Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On the Road: DC, December 2014

Just got back from our annual December trip to Washington, DC.  As regular readers may recall, I grew up in suburban Maryland and my parents have since moved into the city.  Our recent tradition has been spending Christmas Day at home in Vermont, then down to DC the day after.  A few highlights from our latest visit...

Mount Vernon

George Washington's northern Virginia estate was a popular destination for school field trips growing up so I had been a couple of times before but not in about 25 years.  Saturday was a gorgeous day, weather-wise, our best of the trip.  It seemed like a great day to go.  Unfortunately, a lot of other folks thought the same thing - huge crowd.  Parking was a nightmare, then a long line for tickets.

Worth the wait, though.  Mount Vernon is beautiful, particularly the mansion and the view of the river.  George Washington was a great man.  And, as with many of the Founding Fathers, he was also an obscenely wealthy man.  One must not forget the slavery upon which such opulence was built.

Slave Cottage

Beauty and the Beast

On Sunday, we ventured bravely back to northern Virginia - Crystal City, this time - to Synetic Theater for a production of Beauty and the Beast.  The company specializes in wordless performances of Shakespeare and other classics.  This production did include spoken narration but most of the story was told through movement, dance and elaborate staging.  The fairy tale was told from the perspective of the witch who placed the original curse on the beast.  Without the narration, that would have been difficult to follow I think, but I still would have preferred the show without it.  Even so, the show was dazzling, especially for the lighting, set design and the strong performances of the two leads.
via Synetic Theater
The theater recently took a big hit in its public funding.  They're still a little short of their fundraising goal to make up the difference so if, in your post-Christmas cheer, you're feeling generous, they would be grateful for your contributionBeauty and the Beast runs through January 11th.  Their next show, a wordless Much Ado About Nothing, begins in February.

Tono Sushi

My parents are regulars at Tono Sushi, a Japanese/Thai establishment on Connecticut Avenue.   The co-proprietor recognizes their voices when they call for a reservation (or so he claims, I'm guessing there's a technological assist on that one) and always comes over to the table to chat.  Our server was an older Japanese woman, both charming and attentive.  The food is excellent, of course - chirashi is my go-to at sushi restaurants these days.

As always, it was fun to go but it's great to be home, too - even with nothing but sub-freezing temperatures in the forecast for the rest of the week.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Star Trek: That Which Survives

Episode: "That Which Survives"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 17
Original Air Date: January 24, 1969
via Star Trek Fan Companion
Seven more episodes to go.
The Enterprise discovers a planet which appears to have developed life at an unusually rapid rate.  As the landing party - Kirk, McCoy, Sulu and geologist D'Amato - beams down, a strange woman appears in the transporter room, trying to stop them.  The party makes it off the ship but the woman (played by Lee Meriwether) kills the transporter tech.  She kills others - both on the ship and on the surface - and also manages to fling the Enterprise 990.7 light years away before our heroes finally gain the upper hand.  The woman, they eventually learn, is a projected manifestation of the planet's security system, the settlers themselves long dead.

The story features an unusually cranky Spock.  In command of the ship with Kirk on the away team, he snaps at several crew members about, among other things, their mathematically imprecise calculations.  What's funny about it is that Spock's own figures are way off.  In the script, he states that it would take 11.33 hours to travel 990.7 light years at warp 8.4.  In truth, it would take 1.67 years.

via Wikipedia
Lee Meriwether was born May 27, 1935 in Los Angeles.  She was Miss America in 1955, joining the Today show after her reign.  1956 rumors of an engagement to Joe DiMaggio proved to be unfounded.

Meriwether was the second Catwoman to appear on Trek.  When Julie Newmar, the regular Catwoman on the Batman TV series, was unavailable for the 1966 feature film, Meriwether was cast in her place.  Meriwether also made two appearances on the TV series as Lisa Carson.

Most of her acting work has come on television.  For eight seasons, she was Betty, Barnaby's secretary and daughter-in-law, on Barnaby Jones.  That gig garnered two Golden Globe and one Emmy nomination for her.  She was also Lily Munster for three seasons of The New Munsters and had a recurring role on All My Children as Ruth Martin.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: January 2015 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, January 30th.  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, December 26, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: December 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: The Empire Strikes Back
Author: Donald F. Gult
via Wookieepedia
When asked for my favorite movie, I generally dodge the question by saying I have three: The Empire Strikes Back, The Philadelphia Story and The Usual Suspects.  But for as much as I prefer the latter two on an intellectual level, my heart shall always belong to Empire.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction from a young age and the galaxy far, far away has long been the most potent mythology in filtering my worldview.  The first Star Wars film is a genuine classic but the second is the reason why the franchise is what it has become.  With the introductions of the diametrically opposed Yoda and Emperor Palpatine, the battle between the forces of good and evil was clearly outlined.  And with the ending twist, one of the greatest in all of cinema, my concept of villain was chucked out the Cloud City's exhaust vent.

Obviously, it's easy to enjoy a book when I already have a deep affection for the story.  Reading the novelization offers new perspectives on an old friend.  For the most part, the book is very close to the movie but there are subtle differences in details.  Yoda is blue in the book whereas he's green in the movie.  Darth Vader's light saber is also a different color: blue instead of what would become standard Sith red.  The dialogue is not always identical either.  For instance, the classic exchange between Han and Leia as he's descending into the carbon freeze chamber - "I love you." "I know." - is absent from the book.

More significant are the qualitative contrasts in the portrayal of the characters emotional states - clearly spelled out in the book but conveyed differently on screen.  In particular, the budding romance between Han and Leia is more thoroughly developed and, if anything, more tender in the novelization.  

The book is no substitute for the movie but I imagine it would be enjoyable for most fans of the franchise. 

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 January's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is January 30th.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Star Trek: The Mark of Gideon

Episode: "The Mark of Gideon"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 16
Original Air Date: January 17, 1969
via Memory Alpha
The Enterprise arrives at the planet Gideon on a diplomatic mission to invite the planet to join the Federation.  But the Gideonites give bogus transporter coordinates, tricking Captain Kirk into beaming down to an Enterpirse replica.  He believes he is on his own ship and his crew has vanished.  The only other being on board the ship is the mysterious and beautiful Odona who encourages him to embrace this new existence.

Eventually, the truth is revealed.  Odona is the ambassador's daughter.  It was her job to trick Kirk into sticking around so he could help solve Gideon's overpopulation problem.  The people, it seems, have stopped getting sick and dying so the planet is now bursting at the seams with human life.  Kirk, we learn, carries a latent infection of Vegan choriomenengitis.  He has infected Odona who will now die.  The Gideonites will use Kirk to infect others as well.

This episode generally gets panned by critics for its logical inconsistencies.  How and why would the Gideonites go to all the trouble of building a replica ship?  Why is this infection not an issue every single time Kirk beams down to a new planet?  Fair questions, I guess, but I enjoyed this story - the first I've genuinely liked in a while.  The overcrowding is definitely a concern that speaks to me.  I've spent too much of my life in mega-cities like New York and Tokyo and am happy to live in rural Vermont now simply because there aren't as many people around.  In one deliciously creepy scene, Kirk opens an exterior-view window and a sea of Gideonites stares back at him.  The story is quite daring in its approach to the topic, too.  Kirk suggests sexual sterilization and birth control to the Gideonites as possible alternative measures in curbing population growth.

via Battlestar Galactica Wiki
Sharon Acker (Odona) was born on April 2, 1935 in Toronto.  Initially a theater actress, a stage role in Lucky Jim led directly to a screen role in the 1957 film version of the play.  Other film gigs included Point Blank, Waiting for Caroline and The First Time.  Acker was more successful in television.  Beyond Trek, she had regular roles in two short-lived series.  She was Della Street in The New Perry Mason (1973-74) and Helen Walling in Executive Suite (1976-77).


Merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Favorite Christmas Memory

Walking along a snowy street in Cleveland.

While pondering which to choose as My Favorite Christmas Memory for Cherdo's and Janie's bloghop, that was the image that kept coming back to me.  I've spent exactly one Christmas in Cleveland and not an especially memorable one - or at least I wouldn't have thought so before this exercise.  So why was that particular image continually popping up in my mind?  Definitely worth exploring.

I grew up in suburban Maryland and Christmas was always at home.  We might travel for other holidays but family always came to see us for Christmas.  Grandma was there every year.  My mother was an only child so my sister and I were Grandma's only grandchildren. For as long as she was able to travel, she would fly to Washington for the holidays.  But my first year out of college, Grandma was in assisted living.  We all went to her.

In hindsight, I realize it was a milestone gathering in our family for several reasons.  It was our first Christmas away from the house in Maryland.  It was my sister's and her husband's first Christmas as a married couple.  It was also our last time all together with Grandma.  I would see her on my own a few times before her passing two years later but that was our last time with her as a family.  It would, in fact, be a couple of years before I was with my parents and sister for Christmas again.  I was abroad the following two years - not a definite at that point, but plans were in the works.

On top of all that, I believe it was my first White Christmas.  I recall very few of the particulars from that trip but I do remember snow.  It was a stressful visit in many ways, much of it spent in our hotel rooms or gathered in the nursing home - not exactly the idyllic image of a family Christmas.  At one point, just to get out in the fresh air, we all (apart from Grandma) went for a walk in the city.  It must have been the day before or after Christmas day as there were loads of other people out, too.  We were all quite merry, enjoying what was probably miserable weather.  Smiles and laughter are what I remember.  Is that really how we were that day?  I'm not even certain.  My memory wants it so, needs it so.  And so it is.

Merry Christmas to all of you!  May the season bring joy, warmth, love and peace no matter your spiritual leanings.  We all need it.  We all deserve it.  We all should be as grateful for what we have to give as for what we are fortunate to receive.

Peace on Earth.

Now in Theaters: The Battle of Five Armies

Title: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
Director: Peter Jackson
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
I'm not ready to like this movie or, indeed, Peter Jackson's complete Hobbit trilogy.  I adore Tolkien and my love for the original book is my problem in appreciating this film adaptation.  Jackson took an awful lot of liberties in expanding the story.  Some of his ideas are fine as they fill in gaps and he's as entitled to try his hand at them as anyone.  Others bother me quite a lot because they materially alter the story.

So, how can I possibly give the movie a 4 if I'm not even willing to say I like it?  Because I know I'll watch it again.  In fact, I'm highly likely to buy a copy and devote hours of my life to deep consideration of the differences between the film and the source material.  I can easily imagine spending entire weekends with the books, these films, Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and even the old cartoons pondering the different interpretations.  In time, I may learn to love.

But first, I need to get over wanting The Hobbit movies to be the same as the book.  Movies are never quite the same.  I know this.  Once I am able to appreciate an adaptation on its own terms, I can enjoy it.  I have similar struggles with the Wonka movies.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of maybe three books for which I have a comparable affection (the others are Huck Finn which typically translates awkwardly to film but is probably overdue for an earnest, big-budget attempt and Catcher in the Rye which should NEVER be made into a movie).  I'd read Dahl's classic many times before finally watching 1971's film starring Gene Wilder.  I hated the movie - absolutely detested it - because it was so different from my beloved favorite.  I prefer Tim Burton's 2005 interpretation with Johnny Depp entirely because of its closer adherence to Dahl's original.  But over time, I've come to accept the '71 film for what it is: a fun, clever, sweet story in its own right.

I may come to view The Hobbit trilogy in a similar light but I'm not there yet.  Gandalf's adventures away from Bilbo and the dwarves are open to interpretation but a love story between one of the dwarves and an elf is unnecessary and out of line.  At the very least, Jackson should have done a better job of sticking to Tolkien's language.  To me, the book's one, perfect passage is Thorin's farewell speech to Bilbo:  "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West.  Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure.  If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."  Despite giving himself three films and 8.5 hours, Jackson couldn't find the time to include the whole thing.  That, for me, may be his most unforgivable sin.

But The Battle of Five Armies is, in its own right, quite an amazing work of cinema.  New Zealand is as stunning as ever and Jackson's CGI is certainly impressive.  I especially enjoyed Thorin being swallowed by the golden floor.  There were, however, a couple of giggle-inducing moments that weren't intended to be so.  The first was the troll ramming his head into the city wall of Dale, then falling over, dazed.  The second was Legolas running up a staircase of falling rocks.  Action scenes should, at the very least, be giggle-proof.  Even so, it's way too good a movie for me to write off as simply "not as good as the book."  It will probably be another 30 years before anyone even tries to adapt The Hobbit again so for now, Jackson's work will just have to do.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Star Trek: Let That Be Your Last Battlefied

Episode: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 15
Original Air Date: January 10, 1969
via Memory Beta
As the series was winding down, NBC and Paramount executives wanted to use every available Trek script.   The story for "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" had originally been pitched and rejected for the show's first season but now it was exactly the sort of material required for the death spiral.  The episode is a heavy-handed racism fable, best-loved by the devoted for the guest appearance by Frank Gorshin who had played The Riddler on ten episodes of Batman.

While on a mission to decontaminate the planet Ariannus, the Enterprise encounters a stolen Federation shuttle craft.  The tractor beam brings the vessel into the hangar deck and Lokai, the injured pilot/thief within, is brought to sickbay.  Meanwhile, Bele (Gorshin), another being, has boarded the ship in his pursuit of Lokai.  Bele identifies himself as a police commissioner and has long sought Lokai as a political dissident.  Both men are white on one side of the face, black on the other.  Wouldn't you know it, they're exactly opposite.  Bele is black on the right side, Lokai is white on the right.  Thus all the trouble.

Eye roll inducing moments are definitely on the increase but there is still fun to be had.  During red alerts, the camera zooms in and out on the signal at a tilted angle.  This was allegedly done in tribute to The Riddler.

via Batman Wiki
Frank Gorshin was born April 5, 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He got into show business as an impressionist, having mastered the mannerisms of film stars while ushering at a movie theater during high school.  He went to college at the school now known as Carnegie Mellon.  He was drafted into the army in 1953, serving a year and a half in Germany.

Gorshin's acting career took off after his army discharge.  Film gigs included Between Heaven and Hell, Hot Rod Girl and Invasion of the Saucer Men.  Apart from Trek and Batman, he made television appearances on Hawaii Five-O, Charlie's Angels and Wonder Woman among many others.  He debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night The Beatles did. 

The impressions continued to the end.  In 2002, Gorshin played George Burns in Say Goodnight, Gracie, a Tony-nominated one-man show.  A notorious chain smoker (five packs a day!), Gorshin died in 2005 from lung cancer, emphysema and pneumonia.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On the Road: Essex Junction

It has been a rough week in Vermont.  Due to unusually wet and heavy snow, we have been without electricity at our house since Wednesday evening.  We are not alone.  Much of our town and others nearby are out, too.  For us, losing power is no small matter.  It means no heat and, worst of all, no water.  We're muddling through but it's been tough.  As I write this, we're sitting in the public library, checking the electric company's website periodically for updates.  They're promising most outages will be taken care of today - fingers crossed.

via The Essex
In desperation, we did take a quick vacation from our plight on Friday evening, checking into the Essex Resort & Spa for the night.  Actually, My Wife thought she was making the reservation for Saturday but got her dates mixed up.  Fortunately, we caught the mistake in time and set off to enjoy our evening.  We would have been crushed to arrive on Saturday only to find ourselves out of luck.

The inn is very nice.  We managed to get a decent deal given the late reservation but got a nice room nonetheless.  Most importantly, it had hot, running water.  Showers, bliss...  The room was clean, the food was decent and the service was adequate.  Truth be told, though, we all slept better in our own cold house on Saturday night.  Even so, the break was a good thing.

Just checked again.  Our earliest estimate for power is 6 pm tomorrow.  Sigh...

Have a good week, everyone.  Don't be shocked if I'm not ready for Trek on Wednesday.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Mock Squid Soup: January 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 January 9th with Better Off Dead.
via Wikipedia
Our dear friend Suze is co-hosting with us in January.   If you, dear cinephile, would be interested in suggesting a film and co-hosting Mock Squid Soup one month, please let us know.  We hope that you, too, will watch the movie and join in our discussion.  Please sign on to the list below:

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mock Squid Soup: Pulp Fiction

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: Pulp Fiction
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Original Release: 1994
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Pulp Fiction was released during my senior year of college.  For me, it was a gateway to indie films.  For all of its gratuitous and disturbing elements - the violence, the blood, the drug overdose - expert writing and masterful storytelling shone through.  It woke me up to the quality that existed in the medium beyond the big budget blockbusters.  It also introduced me to the concept of a MacGuffin (the briefcase), though I wouldn't learn the word for it until years later.

Pulp Fiction is actually three interweaving stories, told out of sequence.  In "Vincent Vega and Marsellus's Wife," LA hit man Vincent (John Travolta) entertains his boss's wife (Uma Thurman) for an enjoyable but ultimately catastrophic evening.  In "The Gold Watch," boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) cheats the aforementioned Marsellus (Ving Rhames) out of a gambling fix.  In "The Bonnie Situation," Vincent and his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) must dispose of a dead body.

The film resurrected one acting career (Travolta), rejuvenated another (Willis) and catapulted two others to Hollywood's A-list (Thurman and Jackson).  The acting is outstanding almost across the board, though the writing sure makes it easy.  The one weakness is Tarantino's own appearance as Jimmie, the unfortunate friend who finds himself the unwilling accomplice in body disposal.  Yet another director is tripped up by his own narcissism...

My favorite part of the movie is the last scene.  It is the end of "The Bonnie Situation" but is not the end of the overall sequential narrative.  I wonder now if that was intentional or if the non-sequential narrative of the film evolved more organically.  Jules's final monologue provides a wonderful summation of the moral landscape of the entire film.  It might lose some impact without the benefit of the completion of all three stories.  Also, I'd think it would be difficult to follow the emotional intensity of that last scene with much of anything.

We hope that you, too, will watch Pulp Fiction and join in our discussion.  I'll post January's sign-up list tomorrow.  Our feature on Friday, January 9th shall be... Better Off Dead.
via Wikipedia
Our dear friend Suze is co-hosting with us in January.   If you, dear cinephile, would be interested in suggesting a film and co-hosting Mock Squid Soup one month, please let us know.

In the meantime, for the Pulp Fiction discussion, please sign on to the list below.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Star Trek: Whom Gods Destroy

Episode: "Whom Gods Destroy"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 14
Original Air Date: January 3, 1969
via Memory Alpha
Star Trek's first episode of 1969 brought the Enterprise to Elba II and its asylum for the criminally insane.  What begins as a mission to deliver medicine turns disastrous.  Inmate Garth of Izar, once a famed starship captain and hero to James T. Kirk, has taken over the asylum, largely through his shape-shifting ability.

In the episode's most interesting scene, Spock must tell the real Kirk apart from Garth's impersonation.  Somehow, he missed the obvious, logical choice of phaser stunning both of them and sorting afterward but he solved the riddle when the genuine article offered himself up for the good of his ship.  Apparently Leonard Nimoy, disgruntled for much of the third season, was furious about this scene, feeling it was out of character for Spock to have such a difficult time finding the true Kirk.

Ten more to go...

via Wikipedia
Keye Luke played the role of Governor Donald Cory, the asylum director.  Luke was born Luk Shek Lun in Guangzhou, China on June 18, 1904.  His family emigrated to Seattle when he was a child at which point they adopted the Americanized spelling of their name.

Luke first broke into show biz as an artist rather than an actor, painting murals and press materials for theaters and films.  He took his first acting turn in 1934's The Painted Veil but he made his big splash playing Number One Son in Charlie Chan in Paris.  On the strength of his performance, the character became a regular in the Charlie Chan series.  He also played Kato in the Green Hornet films.  By the time of his Trek appearance, Luke was one of the most prominent Asian actors in the United States. 

Among numerous television appearances, he was Master Po in Kung Fu.  He was originally slated to play the part of Noonien Soong, Data's creator, in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  When illness prevented him from doing so, Brent Spiner ultimately took over the role, spawning the idea of Soong creating Data in his own image.

Luke died of a stroke in 1991 at the age of 86.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

From the Queue: Shanghai Noon

Title: Shanghai Noon
Director: Tom Dey
Original Release: 2000
My Overall Rating: 2 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
My Wife and I do occasionally watch movies without the girl, though not nearly as often as we once did.  Our Family Movie Night choice this week is one I've already reviewed (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - see here) so I thought I might share my thoughts on our latest arrival from the Netflix queue.  Shanghai Noon is a comedy western starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.

Jackie Chan was guaranteed box office gold at the turn of the millennium.  This truly terrible movie raked in almost $100 million, even spawning a sequel entitled Shanghai Knights (I've promised My Wife I won't put that one on the queue).  The contrived story: Chon Wang (Chan) is a member of China's Imperial Guard in 1881.  One night, the princess (Lucy Liu) is kidnapped and taken to Nevada.  Chon is reluctantly included in the party sent after her.  En route to Carson City, their train is robbed by Roy O'Bannon (Owen) and his comically incompetent band of outlaws.  Through a further series of misadventures, Chon and Roy become pals.  They set off to rescue the princess and, in Roy's case, steal the ransom gold.

Seriously, it's awful.  Giving it a 1 was very tempting.  But this is a Jackie Chan movie.  It's supposed to be fluff.  If you're in the mood for fluff, this one does have a few things going for it.  The fight scenes are great, of course.  The scenery is absolutely stunning, filmed mostly in Alberta.  There are even a few sparkling moments of humor.  Roy first hears Chon's name as "John Wayne" and remarks that it's a terrible name for a cowboy.  The best scene sees Chon and Roy playing a Chinese drinking game in the bathtub.


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, December 3, 2014

Star Trek: Elaan of Troyius

Episode: "Elaan of Troyius"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 3, Episode 13
Original Air Date: December 20, 1968
via Memory Alpha
As I was firing up Star Trek this week, My Wife laughed and asked how many episodes I have left.  Now, with "Elaan of Troyius" behind me, I'm down to eleven.  That merit badge is so close I can smell it.

The episode's title is a play on Helen of Troy, the wife of Agamemnon whose abduction led to the Trojan War, aka "the face that launch'd a thousand ships."  Elaan is a princess on the planet Elas.  She has been promised in marriage to a member of the royal family on Troyius, with whom the Elasians are at war.  The Enterprise is providing the transportation for this diplomatic maneuver.  Elaan is a beautiful but strong-willed and demanding passenger.  She threatens to execute half the crew before Captain Kirk finds her softer side.

Meanwhile, there's a Klingon ship hanging around.  The star system lies on the border between Federation and Klingon space.  The Klingons seem inordinately interested in the proceedings for reasons our heroes don't initially understand.  Turns out, one of Elaan's guards is a saboteur and spy for the Klingons, too.

The clever answer to the Klingon question lies in a wedding present: a necklace of "common stones" given to Elaan by her betrothed.  Wouldn't you know, the stones are crude dilithium crystals, the fuel required for a warp drive.  Obviously, the Klingons would be very interested in any planet where such treasures are common.

via Smell the Coffee
France Nuyen (Elaan) was born France Nguyen Van Nga on July 31, 1939 in Marseille, France.  Her father was Vietnamese, her mother French of Roma ancestry.  At age 16, while working as a seamstress, she was discovered on the beach by a Life magazine photographer.  Three years later, she was on the cover.

Modeling catapulted her to an acting career.  She made her film debut in South Pacific in 1958.  The same year, she had the lead in a stage production, The World of Suzie Wong, opposite one William Shatner.  Other films included Satan Never Sleeps, A Girl Named Tamiko and, 31 years later, The Joy Luck Club.  In addition to Trek, she made television guest appearances on Kung Fu and Columbo and had a regular cast role on the last two seasons of St. Elsewhere.

Nuyen has done more important work in her second career.  In 1986, she earned a master's degree in clinical psychology.  She then worked as a psychological counselor for abused women and children.

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:  (Not really for 18+.  This one's PG-13 at worst.):