Sunday, August 31, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Maltese Falcon

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Director: John Huston
Original Release: 1941
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name, is Exhibit A for the film noir genre.  It was also, decades ago, the first Humphrey Bogart movie I ever saw.  Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco PI who gets mixed up with sinister characters, all in search of "the bird," a golden, bejeweled falcon statuette worth an unfathomable fortune.

The acting is good and the writing excellent.  Apart from all of the devices which would come to define the form - shadows, silhouettes, morally ambiguous characters - much of the fun of the story is watching the abrupt shifts in power dynamics within a single scene.  I enjoy the film and respect its stature within the medium but it's not one I feel compelled to watch repeatedly.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: September 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, September 26th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

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

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: August 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 Headless Cupid
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
via Wikipedia
I believe I was in the third grade the first time The Headless Cupid was read to me.  The book was my introduction to the world of dark magic, expanding my vocabulary with words like occult, familiar and seance.  While I've always remembered the story fondly, I'd forgotten most of the details so it was high time for a re-read.

Snyder's award-winning book is about many things, but mostly it's about the joining of two families and the inherent obstacles people face in that situation, especially when adolescent children are involved.  David is the oldest of the four Stanley children, largely responsible for his younger siblings since the death of their mother.  Dad has just married Molly and with her comes Amanda, a daughter just a year older than David.  As if having a new older sister weren't odd enough in itself, Amanda believes she's a witch and is eager to initiate the Stanley kids.

The new family's new home, The Westerley House, is quite a character itself.  It's old, rundown and quite probably haunted.  Amanda and David learn of nineteenth century reports of a poltergeist and - wouldn't you know it? - mysterious things start happening around the house soon afterward.  Central to the story - and its title - is the staircase with its beautiful, hand-carved bannisters supported at the ends by cupids.  One of the cherubs, of course, is missing its noggin.

The real treat of The Headless Cupid is Blair, David's younger brother, four years old.  Blair is a quieter, more aloof version of A Wrinkle in Time's Charles Wallace.  Like CW, Blair is far better in tune with the mysterious forces of the universe than even David fully appreciates until the very end.

Not all children's books hold up for adult readers but The Headless Cupid is just as much fun as I remembered it.  Life experience, especially an appreciation for the challenges of raising a family, adds a great deal to the reading.  The story is sweet, spooky and occasionally very funny, indeed.

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 September's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is September 26th.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Star Trek: Bread and Circuses

Episode: "Bread and Circuses"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 25
Original Air Date: March 15, 1968
via Pop Classics
In "Bread and Circuses," the Enterprise crew follows the path of yet another missing Federation ship: the SS Beagle, captained by R.M. Merik, a friend of Kirk's from the academy, of course.  We get a little trip to ancient Rome this time as the Captain, Spock and McCoy are captured, then thrown into the gladiator pits.  We've been down this costume drama road before...

And yet, this episode offers a little something extra.  The Rome on planet 892-IV has some important 20th century updates, namely television.  The gladiators fight not in an arena but on a sound stage with all applause and other audience reactions piped in.  The episode's title refers to a poem by the Roman satirist Juvenal in which he asserts that the public is easily placated by food and entertainment.  Star Trek always struggled with low ratings during its initial run and many fans see this story as Gene Roddenberry venting his frustrations with the industry.  A telling line from the Master of Games to a reluctant gladiator: "You bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you!"

via Memory Alpha
William Smithers (Captain Merik) was born July 10, 1927 in Richmond, Virginia.  After a successful Broadway career, he moved to Hollywood in 1965.  He has nearly 400 credits for television alone, most notably a five-season run on Dallas as Jeremy Wendell.  His two biggest film roles were in Attack and Papillon.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Now in Theaters: Boyhood

Title: Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Boyhood is an extremely ambitious film.  Richard Linklater filmed the same cast intermittently over a twelve-year period, following a family as the kids grow up, primarily Mason Evans, Jr. (performed by Ellar Coltrane).  Mason is six years old at the tale's beginning and it ends with his first day at college.  Mom (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke) have split and Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) live with their mother.  The family lives through remarriages (good for Dad, disastrous for Mom), moves, school bullies, new careers and teenage romance.

It's the sort of movie that stays with you. My Wife and I went to see it on Saturday afternoon and I've been thinking about it ever since.  Unfortunately, it also means I've had Coldplay's "Yellow" going through my head but even that hasn't ruined the film for me.  It's excellent and there are so many reasons why.  The actors are all wonderful, especially Arquette.  The children are entirely believable.  The time passage is never marked - "Four Years Later" and such.  Suddenly the kids are older and the story moves on.  There are so many paths the movie could have followed more deeply: alcoholic stepfathers, teen drug use, etc.  But that's not really the point.  Mason's life, his boyhood, is made up of smatterings of all those things.  Not all is bad, either.  Dad gets his life together.  Both kids find good friends.  Both go to college.  The story encapsulates a 360-degree view of childhood, neither sugar-coated nor the opposite.

I hope this movie will be remembered come Oscar time.  Filming the story over such a long period surely involved risk but it's no mere gimmick.  There's not a whiff of pretense.  Arquette, in particular, definitely deserves a nomination.

State of the Blog 2014

The Squid is hungry.  While the bountiful waters of the past year have brought ample nourishment, he is never sated.  The Armchair Squid continues his quest for fulfillment, trolling familiar waters but also exploring new terrain.  Dear readers, I hope you will join in the feast to come.  It is Year 6 in the life of The Squid.

Blogging Projects
The Cephalopod Coffeehouse, my monthly bloggers' book club, has become the central feature of The Armchair Squid.  My friend Mock and I have also recently launched Mock Squid Soup, a monthly film society.  
I hope both will continue to grow over the coming year.  I find these and similar projects to be the best way to harness the creative energy of the thriving community that is the blogosphere.  I am always open to new ideas for working with other bloggers.

Good Reading
Good Food Display - NCI Visuals Online.jpg
"Good Food Display - NCI Visuals Online" by Unknown - This image was released by the National Cancer Institute, an agency part of the National Institutes of Health, with the ID 2397 (image) (next).
This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.
English | Fran├žais | +/−. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to our Family Book Swap this past summer, foodie books have attained prominence at The Armchair Squid.  As such, food and drink are likely to become important topics in the coming year.  More on that below in the Family Adventures section.  In addition to food books, I will continue my reviews of sports books, comic books, children's books and Asian literature.
My Wednesday posts about Star Trek original series episodes have been great fun.  At this writing, I have two more episodes to go in order to finish Season 2.  I will continue this Wednesday series through the show's third and final season - I must in order to earn the merit badge.  At that point, I expect it'll be time for a break, an opportunity to explore other frontiers, closer to home.

Family Adventures
Travel, film and food shall continue to dominate these Sunday evening posts.  As noted in the Good Reading section, food is likely to take a more prominent role.  Apart from eating, the best way to learn more about food is through cooking.  My Wife, as I have written before, is a genius in the kitchen and my own minimal culinary skills are rarely required.  However, I've long been encouraged to take up a cooking hobby and I think I've finally found one that holds long-term inspiration for me.  More on that to come, particularly once I get through Trek.  


No changes planned for this topic.  Music in film has been a most gratifying subject over the past year and I fully intend to continue with it as my own Family Movie Night theme.  Music is likely to turn up in other posts, too.
via The Wonderful Wiki of Oz
I am eternally humbled by those of you who grace me with your time in reading my posts and sharing your thoughts when the spirit moves you.  Your friendship and encouragement are The Squid's lifeblood.  I look forward to our journey to come in Year 6.

If you're interested in previous State of the Blog posts, please visit the links below:


Squiddies 2014

The Armchair Squid turns five years old today.  It's time to hand out some hardware.  And the Squiddy goes to...

Biggest Surprise: Stan Wawrinka Wins the Australian Open
via Wikipedia
In my Squiddies post a year ago, I wrote that Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka was not likely to threaten for major tennis title.  Well, he showed me!  In January, he broke the Big Four's stranglehold on the Slams by winning the Australian Open.  It was the first time since the 2009 US Open that any man outside of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal won a major.

Biggest Disappointment: Basement Flood
via Amazon
One Wednesday morning in April, we woke up to three inches of water in our basement.  We lost a lot of stuff, mostly books.  Most disappointing for me, my treasured Dungeons & Dragons books from the '80s were thoroughly soaked.

Best Match: Wimbledon Men's Final

Roger Federer is not the irresistible force he was 5-10 years ago but he's still substantially better than nearly everyone else on tour.  He gave Novak Djokovic just about all he could handle for five sets in the Wimbledon final before the Serb finally broke through.  It was a brilliant match with both players providing sparkling moments of genius.  With the win, Djokovic also regained the World #1 ranking.

Best Story: Wawrinka

With his Aussie Open title, Wawrinka cracked the top 5 for the first time in his career and, far more shocking, became the top ranked Swiss player.  There's no shame, of course, in being second best to Federer but finally passing the grandmaster must have felt awfully good.  Wawrinka won their next head-to-head match, too, besting Fed in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters in April.  Alas, at Wimbledon, order was restored.  Federer's quarterfinal victory over Wawrinka was visibly demoralizing for the younger man.  Roger is Swiss #1 once again.

Best Read, First-Time Category: Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford

via Amazon
My Wife had the brilliant idea of a Family Book Swap for the summer, each of the three of us giving books to the other two.  Heat was the first one she gave to me and my favorite book for the year.  As the subtitle explains, Buford's culinary odyssey takes him from New York City to the Italian countryside.  He genuinely wants to learn to cook but also clearly enjoys the outrageous characters he meets along the way, as do I.  It's a book that makes me want to learn more: always a good thing.

Best Read, Re-Read Category: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
via Wikipedia
Admittedly, Wrinkle was my only re-read this year but I was delighted to revisit this childhood classic.  L'Engle's tale of inter-dimensional travel and self-actualization speaks to me differently as an adult.  I still prefer the third book of the series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but Wrinkle's good fun.

Best Comics Find: Buddha by Osamu Tezuka
via Amazon
Tezuka is manga's most revered creator.  His series on the life of Buddha ran in Japan from 1972-83 and was translated to English in 2006.  Buddha's path is filled with characters both historical and fictional.  I am by no means an expert on the faith but I think the series is at least good fuel for anyone eager to learn more.  The artwork, especially the landscapes, is frequently breathtaking.

Athlete of the Year: Rafael Nadal
via Barnes & Noble
The computer rankings say that Djokovic has had a better year but Rafa's two Slam titles over the past twelve months trumps Novak's one.  Plus, I read Rafa's autobiography this year.  The long-term outlook for Nadal is frequently worrisome and concern is definitely warranted at the moment.  He hasn't played a match since Wimbledon and has withdrawn from the US Open with a wrist injury.  He would have been defending champion in New York so his ranking points will take a serious hit.  Some day, he'll decide that the wear and tear on his body just isn't worth it anymore and he'll retire to Mallorca to wallow in his millions.  He doesn't have much left to prove but the Rio Olympics will be played on clay.  I can't imagine that isn't a powerful incentive for him to tough it out for a couple more years.

Post with Most Unexpected Consequences: Star Trek: The Alternative Factor

Janet MacLachlan.jpg
"Janet MacLachlan" by [1]. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

I think it's fair to say that "The Alternative Factor" is one of the weaker stories from the Star Trek original series run.  However, the episode is notable for what didn't happen.   The original script included what would have been network television's first interracial romance, sealed with a kiss.  But southern affiliates balked so the idea was shelved for a couple of years.  This discovery inspired my blogger pal Maurice Mitchell to do further research.  His much better post on the subject can be found here.

Best Family Adventure: Montreal

This was a tough choice.  Looking back, we've had several satisfying adventures this year.  Our Colorado trip last month was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with extended family.  That would be Purple Penguin's top choice for sure.  Our weekend in Montpelier for the Green Mountain Film Festival was also a great success.  Even the Family Book Swap was worthy of consideration here.

In late February, we spent a few days in Montreal.  The city's only a couple hours away from us and we go several times a year but always just for the day.  This was our first overnight in town as a family.  We hit a few tourist attractions but mostly, it was an opportunity to observe Montrealers going about their daily lives: going to work, walking their kids to school, etc.  Not wanting to be stressed out by driving, we left the car at the hotel for the duration and got around via subway.  Public transit is excellent, a great way to see Montreal.  It was bitterly cold but that gave us an honest view of life in the Canadian winter.  I'm very happy about the role Montreal has come to play in our family. Getting to know the city on more intimate terms was lovely.

Best Unexpected Benefit of Blogging: The Adventure of Guest Posting
via Goodreads
In July, I had the honor of writing my first guest post, a piece about bullying on Janie Junebug's blog, WOMEN: WE SHALL OVERCOME.  It was also a second opportunity to share my thoughts on another of my favorite books from the past year, Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  Engaging with another blogger's audience was highly enlightening and a great way to make new friends.

Squiddy Posts from Previous Years:


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Star Trek: The Ultimate Computer

Episode: "The Ultimate Computer"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 24
Original Air Date: March 8, 1968
via Memory Alpha
"The Ultimate Computer" addresses one of the most important and enduring themes in science fiction: the fear of machines and their capacity to supersede humans.  Captain Kirk is ordered to hand temporary control of his ship over to the latest supercomputer: the M-5.  M-5's creator, the genius Dr. Richard Daystrom, comes aboard the Enterprise for the duration of the testing exercises.  The machine's efficiency is undeniable but once it starts making value judgments on its own, catastrophe ensues.

This episode doesn't seem to be on anyone's favorite list but I really enjoyed it.  The fear of machines is always a poignant topic and "The Ultimate Computer" speculates quite effectively about the application of technology without compassion.  Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics arose out of similar concerns 26 years earlier.  There's also a nice moment of foreshadowing for fans of the broader franchise.  Spock comments to Bones that nothing in current computer technology can replace a ship's medical officer.  Apparently, that shortcoming is sorted out in time for the Emergency Medical Hologram to be one of the central characters in the Star Trek: Voyager series.

via Wikipedia
William Marshall (Daystrom) was born August 19, 1924 in Gary, Indiana.  He attended NYU as an art student but theatrical pursuit soon took precedent.  Marshall's Broadway resume is impressive, including several productions of Othello, performing the title role to great acclaim.

Marshall also got loads of screen work.  His most famous film role is as the title character in Blacula and its sequel.  With his training, amazing speaking voice and impressive physical bearing, Marshall would undoubtedly have been a more prominent figure in a later era with more opportunities for African-American actors.  He died in 2003 from complications due to Alzheimer's and diabetes.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Showa

Title: Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1939
Author: Shigeru Mizuki
via Amazon
The Showa period in Japanese history is defined by the reign of Hirohito, the country's longest reigning Emperor.  Japan's transformation from 1926 to 1989 has few parallels in world history.  When Hirohito took the throne, the nation was recovering from the catastrophic Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a fragile, corrupt, paranoid democracy with no control over a powerful, ambitious military.  By the time the revered emperor died, Japan had grown beyond the devastation of World War II to become the world's second-largest economy.  Manga creator Shigeru Mizuki lived through it all.  1926-1939 is the first of a multi-volume series chronicling the Showa era.

Mizuki intersperses his own personal history with the major political and military events of the time period.  There is quite a bit of overlap with his earlier work NonNonBa (review here) but Showa covers a broader portion of his life.  The account of Japanese history begins with the 1923 earthquake.  The economic recovery, along with oppressive government policies, drove much of the country to financial ruin and starvation.  Failed coup attempts served as excuses for tightening the tyrannical grip on the populace.  Just as in Nazi Germany, military might became a source of pride for a nation in dire straits.

In typical manga fashion, the book has extreme contrasts in artistic style.  Most characters, including all of those from Mizuki's own life, are presented in near-caricature form.  Real-life historical images, on the other hand, are hyper-realistic.  A few panels, in fact, are obviously rendered from old newspaper photographs (Shigeru was an obsessive scrapbook keeper as a child).

I've been reading a lot about 20th century Japanese history recently.  Along with this book, I've also read the first three volumes of Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen series and Yoshihiro Tatsumi's autobiographical work A Drifting Life.  Japan is, in many ways, still coming to grips with its War and pre-War history.  Its relationships with other Asian countries are still compromised by Japan's refusal to formally apologize for the atrocities committed in the Pacific Theater.  Japanese aggression had begun long before Pearl Harbor with the attack on Manchuria in 1931.  One could even go back to the forced annexation of Korea in 1910.  Officially demilitarized for nearly 70 years, modern Japan has little sense of this history.  Perhaps it's just as well that the Japanese should think of themselves as a peaceful nation.  After all, by 21st century standards, it is.  However, one wonders how the country might change once pre-1945 Japan passes from living memory.  Mizuki's account is unflattering and uncompromising, sure to be a meaningful record for future generations.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Family Movie Night: Meet Me in St. Louis

Title: Meet Me in St. Louis
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Original Release: 1944
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Meet Me in St. Louis is probably Judy Garland's second most famous movie and an important one in her personal history.  She met her second husband, director Vincente Minnelli, on the set.  Their only child, Liza Minnelli, would go on to superstardom herself, having the good sense to inherit her mother's singing voice.

In our story, the Smiths live at 5135 Kensington in St. Louis, just about the most beautiful house you'll ever see in cinema.  The 1904 World's Fair is mere months away and the city is abuzz.  Esther (Garland) is the middle child of five and she's in love with the boy next door.  The family's idyllic life is threatened when father announces they're all moving to New York after Christmas.  The movie is based on a series of short stories by Sally Benson and thus has an episodic feel.  Ultimately, the heartwarming themes of home and family togetherness carry the day.

The film is beautifully shot in vivid color.  The energy is a bit inconsistent, though, and my own engagement waned in the middle.  Interestingly, whereas most musicals are front-loaded, Meet Me in St. Louis picks up towards the end.  It won me back when Esther's grandfather offers to take her to the Christmas ball and she calls him the most handsome man in town (sniff...).

The musical legacy is strong.  There's some lovely part singing, unusual in musicals of the era.  Garland's childhood vaudeville career touring with her older sisters was solid preparation.  She's the rare leading lady who can nail a harmony line.  I love a good alto!  As a choral conductor, I'll take a solid alto over a fleet of sopranos anytime.  The two most famous songs are "The Trolley Song," which I associate with Saturday Night Live's Sweeney Sisters, and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a holiday standard covered by pretty much everyone.  Hard to top the original:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Peter Morris

Title: Baseball Fever: Early Baseball in Michigan
Author: Peter Morris
via Amazon
You might think that the subject of Baseball Fever, the history of baseball in Michigan from the 1850s to the 1870s, is a bit esoteric and... you'd be correct.  Morris himself admits that Michigan was never the center of baseball developments during the 19th century.  Instead, he offers Baseball Fever as an examination of how a city game took hold in rural America, evolving from a friendly gentleman's affair to an often shady professional enterprise.

The book is very academic indeed: names, dates, footnotes, etc.  The text is a bit dry, though I can't deny that I learned a lot.  For instance, the rise of baseball was closely tied to developments in the newspaper industry.  Before the Civil War, most newspapers were two pages - one sheet, front and back.  During the conflict, the public was eager for war news and newspapers added pages.  After the fighting was over, they suddenly had empty space to fill and baseball was a perfect fit.  Enclosed stadiums and railroads allowed for pro teams to develop.

It was a different game in the 19th century.  No fielding gloves.  It was even quite a while before the catcher wore protective gear.  Before the introduction of the "dead ball," one made with less rubber, scores in the double digits were commonplace and games typically lasted four or five hours.  Not surprisingly, the dignified, wealthy types who first took up the game were resentful when the more athletic laborer types got involved, betraying a class snobbery that hasn't entirely disappeared from the professional/amateur distinction in sports.  The recent court decisions against the NCAA may indicate the industry is finally heading in a more sensible direction.

You'd need to really love baseball to even give this book a try, I think.  While I admire the intellectual effort, I shall seek less academic material in the future.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Star Trek: The Omega Glory

Episode: "The Omega Glory"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 23
Original Air Date: March 1, 1968
via Star Trek Fan Companion
In the eighth grade, I took a class called "TV Production," easily the highlight of junior high for me.  The course started with the history of television and our teacher was an unapologetic Trek fan.  But she hated this episode.  For her, it was the jump-the-shark moment for the series.

The Enterprise discovers yet another planet which has suffered from the cultural interference of a Federation emissary, in this case Ronald Tracy, captain of the USS Exeter.  Stranded on the planet Omega IV when the entire crew of his ship succumbed to disease, Tracey discovered he was immune as long as he never left.  The hardy constitutions of the planet's natives afforded them long lives and Tracey lived in hope of discovering their secrets.  But Omega IV's inhabitants, the Yangs and the Kohms, are locked in brutal war.  Tracey sided with the Kohms and supplied them with phasers, a clear violation of the Prime Directive.  All standard Trek fare so far.

Then the story, admittedly, runs off the rails.  When Kirk, Spock and McCoy fall into the hands of the Yangs, they piece things together, drawing upon 20th century Earth parallels.  The Yangs, the Caucasion-seeming savages, are the Yanks or Yankees.  The Asiatic Kohms are the Communists.  It was as if the Earth conflicts had gone the other way and the Asian Commies had won (bear in mind, the Vietnam War had yet to play out in its entirety).  But the Yangs held on to their holy relics: an American flag and a copy of the US Constitution.  How such items made their way across the galaxy is a fair question and my TV Production teacher's main gripe.

"The Omega Glory" was one of relatively few episodes which creator Gene Roddenberry wrote himself.  Expecting a speculative fiction universe to be "realistic" is probably missing the point a bit.  However, I think eye rolling over the heavy-handed symbolism is fair.

The episode does contain one truly great line towards the end, even if it is quite a long walk getting there.  Kirk chastises the Yangs for treasuring the words of the Constitution without understanding them.  He says to their chief, the Holy Words "must apply to everyone or they have no meaning."

via Memory Beta
"The Devil's Isle of Space," issue #2 in Gold Key's Star Trek comic book series, was published in March 1968.  As with the first issue, the writer is unknown but the artist, once again, is Nevio Zeccara. 

The Enterprise happens upon a planet of the condemned.  Convicts sentenced to death have been sent to uninhabited worlds which are doomed to impending supernova (Can a planet supernova?  Is supernova a verb?).  The prisoner leader Targu and his goons capture Captain Kirk and the rest of the landing party, intending to use them as leverage to escape their plight.

The Gold Key folks seem to have a better handle on the philosophy of the series than they did in issue #1 (review here).  However, there's still room for improvement.  When the Enterprise finds itself caught in an electronic field, Kirk's intention is to destroy its source, usually not the Federation way. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Lego Movie

Title: The Lego Movie
Directors: Chris Miller, Phil Lord
Original Release: 2014
Choice: Purple Penguin's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Brickipedia
This was my second time watching The Lego Movie.  The Purple Penguin and I went to see it earlier this year on the big screen just the two of us so it was the first time for My Wife.  Whatever else I might say about this movie, it certainly makes me want to collect LEGOs!

Emmet, an ordinary construction worker figure voiced by Chris Pratt, lives a happy but humdrum life.  One day, he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a smokin' hot, mysterious female figure who believes Emmet is the "Special", prophesied to save the universe.   Wyldstyle leads him on a crazy adventure to other LEGO worlds where a host of others join in the crusade against the evil tyrant, President/Lord Business (Will Farrell).  Given the vast LEGO licensing empire, there are mini-figure cameos to satisfy nearly any geek affiliation: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Han Solo, Chewie, Lando, C-3PO and even Shaquille O'Neal.

Given that I already knew the story, I was able to sit back and better appreciate the truly stunning visuals this time.  For the first 90% of the movie, nearly everything that can be made out of LEGOs is made out of LEGOs.  Even when the animators could be forgiven for taking a break - car exhaust, dust kicked up during a desert chase - everything is LEGO.  My favorite LEGOscape is the ocean waves.

The story is cute, told with engaging humor.  I won't spoil the ending except to say that it's pretty much make or break for one's opinion of the movie.  I like it.  My Wife didn't care for it.  I'm already eager for the sequel, coming 2017.

Go ahead, I dare you to keep this song out of your head:

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Mock Squid Soup: September Blog List

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to present Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society.  Each month, on the second Friday, we shall host a bloghop devoted to a particular movie.  We invite others to watch the same film and post their own reviews.
via Wikipedia
Our society shall convene next on September 12th with Burn After Reading, first released to theaters, not coincidentally, on September 12, 2008.  We hope that you, too, will watch the movie and join in our discussion.  Please sign on to the list below:

Friday, August 8, 2014

Mock Squid Soup: Stand by Me

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to introduce Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society.  Each month, on the second Friday, we shall host a bloghop devoted to a particular movie.  We invite others to watch the same film and post their own reviews.  This month's movie is...
via Wikipedia
Title: Stand by Me
Director: Rob Reiner
Original Release: 1986
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5

It was the summer of 1986.  I had just endured the seventh grade, quite possibly the most difficult year of my entire life.  Not only was I attending a new school but most of the friends I'd had in elementary school went to entirely different junior high schools.  To be completely honest, I was at the wrong end of the pecking order at my old school, too.  The long-term outlook was not exactly encouraging.

But the summer of 1986 changed everything for me.  The most obvious changes were physical.  I grew six inches.  When you're 13, the difference between 5' and 5'6" is a lot more than half a foot.  My voice dropped an octave, too.

I was growing in other ways.  I went on a trip away from my family for the first time, to the Philosopher's Island (though he wasn't a philosopher yet - see here).  I also went to overnight camp for the first time: basketball camp at Penn State (If you were there, too, that summer and went by the nickname "Wisconsin," please get in touch.  I'd be very curious to know whatever happened to you.)  The universe was handing me opportunities to reinvent myself, though I never would have thought of it in those terms at the time.

Then one night in August, I went to see a movie.  Stand by Me was on the radar for kids my age even before it was released.  After all, it was a story about us.  Adventure tales were plentiful in the mid-'80s but none quite like this.  Four twelve-year-old boys growing up in a small town set off in search of a dead body, hoping to get their names in the paper.  No dragons.  No light sabers.  No biblical relics.  Just four boys walking on a train track.  They swore.  They told disgusting stories.  They sang TV show theme songs.  They ate garbage.  In short, they were real.

They also had problems bigger than mine.  Gordie's (Wil Wheaton) parents ignored him most of the time and belittled him whenever they did acknowledge his presence.  Teddy's (Corey Feldman) father had been institutionalized after maiming his son.  Vern (Jerry O'Connell) was an easy target because he was too nice to stick up for himself - actually, that wasn't too far off from me.  Then there was Chris Chambers (River Phoenix).  Poor Chris - labeled a bad kid too early in life because of a rotten older brother, with no idea how he was ever going to live down the stigma.

Through all their troubles, they survived on friendship.  Chris, in particular, was Gordie's savior and champion, the sort of best friend we all need when we're 12... or 24 or 36...  Together, they found the body and stared down the town bully - Kiefer Sutherland's Ace Merrill was way scarier than any dragon.  Without a doubt, Stand by Me came into my life at precisely the right moment.  I walked out of the theater with a euphoric, uplifting tingle, knowing I had been changed by the experience.  But I had a problem: I'd gone to see the movie with my grandmother.

Grandma and I always went to see a movie when I went to visit her in Cleveland.  Usually, it was something family-friendly but I took a chance suggesting Stand by Me because I was really eager to see it.  I didn't know going in that the language would be as over the top as it was.  The swearing didn't really bother me - I'd heard worse at school.  The only part of the movie that pushed the limit for me was the Lard Ass Hogan, mass vomiting scene.  But I knew the language would bother my grandmother and that I was going to hear about it.

Grandma and I were very close.  In her eyes, I would always be her sweet, little boy - the one who would crawl into bed with her on Christmas morning rather than insisting she get up.  Along with everything else that changed for me in the summer of '86, so did my relationship with Grandma and it all started the night we went to see Stand by Me.

First, the indignation: "Well, that was a terrible movie!"

Then, the questions: "Do you talk with your friends like that?"

I did my best to explain to her why I loved it.  "Yes, I know the language was bad.  But can't you see that once you get past that, the story's really good?"  Okay, I won't pretend I remember all the specifics about the conversation but I'm sure the details are easily imagined.  It was definitely a tough talk, much more so than either of us expected at the beginning of the evening, I'm sure.

A funny thing happened, though.  I sort of won the argument.  She wasn't any happier about the language by the end of it but I managed to convince her why the story was so important to me.  We connected on a level we never had before and I know I wasn't the only one who felt it.  Over the following years, she would refer back to the evening in a positive way, a moment of mutual understanding.  For the first time in our relationship, we'd had a genuine, adult conversation.

Accepting me as a grownup was always difficult for Grandma.  It was a challenge that summer of '86 just as it was the morning we said goodbye 11 years later - we both knew, for the last time.  It wasn't until the very end that I realized I'd never really seen her as anything other than my grandmother.  She'd been an insecure teenager herself once upon a time.  And with Grandma gone, my own childhood was truly over.

Stand by Me is based on Stephen King's novella, The Body.  The story's subtitle is Fall From Innocence, a process we all must endure eventually.  To date, it is the only Stephen King story I've read from beginning to end.

Epilogue: I was crushed when River Phoenix died.  I know, logically, that River Phoenix and Chris Chambers were not actually the same person but his death at a young age with a promising career ahead of him seemed impossibly cruel all the same.  It was Len Bias all over again.  I followed the careers of the other actors with interest, of course, but River Phoenix was the clear standout in Stand by Me.  For me, it was almost like a Beatle dying.

We hope that you, too, will watch Stand by Me and join in our discussion.  I'll post September's sign-up list tomorrow.  Our feature on Friday, September 12th shall be... Burn After Reading.
via Wikipedia
In the meantime, for the Stand by Me discussion, please sign on to the list below:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

On the Coffee Table: A Drifting Life

Title: A Drifting Life
Writer and Artist: Yoshiro Tatsumi
via NPR
Yoshiro Tatsumi is a master manga creator, credited with starting the gekiga style, an alternative genre.  A Drifting Life is his slightly fictionalized (a few changed names, including his own), autobiographical graphic novel, translated into English by Adrian Tomine.

Tatsumi was born in Osaka in 1935.  His story begins with the Japanese surrender to Allied Forces in 1945.  He and his older brother were huge manga fans.  The book follows the path of his career over the next 15 years, plus an afterword flashing ahead to 1995.  It's a wonderful portrait of a young artist finding his way in an industry that was exploding in popularity in post-War Japan.  Tatsumi found steady work at a young age, enough to support himself and move to Tokyo.  But even with success, he was plagued by doubts over the vitality of his creations.  By '95, he was still seeking the best path for gekiga.

While I've read quite a lot of manga (Japanese comic books), especially recently, I know that I've barely scratched the surface.  Comic books are an enormous industry in Japan, far surpassing what it is in the United States both in terms of sales and widespread appeal.  Tatsumi does a wonderful job of documenting the development of the medium during the '40s and '50s, the heyday of manga's greatest master, Osamu Tezuka.  He also includes glimpses of what was going on in the broader society, especially in Japanese popular culture.  The seeds of modern Japan were planted during the early post-War period and it's wonderful to see the development of manga within that context.

A Drifting Life is the sort of book that makes me want to learn more.  I think anyone with an interest in Japan, the artistic process or careers in the publishing world would enjoy it as well.  I am not alone in my admiration.  The book has won several awards, including the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in Japan and two Eisners in the United States.

On the Coffee Table: Brian Daley

Title: Han Solo at Star's End
Author: Brian Daley
via Wookieepedia
For all of the Jedi hocus pocus, the success of the original Star Wars movie was due in no small part to its scene-stealing Everyman character: Han Solo.  In historical hindsight, we know Han was also the breakthrough role for Harrison Ford, one of the most commercially successful actors in Hollywood history.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that the first spinoff novel series licensed by the franchise, Brian Daley's The Han Solo Adventures, focused on everyone's favorite space cowboy (and gangster of love?).  Han Solo at Star's End, the first of the series, was first published in September 1979.

While I am predisposed to love all things Star Wars, I tried to be realistic going into this book.  Literary merit is not always a high priority with licensed material.  That said, I was pleasantly surprised.  Han Solo at Star's End is a lot of fun.  The story takes place a year or so before Han and Chewbacca meet Luke and Obi Wan in the cantina.  Wouldn't you know it, they find themselves on a rescue mission, this time for Doc, the best black market mechanic in the galaxy.  Daley's feel for the character - the cadence of speech, the sense of humor, the worldview, the devotion to Chewie - is excellent.  If you seek insight into the character with glimpses of a credible back story, you'll find it here.

If there's an Isaac Asimov influence on Star Wars, it is most clearly evident in Han Solo.  Merchant-adventurers figure prominently in Asimov's Foundation series.  Asimov even had an important character named Han Pritcher - perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.  Han Solo at Star's End includes some less subtle nods to the SciFi grandmaster.  Even the title and its meaning echoes Foundation.  In both stories, Star's End refers to a star at the far end of a galactic spiral arm (or at least that's the original interpretation in Foundation).  The Han Solo story also features a highly mechanized central authority city that sounds an awful lot like Asimov's Trantor, particularly in the description of its space port.  (If some of this seems familiar to Firefly fans, I don't think that's a coincidence either.)

I leave you with this question to ponder: with Star Wars stand alone movies on the horizon, whom would you cast in the role of a young Han Solo?  Most of the people who come to mind first for me are already too old, including the most obvious: Nathan Fillion.  When I put the question to My Wife, she instantly came up with the man who probably would get the role if it were offered tomorrow: Christopher Pratt.  Ewan McGregor was the perfect choice for the young Kenobi.  Does the current generation of young actors have a Ewan McGregor?

Whom would you choose?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Star Trek: By Any Other Name

Episode: "By Any Other Name"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 22
Original Air Date: February 23, 1968
via Memory Alpha
In "By Any Other Name," the Enterprise is hijacked by four Kelvans, beings from the Andromeda Galaxy bent on conquest.   The four are advance scouts, stranded and desperate.  They need the ship to report back to their home world. 

The Kelvans did not originate in human form.  They have taken on these "shells," as they describe their new bodies, because they are better suited to life aboard the Enterprise.  The Kelvans have taken the Vulcan concept to the extreme: they eschew not only emotion but all sensory perception in order to attain a higher state of intelligence.  For our heroes, solving the puzzle of their captors involves tricking them into appreciating the pleasures of the flesh: tasting good food, getting drunk with Scotty and, of course, smooching Captain Kirk.

This idea of aliens learning to appreciate human foibles was a fascination for creator Gene Roddenberry long before Star Trek.  In 1956, Roddenberry produced an episode of Chevron Hall of Stars in which two aliens (one played by Ricardo Montalban), disguised in human form, come to the same conclusion the Kelvans do.

via Bespectacled Birthdays
Barbara Bouchet (Kelinda, this week's Shatner smoocher) has one of the more fascinating bios I've come across in these guest star features.  She was born Barbara Gutscher on August 15, 1943 in what is now the Czech Republic but was then Nazi-occupied Sudetenland.  After World War II, her family was resettled to the American zone in Germany, then emigrated to the United States under humanitarian provisions of the Displaced Persons Act.

The Gutschers settled in San Francisco.  She made her first show biz splash on local television as a teen dancer on The KPIX Dance Party.  When she moved to Hollywood, she changed her Germanic name to a French one.  Modeling jobs came before the acting ones.  Her highest-profile silver screen roles were 35 years apart: 1967's Casino Royale (very funny movie if you've never seen it) and 2002's Gangs of New York (not funny at all, but certainly good).  In between, she did most of her acting in Italy where she met her husband, producer Luigi Borghese.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Lucy Knisley

Title: Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
Writer and Artist: Lucy Knisley
via NPR
Cartoonist Lucy Knisley grew up in a family that was all about food.  For Mom, her culinary enthusiasm became a career, catering parties and working farm market stands.  For Dad, it was an appreciation of great restaurants.  In her graphic novel memoir Relish, Knisley shares the food-related formative experiences of her youth.  Interspersed with the stories are illustrated favorite recipes for chocolate chip cookies, carbonara, huevos rancheros, etc.

After her parents divorced, Knisley spent most of her childhood in upstate New York with Mom plus occasional visits to see Dad in the city.  She learned to cook at Mom's elbow.  Mom's was a back-to-basics, do-it-yourself approach so they had a huge vegetable garden and a chicken coop, too.  A lot of Lucy's early food adventures came through family travel.  Dad took her to London and Rome.  Mom took her to Mexico and Japan. 

The tone of the book is very light, almost dreamy at times.  Knisley falls just short of idealizing her childhood.  She admits to being spoiled food-wise but there are the usual struggles we all face growing up, too.  The artwork is simple and uncluttered - a good thing, by my reckoning.  Very colorful, especially the food.  Relish is a fun read.  Fair warning: it will leave you hungry.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Title: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
Director: W. D. Richter
Original Release: 1984
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Buckaroo Banzai is one of the zaniest mainstream movies you'll ever see.  It was also an undeniable box office flop.  And yet, mentioning the film around those of a certain age and bent elicits smiles and guffaws.  The grand sweep of the narrative is ridiculous but there are nuggets of pure gold embedded throughout.

Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is a Renaissance man of tomorrow: scientist, test pilot and rock musician.  He and his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, travel around in the greatest tour bus ever, tricked out with the sort of communication equipment you'd expect in the Bat Cave.  They even have their own comic book series and young fans all over the country, networked through a CB-radio club.

One day, Dr. BB breaks the sound barrier in a pick-up truck and crosses over to another dimension.  From there, the story gets quite complicated indeed.  In short, his breakthrough inspires a group of aliens - already on Earth, disguised as defense contractor employees - to do the same to get home.  They're not afraid to start World War III as a distraction in order to do so.  Like I said, crazy story and I'm barely scratching the surface.  But fully understanding the narrative is not required to appreciate the charms of this movie.  It's all in the little things.

There are great lines...

BB, to his fans as he tries to comfort a distraught woman: "Hey, hey, hey — don't be mean. We don't have to be mean. 'Cause, remember: no matter where you go... there you are."

Great exchanges...

Lord John Worfin (John Lithgow), to the Red Lectroids, his alien minions: Where are we going?
The Red Lectroids: Planet Ten!
Lord John Whorfin: When?
The Red Lectroids: Real soon!

Everybody is in the cast: Jeff Goldbloom, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown, Dan Hedaya, Yakov Smirnov.  In one of my favorite moments, Lithgow's character calls Lloyd's a weak man.  Lloyd, in full alien costume, responds by flipping him the bird, a simple gesture perfectly executed.

Buckaroo Banzai is the sort of movie one would need to watch several times, I think, in order to really get it.  I have a soft spot in my heart for this film but I don't think I could sit through multiple viewings.  So, a rating of 3 is best.

On the Coffee Table: Zakaria Tamer

Title: Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other Stories
Author: Zakaria Tamer
via Tower Books
Syrian Zakaria Tamer is one of the most important living writers in the Arab world.  His short stories - and they are, indeed, quite short - have the feel of folk tales.  Most in this collection are obvious allegories for cruel, oppressive government.  The "Tigers on the Tenth Day" tale itself reveals how the will of a tiger in the zoo is broken down to the point where his cage is no longer necessary.  He instead becomes a citizen.

Another story, "The Ancient Gate," addresses western involvement in the Middle East.  In it, a drunken blond soldier confronts a man and woman in the street.  The situation turns ugly quickly.  Bear in mind, the English-language collection was published in 1985, well before the first Gulf War.

The stories generally have a darker tone but much of the imagery is quite lovely.  From "A Lone Woman":
Breathing heavily, motionless, Aziza felt her fear dwindle.  Leisurely, she experienced a delirium with a new flavour.  Smiling, laughing she beheld white stars and a dark blue sky, yellow plains and a sun of red fire.  Aziza heard the purling of a distant river.  The river.  Far away it was.  It would not remain far away.  She laughed joyfully.  Sadness was a child who ran away from her.
The collection was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Just Desserts

Title: Chew, Volume Three: Just Desserts
Writer: John Layman
Artist: Rob Guillory
via Amazon
For me, the most important test of a comic book series is whether or not I'm left caring about what happens in the next issue.  I think that's a fair measure of a serialized medium.  Sometimes, I'll get to the end of a comic and realize that I've had enough.  My read wasn't unpleasant.  However, I am satisfied and that is all I need.  But every once in a while, I encounter a writer with a gift for stringing the reader along and planting cliffhangers large and small at the end of each story.  John Layman is such a writer.

Just Desserts, which includes issues 11-15 of Chew, ends extremely well.  This collection does not have a self-contained story as the previous volume did (review here; and for Volume One, go here).  Instead, we get loads of character development for the protagonist, Tony Chu.  His romance with Amelia Mintz advances most pleasingly.  We learn about his crazy ex-girlfriend and, in the last chapter, his family.  The best is saved for very last (don't worry, not really spoiling anything).  On the final three pages, we first get something weird in the sky - don't even know what it is yet but I certainly want to know, need to know - then a new character who instantly changes the landscape of the entire narrative.

This guy's good.

As explained in previous posts, part of Chew's appeal for me is the food powers various characters possess.  We get another new one in Just Desserts, though it's not named.  A man, hired by a gangster as a food-taster, sits in a diner booth, rattling off the list of ingredients for each morsel he eats: "thiamin hydrochloride, hydrolized soy protien, mono-sodium glutamate..."

More, please.