Sunday, March 29, 2015

Family Movie Night: Red Army

Title: Red Army
Director: Gabe Polsky
Original Release: 2014
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Soviet Red Army ice hockey team was, for decades, the best in the world.  Between 1954 and 1990, they won the world championship 22 times and never failed to medal at the Olympics, winning seven golds.  In the United States, their most famous game is the one they lost to what should have been an over-matched band of American college players in Lake Placid in 1980.  In learning the history of the Red Army hockey team, one realizes why that game deserves its reputation as the great David-Goliath moment in American sports. Goliath, however, has quite a tale to tell.

Red Army covers the tail end of the team's history.  Most of the story is told from the perspective of Viacheslav Fetisov, legendary defenseman and longtime captain of the Soviet team.  In addition to being an extraordinary hockey squad, the Red Army team was an instrument of propaganda, meant to demonstrate the inherent superiority of communism to the rest of the world.  Pressure to win and, of course, to prevent the best players from defecting to play in the NHL came from the highest levels of government.  As with the rest of society, the needs of the individual were subjugated to the interests of the state.  Fetisov and his mates were proud to play for team and country but the severe limits on personal freedom were difficult to bear.

The indie theaters have been promoting this movie for quite a while so our expectations were high.  To be honest, given my interest in the subject matter, a 4-star rating was a guaranteed minimum.  As it turned out, I needn't have worried about any potential disappointment.  Even for a non-fan like my wife, the film is highly engaging, the principal characters distinctly drawn.  While Fetisov comes off as an arrogant jerk at times - he flicks off the director in the early stages of the interview - he is the ideal vessel for the story, conveying an exquisite balance of the pride and anguish of his experience.  Extensive film footage and interviews of other top players round out this powerful film, a must-see for anyone interested in hockey, the Cold War or well-made documentaries.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2015 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, April 24th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2015

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Author: Michael Pollan
via Wikipedia
Koalas have it easy.  They never have to worry about what to eat because they only ever eat one thing: eucalyptus leaves.  For humans, it is more complicated.  Because we can theoretically eat anything, we have to make informed choices about what's healthy and what's potentially lethal.  That, in a nutshell, is the omnivore's dilemma.  Pollan's book explores not only the various options for human food but the numerous paths our chow might follow on its way to our plates.  The author examines four routes in particular: industrial agriculture, organic agriculture, sustainable farming (distinctive from the label organic) and hunting and foraging.  While there is some soap box testimony from time to time, preaching is not the point of the book.  Each of the paths explored is more complicated than the casual consumer might expect and Pollan encourages awareness more than any particular choice.

Growing up in the suburbs, I never gave much thought to what I ate.  My parents did the shopping and the cooking.  I ate what was on the table.  I am only one generation removed from agrarian society.  My father lived on a farm until he was twelve years old.  Yet in my concept, food came from Safeway.  While I admit to being pickier in my youth, it was never over political principles.

Then I went away to one of them little hippie colleges in the Midwest where I met a vegan for the first time.  I'd never even heard of the philosophy before.  My new friend confessed that he'd always loved meat until he learned how animals were treated in factory farms.  Meat wasn't the only problem, either.  Dairy and egg farms were the worst offenders, he told me.  The revelation changed his life and he was determined never to eat animal products again.

While he was happy to discuss his lifestyle choice, he wasn't out to convert the rest of us.  He was responsible about the health implications, too, conscientious about his own nutrition, either through alternate protein sources or dietary supplements.  Getting to know him was my first awareness of the broader implications of what I was eating.  Mind you, it didn't change much in terms of my own habits.  Inspired by my friend, I tried cutting out pork, just to see if I could do it.  The next morning's breakfast sausage ended that experiment in a hurry.

Pollan is no vegetarian, though he tries it on as an exercise for the sake of his adventures.  He asserts that consuming meat is central to the human experience. He does argue that animals should be allowed to live a life true to their nature, then killed in as humane and respectful a manner as possible.  Meat eaters, in turn, should be aware of the source of their meat and be able to see, quite literally, how the animals are raised and slaughtered.

The next stage in my own omnivore awareness came when I lived in Japan for two years.  The Japanese, like many cultures older than our own, have a reverence for food far beyond what is typical in American society.  To eat Japanese is to live Japanese is to be Japanese.  To walk and eat at the same time is extremely rude.  To use your chopsticks to move a plate is unthinkable.  To pour your own beer when your friend has an empty glass would be inconceivably thoughtless.  Everyone takes these things seriously.  Seem silly?  Quite the contrary.  It's beautiful.  It's the world as it should be.

Pollan argues that many of our food-related health problems stem directly from the fact that the United States has, at best, a rather flimsy food culture in comparison to other countries.  We resort to fad diets because our default meal does not balance nutrients the way other cuisines have managed to sort out over time.  Our tendencies are shaped by the whims of the military industrial complex rather than wisdom accumulated over generations.  Obviously, people in other countries die, too.  In Japan, for instance, the rate of stomach cancer is higher than ours because of their typical diet.  But epidemic obesity and increased rates of diabetes are peculiarly American phenomena (or at least they were until other countries adopted our habits).

The most important development in my omnivore adventure was meeting my wife.  As I've written before, she's a wonderful cook and has an insatiable interest in all things edible.  She truly is the only reason I can claim to know anything about food.  For her, one of the strongest appeals of living in Vermont is the access to farm-fresh produce.  Ours is still one of the most rural states in the country and you're rarely far from a working farm.

Obviously, Pollan's book isn't about me.  But it has inspired deep consideration of my own relationship with food.  It's led me to engage with my students on their experiences with hunting - a major rite of passage for many young men in our area.  I find the hobby terrifying but Pollan has challenged my assumptions.  Similarly, I now find myself curious about mushrooms, a food I've always avoided, much to my wife's disappointment.  If my seventh grade science teacher had mentioned how much we still don't know and may never know about the fungus kingdom, the mystery lover in me might have found greater enthusiasm for biology at a younger age, too.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post April's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is April 24th.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Star Trek: The Lorelei Signal

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "The Lorelei Signal"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 1, Episode 4
Original Air Date: September 29, 1973
via Memory Beta
"The Lorelei Signal" is a siren song story.  The men of the Enterprise are drawn to a remote planet in the Taurean system by mysterious music.  The planet's beautiful woman inhabitants want to rob them of their vitality.  Fortunately, the women of the Enterpirse are unaffected and spring into action.

My favorite part of the episode is a simple shot of the ship flying past the planet as Scotty sings Welsh ballads from the captain's chair.  With each passing week, it becomes more clear that The Animated Series was James Doohan's opportunity to shine.

In a more challenging part of the story, our heroes use the transporter to revert back to their younger selves after their adventures leave them prematurely aged.  One wonders why people don't use the technology in this way more often.  The transporter could be the fountain of youth humanity has sought for countless generations.  In fact, the TNG episode "Rascals" incorporates the transporter in a similar way.

via Memory Alpha
Theela is the Head Female of the Taureans.  "The Lorelei Signal" marks her only appearance in the Star Trek universe.  She is voiced by Majel Barrett.  By the time TAS came along, Barrett was married to producer Gene Roddenberry.  Her voice is an important one in the franchise.  She performs the voice of most onboard computers from The Original Series through Voyager

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, please add your link to the list below.  In the meantime, please visit the others who are participating.  Next week: "More Tribbles, More Tribbles."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

On the Road: The Green Mountain Film Festival

We spent the weekend at The Green Mountain Festival in Montpelier, enjoying six movies over the past two days.  Despite the fact that it was the first official weekend of spring, it's still bitterly cold here in Vermont - not the best time of year for standing in line outside a movie theater.  But the films were worth it.  A quick rundown:

Title: Awake: The Life of Yogananda
Directors: Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Awake is a biography of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who brought yoga and meditation to the West in the 1920s.  I knew nothing of the man before and the engaging film - quite trippy at times - makes me want to learn more.  The movie includes interviews with followers and admirers, including George Harrison.  The final credits roll to my favorite Harrison solo tune: "Give Me Love."

Title: Soul of a Banquet
Director: Wayne Wang
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Amazon
Another biography, this one focusing on Cecilia Chiang, a prominent restauranteur in San Francisco.  The film has a nice balance, providing both cultural and personal background before digging into the food.  Chiang stresses that the key to authentic Chinese cooking is the intense prep work.  We get a ringside seat to the process as she and her staff prepare a decadent meal for the dinner party of a friend.

Title: When the Ocean Met the Sky
Director: Lukas Huffman
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Huffman is a Montpelier native and he was on hand for the screening.  When the Ocean Met the Sky is the story of three brothers hiking in British Columbia to fulfill the wishes of their parents, just passed.  Unfortunately, this was the least favorite of the weekend for all three of us.  The storytelling was telegraphed, the dialogue lacking in subtlety.  The scenery, on the other hand, is stunning and comic relief is provided capably by tour guide Carter, played by Terry Field.  Huffman held a Q&A session afterward but we didn't stay for it.

Title: Song of the Sea
Director: Tomm Moore
Original Release: 2014
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Song of the Sea was created by the same folks who brought us The Secret of Kells.   The festival's headliner family film, and the weekend favorite for both wife and daughter, it is a cel-animated beauty.  The story is set in modern times but based on the Celtic myth of the selkie, beings who live on land as humans but in the water as seals.  The touching tale, like its predecessor, is well-deserving of a place in our family's rotation.

Title: Antarctica: A Year on Ice
Director: Anthony Powell
Original Release: 2013
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This one was my favorite for the weekend.  Anthony Powell spent ten years documenting the human communities which inhabit the world's most remote continent.  Much of the footage is done with stop-motion photography capturing the extraordinary seasonal changes.  Afterward, our daughter said she would love to spend a year there, and not just for the penguins.

Title: Sometimes I Dream I'm Flying
Director: Aneta Popiel-Machnicka
Original Release: 2013
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Our weekend ended on a bit of a downer.  The documentary Sometimes I Dream I'm Flying follows the career of Weronika, a professional ballet dancer from Poland.  The dancing is beautiful but Weronika's life seems both stressful and lonely.

Over dinner on Saturday night (at Asiana House), My Wife described this as her perfect vacation: we get to do something we wouldn't normally, in this case watching independent films that wouldn't make it to Vermont without the festival; everything - theaters, restaurants, hotel - is within easy walking distance of where we parked the car on Saturday morning and we eat well.  Throw in the fact that Montpelier's only an hour's drive from our house and I'd have to agree.  Already looking forward to next year's festival!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Star Trek: One of Our Planets Is Missing

My friends and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

Episode: "One of Our Planets Is Missing"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 1, Episode 3
Original Air Date: September 22, 1973
via Memory Beta
In this week's story, the Enterprise takes on a planet munching cloud.  Through a mind meld with the cloud, Spock manages to convince the entity of the damage it is doing to other living beings.  The cloud agrees to leave the galaxy.  The solution works out fine for our friends but what will the cloud subsist on now?  Can it survive only on uninhabited worlds?  Can it tell the difference?  Is the planet feast okay as long as it's happening in someone else's neighborhood? 

Among TAS episodes, "One of Our Planets Is Missing" is generally well-regarded for its adherence to basic Trek principles of respecting all life, even that which is initially perceived to be hostile.  To me, the mind meld feels a bit hokey but hey, it works!  My favorite part is the anatomical diagram they create for the cloud.  The ship enters one end of the digestive tract and exits via the other.  Reminds me of that old joke:

Q: What do you do if you get swallowed by an elephant?
A: Run around and around until you get all pooped out.


Robert Wesley
via Memory Alpha
Mantilles is the Federation colony in the cloud's path and Bob Wesley, a retired Starfleet officer, is its governor.  Wesley first appeared in the second season TOS episode, "The Ultimate Computer."  In that episode, he was portrayed by Barry Russo but in TAS, he is voiced by James Doohan.

James Doohan (Scotty) began his show biz career in radio.  After his World War II military service, he found work in Canadian radio dramas.  He estimated that he performed in over 4,000 radio programs.  A master of voices, his Scottish accent for Montgomery Scott was just one of many he'd considered trying.  He offered creator Gene Roddenberry several choices but the producer wisely let the actor choose his own favorite.  This experience was invaluable when the animated series came along as Doohan was the go-to choice for miscellaneous male voices (Majel Barrett was the default choice for the females).

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, please add your link to the list below.  In the meantime, please visit my fellow travelers.  Next week: "The Lorelei Signal."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Family Movie Night: The King and I

Title: The King and I
Director: Walter Lang
Original Release: 1956
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
The King and I is both dated and culturally insensitive.  Let's just admit that upfront.  The original story was written by Anna Leonowens, recounting her experiences teaching the royal family of Thailand in the 1860s.  Researchers have since revealed that much of Leonowens tale was wildly inaccurate or simply made up.  The film is banned in Thailand for its disrespectful depiction of the King.

Now let's set all of that aside for a moment.  The King and I is an extraordinary visual spectacle, winning well-deserved Oscars for both art direction and costume design.  The movie often feels like a grand theater production with a stage about four times the normal size.  The songs, written by the great team of Rogers and Hammerstein, are classics, especially "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?"  It is the film that made Yul Brynner's career.  The actor played the role of The King of Siam on both stage and screen, ultimately winning two Tonys and an Academy Award for the part.

None of us had ever watched The King and I before this weekend.  While there's a lot to get past in terms of the Orientalism, one can't deny the film dazzles the senses.  The dialogue is often genuinely funny.  I think our daughter enjoyed it the most of the three of us.  On the most basic level, it's fun.  But if you're looking for an accurate or respectful portrayal of Thai culture, you won't find it here.