Sunday, January 25, 2015

Family Movie Night: Fantasia 2000

Title: Fantasia 2000
Directors: Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, Paul Brizzi and Gaëtan Brizzi
Original Release: 1999
Choice: Purple Penguin's
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Three weeks ago, we watched the original Fantasia (review here).   Somewhat predictably, the Purple Penguin chose the sequel this week.  My Wife and I first saw Fantasia 2000 at an IMAX theater in New York City back in Y2K.

The second installment generally doesn't fair as well with the critics as the original does.  While I love it, I'm willing to admit the segments are uneven.  Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance are not especially memorable.  Both the flying whales in Respighi's Pines of Rome and the toys come to life in Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 are fun but I find their relationships to the music less convincing.  The inclusion of The Sorcerer's Apprentice is nice for nostalgia but I would have preferred all new material.  I still think those segments are good, mind you, just not great.

The remaining three segments, though, definitely meet or even exceed the standard of the original.  Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is paired perfectly with the artistic style of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld.  The flamingo sketch for The Carnival of the Animals is short but sweet - a welcome dose of slapstick comedy.  Then, in the end, the masterpiece of the whole operation: Firebird.

If one seeks the roots of movie music in general, one need look no further than Igor Stravinsky.  He was the biggest influence on all of the epic film score composers, John Williams most of all.  In my professional experience, Firebird is an easy sell with kids.  Little explanation is required for its dramatic power.  For Disney, it inspired the death and rebirth of a forest brought on by a volcanic eruption.  The play between the spring sprite, her elk companion and the Firebird they accidentally awaken is an elegant and furious dance, ending with blaring, triumphant French horns as life is restored.  Either story or music would be potent alone.  Their perfect synthesis generates Fantasia magic at its very best.

A new, full-length Fantasia sequel is unlikely in the near future - too expensive and time-consuming for the modest financial profit.  A plan for Fantasia 2006 was abandoned, though a few individual segments were produced and distributed as shorts.  Perhaps it is a once every 60 years phenomenon.  Mark your calendars for 2060.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Star Trek: The Way to Eden

Episode: "The Way to Eden"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 20
Original Air Date: February 21, 1969
via Wikipedia
In "The Way to Eden," Star Trek takes on the counter culture of the late 1960s.  The Enterprise crew encounters Dr. Sevrin, a Timothy Leary-esque figure, and his band of followers.  The space hippies are on a quest for Eden: a planet of beauty and tranquility, upon which to build an idyllic society.

This episode is much maligned by critics, though I have no issue with the basic premise.  Many Star Trek stories are laden with social commentary and the counter culture was certainly fair game.  Unfortunately, there are songs - truly awful songs.  Guest stars Charles Napier (Adam) and Deborah Downey (Mavig) co-wrote several folk-songish numbers for the show with sappy, we-all-love-each-other-and-we're-gonna-be-so-groovy lyrics.  I've been keeping a rolling eye out for a rock bottom point in Trek's final season and I believe I have found it in these songs.

Getting back to the story, one of the travelers, Irina (Mary Linda Rapelye), is an old flame of Chekov's from the Academy.  It's worth noting that two of the past three episodes have involved a love interest for someone other than Captain Kirk.  Anyway, the two young exes rehash the differences both personal and political that pulled their lives in different directions.  Many, including actor Walter Koenig, have criticized the relationship as being out of character for the playboy Chekov but it was the part of the episode I enjoyed the most.  Friends and lovers grow up together.  If not for a few life choices, they might have shared a path but it didn't work out.  For quite a lot of us, that's the tale of young adulthood.

But that doesn't make up for the songs...

via Wikipedia
Skip Homeier (Dr. Sevrin) was born October 5, 1930 in Chicago.  Homeier was the rare child actor who transitioned to a successful, though unspectacular, adult career.  He made his film debut at the age of 14 in Tomorrow, the World! as a member of the Hitler Youth transplanted to the United States after the deaths of his parents.  He had already performed the role on stage to great acclaim. 

Most of his work has been in television, mostly guest appearances but there were regular roles on Dan Raven and The Interns.  "The Way to Eden" was actually his second Trek episode.  He'd also played Melakon in "Patterns of Force." 

Homeier has been married to his wife, Della Sharman, since 1963.

Monday, January 19, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Haruki Murakami

Title: The Strange Library
Author: Haruki Murakami
via Amazon
My Wife introduced me to Murakami's work last summer (review here).  The Strange Library was first published in Japanese as a short story in 1982, then revised in 2005.  The English translation was released in 2014.  Here's the synopsis from Goodreads:
'All I did was go to the library to borrow some books'.

On his way home from school, the young narrator of The Strange Library finds himself wondering how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire. He pops into the local library to see if it has a book on the subject. This is his first mistake.

Led to a special 'reading room' in a maze under the library by a strange old man, he finds himself imprisoned with only a sheep man, who makes excellent donuts, and a girl, who can talk with her hands, for company. His mother will be worrying why he hasn't returned in time for dinner and the old man seems to have an appetite for eating small boy's brains. How will he escape?
Tax collection in the Ottoman Empire is such an esoteric topic and the library atmosphere so grim that one wonders if it's all an allegory for a life in academic research.   As with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the story is dreamlike and odd.  The prose isn't as clever as in the other book but it's still fun.

The real treat of The Strange Library is the illustrations, most of them taken from books found in The London Library.  The pictures fit the story so well that I wondered if Murakami had found them first and built the story around them.  But, in fact, they were added by the English language publishers.  The original Japanese and translated German editions use different illustrations entirely.

On the Coffee Table: Harold McGee

Title: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
Author: Harold McGee
via Wikipedia
First published in 1984, On Food and Cooking is exactly as its subtitle advertises, a 360 degree view of darn near everything edible.  The first chapter - on milk, a mammal's first food - sets the template for the rest of the book: begin with the historical and cultural context of a food, then dissect it down to the molecular level.  I made the decision early on that I was not going to be able to read this impressive work cover-to-cover but I still managed to learn plenty.

This particular read coincides with a sad event in my life.  My favorite high school science teacher passed away in December.  I had him for both biology and chemistry, the two predominant sciences covered in McGee's book.  Mr. B was one of the most popular teachers in the school.  Also on the coaching staff of the school's extraordinarily successful field hockey program, he touched thousands of lives over several decades. 

Despite his best efforts, even Mr. B couldn't turn me on to science.  As soon as McGee's text started heading towards the lab, I'd skip ahead to the next section.  I made honest attempts.  In theory, I was fascinated by the fact that meringues are best whipped in a copper bowl for genuine chemical reasons but after reading the section, I couldn't remember any of it.  Such was my experience for four years of high school science.  I'm so sorry, Mr. B.  I know you tried.

And yet, I did manage to learn.  Figs, for instance, are pollinated not by bees or birds but by a particular eighth-inch long species of wasp.  You can't even cultivate figs unless you tie wasp nests to the trees.  One of my favorite chapters was the one on alcohol: Wine, Beer and Distilled Liquors.  I have some modest experience making beer but really, the chapter made me want to experiment with cocktails.  Fortunately, McGee also provides gory details of the terrible things drunkenness does to the mind and body.  Everything in moderation, folks...

I had a bit of a dilemma when it came to my Goodreads rating for On Food and Cooking.  My Goodreads recommendations have been quite satisfying so this is not a matter I take lightly.  On the one hand, I don't really want more foodie books that are so heavy on the "science" but the "lore" parts of the text were amazing.  Even the material that wasn't so interesting to me personally was thoroughly researched and well written.  I may well refer back to some of those sections as I get deeper into my own cooking adventures.  So, a 3 seemed reasonable.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Family Movie Night: Selma

Title: Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay
Original Release: 2014
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Selma tells the tale of the 1965 civil rights struggle over voting rights in Selma, Alabama, a fitting Family Movie Night choice for Martin Luther King Day Weekend.  The big news about the film this past week was its snub by the Academy Awards, garnering only two nominations: Best Picture and Best Original Song.  I have a feeling, though, that over the long term this movie will be remembered and revisited.  Mind you, I'll still be rooting like crazy for Boyhood (review here) on Oscar night but Selma deserves far better than two nominations.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) is, of course, the film's central figure.  Without a doubt, King is one of the most extraordinary leaders in American history.  I was a little worried in the beginning that hero worship - a potential pitfall for any biographical work - might interfere with an honest portrayal.  But Selma frames King as a multi-dimensional human being: political titan, certainly, but also husband (and not always a faithful one), father and minister.  In one of the most powerful scenes, King comforts the father of a young protester killed by a state trooper with simple words: "God was the first to cry for your boy."

King's exceptional oratorical skill stemmed largely from a powerful voice and an instinct for cadence but he should also be remembered as an amazing writer.  If Selma has a flaw, it is the fact that King's speeches had to be rewritten.  To be fair, this is not the filmmakers' fault.  DreamWorks and Warner Bros. own the license to the originals for an untitled Spielberg project.  King's life was overdue as a subject for a major film.  If Spielberg is working on one, too, Selma has set a very high bar.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • The movie's violence is certainly brutal but it could have been a lot worse.  Mississippi Burning, for instance, is a far more terrifying film.  I think Selma did a nice job of balancing between horror and hope in the civil rights movement.
  • There is some language - the Purple Penguin counted two f-bombs from LBJ, a modest total in light of the man's well-documented reputation.
  • Our daughter is eleven years old which I worried was a little on the young side.  But it occurred to me afterwards that I was taken to see both The Chosen and Gandhi when I was nine.  Those movies were my introductions to the Holocaust and Indian independence respectively.  Both are at least as upsetting as Selma.  Film is as good a medium as any to learn of the evil humans can exact upon one another.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Star Trek: Requiem for Methuselah

Episode: "Requiem for Methuselah"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 19
Original Air Date: February 14, 1969
via Wikipedia
Five more to go.

"Requiem for Methuselah" is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest with shades of the mythological Pygmalion.  On the planet Holberg 917-G, our heroes encounter Mr. Flint, a being from Earth, 6,000 years old.  At various times, he has gone by other names: Da Vinci, Brahms, Alexander the Great and Methuselah among others.  His only company on this remote outpost is Rayna, a beautiful young woman who is Flint's protege.  We learn in time that she is, in fact, a robot created by Flint for companionship and, he hopes eventually, love.

Our gang's arrival has presented a complication.  Rayna, of course, falls in love with Kirk.  Flint is also reluctant to let the landing party (Kirk, Spock and McCoy) get away and reveal the secret of his existence to the rest of the galaxy.  Rayna, brilliant but a bit of a wet blanket up to this point, suddenly steps up in our friends' defense.  Rayna, in turn, is confronted with the dilemma of choosing between her love for Kirk and her devotion to Flint.  The dilemma overwhelms and destroys her.

The episode feels a bit labored at times, drawing upon many of what had become Trek's narrative staples: superhuman Earth-beings finding a home in another part of the galaxy, robots in human form, etc.  Even the Enterprise being shrunk to miniature is a trick we've seen before.  But a lot of the ideas introduced in "Requiem for Methuselah" resurfaced in a much better story, one of The Next Generation's most acclaimed episodes: "The Offspring."

An interesting wrinkle at the end of the episode: Spock, feeling sorry for his heartbroken captain, uses a Vulcan mind meld to make Kirk forget Rayna.  It's quite an awesome power to have.  One wonders how the Vulcans might have misused it in other instances.

via Wikipedia
James Daly (Mr. Flint) was born October 23, 1918 in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.  His mother, Dorothy Ethelbert (Hogan) Mullen, would later work for the CIA. 

Primarily a stage actor early in his career, Daly found loads of television work from the early '50s onward, including regular roles on Foreign Intrigue and Medical Center.  He was also the star of Camel cigarette commercials for seven years.  He'd already won an Emmy by the time he appeared on Trek: Supporting Actor in a Drama for his portrayal of Dr. O'Meara on a TV movie entitled Eagle in a Cage.  His most famous big screen role was as Honorious in the original Planet of the Apes film.

Two of James Daly's children are also accomplished television actors.  Daughter Tyne Daly has won six Emmys - four of them for her work on Cagney & Lacey - and a Tony.  Son Tim Daly was the star of the sitcom Wings.  Granddaughter Kathryne Dora Brown is also an actress.  Daly died of heart failure in 1978.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Breakfast Around the World: Brazil

As noted in my most recent State of the Blog post, I have a new food hobby.  My Wife, herself a gifted and enthusiastic cook, has been encouraging me to find one for several years and I think I've found something to hold my long-term interest: breakfasts.  I don't just mean waffles and pancakes, either.  For the past several months, I've been researching and, as best I can, cooking what people eat for breakfast around the world, one country at a time.  I have in mind a culminating project for the next World Cup in 2018.  That's still three years, five months and three days away, of course, and only one nation has officially qualified: host Russia.  But that's no excuse not to start the fun now.

Some of our favorites from each country so far:
  • Russia - Speaking of pancakes, the Russians enjoy many variations on the theme.  The Purple Penguin's favorite were oladushki, essentially dollar pancakes.  I preferred them, too, because they didn't require letting the dough rise so it's less time-consuming.  My Wife preferred blinis for the buckwheat flavor.  So, I think if I use the flour mixture I used for the bilini in the preparation for the oladushki, I'll have something to please everyone.
  • Germany - Most of the cuisines we have explored so far favor the continental breakfast, or at least simple, low-prep dishes which lend themselves well to that idea.  One German variation we enjoyed was granola mixed with yogurt and jam.
  • Argentina - croissants with dulce de leche and/or jam.
  • Colombia - almojabana, a cheesy bread roll.
  • Belgium - almond cocoa butter.
  • Netherlands - chocolate sprinkles.
Our most recent breakfast explorations have led us to Brazil.  On Friday night we had a continental style spread (breakfast for dinner is big at our house).  The Purple Penguin liked the smoked turkey on bread.  I was partial to the fresh mango, though it lived up to its reputation as a wicked fruit to carve.  My Wife preferred the grilled ham and cheese sandwiches I made a few weeks ago.  I wonder if my daughter would go for grilled turkey and cheese.

The weekend's big experiment was cuscuz branco, which translates from Portuguese as "white couscous."  Combining tapioca, coconut, milk and sugar, it is most definitely white.  The ingredients took some finding and I was a little panicked last night when I realized I didn't have enough tapioca pearls. But halving the recipe seemed a reasonable choice for a family of three.  After chilling over night, it was ready for breakfast this morning, along with café com leite (aka café au lait) and hot chocolate:

The reactions from the ladies:
  • My Wife: "I'm glad you didn't make it for 12 (the full recipe)."
  • Purple Penguin: "Too sweet."
It was edible.  The leftovers will make for good lunch filler in the coming week.  I won't be making it again.

I intend to learn as much about cooking as eating in this project.  As such, I've come to realize that I'll only get so far with breakfasts unless I learn to bake.  My Wife has, in fact, pushed me towards baking before.  As an experienced cook, she's comfortable with measurements like pinch, dash and splash whereas I crave precision.  Baking is for people like me.  Fortunately, I live in a house with loads of cookbooks to help me get started.

Stay tuned.