Saturday, November 4, 2017

Scary Movies: Carrie

Working through a backlog of horror movies we watched this past October, and now we come to a personal favorite of mine, Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma and released in 1976. I haven't seen it since I was a senior in high school, but it was near the top of my list at the time, and remains so after this viewing.

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is in high school and lives with her religiously fanatical mother who believes that all sex is sinful. She refuses to let her daughter date boys or really hang out with any other kids in school, and even the smallest signs of rebellion on Carrie's part result in her mother dragging her into a dark closet and locking the door on her. It's during one of these sessions that Carrie discovers when she is under extreme emotional duress, she is capable of moving objects with her mind.

The movie starts in a girls' locker room when Carrie gets her first period and, not knowing what it is or that menstrual blood won't hurt her, believes she's dying and starts screaming. The other girls stand around and make fun of her (shouting "plug it up!") until the gym teacher intervenes. One of the girls, Sue (played by Amy Irving, the future Mrs. Steven Spielberg), feels bad about what happened, and decides to ask her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy is captain of the football team, but is actually really sensitive and kind of likes Carrie, and agrees.

However, one of the mean girls, Chris, gets wind that Carrie is going to the prom, and decides to play a cruel prank on her. I won't go too much into exactly what happens then, except to note that Carrie's breakdown and telekinetic revenge against her tormentors at the prom is one of the great scenes in horror movie history.

Seeing this as an adult, what strikes me is that this a feminist film. The only ones who have any real idea of what's going on are the women--the gym teacher, Sue, Chris. They easily manipulate the clueless men in the movie--the school's principal in the gym teacher's case, their boyfriends in the girls' case. I suppose you could even make the case that the problem with Carrie's mother is that she never taps into her female sexual power; traumatized by the rape that produced the daughter she hates, she has submitted herself wholly to the masculine religion of Christianity. And of course, Carrie herself, who's felt victimized all her life, takes control of the situation when she discovers her true power.

Carrie (1976)

Story/Plot/Characters--Great script, pitch-perfect acting (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie's mother, both received Academy award nominations for their roles), tight plotting based on a story by Steven King. (4 points)
Special Effects-- Not a real heavy special effects movie, at least until the climax, but pretty good once they get going. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Some tense moments but not a real scary horror movie. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Set in a suburban high school with lots of daytime scenes, the atmosphere is not really what this one is about. Carrie's home life is pretty freaky, I guess, and her candle-lit house on the edge of town, decorated with horrific icons of Christ's crucifixion, is a nice touch. (1 point)
Total=7.5 points (Excellent)

______________________________________________________________________________
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
Carrie (1976)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
The Birds (1963)=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 (1992)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What I'm Reading: Sachiko

Sachiko is the story of Sashiko Yasui, who was a five-year old living in Nagasaki in 1945 when the atomic bomb exploded only three-quarters of a mile from her house.That one moment became the defining event of her life, as the blast took her family from her--either immediately, in the blast, or over the coming years, from radiation sickness and cancer.

But Sachiko has lived to the present day, after a successful operation to remove her cancerous thyroid gland in the 1960s. At the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, she began speaking to local school groups about her experiences, and has since toured all over Japan and North America.

She is also an admirer of Helen Keller, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and has worked for a peace and anti-nuclear organization in Nagasaki for several years. It is her hope that by telling her story widely future generations will not have to go through what she did.

The author of this book is Caren Stelson, an American woman who saw Sachiko speak in Minneapolis in 2005 and thought there needed to be an English-language version of her story in print. I have labeled this as a memoir, however, because my impression is that this is more of a translation of Sachiko Yasui's own words than the collection and interpretation of multiple sources that would be correctly labeled a biography.

Though aimed at middle-grade level readers, it is quite an intense book, with accurate and detailed descriptions of the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki and its aftermath. It might be hard to read for more sensitive readers. For those interested in the topic, though, it would be tough to find a more immediate first-hand account than Sachiko.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What I'm Reading: Play Winning Chess

Play Winning Chess is the first in a seven-book series by former US chess champion Yasser Seirawan and international grand master Jeremy Silman. The series as a whole is highly recommended in a number of chess reviews, and they all agree you should start with the first book, even if you think it might be too basic, because it introduces you to Seirawan's system and anyway, even an intermediate player could still pick something up.

And that's pretty much what I concluded--it was a little too basic overall for where I am, yet I still learned a few things. Especially helpful was the chapter on pawns. I knew about things like pawn chains and doubled pawns already, but Seirawan provided a more systematic way of looking at your pawn structure. I especially liked a little diagram he included about how to make sure your pawn is the one that passes and becomes a queen when two pawn masses meet.

Other helpful tidbits included some good advice on using your knights to work your way into your opponents line, how to counter an opponent who's brought out his queen too early, and some interesting profiles of famous chess masters from the past.

I would highly recommend this book to a beginning chess player who wants to improve--this is a great place to start. For an intermediate player, you will almost certainly learn some things, and I'm assured this volume will prepare you for Seirawan's more advanced books to come. Indeed, I've already started the second book in the series, on tactics, and find it is much more challenging for my level.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Scary Movies:The Birds

I assume I don't have to explain too much about Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette, it's one of Hitchcock's best-known movies, although it was my first time seeing it. Everybody in my family enjoyed this one, with interests held from beginning to end. In retrospect, it may have been little too intense for my eight-year old daughter, although she did comment it wasn't quite as scary as Jaws. It was fine for my twelve-year old son.

The movie takes place over a weekend in the small town of Bodega Bay, California. Melanie Daniels, a young and pretty, but rather bratty, lady meets lawyer Mitch Brenner in a pet shop in San Francisco, where he is searching for a pair of lovebirds to give to his much younger sister as a birthday gift. Melanie is another customer but poses as an employee, but when it turns out there are no lovebirds in stock, decides to order a pair and deliver them the next day herself to Bodega Bay, where Mitch returns to visit his mother and sister every weekend.

Melanie only intends to deliver the birds and go back to San Francisco, but Mitch convinces her to stay for dinner, and then to attend his little sister Cathy's birthday party the next day. Meantime, a couple odd incidents take place concerning the local birds: in one scene, a gull attacks Melanie while she's in a rowboat on the water; in another, a gull flies into a door and dies. But the movie really gets underway at Cathy's party, when gulls attack the kids as they're playing party games, and the adults have to fight off the flock and carry the screaming children inside.

I won't give away what happens from there as the characters struggle to understand why the birds have turned against humans, and how they can escape the town.

The Birds (1963)

Story/Plot/Characters--The premise is just the slightest bit silly but the script treats it as deadly serious and pulls it off. The acting is excellent and the characters completely believable. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Dated by today's standards but effective for what they are. (1 point)
Scariness--Genuinely creepy with a few scares. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The small town of Bodega Bay is a good setting for a story like this--a small, foggy seaside village. I think the sense of isolation of the town is undermined a bit by several references to the freeway that passes a few miles away.  (1 point)
Total=6.5 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
The Birds (1963)=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

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