complicated than when she was in elementary school. Without her grandfather's guidance, how will Maddie deal with these new problems?

This is a really fun book. I mean, it's just easy to read, Maddie is so likable, and everything moves at a nice, brisk pace. It's slightly quirky but not enough to be off-putting. I do have one objection, and that's that one of the major plot twists in the book is lifted straight from Harriet the Spy (do kids not read that book anymore?). I don't want to give away the twist, but if you've read Harriet you probably have a good idea which scene I mean. But this is a great book for middle schoolers, especially those who like science, and their parents who've joined them in book clubs.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Scary Movies: Alien 3

We're coming up on the scary movie season and we have some great movies lined up this year. Before we get to that, though, I need to clear the decks. My son and I watched Alien 3 a couple months ago, so I need to add that. (I reviewed Alien last year here and Aliens here.) Not my first choice, as I remember it was quite poorly reviewed at the time, and I don't recall anybody every saying it was worth watching. But my son really wanted to see it.

So how was it? Hmm. Not good. But not as bad as it could have been. The premise was decent, writing and acting much better than usual for a horror film, even Sigourney Weaver was back. But it was still just...flat. Not scary. Or even suspenseful. There might have been a good horror movie somewhere in the footage they shot, but what made it onto the screen was not it.

One big problem is that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has an alien queen egg implanted inside her. Apparently other aliens can smell or otherwise sense that, so they simply leave Ripley alone. Not very suspenseful when your main character is immune to the monster.

Moreover, there is only one alien here--after a whole planet full of them in the last movie. And even that alien is not used well. The tension doesn't build, and the places where the scares should be are too predictable. During scary movies, my son will often go sit on the stairs out of view of the TV during scenes that are too tense--and he didn't do that once for this one. A bad sign.

Quick plot recap: After escaping the alien planet in the last movie, Ripley's ship crash lands on a prison planet. All the others on the ship besides her die in the crash, except one visitor they didn't realize was on board--yes, they had an alien stowaway. The prison planet was once a major destination for criminals, but the prison is being decommissioned, and all that's left are a couple dozen prisoners with life sentences, plus the warden and his assistant, and a doctor. The prisoners have fallen under the sway of one particularly charismatic prisoner who preaches that they can achieve salvation by living pure lives and keeping their thoughts pure as well. The female Ripley landing on the planet--the first woman any of them have seen for years--puts a terrible temptation before them.

Is Ripley safe from the prisoners? Are the prisoners safe from the alien they don't realize is loose among them? Will the movie take advantage of a potentially interesting premise? I'd say the answers to all three questions are definitely "no."

ALIEN 3 (1992)

Story/Plot/Characters--Good acting by horror movie standards. A good start to the plot but doesn't follow through. Some characters seem interesting at the beginning, but aren't developed. The only one we find anything about, the prison doctor, is killed halfway through. (1 point)
Special Effects--The effects, sets, and costuming in the Alien are consistently spectacular. But by this point we've seen it all before, and this movie doesn't add anything new. (1 point)
Scariness--I guess the alien is inherently somewhat scary, but this movie is one of the worst horror films I've ever seen for building tension. It simply doesn't do it. The editing is off, or something. There's neither suspense nor jump scares. I mean, it's not for kids, but nobody above the age of 10 is going to be bothered by this. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--There's some good atmosphere in the abandoned industrial settings of the once busy prison colony. That's probably the best part of the movie. (1 point)
Total=3 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1942)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Monday, October 2, 2017

What I'm Reading: Ancient Brews

Ancient Brews, by Penn biomolecular archeologist Patrick McGovern, explores the alcoholic beverages our distant ancestors enjoyed and how we know that.

Dr. McGovern first explains how he uses various molecular sampling techniques to determine the ingredients found in the residue of an ancient cup, amphora, or pottery vessel. For instance, if his tests find tartaric acid in a sample, that's an indicator that the vessel the sample if from once held grape juice or wine.

In succeeding chapters, he tells of his trips to various archeological sites around the world to discover what the ancient Iranians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Scandinavians, Incans, and others liked as a tipple, followed by his attempt, along with Dogfish Head brewery chief brewer Sam Calagione, to recreate the ancient beverage in the modern day. Each chapter includes a recipe for a homebrewer who might himself like to try to create the ancient beverage (good luck! Some of the recipes are fairly complicated and call for obscure herbs or other ingredients that might not be that easy to come by) as well as a recipe for a complementary food pairing.

Because I recently listened to the Modern Scholar lecture series on the Incan Empire by Dr. Terence D'Altroy, the most interesting chapter to me in Dr. McGovern's book was the one on chicha, the corn beer brewed by the ancient Incans. It is still a popular drink today in modern Peru, often still made using the ancient method of chewing the corn kernels and spitting them out into a big bowl to get the fermentation started. (Yes, for Dr. McGovern's recreation of the beverage, there's a great photograph of him and Sam and their colleagues sitting around, chewing and spitting the red corn.) The alcohol kills any harmful bacteria in the resulting drink, by the way, so it's perfectly sanitary, if disgusting by our modern standards.

I learned a lot from this book. My main impression of ancient beverages is that our ancestors basically mixed together everything they had--wine, mead, beer, plus lots of herbs--into one giant grog. Even when the wine culture took over in the Mediterranean, the ancients mixed it with pine resin as a preservative, and lots of other herbal additives as well. In Europe into the Middle Ages, a grog known as gruit was one of the most popular drinks. It seems our modern, purer conception of distinct drink categories that should not be mixed is a more recent phenomenon.

All in all, a fun and informative book, obviously great for beer drinkers, but really of interest to anybody who wants to know about what ancient cultures ate and drank, as well as the work of  archeologists in the subfield of cuisine archeology.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

What I'm Reading: Logical Chess

I’m in a chess arms race with my son (age 12). I’ve always been able to beat him in chess, but last spring he beat me two out of three games. I knew it was time to upgrade my skills! I started playing chess online at chess.com. I prefer the 15-minute rapid game, and settled at a rating in the mid-700s.
But then my son opened his own account there, and started playing online. And when we played, I could tell he was getting better. So I did some research, and found that this book, Chess Logic, by Irving Chernev, was highly recommended by several folks on the interwebs who seemed to know what they were writing about. Chess Logic contains 33 actual historical games, with each and every move clearly explained for a chess beginner—why does Capablanca move the knight and not the bishop? Why does Tarrasch castle now and not later? And so forth.
And the book has worked—I feel a lot more in control of my chess game, my rating has risen to the low 900s, and most importantly, my son hasn’t beaten me in months. But now the real problems has arisen—I think I’m addicted to chess. I never considered it anything but an amusing diversion before, but now things are different. When I start playing, I feel a little shaky as the adrenaline starts to flow, and when I lose a game online and my rating falls, I’m upset for the rest of the day. I’ve mostly given up beer with dinner so I’ll have the clearest possible mind when I play in the evening. Worst of all, my playing is even starting to cut into my writing time.
So do I recommend this book? Well, if you're not interested in chess, obviously it's not going to be something you'll want to read. And I don't think it would work for a novice, either--you have to have some familiarity with the game to make sense of it. But for an amateur chess player who's been playing for a while and wants to improve his game, this is the consensus book for doing so, and I'm inclined to agree with the consensus. I mean, I've never read a chess book before, so maybe reading any chess instruction would've improved my game, but I doubt other books would have done so well as this one.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What I'm Reading: Symposium and Phaedrus

I had originally included these under the roundup, just below, but decided they deserve their own entry.

Symposium I've also reviewed other dialogues by Plato--the Republic and a collection of five dialogues related to the execution of Socrates.

First, let me address the question--"Oh, you're reading Plato. Isn't it hard to read?"

And the answer is, no, not at all, I know this is philosophy, but this isn't Kant or Hobbes or Schopenhauer or somebody like that. Plato writes dialogues, i.e., conversations. His main character is always Socrates, an immensely likable character (how much Plato's Socrates reflects the real historical man is a matter of endless debate among scholars) who has a knack for leading his friends and students in discussions of philosophical matters that feel totally natural and are pretty easy to follow.

The Symposium is one of Plato's most beloved works, mostly because it relates the events of a Greek drinking party. Socrates and several others have gotten together to celebrate because their friend Aristophanes, the famous Greek comedian, has won an award for presenting the best play that year. Before they start drinking, they decide each will give a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love, and at the end they'll judge who gave the best speech.

Each gives a speech in turn praising love, with Aristophanes in particular giving an odd and humorous account. At the end, Socrates gives a high-minded speech about how the best kind of love is philosophical love, which benefits all mankind, and you think that's the end.

But then the party is crashed by a very drunk, semi-belligerent Alcibiades, the notorious Greek playboy, who tells them all not to heed a word of Socrates, because he doesn't know a thing about love. Alcibiades gives a rambling but funny account of trying to seduce Socrates, which he thought would be easy because Socrates is an older man, only to find himself thwarted at every turn.

The party ends at dawn with everybody drunk and passed out. Only Socrates remains awake. He walks to town, performs his morning prayers, and goes about his day none the worse for wear, his rational nature completely unaffected by a night of drinking.

Phaedrus Okay, the book with the Symposium included this dialogue as a sort of bonus. It starts off a little lightweight as far as Plato's dialogues go, though charming, and by the end has reached unsuspected depths.

Socrates runs into his friend Phaedrus one morning on walk in the countryside, and they agree to walk together while Phaedrus explains a speech his friend Lysias gave him, trying to talk Phaedrus into sleeping with him even though they aren't in love with each other.

At a beautiful creek that they think must by the home to water nymphs, Socrates explains why Lysias's speech was foolish, point by point. He then goes further, elucidating why one should avoid sophistry like Lysias's speech and always tell the truth, with digressions on such things as the nature of the soul. At the end, Phaedrus and Socrates walk back to Athens.

Simple in some ways, but so profound I anticipate rereading this in the near future.

What I'm Reading: Roundup

It's been a while since I've written on here. I'll do a quick roundup of what I've been reading.

Fuzzy Mud A middle-grade novel by Louis Sachar, who some may know for writing Holes. We listened to this on our recent trip up to western Massachusetts and it managed a tricky feat--keeping the interest of the eight-year old girl, the twelve-year old boy, and the two adults in the car.

Fuzzy Mud has two parallel stories: the first follows three students at a private school in Pennsylvania--the third-grader Tamaya, a goody two-shoes who has to walk to school with her older neighbor Marshall, who in turn is bullied by his classmate Chad; the second story follows a scientist testifying before a Senate subcommittee on a type of one-celled organism he has developed that could provide an energy source superior to oil, but which has some very troubling side effects.

When Tamaya and Marshall are walking home from school on a shortcut through the woods one day, they meet Chad, and to keep Marshall from getting beat up, Tamaya throws a strange kind of fuzzy mud in Chad's face. It's here that the two stories meet in a heartbreaking way that I won't explain.

One of the reviews on Amazon describes this as an eco-disaster novel, and while accurate, I'm not sure that fully captures the book. This story definitely took some twists I did not foresee. It's probably a bit darker than a lot of middle-grade novels, but the characters are so well-drawn and sympathetic--even the bully Chad, once we learn a little of his backstory--that I imagine any middle-schooler will find this hard to put down. Any adult too, for that matter. I highly recommend this.

Unsound The most recent comic series by highly-prolific horror comics writer Cullen Bunn. I have previously reviewed Cullen Bunn's series Harrow County (which is ongoing, by the way, and remains one of the two or three best comics I read on a regular basis.)

Unsound is a four-issue mini-series following Ashli, who has just accepted a job as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital housed in a century-old building with quite an unpleasant history. By the end of the first issue, Ashli discovers she may have more in common with the patients than the rest of the staff, especially since she has some unresolved mental issues from her own past.

We're up the third issue of this, with the fourth issue due out in September. The series is more creepy than scary, with a number of really bizarre scenes. I have no idea where it's going, though more because the story is a freak-out than because it plays fair with genuine narrative twists. Still, fun for those who like scary things.