Monday, June 30, 2014

Wimbledon 2014: Second Week

via Wikipedia
Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova was a dynamo on the junior circuit.  She won the Australian Open girls singles title twice, in 2002 and 2003.  In doubles, she was even better, picking up championship trophies at Aussie, Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The senior tour has been more of a struggle.  In an era of tall women with ferocious power games, the 5' 5" Czech has had a respectable, though not exactly world-conquering career.  She had never made it past the third round of a Major until last week.

Every Slam tournament has its giant killers.  They're a big part of the fun.  Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova has taken out two seeded players en route to Wimbledon's second week: Na Li (2nd seed, China) and Elena Vesnina (32nd, Russia).  Her next opponent, today on Court 12, is Caroline Wozniacki (16th, Denmark), my pre-tournament favorite.  On the one hand, BZS did Wozniacki a huge favorite by taking out Li and Vesnina.  Wozniacki has never made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon so this is a great opportunity.  On the other hand, who's to say the giant killer won't strike again?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Magnificent Seven

Title: The Magnificent Seven
Director: John Sturges
Original Release: 1960
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Geektyrant
The Magnificent Seven is but one strand in the far-reaching web of influence of one of cinema's most important figures: Akira Kurosawa.  The Japanese grand master directed the seminal films upon which many other seminal films have been based.  The Hidden Fortress begat Star WarsYojimbo begat A Fistful of Dollars.  His masterpiece, Seven Samurai, inspired The Magnificent Seven, a 1960 Western.  While watching The Magnificent Seven, we also realized the influence on the Pixar movie, A Bug's Life - our very first Family Movie Night movie, incidentally.

A Mexican border town, harassed by Calvera and his band of raiders, hires seven gunslingers for protection.  But as with the original, this is no simple good guy vs. bad guy tale.  The more interesting moral tug-of-war is between The Seven and the villagers who have hired them.  Big names populate the cast: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Eli Wallach (who just passed away on Tuesday).
via BFI
For me, the movie is worthy of four stars for the Kurosawa legacy alone.  There's no way it's as good as the original, of course.  As far as I'm concered, Seven Samurai is one of the most perfectly rendered black-and-white films you'll ever see.  Indeed, The Magnificent Seven is strongest when it adheres to the model, weakest when it deviates (Are you reading, Peter Jackson?).  The musical score, composed by Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard), is one of the most recognizable in the entire Western idiom.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: July 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, July 25th.  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, June 27, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 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: Wonder
Author: R.J. Palacio
via NPR
My Wife has devised a summer reading project for our family: a book swap.  Each of us gives the other two a book to read.  My daughter's choice for me was Wonder, a book that has been camped out at or near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for the past year and has also been the darling of the state-based book awards.  Kim Karras chose the book for her Coffeehouse post just last month.  Her post is here.

I have to admit that despite all of the laurels thrown at this book - or perhaps because of them - I approached Wonder with skepticism.  Is it a genuinely strong work or is it simply popular due to sympathy for the main character, a boy named Auggie born with a severe facial deformity?  Is it a flash in the pan until the next great tear-jerker comes along?  But I have also been curious.  And I'll admit to bias.  The fact that my daughter liked it speaks volumes.

Wonder inhabits a world I know very well: middle school.  Crazy man that I am, I teach middle school.  For me, the choice of setting alone was a stroke of genius for this story.  Sure, it's familiar for the target audience but it's also the ultimate test for an insecure child bearing obvious physical anomalies.  Schadenfreude - it bleeds from the walls in an American middle school.  At no time in our lives are the people around us so relentlessly unforgiving.  Auggie is not only new to the school but new to the very concept of school, having only been taught at home before.  Intellectually, he's more than ready.  Socially, he has a very high mountain to climb.

We see Auggie's story from multiple perspectives.  Three of the eight chapters are told from his own point-of-view.  The others are by Via (his sister), Summer (his lunch table companion), Jack (his friend), Justin (his sister's boyfriend) and, my personal favorite, Miranda (his sister's friend).  I expected a tale of cruelty and insecurity and, to be sure, there is plenty of both.  But as the book's structure reveals, there is a lot more to every story than is immediately apparent to the narrator.

I know plenty of kids like each of the principals.  I even know some with tougher rows to hoe than Auggie's.  I see them every day.  But that's not the point of the book.  We all know these kids, because they are us.  We are all a little bit Auggie, a little bit Jack, a little bit Miranda (I've known a lot of Mirandas!), maybe even a little bit more Julian (the bully) than we might care to admit.  I had a pretty rough time at Auggie's age (5th grade - 10-11 years old) but I know well enough that he and kids like him suffer experiences I can't possibly fathom.  Jack may be the closest to me - the well-intended kid who still occasionally says dumb things that hurt people unwittingly.  Though truthfully, I was probably the two Maxes - the D&D boys.

Ultimately, Wonder is about kindness.  Through selfless acts, we not only help others but save ourselves.  I love Miranda's story in particular because she does not completely understand her own extraordinary act of kindness even as she's in the midst of it.  Yet through the act, she redeems herself and fixes a small part of her own fractured world.

Perhaps predictably, the ending is very happy.  I'm not ashamed to admit that I teared up quite a lot by the end.  I still wonder if 20 years from now, people will still appreciate this story or if it will be remembered only as "that cute little book about the kid with the face."  For the record, I'm hoping for the former.

Part of the deal for the book swap was that everyone had to blog about the books.  That part was my idea.  Here is My Wife's post about the book I gave her.

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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Star Trek: The Gamesters of Triskelion

Episode: "The Gamesters of Triskelion"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 16
Original Air Date: January 5, 1968
via Memory Alpha
While trying to beam down to one planet, Kirk, Uhura and Chekov are whisked away across the galaxy to another one, light years away: Triskelion.  They have been abducted by beings called the Providers to become gladiators.  But rather than seeing the Providers directly, our heroes are controlled and trained by their fellow slaves, known as thralls. 

Apart from the Thunderdome element, this episode shares similar themes with "The Apple."  Shahna, Kirk's lovely lady jailer/trainer, was born on the planet, a product of selective breeding.  She is completely naive to the concept of other worlds or another way of life.  Kirk and friends set out not only to free themselves but the other thralls as well - from their slavers and, ultimately, their own innocence.

via Wikipedia
Dick Crockett served as stunt coordinator for the episode and also played one of the thralls, the Andorian in the ring with Kirk at the end.  He was born February 27, 1915 in Maywood, Illinois.  As a stunt supervisor, his biggest television gig was Peter Gunn: 76 episodes.  Among many movie credits, he was associate producer for four films: The Pink Panther, The Great Race, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? and Gunn.  He died in 1979 of a myocardial infraction.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Wimbledon 2014: My Picks

Tennis is long overdue for a genuine youth movement, especially on the men's side.  The youngest of the top seven players in the world is Scotland's Andy Murray at 27 years of age.  To those of us north of 40, 27 still seems awfully young but in the tennis world, 25 has long been a line of demarcation.  If you haven't made it to the top by age 25, you probably won't.  Consider the current kings of the sport.  Rafael Nadal won his first Major at 19.  Roger Federer won his first at 21.  Novak Djokovic was 20.  But those three players have had such a stranglehold on the top honors for so long that even the most talented players in the next wave have struggled even to attain relevance.  Add in improved sports medicine and fitness and top pros are playing better for longer than ever before.  Even the one breakthrough this year was by Stan Wawrinka, already 28 by the time he won the Australian Open in January.
via Wikipedia
Enter Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, 23 years old.  Never heard of him, right?  Well, he is no stranger to those who follow tennis with any regularity.  As a junior player, Dimitrov was burdened with the nickname Baby Fed, essentially anointed Federer's successor.  Like Fed, he has a strong all-court game and a big serve.  In a normal era, Dimitrov would probably have won a Major by this point.  But the Age of Fed-Rafa-Novak has been anything but normal.  Wawrinka did prove, however, that the top dogs are not invincible.  Play brilliantly for two weeks and anything is possible.

Dimitrov has a good game for grass courts, a junior champion at Wimbledon.  He just won his first ATP grass title a week ago at the 2014 Aegon Championships.  He is, without a doubt, a long shot but I think it would be great for the sport if he could pull it off.  Then maybe he can be known as something other than Maria Sharapova's boyfriend.

Speaking of 23-year-olds with well-publicized love lives, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki could probably do with making headlines for her tennis rather than her recent split with golfer Rory McIlroy.  She was World #1 for 67 weeks but has never won a Slam title, leaving her open to great criticism while she owned the top ranking.  I've always liked her.  She smiles a lot.  But she really won me over when, in accepting the runner-up trophy at the 2009 US Open, she gave her speech in English, Polish and Danish.  That's not something you see every day. 
via Wikipedia
Wozniacki does have a grass court title, having won the Eastbourne tournament in 2009.  She is probably an even longer shot than Dimitrov but it would be nice to see her win.  It's difficult to feel too badly for anyone with $16 million in career winnings but it's gotta be rough being saddled with a label like Best Player Not to Win a Major as Wozniacki was for a long time.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Family Movie Night: Frozen

Title: Frozen
Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Original Release: 2013
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via The DisneyWiki
I'm pretty sure My Wife and I were the last two people on Earth to see Frozen.  Our Girl watched it with Grandma during a visit but this was her big chance to share it with us.  To say Frozen is a successful film is to say the sky is blue.  It is the fifth-highest grossing film of all-time and also picked up two Oscars: Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song ("Let It Go" - apparently my niece sings it at the top of her lungs in the bathtub).  The movie was inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen.  Just in case you've managed to stay away longer than we did, a quick synopsis, via Wikipedia: "the film tells the story of a fearless princess who sets off on an epic journey alongside a rugged mountain man, his loyal pet reindeer, and a hapless snowman to find her estranged sister, whose icy powers have inadvertently trapped the kingdom in eternal winter."

The film is visually awesome.  There is no denying that.  I am not exactly enamored of a winter wonderland since I live in one for a decent portion of the year.  Even so, the world of Frozen is breathtaking.  The story is cute, but not exactly revolutionary - fairly predictable and everyone gets what they deserve.  One expects the franchise will be with us for a while.  There's already a stage musical in the works.  And ABC's Once Upon a Time series is set to make use of the characters in its upcoming season.  ABC, of course, is owned by Disney.

I will confess that I am not a big fan of the songs - nearly all in the current wailing Broadway delivery for which I do not care.  There are a couple of choral arrangements, however, that are more my speed.  I enjoyed the orchestral score, too, composed by Christophe Beck.

Overall, good movie.  We'll definitely be watching it again sometime.  I'm not prepared to call it great but I do understand the fuss.

If you'd like to learn more about our weekend, My Wife posted about today's arduous hike up Mt. Mansfield.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A New Bloghop: Songs of Summer

Ah, summer.  Sunny mornings full of possibility, lazy poolside afternoons and rockin' nights lit by tiki torches.  What songs bring back the sunscreen and beach-sand to you?  What songs defined your one perfect summer, be it decades ago or just getting started with today's solstice?

Welcome to the Songs of Summer bloghop, hosted by the Armchair Squid, Cygnus and Suze.  On Friday, July 11, 2014, please join us by posting 5 of your favorite summer songs and sharing some memories about them.  Maybe between us, we can build the perfect soundtrack to accompany us over the next few months.  If possible, include links so we can hear these gems.  And, if you're in the southern hemisphere, join us to dance those winter blues away!

Please sign up to the link list here, then post on July 11.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Star Trek: The Trouble with Tribbles

Episode: "The Trouble with Tribbles"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 14
Original Air Date: December 29, 1967
via Wikipedia
Not long ago, My Wife asked me if I thought the Tribbles episode was the jump-the-shark moment for Star Trek.  It is, after all, the Original Series episode best-remembered by the general public, and usually with a patronizing snicker.  I had not watched the episode myself probably since the late '70s so I didn't feel qualified to judge.  But now I have and I feel better prepared to answer.

The Enterprise is summoned to Deep Space Station K7 in order to protect a shipment of grain.  The station is crawling with Klingons, led by Captain Koloth (William Campbell, who also appeared in "The Squire of Gothos").  Meanwhile, a shady trader gives Lt. Uhura an adorable, yet mysterious gift: a tribble!  Tribbles are furry, little puff-ball critters who eat everything they can find and reproduce at an alarming rate.  According to Dr. McCoy, they're essentially born pregnant.

While I can understand why the casual observer might be dismissive of the seemingly ridiculous tribbles, this story is actually quite clever - a wonderful demonstration of narrative misdirection.  With everyone worried about Klingons and petty power games between Captain Kirk and Nilz Baris, a government bureaucrat played by William Schallert, the tribbles turn out to be the real nuisance.  Then - wouldn't you know it? - they turn around and prove to be the solution to the Klingon situation, too!

The critics loved the episode.  "The Trouble with Troubles" was nominated for a Hugo, though it lost to another TOS episode: "The City on the Edge of Forever."  It was also nominated for three Emmys.  The silly tribbles prove far more than just a clever gimmick.  I wouldn't say this is the best Star Trek episode but it's certainly far from the worst and definitely not an indicator of a downward trend in quality for the series.

via Memory Alpha
William Schallert was born July 6, 1922 in Los Angeles.  Schallert got his start on stage while in college at the University of Southern California.  Early in his career, he acted under the direction of Charlie Chaplin.

The vast majority of Schallert's work was in television, probably best known as Martin Lane on The Patty Duke Show.  Later in his career, he made two appearances in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Much of the original footage from "The Trouble with Troubles," including images of Schallert, are used for the DS9 episode "Trials and Tribble-ations." But he also appeared as a new character in "Sanctuary."  There were movie roles, too, in such varied films as The Man from Planet X (1949), The Jerk (1979), Teachers (1984) and Innerspace (1987).
via Memory Alpha
Schallert was very active in the Screen Actors Guild, including a turn as President from 1979 to 1981.  He has been married to his wife, Leah Waggner, since 1949.  They have four children.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Maxwell Eaton III

Title: The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Evil Penguin Plan
Writer and Artist: Maxwell Eaton III
via Goodreads
Inspired by our daughter's recent penguin obsession, My Wife picked up this book.  It's possible there was a little lighthearted teasing involved.  Our Girl is not new to the idea of evil penguins, of course, being quite familiar with the Wallace & Gromit short, The Wrong Trousers.  In defiance, she sat down in the middle of the living room and breezed through the book in about 20 minutes.  Afterward, she set the book back on the floor and walked to her room, muttering, "They're not that evil..."

Obviously, I had to read it myself.  Ace and Bub are the Beaver Brothers.  They live on idyllic Beaver Island where, of course, they are preparing for a surfing competition.  It's a goofy children's story so we'll look past the fact that beavers (and walruses and polar bears, also featured in the book) are Northern Hemisphere animals whereas penguins only live in the Southern Hemisphere.  The "Evil Plan" involves using an old refrigerator, found abandoned in the ocean depths, to turn Beaver Island into a polar-themed resort.

The book is cute and fun but not especially substantive.  The artwork is simple and underwhelming.  Apart from the clever title and zany plot, I'm not sure it has much to recommend it.  Not exactly a book to avoid but probably not one to go out of your way for either.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Family Movie Night: Stagecoach

Title: Stagecoach
Director: John Ford
Original Release: 1939
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Yet another seminal film released in Hollywood's Golden Year of 1939, Stagecoach set a template for Westerns to follow for decades afterward: the morally ambiguous hero, the shamed woman he saves, the drunk doctor, the corrupt banker, the warring natives, the cavalry with their bugles and well-laundered uniforms, the blood vengeance and the gun fight at the end to solve everyone's problems.   None other than Orson Welles claimed it as one of his all-time favorites - perfect, textbook film making, he called it.  It was also the movie that turned John Wayne into a superstar.

Set in 1880, a band of unlikely traveling companions journey through dangerous Apache country.  Wayne plays Ringo Kid, a fugitive from justice even though everyone knows he's really a swell guy.  Also of note in the company are Dallas (Claire Trevor), a disgraced prostitute; Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant cavalry officer's wife in search of her husband and the alcoholic Doc Boone, played by Thomas Mitchell who won an Oscar for the role. 

There's no denying the quality of this movie but Westerns have never really been my thing.  I am well aware, nonetheless, that Westerns have had a major influence on a genre that is very dear to me, indeed: science fiction.  Without a doubt, my treasured Star Wars owes an enormous debt to the idiom in general and probably this film in particular - especially the character of Han Solo.  A ragtag group of adventures just trying to survive in a hostile universe?  A lovable outlaw saves the day?  Yup, sounds familiar.

In the most competitive year imaginable, Stagecoach won two Academy Awards in 1939.  In addition to Mitchell's acting award, the movie won for Best Music (Scoring).  The honored composers were Richard Hageman, W. Frank Harling, John Leipold and Leo Shuken.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On the Coffee Table: The Day After

Title: Barefoot Gen, Volume 2: The Day After
Writer and Artist: Keiji Nakazawa
via Goodreads
Barefoot Gen is a semi-autobiographical manga series about the Hiroshima bombing and its aftermath.  I shared my thoughts on Volume 1 here.  The story is powerful and deeply personal.  Any doubts one might have that sequential art (a.k.a. comic books) can tackle serious subject matter will be profoundly challenged by this series.

Volume 1 ended with the bomb dropping.  Volume 2 begins with Gen and his mother struggling to piece their lives back together on the most basic level.  Gen's father, older sister and younger brother were all killed when their house collapsed.  Gen's mother went into labor in the midst of the horrible day and there is now a baby sister who will starve if the family can't find food.  In the desperate search for sustenance, Gen is confronted with horrors at every turn: skin falling off of burn victims as they wander the streets; others suffering from sudden, mysterious ailments we know in historical hindsight resulted from radiation sickness; corpses everywhere.  No fictional post-apocalypse can compare.

The series is difficult reading.  Cruelty is a prevalent theme in this second book, on both macro and micro levels.  The devastation of nuclear war is clearly so much worse than what I can conceive of intellectually.  The high quality of the work would probably be enough to keep me coming back but I also feel a responsibility as a human being to learn from the sins of history. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Then and Now

The greatest films stand the test of time, speaking to us in different ways at various life stages.  Is there a movie that was a part of your life when you were younger that you see differently now?  Like fine wine, has it improved with age or did it die in the bottle?  Has maturity brought you new insights you missed in your youth?  We want to know all about it!

Welcome to "Then and Now," a bloghop hosted by The Armchair Squid, Suze, Nicki Elson and Nancy Mock.  Tell us about a movie you loved when you were younger and have come to see differently over time - for better or for worse.
via Wikipedia
I went to see Say Anything... in the theater with friends to celebrate my 16th birthday.  The protagonist, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), instantly became a personal hero for me.  Like me at that age, most of his close friends were girls.  He wasn't slick and cool Ferris Beuller - an ideal I never pursued and could probably never have attained anyway.  He was awkward, but kind.  He wasn't popular, exactly, but certainly well liked.  He was a fool falling in love for the first time.  I could definitely groove with that.

A great lead character and outstanding writing are usually enough for me and Say Anything... certainly ranks among my all-time favorites.  However, the ending of the film - particularly the fate of the father/adversary character - has always bothered me.  I've never been sure why.  But in pondering this bloghop, I believe I've finally figured it out.

My apologies to those of you unfamiliar with the film.  A quick synopsis:

Lloyd has just graduated from high school.  He has modest prospects and modest ambitions, apart from a big old crush on the class valedictorian, Diane Court (Ione Skye).  Diane, regretful over the fact that she doesn't know her classmates better, is charmed by his advances and agrees to a date.  They start spending more time together and become quite the item.

Diane's father, Jim (John Mahoney), is not so keen on Lloyd.   He recognizes the intellectual superstar in his daughter and wants her to pursue every opportunity, including a prestigious fellowship to study in England.  For Jim, Lloyd is a pest.

I'm okay with everything so far, until...

Jim is skimming off the top at the nursing home he runs and the IRS comes a-knockin'.  He is arrested and carted off to jail.  More importantly to our story, his integrity with his daughter plummets beyond repair and she is now free to pursue love with Lloyd, in addition to the fellowship.  The dragon is vanquished, the princess won.

As noted above, this ending has never sat very well with me.  I get it from Lloyd's perspective.  Jim's fall from grace has to be total for his daughter to lose faith in him.  Lloyd carries the day, rah rah!  But from Jim's perspective, I feel the punishment outweighs his crimes.  I don't mean the tangible crimes against society.  He deserves what he gets for stealing from the people he was supposed to protect.  I mean his crimes as Lloyd's antagonist.

Jim Court is basically a good father.  Yes, he is living vicariously through his daughter but it's not as if he's pushing her towards something she doesn't want.  He's encouraging her to fulfill her own potential.  Their relationship is a healthy one.  He treats her with love and respect.  The movie's title comes from the confrontation between father and daughter about the nature of her relationship with Lloyd.  When she confesses - a bit too gleefully for his tastes - that they'd had sex for the first time that night, he doesn't betray her trust.  Even though he's clearly upset by the revelation, he does nothing to shame her.  He's not perfect but he's definitely not the rotten parent you see in so many teen movies.  As both character and actor, he's a big part of why this movie stands apart in my mind from others of its genre.

By the end of the movie, Jim is a shattered man.  Bitter disappointment really would have been enough.

Please visit the other fine bloggers participating in Then and Now and might even consider joining us.  Just sign on to the list below:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Star Trek: Wolf in the Fold

Episode: "Wolf in the Fold"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 14
Original Air Date: December 22, 1967
via Memory Alpha
“Wolf in the Fold” is a classic murder mystery.  Over the course of the story, three women turn up dead with Chief Engineer Scotty as the prime suspect.  What’s more, Scotty can’t remember anything about what happened, despite most definitely being at the scene of the crime each time.  Kirk and Bones suspect a recent concussion has compromised Scotty’s memory.  It's one of those Trek episodes where I have to remind myself that just because I know Scotty's not guilty because he survives to be in future episodes, the characters in the story don't know that.  An interesting note for the franchise going forward: for the first time, we are told that Starfleet members are subject to the laws of the planets they visit.  No diplomatic immunity for our heroes, I guess.

via Memory Beta
John Winston appeared on eleven episodes of Star Trek's original series as Lieutenant Kyle.  Kyle usually works in the transporter room - as he does in this episode - but he takes a few turns on the bridge as helmsman, too.  "Wolf in the Fold" was Winston's ninth appearance.

Winston was born October 24, 1933 in Leeds, England.  Most of his work has been in television but there were films as well.  He made a cameo in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the since promoted Commander Kyle.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Chew

Title: Chew, Volume One: Taster's Choice
Writer: John Layman
Artist: Rob Guillory
via Goodreads
Okay, I will admit upfront that the premise for this comic book series is flat out disgusting.  Those of you who know the medium are likely already familiar with the critically-acclaimed Chew.  As for the rest of you, I shall understand your visceral repulsion.  That said, trust me: this one's good!

Tony Chu is a cibopath.  As far as I can tell, John Layman invented both the word and the concept.  A cibopath instantly accesses the back story of anything s/he eats.  As one might imagine (or prefer not to), that's quite a handy skill for a detective, especially when a corpse turns up.  I expect you can see where this is going so I won't belabor the point.  Envision a combination of The Dead Zone, Pushing Daisies and Silence of the Lambs.

Other characters have gastronomic powers, too.  The love interest, Amelia Mintz, is a saboscrivner, meaning she can write about her own eating experiences so accurately that the reader gets the exact same sensations she did.  As such, she's a highly effective and unusually dangerous food critic.

This was not my first exposure to Chew.  A couple years ago, I tried a single issue from the series and was too grossed out to continue.  But when Goodreads recommended it, I thought I'd at least try starting from the beginning.  Not unlike my experience with The Walking Dead, I was pleasantly surprised. 

So, why does Chew work?  Strip away the grody and it's a classic detective story.  The food quirks inspire an extra level of curiosity.    With Walking Dead, I made it through four trades or 24 issues before I'd finally had enough.  We'll see if I can do any better with Chew.

Family Movie Night: The Graduate

Title: The Graduate
Director: Mike Nichols
Original Release: 1967
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
As we began our weekly ritual, I assured our daughter that, at the very least, she would enjoy the music for The Graduate.  She is an old soul where music is concerned and absolutely loves Simon and Garfunkel, the folk rock legends responsible for the movie soundtrack.  My Wife - half-jokingly, I think - suggested that she might not like much else.

The Graduate is a genuine film classic, if only for the fact that it was the breakthrough performance for Dustin Hoffman, arguably the premier dramatic actor of his generation (relax De Niro fans - I like your guy, too).  But the movie is so much more than that, a beautifully shot work that won Mike Nichols his only Best Director Oscar.  Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just graduated from college on the East Coast and comes home to California, not quite sure of his next step.  His parents and their friends have plenty of advice.  Partly out of boredom, Ben starts an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of one of his father's business partners.  Things get really interesting when Ben meets his lover's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), and falls in love with her.

The story of a cross-generational romantic triangle is definitely on the risque side, though probably less so now than it was 47 years ago.  The lightning-quick shots of Mrs. Robinson's naked breasts were surprising to our 10-year-old girl but no long-term damage, I expect.  The film is officially PG, though only because the PG-13 rating didn't exist in 1967.  I first watched the movie when I was in high school and can say with certainty that seeing it in a later stage of life is an entirely different experience (have I mentioned Friday's bloghop?).  I wouldn't say I switched allegiances from Ben to Mrs. Robinson as critic Roger Ebert claimed he did but I certainly appreciate more of the film's subtle humor now.

I give the film a 3 because I really don't feel I need to watch it again.  There are moments of undeniable genius in The Graduate but slow pacing late in the story detracts a bit.  However, it seems only inevitable that I will watch the movie again some day.  It just pops up from time to time.

As for music, the song most closely identified with The Graduate is "Mrs. Robinson."  Paul Simon's original title was "Mrs. Roosevelt" but he changed it to suit the film.  Interestingly, the entire song is never played during the movie - no verses at all, only the chorus and a wonderful instrumental reduction.  Of course, that doesn't mean we can't listen to the whole thing here...

"The Sounds of Silence," "April Comes She Will" and "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" also feature prominently.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Roland Garros 2014: 2 for 2

For the first time since I started this format for tennis's Majors (this is the fifth tournament of the current regime), I got both of my champion picks exactly right: Nadal and Sharapova.  Rest assured, this will probably never happen again.
via Live Tennis Guide
Rafael Nadal's ninth Roland Garros title in ten tries is insane - just plain old crazy.  No other man has even won the same Major tournament as many as eight times.  The King of Clay is without peer in Paris.  Meanwhile, the plot thickens in the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) discussion...

Nadal has now won 14 Slam titles, the same number as Pete Sampras.  He is still three behind Roger Federer's 17.  Assuming overall Majors is the best metric to consider, Rafa probably noses ahead of Pete because he has a Career Slam, meaning he's won each of the four tournaments at least once.  Sampras never won Paris, the blemish on his otherwise stellar resume.  For the record, Rafa has now also matched Pete for overall tour titles with 64.

Maria Sharapova has a Career Slam, too, but only five Major titles overall.  The top two seeds in the women's bracket - Serena Williams and Na Li - lost in the early rounds but Sharapova persevered.  She even vanquished Serena's conqueror, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain.  Sharapova is 27, theoretically on the down slope of her career trajectory.  But the top tennis pros are regularly contending into their 30s these days so who knows?  Apparently, the women's final between Sharapova and Simona Halep of Romania was brilliant.  I missed it as I was running the Girls on the Run 5k with my daughter - easy choice, that one.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Star Trek: Obsession

Episode: "Obsession"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 13
Original Air Date: December 15, 1967
via Memory Alpha
Like "The Doomsday Machine" (reflection here), "Obsession" has strong Moby Dick allusions.  The Enterprise crew encounters a deadly, white, misty thing.  Captain Kirk is reminded of a similar entity from earlier in his career, on a fateful day when his own hesitation led to the deaths of half of his crew mates.  Naturally, the Enterprise's new security officer, Ensign Garrovick, is the son of Kirk's fallen commanding officer from that horrible encounter.  Somewhere, Melville smiles as our heroes chase the vicious cloud across the cosmos.

Thankfully, Kirk is more level-headed than Captain Ahab.  He is able to confront his own demons before he does too much damage to himself or his companions.  He gets his white whale, too.

via Memory Alpha
Stephen Brooks (Ensign Garrovick) was born James Gardner Brooks, Jr. on August 12, 1942 in Columbus, Ohio.  Apart from his Trek appearance, he was best known for his performance as Special Agent Jim Rhodes on the first two seasons of The F.B.I.  Brooks died of a heart attack on December 1, 1999.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Family Movie Night: Madagascar

Title: Madagascar
Directors: Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath
Original Release: 2005
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Madagascar Wiki
Through misadventures, four pals from the Central Park Zoo - a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe - suddenly find themselves shipwrecked on Madagascar.  So begins one of DreamWorks Animation's major franchises.  This was our second time watching the movie for Family Movie Night and part of what I expect to be Our Girl's long-running series of films involving penguins.  The story is not especially original, nor is the writing worth much beyond a few slapstick guffaws.  But the computer animation is fantastic.  The wilderness of Madagascar is beautiful, of course.  The recreation of New York is faithful, too - especially Grand Central Station and the 59th Street subway platform.  It's a kids' movie and it's fun.  At our house, that's usually enough.


Watching the movie did inspire genuine curiosity for me about the nation of Madagascar.  Get ready for Cliff Clavin Mode.  Did you know...
  • 90% of the animals native to Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world.
  • As such, many ecologists consider the island to be, in effect, an eighth continent.
  • There are over 100 species and subspecies of lemur in Madagascar.
  • According to a 2012 survey, there are over 200 species of mammal, about 300 birds, 260 reptiles and 266 amphibians native to the island.
  • The island's unique wildlife is the result of 88 million years of isolation.
  • Madagascar is the world's fourth-largest island, after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo.
The music's fun.  The movie's best-known song is "I Like to Move It" as performed by Sacha Baron Cohen.  The film's opening sequence is set to "Born Free" as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Roland Garros 2014: Middle Weekend

Every player has a story.  With 128 players in each singles draw, that's 256 stories waiting to be told at the beginning of each Major tennis tournament.  The eventual champions get the most celebrated stories but for many others, just making the main draw once is the highlight of a career.  Sometimes, the story is a breakthrough performance.
via Wikipedia
21-year-old Croatian Ajla Tomljanović had never made it to the main draw at the French Open before this year.  She had never even made it past the second round of a Slam before.  This past week, she caught fire.  Not only has she reached the fourth round in Paris, she's taken out two seeded players en route: Agnieska Radwanska (3rd seed, Poland) and Elena Vesnina (32nd, Russia).  She has yet to lose a set.  Next up for her is Carla Suarez Navarro (14th, Spain), a former quarterfinalist.