I'm not a big fan of Halloween and frankly, never was. Even as a kid I was in it strictly for the candy. I especially don't like how adults have now taken over an occasion which should be for and about children and made it into an excuse to wear risque costumes and party. I'm also not fond of horror movies: my favourite Halloween film is Arsenic and Old Lace. Which is, of course, amazing. That's not to say that I don't enjoy a clever, creepy film or story on occasion, but I can't stand the brainless gore-fests which generally get served up for Halloween viewing. That being said, it is fun to see the nephews and nieces enjoying dressing up for trick or treating; here are a few of my nephews, ready to hit the candy trail: Two are being ninjas (costumes sewn by me)
One being a bank robber, and the other a professor:
Below is a rendition of Robert Burns' 1790 poem Tam o' Shanter. Tam is a farmer who, after a night of drinking at the local pub, starts home through the woods on his horse Meg. Passing by a haunted church, Tam stumbles upon a coven of witches and goblins holding a dance, with the devil himself playing the bagpipes for them. The creatures at first don't notice him, but in his drunken state Tam eventually shouts something out, alerting them to his presence. They aren't pleased.
Last night we watched the 2011 film adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel, Jane Eyre. This book has been adapted to film many times; I've personally seen three or four of these. This 2011 version holds up quite well, for a number of reasons. First, it would be hard to screw up Bronte's excellent work very much, and the director- Cary Fukunaga- doesn't. Also, Mia Wasikowska is excellent as the titular Jane: quiet and unworldly, yet firm in her opinions and beliefs. Michael Fassbender doesn't get a lot of screen time as Mr. Rochester but makes the most of it; he does jaded and bitter very well. This adaptation plays up the gothic atmosphere of Thornfield Hall, which is delightfully creepy at night with its dark shadows, hidden doors, and the creaks and moans which may or may not have a human origin. The movie isn't perfect, of course, but most of its problems stem from the fact that the story has had to be pared down to fit into a two hour time frame. A lot of the really great dialogue has been cut, as well as the interactions between Rochester and Jane, which makes their deep attachment seem a bit sudden for my taste. Also, Fukunaga chose to start the film with Jane running away from the Hall and arriving at the Rivers' house, and then showing everything which happened before in flashbacks. Most of those watching were okay with this because we know the story well, but one person was viewing Jane Eyre for the first time and also hadn't read the book (suspected philistine) and he found this a bit confusing at first. Lastly- and this is just a quibble, really- I have a hard time taking Jamie Bell seriously as St. John Rivers. He seems a bit... not right, though I'm not sure why exactly. But every time he's on the screen with his big side whiskers I feel inclined to laugh, which probably wasn't the effect they were going for. This is, however, a very small thing, and the movie is definitely worth your time.
“Chess teaches foresight, by having to plan ahead; vigilance, by having to keep watch over the whole chess board; caution, by having to restrain ourselves from making hasty moves; and finally, we learn from chess the greatest maxim in life - that even when everything seems to be going badly for us we should not lose heart, but always hoping for a change for the better, steadfastly continue searching for the solutions to our problems.” ― Benjamin Franklin
I enjoy an occasional game of chess, although I'm not a good player. I've always meant to find the time to study the game and better my skills, but haven't done so yet; maybe I like the idea of being good at chess more than I like the thought of working towards that goal. One of my nephews has taken up the game, and I have the lowering suspicion that it won't be too long before he is able to beat me at it. I am looking forward to watching my favourite chess movie with him, though: Searching For Bobby Fischer. I think that he'll enjoy it.
Searching For Bobby Fischer is a great film, but there are lots of movies which feature chess games. One is the delightful 1997 Pixar short pictured on the right: Geri's Game. Pixar has produced a lot of really cute film shorts over the years, but I think that this is my favourite one. There are plenty of other films which include a chess scene in them; here's a few of them:
This is a scene from the 1957 movie The Seventh Seal, which is set in medieval Sweden during an outbreak of the Black Plague. In it, knight Antonius Block returns from the Crusades only to meet a black robed figure who turns out to be Death, come to claim his life. Hoping to delay this fate, Block challenges Death to a game of chess.
In the 1942 film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's character Rick Blaine is sitting in his nightclub playing chess against himself when he is approached by seedy criminal Signor Ugarte- played by the always great Peter Lorre- about the letters of transit. Incidentally, Bogart was an excellent chess player who, before he became a star, used to earn money playing chess in New York parks.
Stalag 17 is a 1953 film about American POWs held in a German prison camp during World War II. The men gradually become convinced that someone in their midst is a German spy. Chess ends up playing an important role in the movie.
In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronaut Frank Poole plays a game of chess with the computer HAL 9000. I've only made it all the way through this film once- a long time ago- and never realized this, but one clue given that something's seriously off with HAL is that he cheats during the game.
Incidentally this is how, in the TOS episode Court Martial, Spock figures out that there's something wrong with the ship's computer system. The computer logs seem to implicate Kirk in a crime which he denies perpetrating. Spock is playing 3-D chess against the computer and wins a series of games. Since he programmed the game into the system, Spock reasons that he should only be able to play to a draw which leads him to suspect that someone has tampered with the computer, causing other glitches. These are only a few of many movies which feature a chess game in some way, but the earliest of all chess films is a silent short from 1903 called A Chess Dispute, which is about a game gone bad:
Yesterday was one of those days for me. The day before yesterday I had an early meeting, so had set the alarm on my phone for an hour earlier than usual. That night, I forgot to reset the alarm to the regular time, so it went off an hour early again. I turned it off and thought groggily, "I don't have to get up yet." Of course, I fell back to sleep and slept past the time when I should have got up. This led to me tearing around to get ready for work, skipping breakfast, and running out the door only to have to return because I forgot some papers I needed. I made it to work on time- just- and breakfasted on a sad, stale muffin left over from the meeting the previous day. A couple of cups of strong black coffee had me feeling better, but for the rest of the day everything seemed to go just a little bit wrong. Perhaps the bad start to my day exaggerated the preponderance of the day's mishaps and irritations- and maybe I was just cranky- but everything I worked on or dealt with seemed to go south. I was glad when the day was over and I could go home and shelter in place. Oh well...
In honour of my disaster of a day, here's Elvis in his 1960 movie G.I. Blues singing "Didja' Ever":
Shakespeare's Hamlet may seem an odd- and grim- source to draw a Christmas carol from, but one of the pieces our choir is singing in our concert is actually a selection from its first act, set to music. It is the opening piece in the 1989 choral Noel written by Canadian composer Nancy Telfer. The song is titled "The Bird of Dawning" and its lyrics are a passage spoken by Marcellus in scene one, atop the battlements at Elsinore Castle:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, This bird of dawning singeth all night long; And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad, The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
So what this passage is referencing is the previous appearance of Hamlet's father as a ghost. Marcellus says that the apparition disappeared at the crowing of the cock at dawn. The belief was that spirits could only travel about during the nighttime hours and would have to flit away at the first crow signifying dawn. There was also a legend at the time that, on Christmas Eve, the rooster- "bird of dawning"- would crow all night long, which kept spirits and demons and other unchancy things from being able to move about or do evil upon the earth on holy Christmas Day. I couldn't find a version of Tefler's composition online anywhere, so will post the Hamlet passage set to a different tune (frankly, I like ours better):
I got this book for my birthday this year, and finished it a few weeks ago. It is a biography of a dozen or so women who worked at Bletchley Park during W.W. II. Bletchley Park was the Buckinghamshire country estate which housed the British codebreakers who worked on the Axis secret codes, like Enigma and Lorenz. The Park and its denizens gained quite a bit of attention after the release of The Imitation Game in 2014, a film about Alan Turing and the other cryptographers who broke the Enigma code. For The Bletchley Girls, the author Tessa Dunlop tracked down a number of women- all in their nineties now- who worked at the Park. The book tells their stories: their lives before the war, their experiences during those years, and what became of them afterwards. At that time, with most able-bodied men headed over the Channel, most of the staff at Bletchley were women. Most, however, weren't working as cryptographers- they were generally doing more mundane, even boring jobs such as collecting incoming information, organizing and typing it up for use. It really becomes obvious that the seemingly miraculous- and truly genius- code breaking that went on there depended greatly on the painstaking and often tedious work of hundreds of individuals who received no recognition for their service, and frequently had little idea themselves of the importance of their work. I find first-hand historical accounts fascinating, so was eager to read this book and learn of the contributions of these women to the war effort in England. Quite a bit of it was very interesting, not least finding out a bit about how Bletchley Park functioned. It seems to have been very compartmentalized, with different departments seldom knowing what others were doing, or even mixing much in their down time. It was also interesting to note the reactions of different girls to the work, depending on their social position. The girls interviewed who were from families of wealth and/or upper class, and were used to travel and interactions in the wider world often found the regimented life at Bletchley limiting and restrictive. Others who were away from home and making money for the first time seemed more likely to find their new positions freeing, even if the jobs they were doing weren't wildly exciting.
Another thing I found interesting was the fact that many of these women were talking about their wartime experiences for the first time. Having signed the Official Secrets Act at the beginning of their employment, they took it seriously and kept quiet for over sixty years. A lot of them never even told their husbands exactly what they had worked on at the Park. Living in an age where people think nothing of blabbing every intimate detail of their lives online, and even many who have taken oaths of secrecy break them with impunity, I find the unwavering loyalty and discretion of these women admirable and refreshing. I also admire the mental toughness that these women displayed. Although not on the front lines, they were contributing to the war effort in important ways and were not immune from the risks associated with living and working in Britain during the Blitz. Also, many of them lost family members- fathers, brothers, fiances- to the war and kept on working through their pain and grief. Again, at a time where men and women in this age group are now shrieking and crying and running for safe spaces when confronted with opinions they don't agree with, I can but contemplate with admiration the generation which faced down Nazi Germany and didn't falter.
Having said all that, I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as I thought I would. One of the reasons for this was that the book follows the stories of a lot of women and it skips back and forth between their narratives frequently and seemingly at random, making it extremely difficult to keep track of who's who. As I was reading this book at work on my lunch hours, I had to keep checking back to previous parts to figure out what girl I had left off reading about. This problem would have been more easily surmountable if, in addition to skipping back and forth between characters, the book also didn't hop between time periods. The Bletchley Girls doesn't relate the experiences of these women in chronological order, and the frequent jumping between characters paired with the temporal leaps makes it almost impossible to get a handle on what was happening to whom, and when it was occurring. I think the book would have been better if, perhaps, the number of women in it had been pared down, although I'm reluctant to advocate cutting any of their narratives from its pages. If, instead, the author had arranged the book differently- in chronological order, and with less skipping between the women's stories- then I think this would have been an easier and more memorable read. Nevertheless, The Blethchley Girls provided me with information about a part of the war effort which I previously knew little about, and I'm glad that I read it.
This Sunday night we watched The Finest Hours, a 2016 Disney movie which tells the true story of the 1952 rescue of the crew of the S.S. Pendleton by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Pendleton was an oil tanker which was torn in two during a severe storm off the coast of Cape Cod. The coast guard's resources stretched by the fact that they were already participating in the rescue of another tanker which was sinking, a rescue team of four led by Bernard Webber was dispatched to attempt the rescue of the surviving crew of the Pendleton. Amazingly, they managed to do so. The film stars Chris Pine as Bernie Webber and Casey Affleck as Ray Sybert, the chief engineer on the Pendleton and de facto commander after the loss of the captain and several other crewmen. The performances are all fine, but the real star of the movie is the stormy sea which the men must pit themselves against and try to survive. The monster waves are of course CGI, but it's really well done and those scenes are tense and suspenseful. I thought the movie was quite good, though it didn't do well in theaters and got rather lukewarm reviews from critics. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus review stated: "Old-fashioned to a fault, The Finest Hours will satisfy those seeking a traditional rescue drama- but may leave more adventurous viewers wanting more." I don't know what this means, exactly. If by old-fashioned they mean it's about brave men who nobly risk their lives to save others, then I guess it is, although I don't understand why this would be considered a bad thing. As for it not satisfying "more adventurous viewers," it's about a small boat going out in a hurricane-force gale to attempt the rescue of men on a sinking ship. What exactly would these couch-bound "adventurers" prefer: aliens arriving for a firefight in the middle of the film? According to the author of the book the movie was based upon, the film sticks very closely to the actual events of the miraculous 1952 rescue, yet apparently there are critics sitting about cramming popcorn in their mouths and carping, "Not sensational enough!" Give me a break. I suppose that one reason I appreciate this film is that I live in a Maritime province and am well aware of the complicated relationship we have with the sea. The Atlantic provides industry, employment, and enjoyment to those who live on it; Nova Scotia's license plates call us "Canada's Ocean Playground." But there is a darker side to the ocean as well- storms can be sudden, violent and deadly. Even today with all of our technology, man can be rendered helpless in the power of the forces of nature, left to struggle desperately for survival. Most of us can remember times when we've waited anxiously for word of people on a small boat, a ship, or even an oil rig, caught in storms which can raise walls of water 60 feet high- or even more- praying for their lives and the safety of those who attempt to save them. So the situation in The Finest Hours hits close to home and in my opinion it's a film worth watching.