Sunday, March 30, 2014

Family Movie Night: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Title: Mr. Peabody & Sherman
Director: Rob Minkoff
Original Release: 2014
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Our Girl is an old soul.  She is a devoted fan of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show so it's not surprising that the new computer animated film from DreamWorks caught her eye.  My Wife and I were a bit skeptical of the idea but it's the girl's week, so it's her choice.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is based on the Peabody's Improbable History vignettes from the late '50s and early '60s.  Peabody is a dog with a TARDIS... er... WABAC machine that travels through time and space.  Sherman is his boy, tagging along for broadening adventures.  The old shorts are about five minutes long each, at most.  So developing the idea for a 92-minute film obviously required some flushing out.  The writers added a love interest for Sherman named Penny - completely unnecessary, of course, but in this case, it drives the plot.

The animation is excellent, especially in 3-D.  I actually flinched when Robespierre thrust his sword toward the audience.  The voice cast was decent, too, though as much as I like Ty Burrell (watching Modern Family as I write this), I think Stephen Colbert would have been the better choice for Peabody.  Colbert was in the film but as Penny's father.  My Wife suggested John Hodgman for the part - even better.

There are plenty of satisfying elements for fans of the original.  Our heroes travel to revolutionary France, ancient Egypt, ancient Troy, Renaissance Italy and, very briefly, The Future.  Peabody is well-armed with his usual arsenal of bad puns.  "You can't have your cake and edict, too" was my personal favorite.  Purists will almost inevitably be disappointed by the changes but I think if the movie inspires new interest in the old show, a few alterations for a 21st century audience are worthwhile.

And yes, I know the WABAC machine came first...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 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, April 25th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

Also, this month will be the twelfth for the Coffeehouse, a full year of book loving under our belts.  It's a good time for reflection.  I'm quite happy about the way things have gone but I welcome thoughts on how I might improve upon the concept.  So please give forth in the comments section below.  Growth and evolution are good things.

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, March 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 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.

Also, next month will be the twelfth for the Coffeehouse, a full year of book loving under our belts.  It's a good time for reflection.  I'm quite happy about the way things have gone but I welcome thoughts on how I might improve upon the concept.  So please give forth in the comments section below.  Growth and evolution are good things.

Title: A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis
Author: Pete Sampras with Peter Bodo
via Goodreads
It has been my month for reading tennis autobiographies.  I also read Rafael Nadal's book (review here).   As tennis players, Sampras and Nadal missed each other entirely, never having played a match against one another.  But they are currently locked in an historic battle of legacies.  With his next Grand Slam singles title - and he is always the prohibitive favorite at the French Open - Nadal will match Sampras's career total of 14.  Given the fact that Nadal has a Career Slam (all four Major titles) and Sampras doesn't, that would almost surely relegate Pete to 3rd place in most Greatest of All Time discussions.  Both men are still looking up at Roger Federer with his 17 total Slams.

Even viewing from the tail end of the glorious era of Federer-Nadal dominance, Pete Sampras is still my favorite tennis player of all.  The story of his career is very much the story of how I became a fan of the sport - the subject of one of my very earliest blog posts (read it here).  As such, reading Pete's own reflections on his career highlights affords me a quick stroll through the memories of my own young adulthood.

Sampras's insights into the sport are wonderful - in-depth analyses of the games of his rivals, descriptions of the character of each Major tournament, technical rundowns of important matches, etc.  The tone is quiet and conversational, befitting the author.  Of all the famous people I've observed in my life, Pete Sampras was the one who seemed least comfortable with being famous.  Many considered it off-putting, more accustomed to larger-than-life types like John McEnroe.  I found it endearing and one feels all the more privileged to be allowed into his confidence.

Pete is very gracious in discussing his rivals, particularly Andre Agassi.  One could argue that as undisputed top dog of his era, Pete can afford to be magnanimous but it contrasts sharply with Agassi's own book, Open (review here).  Andre is quite petty in some of his stories about Sampras and Pete got off easy compared to others.  Pete probably cast the book aside with a laugh and got on with his day.  Meanwhile, Michael Chang and Jimmy Connors were likely on the phone with their publicists.  Of course, one might say the snarkiness is part of what makes Agassi's book a fun read but it did little to endear me to him as a person.

Always a fun topic, the Greatest of All Time debate is likely to ramp up again in the coming months.  Long retired, Sampras can only watch as Nadal and Federer improve their credentials.  There are, however, two career metrics Sampras should be able to claim over both of them when all is said and done.  First, the record of which Sampras claims to be most proud is the fact that he finished World #1 for six consecutive years.  Federer topped out at four in a row.  Nadal has finished #1 three times, but never twice in succession.  Secondly, Sampras's first Major title and his last were 12 years apart.  Nadal has a shot at that since he won his first at 19 (same as Pete) but it's less likely for Roger who won his first at 21.

Reading this book soon after Nadal's allowed for interesting comparisons between the two men - so different in their public personas and styles of play, yet similarly accomplished as tennis players.  Both have a healthy, though certainly not misplaced arrogance born of success.  Yet both know that at the end of the day, they're just tennis players and their impressive resumes do not make them superior people.  The most interesting contrast to me was their opposite attitudes toward losing.  Rafa is terrified of losing which has driven his work ethic and his competitive spirit for his whole life.  Pete is not afraid to lose, encouraged from a young age to focus on improving his own skills rather than dwelling on match-to-match results.  One wonders where Roger falls on that spectrum.  My guess is closer to Rafa's end.

Like Rafa, this is a fun book though probably most fun for a tennis fan - probably not so much to offer for someone who doesn't follow the sport.  Agassi's Open is a better book for those with more casual interest.

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 April's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is April 25th.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Star Trek: The Changeling

Episode: "The Changeling"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 3
Original Air Date: September 29, 1967
via Memory Alpha
 "I am Nomad!"

This is definitely an episode I remember from syndication way back in the '70s.  In fact, it's entirely possible this was the first one I ever saw.  I distinctly remember that "I am Nomad!" line though I didn't recall much else about the story before watching again this week.

I believe we are now entering an era of more formulaic plots for Trek.  For the second week in a row, the show aired a Charlie X-type tale.  In this case, the superior being is a planet-destroying space probe called Nomad.  It spares the Enterprise because it mistakenly believes Kirk to be its creator.  The probe is on a Cylon-like purity cleansing binge and the crew knows it's only a matter of time before Nomad realizes its mistake and wipes them out, too.  Unable to overpower the machine, Kirk cleverly tricks it into destroying itself.

"The Changeling" is a good Uhura episode.   Nomad overhears her singing and seeks her out for questioning.  When she gives unsatisfying answers, Nomad wipes her memory, deeming her flawed.  Dr. McCoy and Nurse Barrett set out to reeducate her.  In her training, her native Swahili comes to her before the English.  Apparently, Nichelle Nichols had to fight for that to be included in the story.  Director Marc Daniels wanted her to stick with English, arguing that Nichols herself didn't speak Swahili so why bother?  Nichols countered, saying "Nichelle Nichols doesn't speak Swahili, but Uhura does!"  Nichols won and a linguist was brought in to teach her the lines.

via Memory Alpha
Vic Perrin (voice of Nomad) was born April 26, 1916 in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.  After a long career in radio, Perrin made numerous television appearances as both actor and voice actor including 16 guest appearances on Dragnet.  "The Changeling" was his second of three appearances on Star Trek.  He was also the voice of the Metron in "The Arena" and we actually get to see him in next week's episode, "Mirror, Mirror."  On Super Friends, he performed the voice of Sinestro.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Dungeons & Dragons

Title: Dungeons & Dragons: Shadowplague
Writer: John Rogers
Artist: Andrea Di Vito
via The Neo Tokyo Project
Oh, how My Wife rolled her eyes at me when I picked this one off the bookstore shelf!  But ever since I read the first Pathfinder comic as part of last year's A to Z Challenge, I've been curious about the comics based on the original role-playing game, the one in which I invested years of my youth.  From the ages of about 8 to 13, I was obsessed with D&D.  I bought every book my allowance afforded and played every chance I got with whomever would put up with me for long enough.  There are compartments of my brain filled with vocabulary - troglodyte, halberd, prestidigitator - that would not have entered my lexicon until much later or not at all without those hours of D&D.  Even after I stopped playing regularly, I'd still drag out the books from time to time, roll up a few character sheets, then put it all away again.  The game shall always be one of the main pillars of my geekhood.

I wasn't really expecting a whole lot from the comic book.  I'm a sucker for the trappings, of course.  There are character sheets in the back for all of the principals.  Lots of monsters, lots of fighting, trap doors, magic, treasure - you know, D&D stuff.   But the story of Shadowplague is actually pretty good.  Adric Fell, a 7th level Human Fighter, leads his band on fortune-seeking adventures and they manage to fight the forces of evil along the way.  It's a multi-racial outfit, including Bree the Halfling Thief, Khal the Dwarf Paladin, Varis the Elf Ranger and Tisha the Tiefling Star Pact.  Tiefling? Star Pact?  The realm has evolved since my heyday. 

A few D&D quibbles:
- Why is Adric the captain?  All of the characters are Level 7 and Khal has a higher charisma score, albeit by one point.  In fact, all of his ability scores are higher except for dexterity and you're not going to pick your leader for dexterity.  I sense a human bias!  Maybe Adric's player brought the Doritos and refused to share unless they let him be captain.
- Where did Bree pick up her hand crossbow? It's not anywhere in her character sheet.  I'm all for artistic license but come on!  No dungeon master worthy of the title would let her get away with that.

Di Vito's artwork is lush as one would expect of a fantasy comic.  Rogers's writing is fun, too, with lots of witty, playful banter between the characters in the campaign.  I'm up for more.  IDW, the current license holder, has also published collections of the earlier DC comics as well so I may keep an eye out for those, too.

Monday, March 24, 2014

On the Road: Montpelier

While this was not our first time attending the annual Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier, Vermont, it was our first time staying in town overnight in an effort to see as many movies as possible over two days.  We stayed at the Capital Plaza Hotel right downtown.  It served our purposes well, though we didn't spend much of our time there - perfect place to sleep and park our car with participating theaters within easy walking distance.  We managed to see five films in all, representing a reasonably broad range, I think.

Title: Ernest & Celestine
Directors: Stéphane Aubier, Benjamin Renner and Vincent Patar
Original Release: 2012
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Ernest & Celestine was the festival's main family-friendly feature, based on the children's book series of the same name by Belgian author/illustrator Gabrielle Vincent.  Ernest is a bear, sweet-natured but down on his luck.  Celestine is an orphaned mouse with an artistic flair.  Their worlds want nothing to do with each other but the two form a bond that surprisingly reminded me of The Professional, though certainly cleaned up for a younger audience.  Wife and daughter both liked this animated movie more than I did.  The story is, indeed, very sweet but one viewing was enough for me.

Title: The Keymaster: Patrick Olwell's Story
Director: Blayne Chastain and Jem Moore
Original Release: 2013
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Whistle & Drum
The festival's bread and butter is documentaries and this profile of master Irish flute maker Patrick Olwell (Irish flutes, that is.  The creator is American.) seemed a likely fit for us.  While there are some panning shots of the craftsman's workshop, most of the film centers around Olwell, his sons and the many players who are partial to his product, up to and including Matt Molloy of the Chieftans.  I certainly enjoyed the film but I couldn't help feeling there was something missing from it and I didn't realize what it was until we watched the fifth and final movie in our marathon - so more on that when we get to it.  Of the five, it was also the one that proved the strongest test of Our Girl's stamina - nothing inappropriate, but still well short of child friendly.

Title: More Than Honey
Director: Markus Imhoof
Original Release: 2012
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Facebook
I am a sucker for nature documentaries.  Our daughter likes them, too, but My Wife is not so keen.  As such, she approached this German film about the global bee crisis with great reluctance.  But in the end, even she was impressed.  Of the three documentaries we saw, this one definitely had the biggest budget, with travel through Europe, the United States, Australia and China plus CGI graphics portraying the miniature world of bees.  Some have criticized the film for not taking the bee problem quite seriously enough but I was definitely convinced of the threat to the world's food supply.  According to the movie, 1/3 of what we eat is dependent on bees and populations are dwindling throughout the globe.

Title: Approved for Adoption
Directors: Jung Henin and Laurent Boileau
Original Release: 2012
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Eye on Films
Approved for Adoption, our second animated French-Belgian film of the weekend, was my favorite of the whole bunch.  Based on his comic book of the same name, the movie is Jung's autobiographical account of his childhood being adopted from Korea into a Belgian family.  Interspersed with the animation is family-movie footage as well as a live-action documenting of his first return trip to Korea as an adult.

Classified by the festival as a kids movie, Approved for Adoption is definitely PG-13.  While there is plenty of humor, a lot of the material is very heavy.  Jung's quest for self-identity was not always a happy one and we are spared few details.  There is also brief, animated nudity during an adolescent fantasy sequence ("Why'd they have to show that?" Our Girl demanded to know.).  Any movie that makes me tear up is guaranteed at least a 4 in my book and Approved for Adoption was safe on that score.  5s are the films by which I judge other films and this movie's honest portrayal of navigating family dynamics and coping with a sense of otherness was breathtaking.  The story was riveting.  Of the weekend's five movies, it was the one in which I worried about our daughter's restless wiggling the least.

Title: Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto
Directors: Béla Fleck and Sascha Paladino
Original Release: 2013
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Regular visitors to The Squid know that I award movies a 5 only very rarely so seeing two worthy films within a few hours of each other was a delightful surprise.  When banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck was commissioned to write a concerto for his instrument, he decided to document his creative process with the help of his filmmaker half-brother Sascha Paladino.  Beginning with an empty computer screen in a cabin on the Oregon coast and ending with the first public performance at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center, we are witness to moments of triumph, doubt and anguish throughout.  While certainly a grand master musician by any measure, Béla is a bit out of his depths with orchestral music and is very generous in sharing his insecurities with us.

As part of his process, Béla asked to visit with the Nashville Symphony's principals so he could learn about their instruments.  He was surprised they accepted but I wasn't.  Orchestras commission works all the time and I would imagine few if any of the composers bother to ask the contra-bassoonist, the principal trombonist or even the concertmaster for input before submitting a near-finished piece.  For me, these interviews were the best part of the movie.

Watching this film helped me to sort out what was missing from The Keymaster.  What I love most about music documentaries or films about any art form is learning about the creative process.  The Keymaster was mostly about Olwell's life - fine but I don't know a thing about making flutes.  Even if I did, I'd want to see more of the craftsman in action, to understand what his art is all about so I can better marvel at his genius.  As the title implies, Béla Fleck's movie was all about process and was far more satisfying to me as a result.

Finally, the real treat: the headliner moment of the entire festival.  After the screening, Béla Fleck himself came out, first to perform, then to answer audience questions.  We didn't stay for the entire session - Our Girl's patience was reaching a quite reasonable limit by that point - but long enough to enjoy the magic of the moment.  Both on film and on stage, Béla Fleck comes across as a very articulate and accessible artist.  Bluegrass has never really been my thing but I'm certainly a fan now.

The festival was definitely a test of endurance for our daughter but on the way home, she said she'd do it again sometime.  If our school and work schedules allowed it, I'd happily go for the entire 10-day event.  I'm not sure My Wife is quite there but I think she'd be up for more.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Rafael Nadal

Title: Rafa
Authors: Rafael Nadal and John Carlin
via Barnes & Noble
If you are a sports fan, Rafael Nadal requires no introduction.  The world's current top-ranked tennis player is one of the most mesmerizing athletes you'll ever see.  He is a ferocious, irresistible warrior when the match is on and a humble, gracious gentleman the instant it's over.  Still only 27 years old, he is on a very short list of the greatest players of all time.  I would happily wax poetic about the man myself for paragraphs on end but for this post, I shall endeavor to stick to the book.

The book is written mostly in first person from Rafa's perspective but interspersed are sub-chapters in third person, usually about his home life in Mallorca.  Nadal, for all of his unfathomable wealth, fame and success, still lives with his parents in Manacor.  His family, especially his parents and his uncle/coach Toni, have worked hard to maintain a normal life for him when he is not on tour.  In Mallorca, he is nothing special - just a guy with a job that pays him handsomely.  His family and his neighbors never gush, by design.  The book asserts that without this solid rooting in the everyday, Rafa's extraordinary success - as both player and human being - would not be possible.

The story begins in medias res at the 2008 Wimbledon final with Roger Federer on the opposite side of the net, certainly the turning point of Nadal's career and arguably the most important tennis match of the current era.  From there, Rafa reflects back to earlier stages in his life, but always returns to the match at Wimbledon.  I have to admit that this structure was a bit disappointing since, in a sense, I have already read that book.  L. Jon Wertheim's excellent Strokes of Genius (review here) examines the match thoroughly with flashbacks for both combatants.  Of course, the perspective of a player is not that of a journalist so Nadal's thoughts are still valuable.  Still, I would have appreciated a different structure.  The second half of the book takes a similar approach to the 2010 US Open final against Novak Djokovic, a less interesting match but equally important to Rafa's career arc.

In the world of megastar athletes, one would be hard pressed to find one more admirable than Rafael Nadal.  The book only enhances his public persona.  That said, Rafa's not as much fun as Andre Agassi's Open (review here).  Agassi has lived a more colorful life but I'd say his book is also better written.  A non-tennis fan could still enjoy Open.  I'm not so sure about Rafa.  If you are lucky enough to be a tennis fan, it's a must read.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Star Trek: Who Mourns for Adonais?

Episode: "Who Mourns for Adonais?"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 2
Original Air Date: September 22, 1967
via Memory Alpha
Another story on the road from Charlie X to Q, "Who Mourns for Adonais?" recounts the Enterprise's showdown with the actual Greek god Apollo.  The sun god, along with all of his Olympian colleagues, is revealed to be an extra-terrestrial being who so impressed ancient humans that they could only have been regarded as divine.  Apollo tries to recruit the crew to worship him but, apart from anthropologist/archaeologist Lt. Carolyn Palamas, they're not interested.

It's a good episode but there are some troubling spots.  At one point, Kirk argues that humans have progressed spiritually since ancient times and "one God" is good enough for them now.  Apparently, Hinduism has fallen out of favor by Trek's era.  Also, late in the story, Apollo roughs up Palamas a bit when she spurns his advances, then we're expected to feel sympathy for him at the very end.  Maybe he didn't really hurt her but he certainly meant to scare and intimidate her - a bit icky.

via Wikipedia
Michael Forest (Apollo) certainly looks the part.  He was born Gerald Michael Charlebois, April 17, 1929 in Harvey, North Dakota.  Somewhat surprisingly, given his appearance as a younger man, Forest has built an impressive career mostly as a voice actor, especially for anime.  Most notably to this blogger, he performed "additional voices" in Miyazaki's The Castle of Cagliostro.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On the Road: Smugglers' Notch

via Smugglers' Notch Vermont
My Wife's employer has a well-established relationship with Smugglers' Notch, one of the most popular ski resorts in northern Vermont.  As part of that relationship, Smuggs donates several vacation packages a year for the company to use for VIPs and the like.  Every once in a while, though, the company throws a few of the packages to their employees and we were among the lucky ones this time!

We have lived in Vermont for twelve years and have somehow managed to avoid the ski culture almost entirely.  As I have a fear of heights, downhill skiing has never held much appeal.  My feeling is that while mountains are pretty, they are best appreciated from a distance.  But there's no denying that skiing is a major source of tourist revenue here.  When one moves to Vermont from out of state, the locals reflexively make the assumption that skiing was the draw.  Why else, they wonder, would anyone willingly endure the long, brutal winters?  Smuggs is one of the more affordable ski areas in the area and the most popular with the locals as a result.  So I wasn't surprised to run into a few familiar faces over the weekend.

While we haven't done it much, I am open to the idea of cross-country skiing.  So, rather than jumping at the free lift tickets, we opted for a cross-country lesson as our outdoor activity for the weekend.  Our lesson was excellent, our instructor Kara knowledgeable, patient and encouraging.  Cross-country skiing is hard work, though.  While a significantly cheaper hobby than downhill, it's more taxing than snowshoeing which is near idiot-proof.  Going down even a modest incline in skis is still anxious for a wimp like me.  I recommend the instruction highly but long term, it's not a hobby I'm likely to pursue.  Of the three of us, Our Girl was easily the most confident.  She gets to ski in PE, the lucky kid

A ski resort is like a tiny, self-contained city.  In addition to the numerous lodging options, there's a central area with a general store, restaurants, outfitters, an indoor pool and so forth.  Our condo was a decent distance from the village center, which was fine by me.  In fact, my favorite part of the vacation was the free shuttle service.  I have found that, in general, my ideal holiday involves as little driving as possible and Smuggs was most accommodating.  We had plenty of space - probably more square footage than we have on the main floor of our house.  We could almost live there if not for the troubling lack of bookshelves.

The low-light of the experience was the resort's mid-range restaurant, the Morse Mountain Grille.  We went the first night with a big group and it was disastrous.  Our order took forever, even the drinks.  We all stared at an empty table for nearly an hour.  The numerous children with us, including our daughter, were amazingly patient but the adults got restless, then irritated, then angry.  The food itself, once it came, was fine.  But the piss-poor service ruined the meal.

The weekend was very nice, though I'm not sure there's much point in spending a weekend at a ski resort if one doesn't ski.  If we should be offered the opportunity again, I'd vote for bringing our snowshoes and exploring the numerous trails on offer.  It was fun to observe the skiers bustling about, an entire subculture that runs parallel to our everyday experience living nearby.  Other resorts - namely Stowe - cater to the international crowd but I saw license plates from as far away as Ontario and Maryland.  It's certainly tough to complain about a vacation when someone else is paying!

On the Coffee Table: Osamu Tezuka

Titles: Buddha
- Volume 3: Devadatta
- Volume 4: The Forest of Uruvela
- Volume 5: Deer Park
Writer and Artist: Osamu Tezuka

My reviews for the first two volumes of this series can be found here and here.
We had a rare couple of snow days this past week which afforded me time to make further progress in Buddha, Osamu Tezuka's excellent manga series.  Volume 2 ended with Siddharta leaving home to begin his spiritual journey.  The next three books cover the various paths he pursued - gurus he sought who failed to meet his needs, painful ordeals he endured which left him unfulfilled and ultimately embittered.  Finally, he attains enlightenment one day while sitting under a tree.  Brahma, whom he meets him in his dreams, renames him Buddha and a world religion is born.
via Atomic Books
Unlike most comic book series which tend to start strong, then drop off in quality, I'm finding Buddha gets better as it goes along.  In Volume 5, especially, the basic ideas of the new philosophy are thoroughly explored, often in sermons given to deer, the only beings around to listen.  I read the story of Buddha in a Major Eastern Religions class in college and was less than enthralled.  If these comics had been around at the time, my experience with the subject might have been quite different.  There is occasional levity in Tezuka's presentation but overall, the religious ideas are treated thoughtfully and respectfully.  I'm definitely up for more.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Star Trek: Amok Time

Episode: "Amok Time"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 1
Original Air Date: September 15, 1967
via Memory Alpha
For its second season, Star Trek was moved to a new time slot: 8:30 ET on Friday nights.   "Amok Time" is a significant episode for many reasons.  Most importantly, the regular cast got its final member with Walter Koenig playing the role of navigator Pavel Chekov.  Also, it is the only original series episode to offer a glimpse of Spock's home world, Vulcan.  The story introduced both the Vulcan hand salute and the "live long and prosper" blessing.

Compelled by biological urges, Spock must return to Vulcan for his marriage to a bride arranged for him as a child, T'Pring.  T'Pring demands that he win her in a challenge.  Surprisingly, she picks Kirk as the opponent.  Kirk agrees, figuring he can throw the match, only to discover that it is a fight to the death.  With Dr. McCoy's help, he is able to fake his own death well enough to fool even Spock.  A grieving Spock frees T'Pring to be with the mate she truly loves and returns to the ship prepared to face the consequences of his actions.  The surprising appearance of Kirk alive and well inspires a rare joyful display from our favorite Vulcan.


via Wikipedia
Walter Koenig was born on September 14, 1936 in Chicago.  Clearly a very smart man, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa.  Apparently, the draw of southern California was too strong as he transferred to UCLA where he discovered acting.  He was cast in the role of Chekov largely for his resemblance to Davy Jones of the Monkees. 
Davy via 30 Days Out
Not originally intended as a regular cast role, Chekov grew in popularity while George Takei (Sulu) was busy finishing The Green Berets with John Wayne.  When Takei returned, tensions arose, Takei even threatening to leave the show.  Fortunately for all involved, peace was made and the two actors became good friends.


via Memory Alpha
Over the summer of 1967, Key Comics published the very first Star Trek comic book, entitled "The Planet of No Return."  Unfortunately, the writer credit for this issue is long lost but the artist was Nevio Zeccara.  The Enterprise discovers a planet where the plant life holds dominion over the animals.

There were many advantages in telling a science fiction story in comic book form rather than television in the 1960s - no need for special effects.  If you could draw it, it could happen.  People turning into trees?  No problem.  However, it is abundantly clear that neither writer nor artist was especially familiar with the source material apart from character names and basic appearances.  For instance, the crew are exploring "Galaxy Alpha" rather than our own.  Transporting is referred to as "teleportation" - probably a more accurate description but that's beside the point.

More important than the nomenclature though was the very different character of the mission's approach to exploration.  In the comic book, the crew take a more Flash Gordonesque attitude toward encounters with alien beings: "They are different and they must be trying to kill us.  We must kill them first."  Most disturbing is the Captain's decision to destroy the planet in order to prevent its plant spores from infecting worlds.  That wouldn't jive with the Prime Directive at all.

It is interesting to note, though, that the Captain faced a very similar prospect in the last episode of the first season.  A parasite was destroying one world after another and the opportunity came to stop it in its tracks, but at the cost of the lives of millions.  It was not a happy choice but it was considered.  The comic book Captain, on the other hand, barely flinched in the decision.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Family Movie Night: Spirited Away

Title: Spirited Away
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Original Release: 2001
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Spirited Away Wiki
Few movies in history have achieved the commercial and critical success of Miyazaki's Spirited Away.  It is the highest grossing Japanese film of all-time and added plenty of hardware to Studio Ghibli's trophy case.  In addition to winning best animated feature at the Academy Awards and best film at the Japanese Academy Awards, Spirited Away was a juggernaut at the international film festivals.  When the British Film Institute compiled its list of 50 films you should see by the age of 14, Spirited Away received the most votes of any movie.

Even by Miyazaki standards, Spirited Away is weird and wild an wonderful.  Chihiro is a sullen 10-year-old girl moving to a new town.  On the drive to the new house, the family detours and enters the spirit world.  Her parents are turned into pigs so she is left to figure things out for herself.  She makes her way to an extraordinary bath house and gets a job until a solution to her predicament can be found.
via Spirited Away Wiki
Artwork is dazzling, of course, but the real fun is in all of the extraordinary spirits who inhabit the bath house.  Characters slide back and forth quite freely on the moral spectrum but Chihiro finds a few friends in the mix.  Miyazaki managed to build quite an amazing world on a very small scale.

The film's score was composed by Joe Hisaishi, long-time Miyazaki collaborator.  Not long after we watched the movie the first time a few years ago, Our Girl hatched the idea of composing her own music for the story.  Mind you, she didn't know a thing about writing music or even playing an instrument at the time but I found the inspiration fascinating.  I haven't heard much about that particular ambition in a while.

On the Coffee Table: Jeffrey Brown

Title: Vader's Little Princess
Writer and Artist: Jeffrey Brown
via Amazon
Okay, everybody get your geek hats on, propeller beanies recommended.

First, let's make very clear that Vader's Little Princess is a non-canon, satirical work.  We all know Darth Vader didn't really raise his children.  So, don't get your Underoos all bunched up, 'kay?  This is supposed to be fun!

Alright, now that's out of the way...  Vader's Little Princess is a graphic novel parody of what a father-daughter relationship might have been like between Darth Vader and Princess Leia.  Actually, calling it a novel is a stretch.  It's more a collection of comic strips.  Leia embarrasses Vader as he's dressing down an admiral who has failed him for the last time.  He disapproves of Han Solo as a boyfriend and the golden bikini as a socially acceptable outfit.  He gives her a TIE Fighter for her birthday.  She makes him a helmet cozy.

And so on.
via Amazon
The book is fun, a decent five-minute read.  I see T-shirts and coffee mugs in the licensing future, if they haven't happened already.  I'm not inspired to run to the book store to read Brown's other Star Wars parodies, Darth Vader and Son and Jedi Academy.  But if they come my way, I'll read them.

On the Coffee Table: H.G. Wells

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H.G. Wells
via Barnes & Noble
Like many of the early science fiction writers, H.G. Wells was himself scientifically trained.  His field was biology.  In The Invisible Man, he considers the genuine potential for achieving invisibility and also the moral implications of such a possibility.  The title character, a man called Griffin, dreams of the power invisibility would gain for him but lacks the foresight to weigh its limitations.  As a morality play, The Invisible Man is not entirely unlike Frankenstein, though in this case the mad scientist's monster is himself.

I expected the story to be dark and creepy.  However, I did not expect Wells's highly satirical depiction of those who people the English countryside.  The tale is as much about the speed of gossip as it is about the arrogance of playing God.  The story begins with a mysterious stranger, covered in bandages, checking into a country inn.  Eventually, as a result of his own arrogance but also the townspeople's curiosity, his secret is exposed.  A mad chase ensues.  He stumbles upon the house of a former colleague, to whom he reveals all.

As with Robert Louis Stevenson's Jeckyll and Hyde (review here), I was inspired to read The Invisible Man by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill.  Griffin is one of the five League members.  Whereas the comic book depiction of Hyde is tweaked a little, Griffin is spot on: full-blown psychopath.  The League story also incorporates Griffin's Reign of Terror concept.  In the comic, he is given a first name, a luxury denied him in the novel: Hawley.  In fact, it is revealed in the end that Hawley Griffin is not even the original Griffin but only a guinea pig of the original scientist.  I suppose this is intended to work around the fact that Griffin (SPOILER) is killed at the end of the novel, though I think the change is unnecessary.  The name Hawley is derived from the real-life murderer Hawley Crippen.

The Invisible Man is a good novel, well-worth reading for cultural literacy and geek cred.  While there are certainly dark elements, the book has more humor than other Wells novels I've read: The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau.  The obligatory techno-babble slows things down a bit for me but overall, it's a fun read.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Lois Lowry

Title: Gooney the Fabulous
Author: Lois Lowry
via Amazon
Our daughter's school is hosting a "Family Adventures in Reading" event in a few weeks time.  It's really a great idea: the librarian provides a list of books for families to choose from, we read them, then come to the school on the appointed night to discuss them.  Sure, fine.  Now I have to figure out how to be diplomatic about the fact that I don't like the book.

Gooney the Fabulous is the third of four books in the Gooney Bird series.  Gooney Bird is an ultra-precocious second grader.  One day, as her teacher Mrs. Pidgeon is reading Aesop's Fables to the class, GB comes up with a plan: all of the students should write their own fable and share them with the class.  Mrs. Pidgeon loves the idea, and naturally all of the students do, too.  Faburiffic!

Ms. Lowry is a very accomplished author, with two Newberry Medals to her name.  There is certainly nothing technically wrong with her writing.  I just don't find the elementary school world she created to ring true.  Full disclosure, I teach elementary school as well as middle school and have done so for many years.  While I realize not every grade school is like the one I know best, I find it difficult to believe there are any like the one idealized in this book.  All of the students are pigeon-holed within the first two chapters - the shy girl with the lisp, the boy who's memorizing the dictionary and the African-American boy who raps everything he says... Really?  He did a back spin during his fable, too.  Oh, boy...  Between them, Mrs. Pidgeon and her mini-me, Gooney Bird, always seem to have the right answer to any problem that crops up.  There's hardly anything an arm around the shoulder won't fix!

The book is cute and fun and I'm sure it teaches valuable lessons about how schools should be but it's not a world I believe.  Our Girl liked the book.  I need to find ways to explain why I didn't while still respecting the fact that she did.

Friday, March 7, 2014

On the Coffee Table: The Four Encounters

Title: Buddha, Volume 2: The Four Encounters
Writer and Artist: Osamu Tezuka
As I lay in bed last night with a charming new stomach bug, My Wife brought me a delightful gift: the second book in Tezuka's Buddha series (Volume 1 reviewed here).  I knew she'd ordered it but didn't realize it had arrived.  Being sick stinks but it is a reasonable excuse to stay in bed and read.

While Volume 1 primarily developed fictional side characters, Volume 2 is entirely devoted to the early life of Siddhartha, the man who would become Gautama Buddha.  Siddhartha, born into royalty, is a misfit from the beginning.  Perceived as weak, he shows neither interest nor aptitude for becoming a warrior.  From an early age, he demonstrates disdain for India's caste system and great sympathy for all humans and animals as well.  His curiosity about death leads him to ask questions and no one in his immediate sphere is able to provide satisfying answers. The Four Encounters follows his efforts to break away from the world of his parents in order to pursue a monastic life.

The strengths of the first volume all carry over for the second.  The artwork is stunning.  I'll admit, as a comic reader, I don't spend as much time on each individual frame as I probably should.  I'm a text guy.  But with Tezuka's work, it's impossible not to linger over a panel from time to time.  Landscapes are his greatest strength, not unlike Hayao Miyazaki, a film director who was greatly influenced by Tezuka. 

I'm looking forward to Volume 3.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Star Trek: Operation: Annihilate!

Episode: "Operation: Annihilate!"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 29
Original Air Date: April 13, 1967
via Wikipedia
"Operation: Annihilate!" was the final episode of Star Trek's first season.  In this story, we get to meet part of Captain Kirk's family, though the reunion is a tragic one.  His brother Sam is a scientist on a planet in the path of a mass insanity which is sweeping its way through the galaxy, destroying civilizations as it goes.  The Enterprise crew arrives too late, Kirk's brother dead, his nephew unconscious and his sister-in-law in the throes of madness.  The rest of the planet is losing it, too, though the cause is not immediately apparent.  Eventually, predatory parasites are discovered to be the culprits and one of them infects Spock before the landing party is able to return to the ship.

I didn't care for the episode in the early going as everyone infected screams incoherently.  However, the story gets more interesting as solutions are explored.  First, Kirk must grapple with the possibility of having to destroy the planet and its million inhabitants just to keep the creatures from spreading further.  Then, when the parasites' vulnerability to intense light is discovered, Spock submits himself as a test subject with dire consequences.  He is left blind.

Immediately after the test on Spock, Nurse Chapel reveals that the creatures are only vulnerable to ultraviolet light - great news for the population on the planet but not so great for Spock who was blinded needlessly.  Spock takes it like a Vulcan, of course, but both Kirk and especially Dr. McCoy are racked with guilt.  Considered independently, the story might have been better if it had ended there.  But this is television and the series must go on, a blind Spock too much of a limitation for the screenwriters going forward.  Due to a peculiarity of Vulcan eyelid anatomy, Spock's condition is only temporary and his sight is restored.  Kirk and Bones are off the hook.


Thoughts on Season 1

 General Impressions

I was very impressed by the first season of Star Trek.  A more casual fan of the series growing up, I thought of Trek as stilted and formulaic.  Exploring in-depth, I was more impressed by the acting than I expected to be, particularly that of William Shatner.  Yes, he can chew the scenery from time to time but his investment in character is total from Day 1, as if he had been Jim Kirk his whole life.  That's a lot harder than most people realize and contrasts with the stiffer performance of other cast members in the early going.

As to formula, I know that becomes more of an issue in the next two seasons but the writers did a respectable job of mixing things up in the initial run.  A lot of their story lines became franchise staples over the decades to follow.  All of those cliches had to start somewhere.

Favorite Episode: "Balance of Terror"

The episodes I enjoyed most in Season 1 were the ones in which Kirk engaged in mental sparring with a well-established adversary: Khan in "Space Seed" or Kor in "Errand of Mercy."  The Romulan Commander in "Balance of Terror" is unnamed.  He and Kirk bear no hatred toward one another - merely soldiers, playing their parts, seeing to their duties.  Mark Lenard's performance in the role is subtle, convincing and thoroughly chilling.  Other episodes have garnered more praise over the years but for me, this was the best of the batch.

Least Favorite Episode: "Mudd's Women"

Perhaps it is not fair to judge a story from the 1960s by the moral standards of the 2010s.  But for a television producer who made admirable efforts at social progressiveness, Gene Roddenberry dropped the ball with this one.  Harry Mudd is essentially a pimp who keeps his interstellar mail order brides beautiful with drugs.  When off the meds, they're not so much ugly as ordinary and all of the men are horrified.  This episode left me feeling icky.

Favorite Guest Star: Mark Lenard as Romulan Commander in "Balance of Terror"

See above.


This would be a logical jumping off point if I were to discontinue my weekly Star Trek posts but I'm definitely up for more.  The months in between the two seasons were certainly interesting times in world culture.  In June of '67, The Beatles would release Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that transformed the music industry.  The Summer of Love was soon to follow.  The audience had been through a lot by the time the series resumed in September.  I don't expect similar upheaval between now and next Wednesday, but you never know.

Set a course, Mr. Sulu...

Monday, March 3, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Buddha

Title: Buddha, Volume 1: Kapilavastu
Writer and Artist: Osamu Tezuka
via Jeffrey M Brackett
Once again, I must break my self-imposed rule of avoiding discussions of politics and religion on my blog.  Once again, it is the quality of the work in question that drives me to do so.  Osamu Tezuka's manga Buddha tells the story of the life of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.  The series was first published in Japanese from 1972-83.  Vertical Publishing launched an English translation in eight collected volumes, beginning in 2003.

Tezuka is the biggest name in manga, credited by many as the artist who brought the form to the Japanese mainstream.  His most famous creation was Astro Boy, which ran from 1952-68.  Religious historical fiction would seem an unusual choice for the medium but Tezuka's stunning artwork and masterful storytelling make it work.

Kapilavastu is mostly about characters other than Buddha.  Siddharta is not even born until the latter half of Volume 1.  The two characters who drive the narrative in the beginning are Chapra, a boy from the slave caste who aspires to a better life, and Tatta, a thief from the very lowest pariah caste who does not.  Both are entirely fictional but help to establish the world of Ancient India and its social system. Also Tezuka-invented is the character Naradatta, a monk who is condemned for violating a newly emerging morality.  The stage is set for a new spiritualism.

The tone is often different from what one would expect given the subject matter.  At least in the early going, story is far more adventure tale than religious fable.  But even within that context, Tezuka injects humor at odd moments: cameos for himself and Astro Boy characters as Chapra lies dying in his bed, for instance.  Perhaps it is the writer's wink to the readers to let us know that Chapra won't die... yet.

The artwork is outstanding, particularly the landscapes.  The very first panel is a breathtaking view of the Himalayas.  With strong investment in character and a curiosity to see how the introduction of Buddha is developed, I can definitely see this series holding my long-term interest.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On the Road: Montreal

This past week was school vacation for my daughter and me.  My Wife also took a few days off of work so that we could make our first family overnight trip to Montreal.  The city is less than two hours from our home in northwest Vermont but most of the time you'd never know it.  Despite the prevalence of French last names in our area, folks around here are more likely oriented toward Boston or New York even though both cities are further away.  Particularly with more frequent visits over the past few years, we've grown quite fond of Montreal.  Small town living is great but what it lacks is variety.  Montreal's got that in spades.

Each of us got to pick one activity for the trip.  My Wife's was dinner at Au Pied de Cochon on Wednesday night.  One of the city's most famous restaurants, Au Pied de Cochon specializes in the finest Quebecois cuisine.  Our reservation was for 6 o'clock, a good choice as it turned out as the place was quite crowded when we left two hours later. 

Our hand towels, before and after saturation.  Our waitress, noting our curiosity when they were first set on the table, warned, "Please don't eat them!":

The food is indeed fabulous.  All of our choices were excellent: the duck wing special, foie gras 'tout nu', beef tartare (a sentimental favorite for My Wife and me) and poached pear with vanilla ice cream for dessert.  Our Girl found a winner for herself, too: a tortellini special.  We skipped the restaurant's most famous dish: canard en conserve or "duck in a can."  The duck is cooked in an aluminum can, then opened and served at the table.  Apparently, it's fabulous but also expensive - next time.  I want to try the duck carpaccio, too.  Service was excellent.  The restaurant was certainly noisy but it hardly mattered as we were so busy eating.
via Pointe-à-Callière
My choice was "The Beatles in Montreal" exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band's only public concerts in town.  As written previously (here), the Beatles are an essential part of my own musical journey.  In addition to a few multi-media displays, there was plenty of memorabilia on offer.  The centerpiece was John Lennon's Rolls Royce, tricked out psychedelically. 
via Wikipedia
There were also plenty of old record covers, concert posters and such.  The instrument room was disappointing: all replicas.  One display was set up like a teenager's bedroom with loads of old junk: Beatles wigs, trading cards, figurines, etc.  I say junk but in pristine condition, each trinket was probably worth thousands.  There was also an amusing section on the French-language imitation bands of the era.

Overall, I found the exhibition underwhelming, though I'm not entirely certain what I was expecting.  It occurred to me afterward that part of my problem is that, as much as I love them, the Beatles' story always leaves me a little sad.  The band broke up before I was born so nostalgia is not the right word for what I feel.  As a kid, hoping that I might someday be as good at anything as the Beatles were, I couldn't understand why they would have wanted the dream to end.  In the last room was a looping film of the band's very last public performance, not in any huge stadium or grand concert hall but on the roof of their recording studio in downtown London.  The Let It Be recording sessions were the height of dysfunction in the band's history but they played one day on the roof just for the heck of it, to the delight of some and the annoyance of others going about their daily lives on the streets below.  My daughter and I sat for a while happy as clams watching the film - the best part of the exhibit.
via Tourism Montreal
Our Girl's choice was the Montreal en Lumiere festival at the Place des Arts downtown.  In addition to open air concerts and the like, there was some free stuff for families.  The ladies convinced me to overcome my fear of heights to join them on the Ferris wheel - TWICE!  The ice flume was fun, too.  Apart from the seriously bitter cold, the festival was most enjoyable.  Predictably, both my wife and daughter made better choices than I.

In my experience, the most annoying part of visiting any city is driving and, worst of all, parking.  So our plan for this trip was to find a hotel where we could leave the car for the entire visit, then explore the city via public transit.  The Auberge de la Fontaine suited our needs almost perfectly, though as My Wife pointed out, a spot closer to a subway station would have been nice.  I love city subways and Montreal's is excellent.  Negotiating the system in French was a little tricky at first but we got the hang of it quickly.  We'll have a better sense of what to do next time. 

Visiting in winter was humbling.  Montreal really isn't much further north from where we are but it sure felt a lot colder.  Even so, if you want to know a place, I believe visiting at different times of year is important.  The area where we stayed was not touristy at all - at least not in February - so most of the people we saw were just going about normal business, walking their kids home from school and such.  Staying in town for more than a few hours, I did start to develop a strong sense of otherness not knowing the language.  Montreal is genuinely bilingual so most people - and certainly those in the service industry - speak both French and English fluently.  Still, most start with French and only switch once they realize you're not understanding.  They're nice about it but I'd feel better if I could meet them halfway.  That said, I think Montreal would be a great place to learn French.  With most signs in both languages, one would build vocabulary in a hurry with minimal effort.

Even with the stresses of winter and city traffic, it was a fun trip.  I hope we'll do it again sometime soon.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 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, March 28th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us: