Sunday, November 30, 2014

Family Movie Night: Tampopo

Title: Tampopo
Director: Juzo Itami
Original Release: 1987
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
If there's one movie in the world I would encourage more people to watch, it is Tampopo.   If you're interested in food, Japan or westerns, you need to see it.  I know of no other film quite like it.  If you do, please let me know.


Truckers Goro and Gun stop at a ramen shop that's clearly struggling.  Tampopo, the widow proprietor, is not much of a cook, a local gang of toughs are harassing her and her son is being bullied.  Goro takes her under wing, sorting out the baddies and helping her learn the trade.  Parallels with Shane are obvious but the film goes so far beyond that.  It is a beautiful ode to the Japanese love affair with food.

Interspersed throughout the noodle shop story are other foodie vignettes: a young man upstages his superiors by expertly ordering a meal at a French restaurant, a woman rises from her death bed to cook one last meal for her family, a customer torments a grocery store clerk by over-handling the food and so on.  In my favorite vignette, a women's etiquette class is derailed by a foreigner who slurps his noodles against all intercultural expectations.  There is also a wacky subplot with a gangster in a white suit and his girlfriend.  He's the only character in the film who speaks to the camera.  Their story gets a bit risque with a food fetish scene.  By mutual consent, we covered the Purple Penguin's eyes for that one.

In my favorite part of the ramen story (I've got a lot of favorites in this movie), Goro brings Tampopo to meet the "old master," who lives among a group of gourmet vagrants in a city park.  As the master leaves to help with the shop, his friends - disciples, really - sing a farewell song in tribute to him.  A hobo men's chorus - it's really very sweet.

Seriously, watch this movie.  You'll thank me later.

*****

My Rating System:

5 = The best of the best.  These are the films by which I judge other films.
4 = High quality films which I feel could hold up well in repeated viewings.
3 = The vast majority of films.  They're fine.  Once was enough.
2 = I wasn't even sure I wanted to finish it.  It's not a 1 because I'm not prepared to say it's a terrible film - just not my cup of tea.
1 = A terrible film.  An insult to the art form.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: December 2014 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, December 26th.  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, November 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: November 2014

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: A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers
Author: John Feinstein
via Amazon
If you're a college basketball fan, you already know who Bob Knight is.  For the more sensible among you, he is the former, notoriously bad tempered, highly successful coach at Indiana University, one of the most storied programs in the country.  He coached other places, too - six years at Army, seven at Texas Tech, one gold medal summer at the Olympics - but he'll always be best known for his 29 seasons in Bloomington, coaching the Hoosiers.   From 1971-2000, his Indiana teams won eleven Big Ten titles and three national championships, including an undefeated 1975-76 campaign, the last Division I team to run the table.  For all those extraordinary achievements, his most enduring public image has him throwing a chair across the court in fury during a 1985 game against Purdue.

For the 1985-86 season, Knight granted extraordinary access to sportswriter John Feinstein.  The result was a publishing sensation.  Beyond all reasonable expectations, A Season on the Brink skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  It also drew a firestorm from Knight who took exception to his frequently unflattering portrayal.

When the book came out in 1986, I was falling in love with college basketball.  From 1985 to 1989, every national men's final was a gem.  During the same period, nearly every NFL Super Bowl was a joke so my previous enthusiasm for football was being overtaken by college hoops.  I also had the benefit of growing up in suburban Maryland with two prominent programs - Georgetown and Maryland - in close vicinity.  In January of '87, I went to my first live game: a Georgetown-Syracuse game that still ranks very highly among the most exciting contests I've ever seen.  I was hooked.

I didn't read Feinstein's book at the time but I followed the controversy.  The extra-wide spotlight on the team, while not entirely welcome, did bring very good luck.  Indiana won the national title in '87, the last for both Knight and the school.

I've read a few of Feinstein's other books about college sports before and they have certainly changed my attitude towards that world.  It's a bit like learning how the sausages are made.  True, college sports provide opportunities for many students who wouldn't have them otherwise but at the highest level, they are rife with corruption and hypocrisy.  Knight took pride in running a clean program and has little patience for those who don't.

That is not to say, however, that Bob Knight is a paragon of virtue.  He may have toed the line in terms of recruitment and academics but his tyrannical (at best) and abusive (at worst) coaching tactics are far from endearing.  Feinstein's book reveals a moody, manipulative, vulgar, profane, obsessive man.  Even Knight's most accomplished coaching colleagues worry about his inability to handle defeat.

According to Feinstein, Knight's main objection upon the book's publication was the fact it did little to hide the coach's swearing.  Feinstein argued that he did tone down the language as much as he could but that Knight swears so much he hardly knows he's doing it.  In fact, the author has praise for his subject, too.  Knight is an undeniable genius and a loyal friend.  To be sure, Knight's protests only helped to drive book sales, drawing ever more attention to his less redeeming qualities.

The book is beautifully written.  As with all of Feinstein's work, pages turn quickly.  I don't know if it would be worth much to someone who doesn't love basketball but it certainly brought me new insights into the game and the personalities I'd observed in my youth.  The text is not over-burdened with game synopses, often the downfall of sports books.  However, the chapter on the '86-'87 season - added in later editions - gets a little tedious.  The book put me in the awkward position of rooting for Indiana, something I never would have done at the time.  A loss meant a very angry coach and it's impossible not to feel sympathy for his long-suffering players in that situation.

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 December's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is December 26th.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Star Trek: The Empath

Episode: "The Empath"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 12
Original Air Date: December 6, 1968
via Memory Alpha
Devotees know that the idea of an empathic being is an important one in the Star Trek franchise, most significantly in The Next Generation's Deeana Troi.  In this week's episode, our heroes meet Gem, a mute but empathic woman.  Gem is held captive by the Vians who, we learn in time, are using her to judge the worthiness of her entire race.

The Enterprise comes to Minara II to rescue a research team before the system's star goes supernova.  The landing team of Kirk, Spock and McCoy can't find the researchers and instead are abducted themselves into a mysterious underground lair.  First they meet the silent, yet captivating Gem (so named by the doctor), then the Vians.  The Vians know of the impending doom and also know they can only save one race in the system from extinction.  They are aware of Gem's psychic powers though they are unsure of her moral integrity.  Through a series of torturous abuses, they use our friends to test her willingness to sacrifice herself for the greater good.

The show is weakening.  My interest in the individual stories is waning.  But there were a few things I enjoyed about this episode.  I like Kathryn Hays (Gem) a lot.  She never says a word but she moves beautifully - significant dance experience, I imagine.  The close up shots of her expressing earnest concern are eye-roll inducing but that's the director's fault, not the actor's.  There is also a touching scene as Spock, once again, bends in concern over a dying Dr. McCoy.  "You've got a good bedside manner, Spock," says Bones.

*****
via Memory Alpha
Gold Key's third Star Trek comic book issue was released in December 1968, entitled "Invasion of the City Builders."  As with the previous installments, one wonders if the writer (Dick Wood) or artist (Alberto Giolitti) had ever actually watched the show.  The ship's bridge for instance - a major set on TV - has no resemblance whatsoever to that seen on screen.  Also, the Enterprise dips inside a planet's atmosphere in order to scan it - not required on our regularly scheduled program.

That said, I enjoyed this story - a good old science fiction allegory, in this case against the ever increasing urbanization of society.  The natives of Planet Questionmark have lost control of the city building robots they'd created generations before.  The machines keep building far beyond the population's needs.  As a result, farm space is being squeezed out and the food supply with it.  Thankfully, the Enterprise showed up in time to defeat the robots and stave off extinction.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Kazuki Ebine

Title: Gandhi: A Manga Biography
Writer and Artist: Kazuki Ebine
via Amazon
Mahatma Gandhi was, without question, one of the most extraordinary people in world history.  Through nonviolent civil disobedience, he led his nation of India to independence from the mighty British Empire and inspired activists in similar causes around the globe.  His life is well documented in both print and film, certainly a worthy subject for a manga biography.

Unfortunately, I don't feel Ebine's book quite makes the grade.  The artwork is fine but the text falls short.  I was glad I knew a fair amount about Gandhi's life before reading the book otherwise I think I would have been confused often.  The translation from the author's Japanese is a bit awkward at times, too, which doesn't help.

Perhaps the medium is the problem.  There's a lot to cover in a person's life.  Sometimes a sequential art biography works: Louis Riel and Buddha are both excellent.  Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, on the other hand, felt too thin, much like Gandhi.  I wouldn't even say Gandhi offers enough to pique one's interest in learning more.  Maybe it's just biographies that are tricky, regardless of the means of delivery.  I'm confident there are better books out there for exploring Gandhi's life, even better ones for appealing to a younger audience.  These days, the 1982 film would probably be rated PG-13 for its violence but if you can get past that, it provides a terrific overview of the great man's story.

On the Coffee Table: Han Solo's Revenge

Title: Han Solo's Revenge
Author: Brian Daley
via Wikipedia
Han Solo's Revenge, first published in 1979, is the second of Brian Daley's The Han Solo Adventures trilogy.  My review of the first book, Han Solo at Star's End, can be found here. In this second installment, Han and Chewie mistakenly get caught up in a slave trade run.  After they free the slaves and slay their captors, they follow the money trail for revenge upon and a paycheck from those who duped them. 

Apart from Han Solo and Chewbacca, the two mainstay characters of The Han Solo Adventures are their droid companions: BLX-5 (aka Bollux) and Blue Max.  One can hardly have a Star Wars story without a goofy pair of droids on board.  The relationship between the two is a bit different from Artoo/Threepio, though.  Both are conversant with humanoids - none of the Jay and Silent Bob act here.  Also, Blue Max spends much of his time inside of Bollux's chest cavity.  The two met Han and Chewie when the droids were lent to our friends by Jaesa, an outlaw tech, in Star's End.  After helping to rescue Jaesa's father Doc, the droids were given their freedom and chose to stay on as crew for the Millenium Falcon.
via Wookieepedia
Bollux is a BLX labor droid.  In British editions of the books, he is called Zollux as Bollux sounds way too much like bollocks to be taken seriously in the UK.  Humanoid in form, Bollux had wandered the galaxy from job to job, continuously outmoded by newer machines but always volunteering for upgrades to keep himself useful. 
via Wookieepedia
Blue Max is a slicer droid, the first appearance of his kind in the Star Wars universe.  A slicer is used to hack computer systems.  Blue Max began as an Imperial droid but came to Doc by way of a bounty hunter.  Doc's techs made the modifications in Bollux so he could carry Blue Max in his chest.
via Wookieepedia
One enterprising fan, identified as Kambei, even created an action figure of the two:

Bollux and Blue Max photo Bollux03.jpg

As with the first book, Han Solo's Revenge is a lot of fun.  Chewbacca gets some nice development, too, particularly in an admittedly bizarre episode in which he constructs a glider out of a pterodactyl carcass.  Jedi Knights and the Force are mentioned only in passing, suggesting there's plenty of room in the Star Wars universe for an old-fashioned adventure tale. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Family Movie Night: Funny Girl

Title: Funny Girl
Director: William Wyler
Original Release: 1968
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
In 1968, all you really needed to have a hit movie was Barbra Streisand's voice and Omar Sharif's face.  Funny Girl was, in fact, Streisand's debut film though she was a giant in the music industry.  She'd already released ten studio albums, all of them certified Gold or Platinum.  She'd also won four Grammys.  The dazzlingly handsome Sharif, meanwhile, was an international superstar thanks to his performances in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.



That's not to say Funny Girl doesn't have other things going for it - quite the contrary.  It's the sort of movie that reminds us the medium could dazzle with set and costumes in an era well before CGI.  The acting is good - particularly Streisand, who won an Oscar - the music is fun and the story compelling.  The film was adapted from the stage musical of the same name, the original tale based loosely on the true-life story of entertainer Fanny Brice (Streisand) and her marriage with gambler Nicky Arnstein (Sharif).  Fanny, bursting with talent but painfully insecure, falls hard for the charming but unreliable Nicky - a love affair doomed from the beginning.  (Side note: in the film, Nicky plays Poker.  In real life, Sharif is an avid Bridge player.)

If "The Way We Were" isn't the prolific Streisand's signature song, "People" undoubtedly is.  It was written first for the musical and Streisand's single release in 1964 had been a huge hit.  Lyrics were added for the film performance.


*****

My Rating System:

5 = The best of the best.  These are the films by which I judge other films.
4 = High quality films which I feel could hold up well in repeated viewings.
3 = The vast majority of films.  They're fine.  Once was enough.
2 = I wasn't even sure I wanted to finish it.  It's not a 1 because I'm not prepared to say it's a terrible film - just not my cup of tea.
1 = A terrible film.  An insult to the art form.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Star Trek: Wink of an Eye


Episode: "Wink of an Eye"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 11
Original Air Date: November 29, 1968
via Memory Alpha
Another pesky fake distress call!  You'd think they'd learn!

This time, the Enterprise is lured to the planet Scalos.  Unbeknownst to our heroes, the natives live in accelerated time and are able to roam the ship virtually undetected by the crew apart from an insect-like buzzing.  The Scalosians are also dying out and are intent on abducting members of the crew, including Captain Kirk, for breeding stock.

The deeper one gets into the third season, the more one sees ideas wearing thin.  The fake distress call, the abductions, the superior beings effectively winning control of the ship: these are all tried and somewhat true staples of the franchise by this point.  The time acceleration idea, however, is new - or it is to Trek, at any rate.  An early use of the concept is found in H.G. Wells's short story entitled "The New Accelerator."  On television, it had previously been explored on episodes of The Wild Wild West and The Lone Ranger animated series.

*****
via Memory Alpha
Kathie Brown played the Scalosian Deela, Kirk's seductress of the week.  She was born September 19, 1930 in San Luis Obispo, California.  She had numerous television roles, including multiple appearances on Perry Mason, Bonanza and Hondo.  Among big screen gigs were Murder by Contract, Cinderfella and Brainstorm.  In 1969, she married fellow actor Darren McGavin, not to part until her death from natural causes in 2003.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Twin Spica, Vol. 3

Title: Twin Spica, Volume 3
Writer and Artist: Kou Yaginuma
via Amazon
Twin Spica tells the story of Asumi, a student at Tokyo National Space School.  My posts about the first two volumes of this excellent manga series can be found here and here.  The two most interesting characters so far, aloof fellow student Marika and Mr. Sano, the physics teacher, both get significant development in this third installment.

As noted in my first post about the series, Twin Spica is classified as seinen, meaning the target audience is men, ages 17-40.  This is a little surprising - at least from a Western perspective - considering the highly sentimental aspects of the story.  American movies targeting men, by contrast, are generally not renowned for emotional depth.  Thinking back in my own experiences in Japan, the men I knew were, indeed, less shy about expressing certain emotions than their American counterparts.  This is not to imply that the macho image isn't a significant part of the culture because it certainly is.  It's just shaped a bit differently.  Wistful longing for elements of the past - school chums, mom's cooking and, especially, those passed on - is part of what it is to be a man.

So, a teenage girl weeping over her long-dead mother?  Chick-flick material in the States.  Totally fair game for seinen manga.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Family Movie Night: Big Hero 6

Title: Big Hero 6
Directors: Don Hall and Chris Williams
Original Release: 2014
Choice: Purple Penguin's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Big Hero 6 opened in the United States just last weekend and debuted at the top of the box office rankings.   The film, inspired by the Marvel comic book superhero team of the same name, is Disney's 54th animated feature.  A sequel already seems inevitable.  Big Hero 7?  Hahahahaha...

Hiro Hamada is a 14-year-old robotics prodigy in the fictional San Fransokyo.  His world is turned upside-down when his older brother Tadashi is killed in a fire at an exhibition.  Tadashi, however, left behind an interesting legacy: Baymax, an inflatable personal health care robot who takes on Hiro's emotional well-being as his raison d'ĂȘtre.  Hiro organizes Tadashi's university pals into a posse to take down the evil entity Hiro believes killed his brother.


The movie is beautiful, even by Disney standards.  The highlight is the inside of the Stargate-esque inter-dimensional portal in the story's climactic scene.  Hiro's microbots are pretty impressive, too.  The end credits are a lot of fun - a welcome trend in the 21st century film industry.  The story is fairly predictable but it pushes all of the right emotional buttons for me.  The relationship between Hiro and Baymax is quite touching.  The scene when Hiro brings Baymax home while the robot's battery is running down has some nice ET parallels.  I'll admit, I didn't see the twist at the end coming.  I should have, but I didn't - most satisfying.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Mock Squid Soup: December Blog List

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to present Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society.  Each month, on the second Friday, we shall host a bloghop devoted to a particular movie.  We invite others to watch the same film and post their own reviews.

Our society shall convene next on December 12th with Pulp Fiction.

via Wikipedia
We hope that you, too, will watch the movie and join in our discussion.  Please sign on to the list below:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mock Squid Soup: Space Battleship Yamato

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to welcome you to Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society.  Each month, on the second Friday, we shall host a bloghop devoted to a particular movie.  We invite others to watch the same film and post their own reviews.  This month's movie is...

Title: Space Battleship Yamato
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Original Release: 2010
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5


via Wikipedia
A few times in my life, I have had the honor of joining someone on a personal pilgrimage.  In college, I went to an Arlo Guthrie concert with a friend who had been named after the singer.  I took a photo of the two of them together.  A few summers ago, I went to the Anne of Green Gables house with my sister who grew up loving that series of books.   With Mock, I went to see The Avengers for the midnight showing on opening night and more recently to Vermont ComicCon.

Such was the privilege for Mock and me when we got to watch Space Battleship Yamato with Drama Guy (DG).  We didn't have to go very far for this pilgrimage, just to DG's house.  DG grew up watching the Japanese anime series Star Blazers upon which the film is based.  When we asked him to choose our movie for the month, he jumped at the opportunity to share his first viewing of the live action movie with the two of us.  Our evening kicked off with the old cartoon, very helpful for a quick orientation to the story.

Earth is on the brink of environmental ruin.  A message arrives from the planet Iskandar with schematics for a warp drive and Iskandar's coordinates.  The crew of the Yamato sets course for this distant world in hopes of saving their own.  The movie has suffered some criticism from Westerners for parallels with Battlestar Galactica but it's worth noting this story predates BG.  The original Japanese TV show started in 1974 whereas the original BG didn't launch until 1978.

The visuals for the movie are wonderful.  The Yamato is a beautiful replication of a WWII vessel of the same name, sunk by the allied forces in 1945.  The ships of the enemy Gamilas are also impressive.  A battle scene on Iskandar is a bit video gamey but generally speaking, the action sequences have a satisfying pace, allowing the eye time to appreciate the spectacle - quite a welcome change from the hyper-kinetic energy of a comparable American science fiction movie.

The 2010 film was a smash hit in Japan, thanks in no small part to the star power of its leading man, Takuya Kimura.  Kimura first rose to fame in the boy band SMAP and has since become the king of Japanese television dramas.    Co-star Meisa Kuroki also came up through the J-pop ranks.  Both are, quite frankly, very attractive.  Neither is likely to win an Oscar anytime soon but they performed capably, as did the rest of the cast.

Space Battleship Yamato is a fun movie and it definitely piqued my interest in the TV series.  There was briefly a manga in the mid-'70s.  I might keep an eye open for that, too.


We hope that you, too, will watch Space Battleship Yamato and join in our discussion.  I'll post December's sign-up list tomorrow.  Our feature on Friday, December 12th shall be... Pulp Fiction.

via Wikipedia
In the meantime, for the Space Battleship Yamato discussion, please sign on to the list below.  Having trouble finding it?  Well, aren't you in luck?  The full movie (Japanese with English subtitles) is on YouTube: http://youtu.be/pWbm75wl_vw.  (Not really for 18+.  This one's PG-13 at worst.):


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Star Trek: Plato's Stepchildren

Episode: "Plato's Stepchildren"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 10
Original Air Date: November 22, 1968
via Memory Alpha
The kiss.  This one's all about the kiss.

Star Trek broke significant cultural ground on the evening of November 22, 1968 when Captain James T. Kirk kissed Lieutenant Nyota Uhura.  For the first time in the history of American television, a kiss was scripted between a white man and a black woman.  In 1968, interracial marriage was still illegal in much of the United States so this was no small matter.  Network executives feared a boycott of the episode in the Deep South and demanded that two versions of the crucial scene be filmed, one with the kiss and one without.  The cast deliberately botched every single take of the no-kiss version so in the end, there was no choice.

For all the worry, the backlash was essentially non-existent.  The show got more fan mail for this episode than any other.  Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) tells the story of the one mildly negative letter from a Southern fan. He wrote "I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it."  The episode was banned in Britain, not for the kiss as the BBC had already crossed that threshold but for the story's sadistic imagery.

Oh right, the story...

Drawn once again by a pesky fake distress call, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet which, according to their readings, does not support life.  There, they encounter a civilization that has patterned itself after ancient Greece, particularly the philosophy of Plato.  All possess telekinetic powers - all, that is, except for Alexander, the dwarf who first greets them.  Because of his deficiencies, Alexander is mistreated by the others on the planet.  As power dynamics shift, the episode engages in unusually insightful explorations of the relationship between the powerful and the powerless in a society, all of which feeds into the story's big moment.  Our heroes fall under the control of the natives, as do Uhura and Nurse Chapel, all of which leads eventually to the kiss.

The kiss really isn't much of one.  In fact, it's difficult to tell if lips ever actually touch.  Shatner has always claimed it was a mere stage kiss whereas Nichols insists it's the real thing.

Vital musical side note:  in our story, Spock sings a song called "Maiden Wine."  Leonard Nimoy wrote the song himself.  However, a double was hired for his flamenco dance, a Mr. Armando Gonzales.

*****
via Wikipedia
Michael Dunn (Alexander) was born Gary Neil Miller on October 20, 1934 in Shattuck, Oklahoma.  Escaping Dust Bowl conditions, the family moved to Dearborn, Michigan when Gary was four years old.  His parents were pressured to send him to a school for disabled children but they insisted he go to the neighborhood public school.  He learned to read at the age of three and won the Detroit News Spelling Bee in 1947.  He entered the University of Michigan at 16, then transferred to the University of Miami partly for its more accessible campus.

Dunn's showbiz career began on the stage, then moved to film and television.  He was nominated for a Tony in 1964 for his performance in The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ© and for an Oscar for 1965's Ship of Fools.  On TV, he was best known for his multiple appearances on The Wild Wild West as Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

Dunn did a great deal of philanthropy work for children with dwarfism.  Sadly, his own spinal deformities led to health complications that shortened his life.  Dunn passed away in 1973 at age 38. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

On the Road: The Quest for Penguins


Our daughter is way into penguins.  What began as a childhood fascination is gradually evolving into a deeper interest including discussions of possible career paths.  From a book about Jane Goodall, she learned the word ethologist: one who studies animal behavior in the subject's natural environment.  It is now a life goal to see penguins in the wild.

Alas, there are no wild penguins in Vermont, though they're not as far away as I'd have thought before my daughter's interest emerged.  Nearly all penguins live in the southern hemisphere but there is one species that hangs out around the equator in the Galapagos Islands.  Still, that trip's way beyond the current family budget so it'll have to remain in the long-term plan for now.

Fortunately, there are penguins relatively nearby in captivity, including three different species at the New England Aquarium in Boston.  We've lived in New England for twelve years yet we've spent  little time in the region's largest city.  The penguins were as good an excuse as any!  Combining the penguin quest with a visit to see dear friends in Worcester made for a most enjoyable, eastern Massachusetts weekend.

The Boston excursion did not go quite as planned. We thought we were being clever by parking at the Alewife station then taking the subway into the city.  Alas, construction along the red line meant we had to first take a shuttle bus - free, thankfully - to Harvard before continuing our adventures by rail.  It was not exactly a banner day for Boston's ever-disastrous infrastructure.

That said, the aquarium was amazing.  The penguins dominate the ground floor display space: southern rockhoppers, African penguins and, the smallest species in the world, the little blue penguins.  Interestingly, none of the three is native to Antarctica.  The little blues are in pretty good shape ecologically but the rockhoppers are classified as vulnerable and the Africans are endangered.  All three are adorable and the girl was most impressed.  There's plenty more to see, including an enormous octopus, a sea turtle that's over 85 years old and California sea lions.  We were there for around three hours total, I think: plenty of time to see everything.  Great facility - I'd definitely go again.

Otherwise, I'd have to say Boston was a bit of a disappointment.  I'm not a big fan of cities in general - too many people, too much asphalt and concrete - and Boston is unusually confusing with its crazy street layout.  Even with our public transit fiasco, it was better than trying to drive.  I will concede, the average person you run into is pretty friendly, especially when compared to their counterparts in New York or Washington.  I'm sure I would learn my way around with time and patience and it's totally unfair to judge a city by such a short visit but we didn't leave keen to come back.  Montreal is more my speed - closer to us, too.

For the record, the aquarium was definitely worth the effort.  Plus, I got to sing the following on our way out of town.  My poor, suffering wife...


I can now relate to feeling trapped on the Boston transit system.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Star Trek: The Tholian Web

Episode: "The Tholian Web"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 9
Original Air Date: November 15, 1968
via Wikipedia
The heart of Star Trek is the relationship between the three principal characters: First Officer Spock, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk, representing logic, emotion and judgment respectively.  "The Tholian Web" explores a pertinent quandary: what happens when Kirk and his stabilizing influence are removed?  With no one to weigh their frequently opposing viewpoints, can Spock and the Doc lead the crew and its mission effectively?

The story opens with the Enterprise in search of her sister ship, the USS Defiant.  Eventually, the ship is found but its entire crew is dead and the entire vessel seems to be winking in and out of existence.   Kirk is lost in a transporter malfunction and presumed dead.  Spock assumes command of the Enterprise, as is his duty, but not without abrupt and significant challenges from McCoy at every turn.  As if all of this weren't troubling enough, beings called the Tholians show up, demanding that our friends hightail it out of their territory.  Spock would be only happy to oblige if not for the slim hope that the captain might be saved.  He pleads with the Tholians to allow them more time but when the extension expires, the Tholians weave a lasery web around the Enterprise.

Fortunately, Kirk had planned for the possibility of his own untimely demise.  He left a recording for his two confidants to watch in which he advises each of the other's strengths and their need for each other.  His message is a fair summation of the moral/ethical landscape upon which the entire series is built.  Even more fortunate, Kirk is ultimately rescued from the parallel universe to which the transporter had sent him and the future of the franchise is saved.

*****
via Wikipedia
The voice of Loskene, the commander of the Tholians, was performed by Barbara Babcock, highly distorted.  Babcock was born February 27, 1937 in Fort Riley, Kansas.  Her father was an army general and, as a result, she spent much of her childhood in Tokyo while he was stationed in Japan.

Babcock has had a highly distinguished television career.  In 1981, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series as Grace Gardner on Hill Street Blues.  In 1993, she was nominated for another, this time for her supporting role on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.  There have been big screen credits, too, including Day of the Devil Gun, Bang the Drum Slowly and Chosen Survivors.  She had six appearances on Trek's original series, four for voice work, two on camera.  She appeared on both "A Taste of Armageddon" and "Plato's Stepchildren."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Princess Bride

Title: The Princess Bride
Director: Rob Reiner
Original Release: 1987
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Amazon
Until this weekend, I had never seen The Princess Bride on a big screen.  It is easily one of my top ten favorite films as it is for so many of my generation, yet I fell in love with it through the late-'80s magic of VHS.  But this Saturday evening, our local movie theater and our favorite independent bookstore teamed up to present a screening as a promotion for Cary Elwes's new memoir, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.  Luckily, we were smart and bought our tickets ahead of time because the event sold out, despite snow in the forecast.  With door prizes and costume and trivia contests on offer, the geeks of our stripe came out in full force, plenty of us with the next generation of devotees in tow.

This is how I first learned of the movie back in the day:


The Dread Pirate Roberts (aka Farm Boy/Westley/The Man in Black) must save his true love, Buttercup, from having to marry evil Prince Humperdink.  Meanwhile, master swordsman Inigo Montoya seeks to avenge the death of his father.  Their paths cross and Hollywood magic ensues.

The Princess Bride is a mix of everything that made movies great in the Golden Age of the 1930s: a swashbuckling romance worthy of Errol Flynn combined with witty dialogue to rival Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges.  It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautifully written films of all time.  Calling it quotable doesn't go far enough.  The script sings from beginning to end, every single line finding its mark.  William Goldman, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President's Men, adapted the screenplay from his own novel of the same name.

The sword fight at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity isn't just the best scene in the film, it's one of the most perfectly scripted and acted scenes in the history of cinema.  I would happily skip the rest of the movie just to watch that one sequence over and over again.  The two actors did all their own fencing, especially impressive considering they had to do it with both hands.

For all the well-deserved praise the writing has received over the years, I believe the true genius of The Princess Bride is in the casting.  Billy Crystal was the only genuine A-lister at the time and even he was still a couple years away from When Harry Met Sally...  The story is led magnificently by two essential unknowns: Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin, well-trained and (particularly for the Tony-winning Patinkin) accomplished stage actors with relatively few screen credits to that point.  In the titular role, Robin Wright, another newcomer, combined with Elwes to create the most beautiful on-screen couple since Rhett and Scarlett. Many of the actors were better known for their work on television: Peter Falk and Carol Kane in the United States, Peter Cook and Mel Smith in Britain.  Andre the Giant was quite famous, indeed, but as a professional wrestler.  Every actor fits his or her role like hand to glove.

Predictably, many in the audience recited the most famous lines in time with the film.  There was rowdy applause at both beginning and end.  It's funny the things you notice when you've seen a movie over and over again.  For instance, of course Westley (Elwes) knows Inigo (Patinkin) isn't really left-handed because his scabbard is on the left side.  I also paid closer attention to the toys on the gradson's shelf: He-Man and Captain America action figures, a Return of the Jedi glass from Burger King, etc.

The film's music was composed by Mark Knopfler, far better known as the front man for Dire Straits.  He agreed to do the score on one condition: that Reiner include his baseball cap from This Is Spinal Tap somewhere in the movie.  Knopfler meant it as a joke but Reiner made good, creating a replica cap for the grandson's bedroom.  The end credits song "Storybook Love" garnered the movie's only Oscar nomination. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: November 2014 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, November 28th.  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: