Monday, December 31, 2012

Family Movie Night: Whisper of the Heart

Title: Whisper of the Heart
Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Original Release: 1995
Choice: Mine
Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Image via Lights! Camera! Critic!

Whisper of the Heart is one of a long line of high quality films produced by Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli.  The studio's leading light, Hayao Miyazaki, served as screenwriter for this project.  The story is based on a manga, Mimi o Sumaseba (translates literally as "If You Listen Closely").  It is the coming-of-age tale of Shizuku, a junior high school student in western Tokyo.  Typically, late junior high (the 9th grade by American reckoning) is a pivotal moment in Japanese life.  Up until that time, most people go to their neighborhood schools.  In the 9th grade, all students take the notoriously difficult entrance exams for high school.  For better or for worse, one's life path is largely determined by the results.  For the more free-spirited individuals, the moment is ripe for an identity crisis.  That is where we find both our heroine and Seiji, her new love interest.

Whereas most Ghibli films are fantasies, Whisper of the Heart is firmly rooted in the everyday.  For me, it's a trip down memory lane.  As noted in previous posts, I taught English in Yokohama from 1996-98.  As such, the western side of Tokyo is very familiar to me and this movie provides an astonishingly authentic immersion.  The school, the narrow streets and the apartment buildings could all just as easily have been plucked out of my own Yokohama neighborhood.  Even the sounds - buzzing cicadas and train noises - are spot on. 

The authenticity of setting is almost enough for me to give this film a 4 rather than a 3.  The only reason I haven't is that the story does feel a bit long by the end.  I'm not sure I would want to sit through the whole thing again. Regardless, if you're looking for a glimpse of the real Japan, particularly for that time period, you could hardly do better than this.  Consider it a high 3.

Further endearing the film to me is the extensive use of "Country Roads" in the story - one of my all-time favorites and the best homesickness song I know:

Sadly, this was the first and last film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo.  He died of an aneurysm in 1998 at the age of 47.  While this was his only film director credit, his animation resume is extensive.  He served as animation director for many Ghibli projects, most notably Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke.
Photo via listal

Multi-generational considerations:
  • While we all enjoyed the film, My Wife and I agree that it would be more meaningful for our daughter (currently 9) when she's older.

On the Coffee Table: Zot!

Title: Zot!
Writer and Artist: Scott McCloud
Image via Multiversity Comics

Scott McCloud has made his biggest splash in the comic book industry with his non-fiction works, all previously reviewed here at The SquidUnderstanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics.  However, he earned his cred in the trenches.  Zot! was his best-known fiction comic.  The series ran for 36 issues total, the first ten in color, the final 26 in black and white.  The collection I just finished includes the black and white issues only, originally published 1987-91.  Issue #11 was essentially a reboot so this volume encompasses a more or less continuous story.

Zot is a teenage superhero from an alternate Earth.  Jenny is his contact in our world.  Their relationship is complicated.  Naturally, that's half the fun of the series.

But there's more - a lot more - to this seemingly simple premise.  The series begins as a reasonably straight-forward, light-hearted exploration of the comparisons between Jenny's and Zot's dimensions.  However, things get a lot more interesting when Zot gets stranded on Jenny's (our own) Earth for a year.  Comic book convention is chucked out the window as McCloud digs into the complicated lives of Jenny's friends.  Their problems are very real, and a few of them still difficult to talk about in some circles two decades later: alcoholic and verbally abusive parents, divorce, confronting racism and homophobia, etc.  For all of the fantastical elements on offer with Zot!, it's these brutally human stories which ultimately make for a memorable, compelling series.

The artwork throughout is outstanding.  McCloud drew inspiration from the Japanese manga aesthetic, especially the work of Osamu Tezuka.  McCloud is a master of the black and white medium, creating lush, detailed panels in a variety of artistic styles.  A worthy example:
Image via Notes from the Playground

Saturday, December 29, 2012

I'm with the Band: Air Force

Band: Air Force Academy Marching Band
University: The United States Air Force Academy
Founded: 1955
Today's Bowl Game: Rice, Armed Forces Bowl, 11:45 a.m., Fort Worth, Texas
Photo via The United States Air Force Academy Band

As with Army and Navy, the Air Force Academy Marching Band is staffed not by students but by professional musicians who are also full-time military personnel.  The Air Force definitely has one of the better military songs around:

Also, just as at the other academies, there are a number of ensembles serving a variety of functions.  Here's the Drum & Bugle Corps covering a halftime show:

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Football Fantasy: James Laurinaitis

College League: won, 88.53-49.98 (finished in 7th place out of 12 teams)
Vermont League: won, 116.04-90.34 (finished 9th out of 12)
Player of the Week: James Laurinaitis (Linebacker, Rams)
Photo via STLsport

The Rams were my team defense in the college league this week: 13 points allowed, 5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery and 1 touchdown.  Laurinaitis was the star with 11 solo tackles, 1 assisted tackle, 1 interception and 2 passes defended.  He counted against me, too, as my opponent had him as an IDP.  Laurinaitis's father and two of his uncles were professional wrestlers.

My Player of the Year

Player: Robert Griffin III
Position: Quarterback
Team: Washington Redskins
Photo via

RG3's ascent is the most exciting thing to happen to the Redskins in 20 years.  He is the best (in my very biased opinion) of the greatest trio of rookie quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, along with Andrew Luck (Colts) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks). He was also the steal of my fantasy draft.  I grabbed him in the 7th round.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Family Movie Night: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Title: How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Director: Ron Howard
Original Release: 2000
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Image via Wikipedia

First, I must clarify that my review is of the feature film released in 2000, not the classic 1966 television special.  Secondly, I must assert that, because of the excellence of the TV special, making a feature film was entirely unnecessary.  Thirdly, I must confess that I really don't like this movie.

"So, dear Squid," I hear you cry, "why the 4-star rating if it's so terrible?  Why not the 2 it more reasonably deserves?"

"Well," I reply sheepishly, "it's complicated.  I'll explain more in a bit."

There are a few genuine positives:
  • Jim Carrey is great as the Grinch, his physical comic genius on full display.  I can't imagine a better choice for the role.
  • The film won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Makeup.  In general, the movie is satisfying visually.

The list of gripes is longer:
  • The original book is 69 pages long.  Does the world truly need a 104-minute movie, beyond obvious marketing potential?
  • Songs from the TV special, including "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome Christmas," are featured and that's fine.  However, the rest of the music is just plain awful.  The songs sung by the further developed character of Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) are painful.
  • The original story is wonderfully simple.  The Whos are good.  The Grinch is bad. Through their purity of spirit, the Whos convert the Grinch.  Merriment for all.  The end.  Do we really need a back story for why the Grinch is so sour?  No.  Do we really need a bullying Whoville mayor (Jeffrey Tambor) to inspire more sympathy for the Grinch?  No.  Do we really need a meddling Cindy Lou to drive the plot and sing terrible songs?  No.

I could go on but I expect you get the point.

"So, why the 4, Squid?"

"Well, I have a daughter, you see.
It's a kids' film so it's not all about me."

Rhyming verse is definitely not my forte so I'll quit while I'm ahead.

I do believe that a truly great children's film is enjoyable for parents, too.  But until we entrust Our Girl with her own Netflix profile, I feel I need to look out for her.  To get a 4 from me, a movie has to hold up to repeated viewing.  For me personally, it doesn't.  But for her, it does.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • If you love the story and are inclined to share it with the children in your life, read them the book and watch the TV special with them.  Skip the movie.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

I'm with the Band: Washington

Band: University of Washington Husky Marching Band
University: University of Washington
Founded: 1929
Current Director: Dr. J. Brad McDavid
Fight Song: "Bow Down to Washington"
Today's Bowl Game: Boise State at the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas, 12:30 p.m.

The Husky Marching Band is credited, for better or for worse, with inventing The Wave in 1981.

Pre-game show:

Because the world just can't seem to get enough of this one:


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Football Fantasy: Andre Johnson

College League: won, 79.69-77.88 (advance to 7th place game)
Vermont League: lost, 80.34-58.74 (relegated to 9th place game)
My Player of the Week: Andre Johnson (Wide Receiver, Texans) with 11 receptions for 151 yards and 1 touchdown
Photo via policymic

Johnson has gotten some great press recently for his charity work.  He donated $90,000 for a Toys 'R' Us shopping spree for children in protective services.  He also joined the Houston Police Department in bringing Christmas presents to a local elementary school.

On the Coffee Table: George Plimpton

Title: Paper Lion
Author: George Plimpton
Photo via The Scores Report

George Plimpton's account of his experience with the NFL's Detroit Lions is a seminal work, not only in sports journalism but for embedded non-fiction writing in general. In 1963, the Lions agreed to let Plimpton, a young but already well-regarded journalist, attend pre-season training camp as a quarterback prospect.  His efforts to keep up with the other players as athletes were absurd, of course, but the material he acquired by gaining their trust provided for a wonderfully engaging book.

Photo via Sports Illustrated
For the devoted football fan, Paper Lion is simply a must-read.  The book is a time capsule in print form.  The NFL has come a long way in 49 years.  There were only 14 teams in the league in 1963.  The Super Bowl didn't even exist yet.  Simply based on financial status, the gap between a professional athlete and the average joe was nowhere near as vast as it is now.  I have no doubt that the inner-workings of a pro football team have changed nearly beyond recognition in the past half-century. If you want a glimpse of a simpler time, look no further.

For the non-fan, Paper Lion is, on occasion, extremely funny.  I mean embarrassing-to-read-in-public funny.  My Wife, who hates football, has caught me giggling a couple of times while reading it.  "I'm definitely reading that book when you're done with it!" she claims.  We'll see.

This was a particularly good book to read in light of Alex Karras's recent passing.   Karras, now probably better known by most for his acting career, was a star defensive tackle for the Lions for 12 seasons.  He figures prominently in Plimpton's book, somewhat surprising in that he'd been suspended by the league for the '63 season for gambling.
Photo via Wikipedia

Despite his absence, Plimpton devoted an entire chapter to Karras's antics.  He was, to say the least, quite a character and loomed large in the team's clubhouse culture.  In addition to his considerable football talents (he was named to the All-Decade Team for the 1960s), Karras would amuse his teammates with character monologues and tales of past lives, providing glimpses of his future profession.  Plimpton's follow-up book, Mad Ducks and Bears, focused on Karras and teammate John Gordy.  Karras actually named one of his sons after Plimpton.
Photo via Zap2it

Later in life, Karras suffered from dementia and was one of many players to sue the NFL over football-related head injuries.  He passed away on October 10th of this year.  The cause of death was kidney failure.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Now in Theaters: An Unexpected Journey

Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via

Regular visitors already know that I've been looking forward to this movie for quite a long time.  I've been a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth since my own childhood and have spent the past year and change getting my daughter up to speed in preparation for Peter Jackson's film.  Our visit to the cinema this weekend felt almost like a pilgrimage.

The film is truly amazing.  Giving it a 5 was tempting but I'm still chewing over a few things.  To be fair, there are going to be


in this reflection if you're planning to see the movie but haven't yet.  We have much to discuss.  Best to get cracking...

Let's start with the positives.  The film is visually stunning.  New Zealand is as breathtaking as ever and Jackson's CGI world building is just as impressive.  (Side note: too many bridges without guardrails in Middle Earth - don't think I could handle it myself)  Early reviewers have criticized the technical aspects of filming - something about the film frame rate - but it certainly didn't bother me.  Overall, the storytelling is highly engaging. 

The music is surprisingly good.  I really enjoyed the song the Dwarves sang around the fire at Bag End: "Misty Mountains." 

I was also pleasantly surprised that Neil Finn (of Crowded House fame) performed the song for the end credits: "Song of the Lonely Mountain."

Gollum is far and away my favorite Tolkien character and the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter is handled masterfully.  Gollum is tragic, terrifying and comical all at once.  Andy Serkis's performance is, as ever, the highlight of the entire film.  I was slightly bothered, however, that the resolution of the "Time" riddle differs slightly from the book.  It still works but Tolkien's way was better. 

I felt the story as told in the film is surprisingly dark - not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.  I think of The Hobbit as being a relatively light-hearted romp compared to The Lord of the Rings but this new movie definitely had a heavy feel.  For the record, My Wife didn't agree with my assessment.  She agreed it was dark but no more so than the later story.

Where the film troubles me is the extra material.  Jackson's film goes far beyond Tolkien's original text.  The story of Radagast the Brown is greatly expanded and we are offered more glimpses of Gandalf's doings when he is away from the Dwarves and Bilbo.  The film provides a fairly thorough back story for Thorin as well.  I simply haven't worked out how I feel about the changes. Part of me is excited for the expansion.  Another part of me, though, is reflexively nervous when filmmakers take liberties with well-beloved source material.  Nothing the screenwriters have added contradicts Tolkien.  Indeed, the author might have approved whole-heartedly.  But one can never know for sure.

On the positive side, this is just the sort of pondering that will lead me to watch the film again and again - probably accompanied by further study of the book, too.  I have no doubt that Peter Jackson loves the original story as much as anyone.  He is a worthy vessel to carry the story forward.

Our Girl was very disappointed when the final credits rolled.  "That's not how it ends!" she yelled, indignant.  I thought we'd adequately explained about the three-installment plan but evidently not.  She did enjoy the film, though.  Now, we'll all look forward to December 2013.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I'm with the Band: Toledo

Band: Rocket Marching Band
University: University of Toledo
Today's Bowl Game: Utah State at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, 4:30 p.m., Boise, Idaho

Photo via The University of Toledo

A Halloween show:

Awesome drumline performance:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Football Fantasy: Knowshon Moreno

College League: won, 81.35-70.58 (advance to consolation semis)
Vermont League: bye (advance to consolation semis)
My Player of the Week: Knowshon Moreno (Running Back, Broncos) with 32 rushing attempts for 119 yards and 1 touchdown plus 4 receptions for 48 yards


Moreno's first name is a combination of his father's nickname, Knowledge, and his mother's name, Varashon.  He is New Jersey's all-time scoring leader in high school football.  He was injured for much of this season and was therefore available as a free agent in both of my leagues.  He's been a great get.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Family Movie Night: The Fellowship of the Ring

Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Director: Peter Jackson
Original Release: 2001
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Image via Wikipedia

"What about Tom Bombadill?"

Regular visitors know I've been reading Tolkien to our nine-year-old daughter for well over a year in anticipation of Peter Jackson's live action Hobbit films, installment #1 to be released this coming Friday.  The first book (The Hobbit) was my idea, but she requested the next two.  Despite her professed enthusiasm, I occasionally wonder how closely she's paying attention.

This weekend began with a nebulous plan to watch all three of Jackson's Lord of the Rings films.  Our Girl had never seen any of them.  As the hobbits were making their way to Rivendell early in Fellowship, she turned to me and asked the question above, clearly disappointed and echoing the purists' main complaint back when the film was first released.  My Wife and I are both so proud of our little Tolkien scholar.  Sniff...  I guess she's ready.


In the end, we only made it through the first two movies.  The Return of the King will have to wait for another time.  For blog purposes, I shall focus this week's post on the first movie of the trilogy.

Despite the omission of one of our favorite characters, Jackson's work is about as faithful to the original text as a near four-hour film (extended version, of course) could be.  There are other discrepancies, of course, but I expect Tolkien himself would have been pleased.  If you've devoted your life to the study of fantasy literature's grand master and have, for whatever crazy reason, avoided Jackson's films to this point, you will at least appreciate the filmmaker's obvious love for the material.  If you're a novice, the movies are every bit as likely to get you hooked as the books are.

So many things to love about Fellowship:
  • Middle Earth is the gold standard for world building in literature.  Jackson's film offers a textured, detailed reality worthy of Tolkien. Settings, casting, costume, makeup, sound - every facet is rich.
  • New Zealand is beautiful - minimal CGI required for the landscape shots.  Has any nation ever received such outstanding PR from a movie franchise?
  • Whenever I have read Fellowship, I have found the Ringwraiths genuinely terrifying and Jackson's treatment is very satisfying.  The bugs and worms that fall out of the first one the hobbits encounter are a great touch.
  • My favorite part of the first book is the affection/crush which Gimli the Dwarf develops for Galadriel, the Elf co-ruler of Lothlorien.  Most specifically, her parting gift to him is especially touching.  I can't remember if it was part of the theatrical version of the film but it's part of the extended version.
If you're curious about my previous Tolkien posts:

Bedtime Stories: The Hobbit
Bedtime Stories: The Fellowship of the Ring
Family Movie Night: The Hobbit

Multi-generational considerations:
  • The PG-13 rating is for violence and scary stuff.  Our Girl doesn't really seem particularly fazed by violence in movies, though she'll ask if a character she likes is going to die.
  • There are definitely scary moments: the aforementioned encounters with the Ringwraiths, of course, and also the face Bilbo makes as he reaches for The Ring on Frodo's necklace.
  • Speaking of characters she likes, she has confessed to me that the Elves are her favorite - especially Legolas.  She got a sheepish grin when I asked why.  She said she'd like to be an Elf herself.  I suspect, though, that there may be an Orlando Bloom crush involved as well.
  • Our Girl has a tendency to giggle during what I think of as tense plot points of movies - battle scenes and the like.  Her mom does it occasionally, too.  At one point during our marathon, I made some snarky comment along the lines of "It would be nice to feel the two of you are taking the story seriously!"  "We are taking it seriously," My Wife replied. "We have to find humor where we can.  It's a very dark story!"
  • To that end:


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, December 8, 2012

I'm with the Band: Navy

Band: United States Naval Academy Band
University: United States Naval Academy
Founded: 1852
Current Director: Lt. Cmdr. Bruce A. McDonald
Fight Song: "Anchors Aweigh"
Today's Game: Army, 3 p.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Just hit "play." Trust me.

As I wrote in last year's post about Army, the academy bands are not like other college bands.  The performers are all professional musicians and all are full-time military personnel.  Therefore, it is no surprise that they're a cut above the ordinary.

The marching band is one of many ensembles who perform under the umbrella of the Academy Band.  The piece above is performed by the concert band.  I am intimately acquainted with the original choral arrangement.  I think I sang it first as part of an amateur choir in NYC.  It is one of those truly magical songs - an absolute privilege to sing.

The following clip is charming for completely different reasons.  It is the original recording of Navy's fight song by the USNA Band of 1920.

It would be wrong not to include at least one video of the band marching.  This is the military we're talking about after all:

The Army-Navy football game was of great national interest once upon a time.  While the luster has dulled for the general public, it's still a very big deal within the military.  I quote Brent Musburger, who did the play-by-play for the game in 1995 (as recounted in John Feinstein's A Civil War): "There is no bowl game at stake here.  There is no coalition poll, no number one ranking.  No Heisman Trophy is at stake either.  This is bigger than all of that."

I have written about the game before.  In addition to last year's Army band post, linked above:

Army-Navy 2010
On the Coffee Table: A Civil War

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Football Fantasy: Morgan Burnett

College League: lost, 84.57-80.32 (6-7 overall, 10th place out of 12 teams)
Vermont League: lost, 74.22-70.70 (6-7, 8th out of 12)
My Player of the Week: Morgan Burnett (Safety, Packers) with 6 solo tackles, 1 assisted tackle, 2 interceptions and 3 passes defended
Photo via

It was a rough week in both leagues.  In both cases, I lost close matchups when a win would have put me in the playoffs.  In both, it came down to the Monday night game.  In the college league, I had RG3 (QB, Redskins) on my side, in the Vermont league he was against me.  He did well enough to beat me in the one, not well enough for me to win in the other.  Bottom line: ouch.

On the bright side, it's great to see DC so jazzed about its football team again.  RG3 is the Skins' most exciting player since...well...ever.  I love option football and it's great to see my own NFL team playing it.  Clearly, Washington needs a pass rush and also some quality offensive tackles to keep their young stud from getting killed.  But at long last, the future looks very bright.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Family Movie Night: Wreck-It Ralph

Title: Wreck-It Ralph
Director: Rich Moore
Original Release: 2012
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Image via Disney Wiki

Wreck-It Ralph is a strong nostalgic tug for those of us who grew up in the golden age of the video game arcade, imagining a life after-hours for the characters in the games.  The title character is the bad guy in a Donkey Kong-like game.  His desires for greater love and respect lead him on misadventures to the other game cabinets. 

The story is set in the present day, allowing video games of all eras to be represented.  The obvious choices like Pac-Man and Frogger are referenced from the '80s.  From later decades, there are cameos by characters from Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, Dance Dance Revolution and on and on.  There's even a glimpse of Pong.

Still jonesing for more retro gaming discussion?  My blogger pal Suze had a fun post about Galaga this past week. 

Multi-generational considerations:
  • If anything, I was eager for stronger nostalgic tugs.  They could have done more with the music, for instance.  Only one '80s song was featured in the soundtrack: "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang.  "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc. is featured in the trailer but not the movie.  Why not some old techno?  "Pac-Man Fever," even just a little snippet of it, seems an obvious choice - but alas, no.

  • Our Girl seemed to enjoy it but I think My Wife and I got a lot more of the jokes.  There is talk of a sequel.  Perhaps by then, they'll work in some Angry Birds jokes for her cohort.
  • If you're looking for a movie to help you reconnect with your '80s arcade rat self, a far better film is The King of Kong - a very enjoyable documentary, not as kid-friendly, though.

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, December 1, 2012

I'm with the Band: Kansas State

Band: Kansas State University Marching Band
University: Kansas State University
Founded: 1887
Current Director: Dr. Frank Tracz
Fight Song: "Wildcat Victory"
Today's Home Game: Texas, 7 p.m.
Image via Wikipedia

A promotional video:

This clip is from a rehearsal, but very nicely shot:

A very thorough pre-game: