Sunday, February 24, 2013

Family Movie Night: James and the Giant Peach

Title: James and the Giant Peach
Director: Henry Selick
Original Release: 1996
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

We've been fans of James and the Giant Peach for a long time at our house.  We first listened to the audiobook as read by Jeremy Irons on a road trip when our daughter was quite young.  When she got her iPod Shuffle a while back, the book was her first download.  She'd listen over and over again, often reading along with the book herself. 

Given our great familiarity and affection for the original Roald Dahl book, I am a bit resistant to the film as it is quite different.  Our Girl, however, is not bothered at all.  This was our second time watching the film interpretation and she loves it.  I can't deny that it's a well-made film - the combination of live action and stop-motion animation very effective.

The orphan James Henry Trotter lives a miserable life with his abusive aunts in 1930s England.  One day, a giant peach falls from a tree in the yard.  James crawls inside where he is befriended by the enlarged insects living within.  The peach carries them all away to the sea, just the beginning of a journey that takes them all the way to New York.  That much of the story is the same as the book.  Other details along the way are added and altered but the spirit of the story is preserved.

On the Coffee Table: The Walking Dead

Title: The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Tony Moore
Image via Comic Masters

So, you know when you buy a book based on strong critical reviews but actually expect you won't like it yourself?  Such was the case for me with The Walking Dead.  Zombie stories are everywhere these days and I generally don't care for them.  I'm not a big fan of blood and zombie narratives are soaked in the stuff.  The tales also tend to be predictable:

What are those things?
Woah, they're trying to eat us!
When they get you, you become one of them!
How can we possibly win?

And so on...
Of course, the driver behind the current zombie fad is this very comic book series, a commercial and critical sensation which has spawned an equally acclaimed TV show (nope, haven't watched it yet).  Now, having read Volume 1 (comprising the first six comic issues), I understand why.  This story is really good!

Don't get me wrong.  There's loads of blood and the zombies are just plain grody.  But once you get past the usual horror show trappings, our band of survivors is a compelling bunch.  Led by Rick Grimes (what a perfect name for such a tale!), his wife Lori and son Carl, the troop must contend not only with the obvious challenges of their desperate circumstances but also the interpersonal tensions which arise among a small group of people in a stressful situation.  Everyone's place on the moral spectrum is fluid.  It didn't take me long to become invested in the characters' survival.

I'm definitely up for more.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Kingdom Come

Title: Kingdom Come
Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Alex Ross
Image via What's Up, MOCK?

I have to admit that my interest in the DC Universe was on the ropes before I picked up this collection, first published as a four-issue mini-series in 1996.  The New 52 relaunch back in 2010 only held my interest for a few months.  I enjoyed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, but wasn't impressed enough to explore the Caped Crusader's story beyond.  But the Justice League has always been my strongest hook into this particular world so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that they've drawn me in once again.

The first thing one notices about Kingdom Come is the artwork.  The characters are painted in gouache with a vivid, ancient Greek idealism by Ross.  At the end of the book, Ross credits the human models who donated their time for the project.  Sharp lines and vivid colors dominate throughout.  If anything, images are too busy - a complaint I often find myself making with DC - but there's no denying the stunning quality of the work.

The story is wonderful.  Superman and Wonder Woman, both older now and having confronted the cruelties of life (even for immortals), come out of self-seclusion to restore order to the world.  Batman has his own ideas for the best course of action, as do Lex Luthor and the UN Secretary General.  As in the real world, the line between benevolence and tyranny is very thin.

As frequently happens with my comic explorations, I am now eager to go back to the beginning with these characters.  DC is releasing Justice League Chronicles, Vol. 1 in May.  Meanwhile, I can explore the stories of the individual characters, too.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Family Movie Night: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Title: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Directors: Michael Curtiz and William Keighly
Original Release: 1938
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Image via Words of Note

Quite a number of Robin Hood movies have been made over the years.  I have seen at least four myself.  But the 1938 classic starring Errol Flynn is the standard by which all others are judged.

In England, the legend of Robin Hood goes back hundreds of years, references to be found as early as the 13th century.  However, much of what has come to be accepted as part of his story has been invented relatively recently.  The idea of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, for instance, did not appear until the 19th century.  Also, Robin Hood was a commoner for most of his history, his portrayal as a displaced nobleman relatively new, as is his portrayal as a royalist devoted to King Richard the Lionheart.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was Warner Brothers' first Technicolor feature.  Despite the big budget required to film, the movie was a box office smash and won three Oscars.  The lead was also probably the defining role of the dazzlingly handsome Flynn's career.  There's eye candy in both dressing rooms for this one, with the beautiful Olivia de Havilland cast as Maid Marion.  In addition to being a satisfying film visually, the movie's score won an Oscar for Erich Wolfgang Korngold and became a popular concert piece in its own right.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Comic Book Finds: Berlin 17 & 18

Title: Berlin
Issues: #17-18
Release: November 2010 and January 2012
Writer and Artist: Jason Lutes
Image via The Beguiling

Berlin is one of the most rewarding comic book series I have discovered.  The story begins in 1928 and, according to plan, will eventually run through 1933.  I have previously reviewed two trade publications: City of Stones (Issues 1-8) and City of Fire (9-16).  Issue 17 begins the third book of the trilogy, City of Light

The strength of this series, as with any good historical fiction, is the portrayal of the everyday lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  In #17, Severing, a journalist, visits Berlin's Communist Party headquarters.  His intentions are unclear: is he thinking of joining?  writing a story?  While there, he encounters a 12-year-old girl, Silvia.  He doesn't know her but we do: essentially orphaned by the May Day Massacre but finding her way, dependent on help, yet tough as nails.  The issue ends with with Marthe (Severing's former lover) and Anna (Marthe's current lover) caught in a compromising position by their landlady.
Image via Drawn & Quarterly

#18, the most recent issue to be released, finds Severing descending into alcoholism, depression or both.  Silvia runs into trouble, both at home (she's been taken in by a Jewish family) and on the streets.  Marthe and Anna visit a nightclub, where matters take an unfortunate turn.

As readers with historical perspective, we know life in Germany is going to get a lot harder before it gets easier, especially for those already on society's fringes.  One can't help but feel invested in the characters' future.  I can't find anything about when we can expect #19 but I'm hoping soon.  If the previous 14-month interval is anything to go on, March 2013 seems like a possibility.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Double Barrel #8

Title: Double Barrel
Issue: #8
Release: February 2013
Writers: Kevin Cannon & Zander Cannon
Artists: Kevin Cannon & Zander Cannon
Image via Top Shelf Productions

The latest installment of the Cannons' web comic launched this past Wednesday.  As always, this excellent work can be purchased wherever web comics or eBooks are sold.  I picked up mine at ComiXology for the bargain price of $1.99.

Both main stories are charging towards climax.  Zander's Heck includes a major twist which I must say, I did not see coming!  In Kevin's Crater XV, Army and Pravda go to visit the orphanage where they first met.  Extras include part 7 of Kevin's Penny from the Front, Zander's True Tales of Jin, a mini-comic from Kevin entitled "The Horse Head Killer" and a How to from Kevin on how to write your own mini-comic.  Yup, all for under 2 bucks!

Funny coincidence: in the issue's intro comic, Kevin mentions the French-language release of his graphic novel, Far Arden.  We had just been in a French bookstore in Montreal over the weekend where I spotted the new edition on the shelves!  Kevin is quite the Canadaphile (Is that a word?  It should be.) so it's great to see his work become available to the nation's francophones.

My usual disclaimer: I went to college with the Cannons and am therefore slightly biased.  However, I would not bother blogging about their work if I didn't think it was good.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Long Island Iced Tea Party

The following is my offering for Suze's False Start Valentine's Day event.  All participants - there are seven of us this time, plus our hostess - must supply a portion of manuscript, romance as theme.  For more info and to read other submissions, please visit Suze at Subliminal Coffee.  Here we go...
Photo via Science of Drink
I had no reason to expect the Long Island Iced Tea party would offer much beyond the usual drunken carousing.  I couldn’t have known she’d be there.  I didn’t know her yet.

Rumor had it Sandra was bringing a friend, one who lived in some tiny one-room apartment in Tokyo.  Such was my original mental image of Dani: a woman alone in an unfurnished tatami room, a single bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling.  Dani in the flesh was a bit more glamorous. She was well put-together: a horizontal-striped tank top, tight fit; an ankle-length, black skirt.  Her dark brown hair was cut short after a lifetime (I would later learn) of keeping it long.  Confident – maybe a little off her game in a room of strangers but ready to hold court once she had her footing. 

I met her in the drink-mixing room.  All of the booze and glassware were set up on a low kotatsu table – not much of a bar but you work with what you’ve got.  I’d been summoned to mix a bloody mary. TJ, an old southern boy at heart, handed me a Mason jar for the job.

I was surprised when Dani, not long after first introduction, moved to sit on my side of the table. I’m slow on the uptake when a woman shows interest, yet I knew she wasn’t merely curious about my mixological endeavors.  She moved to be next to me.  Well, hello…

“So, why’s he having you make it?”

“I’m good at Bloody Marys.”

“Are you a bartender?”

“No, I only know how to make one drink.  Bars never get them right.  TJ will order one, then let me fix it.”

            “What does ‘fixing it’ entail, exactly?”

“I like ‘em hot.  If it doesn’t set your mouth on fire, it’s not a Bloody Mary.  The best I ever had was at a Southern cuisine restaurant in Minnesota.”

“Minnesota?  Help me out.  My US geography is limited at this point.”

“Upper Midwest.”

“So, not exactly the Heart of Dixie.  Southern cuisine?”

“The restaurant was called Dixie’s, actually.  They loaded up the drink with vegetable garnishes and served a beer chaser alongside.  Without the extras to soak up some of the spice, it would have been undrinkable.”

“Sounds painful.”

“More like Heaven!  My mouth waters just thinking about it.”

“A Proustean-Pavlovian response.”  Realizing I don’t get the joke, she goes on, “I thought this was a Long Island Iced Tea party.  Do you make those, too?”

“We’ve got the ingredients.  I’ll give it a shot.”

“What goes in it?”

“A little bit of everything: vodka, gin, tequila, rum, triple sec…”

“Any actual tea?”

“None whatsoever.”

“How do you manage the color?” eyeing someone else’s glass.


Long Island Iced Tea had become the drink of choice among our group, primarily because our regular bar in Yokohama made a fine one.  It’s a revolting concoction, truth be told, and potent.  I expect it was TJ who ordered the first one.  He raved.  We all followed suit.  It became a thing – as good an excuse for a party as any.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Family Movie Night: Searching for Bobby Fischer

Title: Searching for Bobby Fischer
Director: Steven Zaillian
Original Release: 1993
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Amazon

I love chess.  It is a beautiful game of elegance and artistry.  The board, the pieces and the rules reach back across centuries, yet each new generation has geniuses who expand the possibilities.  I won't pretend that I'm any good, though there have been periods in my life when I've devoted significant time to getting better. As a lifelong enthusiast for games of all varieties, chess is the most puzzling, infuriating, mystifying, inspiring and satisfying of all.

Searching for Bobby Fischer was not the chess film I initially had in mind for family movie night this week.  For a long time, I've had my eye on Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, a documentary about the grandmaster's misadventures against IBM's computer Deep Blue.  But when my daughter asked what we were watching and I said a chess movie, she said, "Oo, yay!  A chess movie!"

Suddenly, a sense of responsibility kicked in.  If she's this excited about a chess movie - and mind you, she doesn't play chess herself - I'd better be sure it's a good one.  The Kasparov film, while intriguing, has admittedly gotten mixed reviews.  Searching for Bobby Fischer, on the other hand, is one of my old favorites - a sure thing.

The movie isn't actually about Bobby Fischer at all.  It's about Josh Waitzkin, a young chess prodigy growing up in New York City.  One could even argue that it's not really about chess.  Instead, it's a cautionary tale for parents pushing their kids too hard, losing perspective as they drive their children to excel. When I first saw the movie in the theater back in my college years, I was most impressed with Josh and the inspiring sports movie angle.  But as an adult who has spent too many hours in studios listening to my fellow dance parents and on the sidelines to the soccer parents, I tear up when Dan Hedaya (great cameo!) banishes the moms and dads from the tournament floor and all the kids applaud.  A film one can appreciate for different reasons at different life stages - that, dear friends, is the mark of a great movie.

A lot of Hollywood heavyweights signed on for this one: Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy and Laura Linney plus a fantastic cameo by Tony Shalhoub.  Cinematographer Conrad Hall got a much deserved Oscar nomination.  He took the chess theme to heart.  In one memorable scene, we hear Kingsley's voice before we see him.  The actor in front of him steps away as Sir Ben comes into view - not unlike a discovered attack on a chessboard.

Kasparov will keep for another day.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • I had a hard time gauging Our Girl's interest as we watched.  She hid under the blanket when Mantegna's character was at his overbearing worst.  But she came around by the end.  Her first comment when it was over: "Dad, will you teach me to play chess tomorrow?"

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Star Trek: The Cage

Episode: "The Cage"
Series: Star Trek: Original Series
Pilot Episode
Original Air Date: October 15, 1988
Image via Memory Alpha

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as Star Trek.   No one but Gene Roddenberry knew anything about the USS Enterprise, Vulcans or Klingons.  Such orders as "Beam me up, Scotty!" and "Set phasers to stun!" had not yet been introduced to playground adventures throughout the United States.

Then one day, a show idea was pitched to NBC.  A pilot was made.  The pilot was rejected.  Happens all the time.  But this time, in an unprecedented move, the network asked for a second pilot.  Take 2 passed muster and the greatest franchise in American science fiction television was born.  The original pilot, however, would not be aired until 23 years later.

"The Cage" contains many elements that would eventually become familiar to Trek fans worldwide.  The theme music is in place.  The iconic Starfleet insignia is stitched over the right breast of the uniforms.  Most importantly, Mr. Spock is already on board.

The rest of the Enterprise crew is unique to this episode.  The Captain is Christopher Pike, as played by Jeffrey Hunter.  Hunter declined the opportunity to reprise his role in the second pilot, his character thus reduced to trivia question answer status.  Hunter passed away in 1969 at the age of 42.
Image via Wikipedia

The story is vintage Trek (all of those cliches had to start somewhere).  The Enterprise responds to a distress signal, originating from a Class M planet (a Roddenberry-invented designation for worlds capable of supporting life).  Captain Pike takes an away team to the surface.  The distress signal is part of an elaborate trap set by the Talosians, the planet's inhabitants.  Pike is captured.  He and the crew back on the ship struggle to spring him.
Image via Lisa Paitz Spindler

One interesting element of this first Trek adventure was the casting of a woman as First Officer, a progressive idea for 1964-65.  Comments by Pike indicate that the concept is a bit of a stretch for even his 23rd century sensibilities.  The part was played by Majel Barrett, Roddenberry's girlfriend.  The two would eventually be married in 1969, not parting until his death in 1991.  Barrett would play various roles in Trek series over the years, most memorably as Lwaxana Troi on Next Generation.  She died of leukemia in 2008 at the age of 76.


I am not a Trekkie - not yet, anyway.  Inspired by comic books and enabled by Netflix's instant viewing capacity, I've decided to watch the entire saga - all six TV series plus movies - from the beginning.  How far will I get?  How often will I blog about it?  Only time will tell. 

Undaunted by the fact that this ground is already well-covered in the blogosphere and over the Web at-large, I shall boldly go where no squid has gone before.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Family Movie Night: The Cat Returns

Title: The Cat Returns
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Original Release: 2002
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

Yet another top-notch film from Studio Ghibli, The Cat Returns is a follow-up (not exactly a sequel) to the 1995 film, Whisper of the Heart (see my review here).  The cat in question is the Baron, a character first introduced as a figurine in an antique shop in Whisper of the Heart.  In that story, he comes to life in a fantasy sequence.  In this later film, he gets a tale of his own.

Haru, a teenage girl, saves a cat from getting run over by a truck.  The cat, it turns out, is actually a prince of the Cat Kingdom.  Out of gratitude, the king of said realm sends his emissaries to shower Haru with gifts and, most troubling, to arrange for her marriage to the prince.  A mysterious voice sends Haru to the Cat Bureau for help in getting out of this predicament.  That's where she meets the Baron and also Muta, another returning character from the earlier movie.  Things only get more complicated from there.

The Cat Returns has all of the Ghibli hallmarks: first class animation, a sophisticated plot and a strong female lead.  Haru is true-to-life: insecure about all the things teenage girls are usually nervous about, yet spunky and decisive when she's in a tight spot.  One doesn't really need to see Whisper of the Heart first since the two stories are independent of one another.  However, it's a safe bet that if you like the one movie, you'll enjoy the other as well.