Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Star Trek: I, Mudd

Episode: "I, Mudd"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 8
Original Air Date: November 3, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"I, Mudd" marks the return of one of my least favorite Trek characters: Harcourt Fenton Mudd.  Actually, I don't really object so much to the character.  An interstellar sleaze bag seems only inevitable.  It was his original episode, "Mudd's Women," that I didn't like (review here).  In this Season 2 adventure, Mudd has finagled his way into ruling a planet of androids.  At Mudd's urging, one of his minions manages to infiltrate the Enterprise crew, hijack the ship and abduct the entire gang back to the planet for research purposes.  We eventually learn, of course, that the robots hold the upper hand over Mudd, too, and have simply allowed him to believe he was the leader for the sake of their own manipulations.

This wasn't my favorite Season 2 episode but it didn't irk me nearly as much as "Mudd's Women" did.  Our heroes manage to defeat the androids by confusing them, allowing ample silliness like Bones and Scotty pretending to play invisible instruments while Chekov and Uhura waltz.  Identical robots were created partly through camera tricks but also through the casting of several pairs of twins.

via Wikipedia
Roger Charles Carmel (Mudd) was born September 27, 1932 in Brooklyn, New York.  Carmel had a long career in television including appearances on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Batman and The Patty Duke Show.  He did have one regular starring role on NBC's The Mothers-in-Law but was replaced after one season, allegedly due to excessive drug abuse.  There was voice-over work, too, including Smokey the Bear. Film credits were more modest but he did appear in 1981's Hardly Working with Jerry Lewis. Carmel died November 11, 1986 of hypertensive cardiomyopathy.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

On the Road: Springtime in Washington

As regular visitors already know, I live in Vermont but grew up in suburban Maryland, just a mile or so outside of Washington, DC.  My parents live in the city now and my daughter and I frequently visit during our April school break.  Springtime is easily the best time of year in Washington.  Even if you miss the cherry blossoms, there are dogwoods and others in a season-long succession of flowering trees.  Even better, the temperatures are mild, especially in light of the oppressive, sweltering summer heat everyone knows is coming.  It's an easy city to love this time of year.

My personal feelings about DC are complicated.  In theory, Washington is the city I know best in the world.  I am quite comfortable finding my way around and with the rhythm of the town in general.  And yet, it's not really "home" for me.  I'm a Marylander, not a DC boy, and didn't even fully appreciate that until my parents moved.  And actually, I'm becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that I've now spent almost as much of my life in Vermont, though few natives would consider me a Vermonter.  But DC is home for my parents and for as long as it is, the city will be a part of my life, too. 

Flamingo National Zoo

No matter how long you spend in a city like Washington, there are always new things to explore.  Our first full day in town (Wednesday) was a marathon day at the zoo, our first visit in several years.  Our Girl wanted to see prairie dogs, inspired by a recent grasslands project at school.  For ages, the National Zoo had a big mound for the prairie dogs near the lower, Rock Creek Park entrance.  They now have a new arrangement for them at the small mammal house.  Unfortunately for us, there were none in either place!  The new display isn't ready yet and there aren't any critters left at the mound.  Bummer for us. 

Plenty of other wonders on offer, though.  If I'd ever seen the flamingos before, I don't remember it.  The zoo has an electric pink flock of several dozen and they're a lot of fun to watch.  We got to see the baby panda, too - very cute.  The zoo now has a beautiful carousel with loads of exotic animals.  True to form, Our Girl managed to find the penguin for herself.  Penguins are very big with her right now.  We even had an Easter Penguin rather than a bunny at the house this year.  Much to her disappointment, DC doesn't have any real ones.

On Thursday, the two of us took the subway out to Takoma Park, Maryland to visit an old friend.  We shall call him Game Designer, because he is one.  GD was my best friend in high school and Best Man at our wedding.  It had been nearly ten years since I'd seen him.  In fact, I met his second child, a seven-year-old son, for the first time on Thursday.  Takoma Park isn't really very far from where I grew up in Chevy Chase but I don't know it well at all.  If the DC suburbs have a hippy enclave, Takoma Park is it, the rare suburb that has managed to hang on to a bit of its small town feel.

GD also has a daughter, not quite a year older than ours.  The kids had a grand old time getting to know each other on the playground while we chatted.  For lunch, we went to Roscoe's Pizzeria - highly recommended.  I especially enjoyed the gazpacho and stuffed dates.  Great kids' menu, too.

On Friday, after a trip to Politics & Prose, the city's best book store, I went out for a walk on my own.  I went to The Diner on 18th Street for lunch.  It's way overpriced but my Columbia Road Special, a burger with cream cheese, jalapenos and bacon, was scrumptious.  For dinner, my parents took us to the Little Fountain Cafe, also on 18th Street.  I had the pan seared duck plus bread pudding for dessert - both excellent choices.  The restaurant is struggling, though, as the neighborhood is not as trendy as it used to be (they could use a more eye-catching sign out front, too).  So if you're in town, you should definitely go eat there.  My parents can't keep the place open on their own!

Now back to the long, wet Vermont spring.  It actually snowed a bit this morning - it's nearly May, for crying out loud!  Still, it's good to be home.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 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, May 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, April 25, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 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 War of the Worlds
Author: H.G. Wells

via Wikipedia
No exploration of early science fiction would be complete without H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds.   The story also provides the driving narrative for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II (review here), thus my own interest.  It is one of the earliest books to explore the possibility of encounter between humans and extraterrestrials.  Probes from Mars land on Earth, at first inspiring great and understandable curiosity among the people of southern England.  Once the dire threat of the destructive invaders becomes apparent, the race is on to get the heck out of Dodge. 

Knowing the place of this work in the canon of scifi literature, I was expecting more material about the aliens themselves.  However, most of the story is about the mass exodus to get out of harm's way.  In fact, I was reminded more of The Walking Dead than close encounter tales.  Wells anticipates not only the post-apocalyptic literature to come but also the devastating impact of the very real human wars which would dominate the 20th century and beyond.

In both this book and The Invisible Man (review here), Wells displays a fascination with the dissemination of information.  In the newspaper age, accurate news of the invasion takes significant time to get from one part of England to another.  As such, residents of London, for instance, are caught off-guard by the severity of the situation.  The story is less satirical than The Invisible Man but the dark humor is still there as Wells pokes fun at his fellow Englishmen.  Perhaps not surprisingly for the Victorian Era, the narrator - and through him, the author - comes off as quite a snob.

While I'm glad to have read the book, I'm not in any hurry to read more Wells.  I've covered his Big Four: The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.  The rest can wait.

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Star Trek: Catspaw

Episode: "Catspaw"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 7
Original Air Date: October 27, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"Catspaw" is the closest the Star Trek franchise has ever come to a holiday special.  Exploring the planet Pyris VII, the Enterprise crew stumbles upon a gothic horror-scape, engineered by powerful beings from another galaxy.  Dungeons, skeletons, a black cat, mind control, illusions - all the spooky trappings.  Kirk even makes reference to trick-or-treat. 
via Memory Alpha
For the second week in a row, the threat comes from outside our own galaxy.  Trek marks an important departure from the xenophobia of Cold War era scifi but there are still elements of fear of the unknown.  Or perhaps it's just a reminder that no matter how far we explore, what we know will always be outweighed by what we don't.

via Memory Alpha
Antoinette Bower played the role of Sylvia, the more powerful of the two alien beings, a seductress/nemesis to Kirk, yet another in the long line of Q predecessors.  Bower was born September 30, 1932 in Baden-Baden, Germany to British parents.  Most of her 33-year acting career was on television, including multiple appearances on Perry Mason, The Fugitive and Hogan's Heroes.  There has been some big screen work, including early '70s B-movie horrors such as The Mephisto Waltz and Die Sister, Die!  More recently, she was a regular on the early '90s series, Neon Rider.

Monday, April 21, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Anne Frank

Title: Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography
Authors: Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón
via Junior Library Guild
For her 13th birthday, Annelies Marie Frank was given a diary.  Just a few weeks later, she and her family went into hiding in Amsterdam to evade Nazi persecution.  The thoughts she recorded in the journal would eventually be published in over 70 languages worldwide as one of the most important books of the 20th century, by far the most widely-read first person account of the Holocaust.  Beyond its undeniable historical importance, it is a work of depth and wisdom far beyond what one would expect from such a young author.

When I was eleven years old, we took a family trip to Europe.  We spent most of our time in Germany and France.  However, there was one quick detour to the Netherlands.  My older sister wanted to see the Anne Frank House.  It was not my first exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust.  That came with the film The Chosen a couple years before.  But the personal connection the House presented was powerful.  I shall never forget my day in the annex.

My parents gave our daughter this book, a biography in graphic novel form, for Christmas.  We hadn't really talked to her about the Holocaust before.  Her reaction after reading it was predictable: it was good, but very sad.  As such, she was surprised I wanted to read it myself.  The biography offers a broader view than the diary does - a more extensive history of the family and full disclosure on concurrent world events.  The depiction of the concentration camps is quite graphic.  As an introduction to the subject, it's good.  I hope Our Girl will read the diary herself one day, though she doesn't seem too interested at the moment.  When she does, I hope she'll appreciate knowing the context ahead of time.  The warmth and humor of Anne's writing are all the more astonishing when one fully understands the darkness around her.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Family Movie Night: Muppets Most Wanted

Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Director: James Bobin
Original Release: 2014
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Muppet Wiki
The Muppets have always been a big part of my life and self-understanding.  I have written about them before here.  Seeing their latest movie was more a question of when? than if?  I am glad to have seen it in the theater, making it the first Muppet movie I've seen on the big screen since The Muppet Christmas Carol (review here) way back in the early '90s. 

Fresh off the set of their last film, our furry, felted friends set off on a world tour at the urging of sketchy promoter, Dominick Badguy (Ricky Gervais).  Dominick is actually an international thief who goes by the name of "The Lemur."  He is in cahoots with Constantine, an even more notorious criminal who has just escaped from a Siberian gulag and happens to look just like Kermit the Frog apart from a black mole on his face.  Constantine pulls a switcheroo and sends Kermie off to the tundra while he takes over the variety show.  Naturally, Constantine and Dominick are planning a major heist which requires extensive European train travel.

The previous movie in the series, entitled simply The Muppets, earned high praise for recapturing the spirit of the franchise.  But I actually think this latest offering did a better job of it.  The act which toured Europe had the crazy, edge-of-disaster feel of the old show and there were numerous homages to the first three films.  There were even a few clips from the original TV series.  Just hearing Jim Henson's voice again was transporting for this sentimental fool.  The human cast, led by Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey, was well into the spirit of the affair.  Musical highlights include "The Muppet Show Theme" performed in Spanish and "Together Again," a reworking of the song from The Muppets Take Manhattan.

I am biased.  I'd likely give a Muppet movie a 4 even if it were terrible.  Even so, I think this one's well worth the trouble.  Neither the Muppets nor Sesame Street will ever be the same as the Henson days again but I'm happy to see the spirit live on.  The movie has been a box office disappointment so who knows if we can expect more in the coming years?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Doomsday Machine

Episode: "The Doomsday Machine"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 6
Original Air Date: October 20, 1967
via Memory Alpha
In our story, the Enterprise crew encounter a weapon of mass destruction from another galaxy.  The object, which looks an awful lot like a tin foil windsock, demolishes entire solar systems, then gobbles up the debris for fuel.  In one of Trek's less subtle commentaries on Cold War diplomacy, Kirk and Spock compare the device to the "H-bombs" of the 20th century.

The windsock actually looks a lot less tin-foily than it did when I first watched this episode back in the '70s.  When the series was re-mastered digitally, "The Doomsday Machine" was given the most thorough make over of the whole lot.  The space effects in general are a lot more impressive than they used to be.

via Memory Alpha
William Windom played the role of Commodore Matt Decker, commander of the USS Constellation, a ship that fell victim to the windsock.  Windom was born September 28, 1923 in New York City.  His great-grandfather, of the same name, served as Secretary of the Treasury under Benjamin Harrison.  The younger Windom was a paratrooper during the Second World War.

Windom had a long career in television, covering nearly half a century.  He won a Best Actor Emmy for My World and Welcome to It in 1970.  He made his big screen debut in 1962 as the prosecuting attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird.  He died in 2012 of congestive heart failure.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Family Movie Night: Some Like It Hot

Title: Some Like It Hot
Director: Billy Wilder
Original Release: 1959
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
We needed a good comedy this week.  On Wednesday morning, we woke up to three inches of water in our basement, a condition which has ruled our lives since.  Taking time for our weekly movie ritual was vital therapy and Wilder's classic Some Like It Hot was just the ticket.

In desperate need of work - and even more desperate need to leave Chicago after witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis) join an all-female band on its way to a gig in Florida.  Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the band's singer and ukelele player, draws predictable interest from both gentlemen, though their need to maintain their secret female identities prevents them from pursuing her directly.  As with all Wilder movies, the witty dialogue distracts one from whatever holes might exist in the plot, like how did the two gents manage to find women's clothing on short notice and no money?

In 2000, the American Film Institute named Some Like It Hot the greatest American comedy movie in history.  Interestingly, their #2 film on the list, Tootsie, is also about a struggling artist resorting to drag to get a job.

I am a child of the '80s.  So obviously, I've had this song going through my head all week in anticipation of the movie:

How many music videos feature a woman shaving her armpits?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Star Trek: The Apple

Episode: "The Apple"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 5
Original Air Date: October 13, 1967
via Memory Alpha
Hold on to your hats, folks!  The Enterprise and her crew are out to spread the gospel of sex to the universe.

In "The Apple," our heroes visit Gamma Trianguli VI, an apparent paradise.  However, it turns out the native primitive civilization lives under the rule of a tyrannical computer, Vaal.  This story shares many similarities with the Season 1 episode, "The Return of the Archons" (reflection here) including the rationale for violating the Prime Directive. But rather than decked out in 19th century garb, GT6's inhabitants are scantily clad primitives, beautifully sculpted but with the innocence of children. 

There's a lot of sex talk in this story.  Or rather, there's a lot of meaningful eyebrow raising between characters as they allude to without ever actually saying anything about sex.  After the crew frees the natives from Vaal, the planet's mechanical overlord, they must educate them about sexual reproduction.  Apparently Vaal had managed to keep them perfectly preserved in their youthful state, negating the need for children.  Sex and physical affection of any kind had been entirely forbidden by Vaal.

This episode holds a special place in the hearts of the devoted as it marked the beginning of the Redshirt Trope.  Longtime followers of the franchise know that pretty much anyone in a red shirt who beams down with a landing party is doomed to a gruesome death.  All four of the men in red who beam down in "The Apple" are killed off very quickly by Vaal's tricks and traps.  Interestingly, they all had lines of dialogue before perishing.  That's another tip off in future episodes.  Red shirt?  No lines?  He's a goner.

via Memory Alpha
Keith Andes played the role of Akuta, leader of the Feeders of Vaal, as the planet's people call themselves.  Andes was born July 12, 1920 in Ocean City, New Jersey.  As with many I've featured in this space, his showbiz career began in radio.  He attended Oxford in England but graduated from Temple in Philadelphia.  He also studied voice at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music.  He launched his Broadway career while serving in the Air Force.  Andes made his big screen debut in 1944's Winged Victory

Andes was married twice and had two children, including Mark Andes who was a longtime bassist for Heart, among other bands.  After a long battle with bladder cancer, Keith Andes committed suicide by asphyxiation on November 11, 2005.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Family Movie Night: A Star Is Born

Title: A Star Is Born
Director: George Cukor
Original Release: 1954
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Imagine that instead of lighthearted and inspiring, Singin' in the Rain were dark and depressing - not to mention significantly longer.  You'd basically have A Star Is Born.  The movie, a remake of a 1937 film of the same name, was originally billed as Judy Garland's comeback picture.  Garland plays the role of singer Esther Blodgett who unexpectedly hits the career jackpot when she meets Norman Maine (James Mason), a Hollywood A-lister whose own fortunes are taking a nosedive due to his alcoholism.  As her star rises, his plummets, jeopardizing their marriage.  The part seems a strange choice for Garland as her career had already been severely compromised by her own well-known addictions.  Cary Grant apparently turned down the role of Norman because of her reputation for unreliability.

The movie was restored in 1983 to include footage from previously lost scenes.  Pan and scan of production stills are dubbed with preserved dialogue - a little strange but somehow, it matches the mood of the film nicely.  I wondered at first if it was done intentionally a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but apparently not.

Garland's singing carries the film.  Whatever other damage she had done to mind, body and spirit by that point in her life, the voice of gold was still intact.  Songs, mostly by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, are generally solid, though I could have done without the highly pejorative "Someone at Last."

The movie is definitely sad.  If you're seeking a light frolic, this isn't it.  But for a brutal glimpse of the darker side of Hollywood stardom, the film is frightfully honest.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Star Trek: Mirror, Mirror

Episode: "Mirror, Mirror"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 4
Original Air Date: October 6, 1967
via Memory Alpha
Is high concept science fiction redundant?

"Mirror, Mirror" poses the question, what if the benevolent United Federation of Planets were an evil empire instead?  Through a transporter malfunction, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura find themselves in a parallel universe, upon an Enterprise where treacherous ambition is the basis of society.  This Mirror Universe has been revisited in spin-off Trek series and other licensed material in the years since, an important check on the moral compass that guides the franchise.  Besides, it's just plain fun to see Evil Kirk, Evil Sulu and, best of all, Evil Spock with the wicked goatee.

This was my favorite episode in a while, partly for the basic fun of the parallel universes but also for the fact that all seven principal characters have meaningful roles in the story.  So much of the original series focuses on the dynamic between Kirk, Spock and Bones - and for good reason.  Judgment balancing logic versus emotion is the heart and soul of Trek.  But the side characters are often greatly diminished at the expense of the big guns.  Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov all play vital parts in "Mirror, Mirror" and the story is better for them.

via Memory Alpha
Barbara Luna played the role of Lt. Marlena Moreau, a Lady Macbeth-type character who is Kirk's ambitious lover in the Mirror Universe.  She was born March 2, 1939 in New York City.  She started as a child actor on Broadway, performing as the daughter of Ezio Pinzo in the original stage production of South Pacific.  She made her film debut in 1958's The Tank Batallion.  She has over 500 television appearances to her credit, including multiple episodes of Zorro, Mission: Impossible and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century among others.