Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Clone Wars: Wookiee Hunt

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Wookiee Hunt"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 3, Episode 22
Original Air Date: March 26, 2011
via Wookieepedia
I love Wookiees!  When I first went to see Star Wars at age 4, Chewbacca was definitely my favorite.  Chewie makes his only Clone Wars appearance in "Wookiee Hunt" and none too soon.

In last week's episode, Ahsoka was kidnapped by Trandsohans who hunt sentient beings for sport.  Once released on the game preserve, she fell in with a group of Jedi younglings.  This week, she encourages her new friends to go on the offensive by attacking the ship that drops off new prisoners.  They destroy the ship and befriend its captive, our old furry pal Chewbacca.  They establish communication [How does Ahsoka understand Wookiee?] and quickly put Chewie's brawling and mechanical talents to effective use.  Meanwhile, Anakin is still distressed over his missing padawan.

Most importantly, we get more Wookiees!
via Wookieepedia
Jinx, a male Twi'lek from the planet Ryloth, is one of the members of Ahsoka's youngling band.  Last week's episode and this mark his only two Clone Wars appearances.  He is voiced by Sunil Malhotra.
via Avatar Wiki
Malhotra was born October 20, 1975.  He graduated from Indiana University.  His film credits include Fair Game, Ball & Chain and Where's the Party Yaar?

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Water War."  This Thursday, we'll be recapping Season Three.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: September 2016 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 30th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

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

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: August 2016

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works 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: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two
Authors: J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne
via Amazon
And now, our Harry Potter Summer is truly over.  With 2 million copies sold in the first weekend alone, The Cursed Child is surely the fastest selling play script of all time.  Probably most of you have already read it but for the holdouts, a quick synopsis:

The story picks up where The Deathly Hallows left off.  19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry and Ginny are at King's Cross with their three children.  The two oldest, James and Albus, are about to board the Hogwarts Express.  Albus will be starting his first year at the school and he's terrified he'll be placed in Slytherin.  The adventure that ensues is just as much Albus's as it is Harry's, plus they have quite a lot of tension to resolve in their relationship with each other. 

To say much more feels like spoiling so I'll be sparing.  We do get reacquainted with the key players in Harry's cohort.  Draco Malfoy has turned out alright and his son Scorpius... well, you'll love Scorpius.  He's Albus's best friend and he's worth the whole book.  The Cursed Child is largely a time travel narrative and as regular visitors know, I'm not usually keen on those.  That said, the writers handle it well.  We get to visit a lot of old friends and imagine several what if scenarios.  I have to admit that I was a little disappointed in the narrative path in the beginning, wishing a few things had gone differently.  But when the time travel started changing some of those elements, I was resentful.  Which maybe was the point.  Overall, it's the same whimsical, emotional and engaging tale we've come to expect from Rowling's extraordinary wizarding world.

I read one review which whined that Rowling owed us more than this.  Hog wash!  Never mind the fact that Rowling owes us nothing.  No writer in the past 50 years - probably longer - has done more to boost the publishing industry.  The story's amazing and the elegantly written stage directions leave plenty of room for the imagination.  I know Rowling has said this is it for Harry but I hope she'll be convinced to give us more sometime.  She doesn't owe it to us and maybe we don't even deserve it.  But more would be lovely.

One character in particular I'd want to see developed better is Ginny.  We get glimpses of Ginny Weasley in the earlier books but she's a quiet girl.  She has a certain nobility and she certainly loves Harry but she's largely overshadowed.  We get a little more in The Cursed Child.  She does a better job of standing up to Harry than any of the other characters do.  If Rowling ever brings us back to this world, I hope she'll give us more Ginny. 

No Neville Longbottom this time, except in passing mention.  More Neville would be good, too.  Oh, and Luna... And...

Just more please, Ms. Rowling.

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 30th.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

State of the Blog 2016

It was a stressful year for this blogger.  The stress manifested itself physically and painfully in late May when I got shingles, an old man's disease that saw fit to hit me at 43.  It was a wake up call, an occasion to step back and take a good hard look at my life.  Stress, unfortunately, is frequently unavoidable in life.  I am a teacher, a notoriously stressful profession.  While it is possible to remove and reduce some anxiety-inducing elements, the important thing is to manage stress as it comes.  That's relatively easy to do during the summer months.

The fall will be another matter.  I'm taking on new and modified professional responsibilities this year.  While I'm taking on the added load for solid, practical reasons, stress is inevitable, especially as I continue to juggle family and personal schedules, too.  Learning to manage the stress will be crucial to my mental and physical health.  Shingles can come back - 7-10 year intervals, is what I've heard.  Having a less stressful life seven years from now seems like a reasonable life goal.  Adding more responsibilities now is probably not the best strategy but it's a long-term goal.  My life is likely to look quite different seven years from now.

So, what does any of this have to do with the blog?  Well, it's going to be tough keeping up with The Armchair Squid this fall but it's vitally important that I try.  The blog is, in itself, an escape for me and it is also primarily a chronicle of the other things in my life that I do strictly for fun.  Maintaining the hobbies will be crucial and the blog provides incentive and encouragement to do so.  That said, time will be precious.

Fortunately, I devoted some time this summer to getting ahead on things.  My Clone Wars posts are all set through November so Tuesdays are good to go.  I shall do my best to keep Fridays humming along with The Cephalopod Coffeehouse, Mock Squid Soup and miscellaneous family adventure posts.  It is likely, though, that posts will be on the shorter side for a while.  I want to keep my hand in the game and keep in touch with all of you.  I shall endeavor to do my best.

Squiddies 2016

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

Biggest Surprise: Calvin Trillin in Sleepless in Seattle
via Wikipedia
Calvin Trillin has been a star of my blog this year.  I featured his books three months in a row for the Cephalopod Coffeehouse.  Trillin writes about all kinds of things including a recent book about the civil rights movement.  He came to my attention because of his food writing - absolutely delightful.  The surprise came when I saw him sitting at the dinner table in Sleepless in Seattle!  Apparently, he is friends with the film's director, Nora Ephron.

It made for a funny family moment.  My wife explained to our daughter, "You know those books Daddy's been reading and giggling over?  That's the guy who wrote them."

Biggest Disappointment: Droid Episodes
via Wookieepedia
I love R2-D2 and C-3PO.  Star Wars wouldn't be the same without them.  They are an important link to Hidden Fortress, one of the most important films in the original's cinematic heritage.  They provide comic relief and they frequently drive the plot.  Artoo has been called a McGuffin but I don't think he quite qualifies as he serves a clear, demonstrable purpose.

But Clone Wars stories involving the droids as central characters tend to be darn near unwatchable.  Marvel had a comic book series starring the droids back in the day and those were also awful - not as bad as the Ewoks series but still embarrassing.  Clear lesson: the droids are great for the small work but let the organic beings bear the narrative heft.

Best Read, First-Time Category: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
via Amazon
I read a lot, or at least I aim to do so.  However, I rarely read anything that I immediately start recommending to everyone I know.  Such was the case for Being Mortal, Dr. Gawande's exploration of the choices we must make for ourselves and our loved ones as we age and die.  It's heavy reading to be sure but I appreciate the book's frankness and compassion.  So yes, you need to read it and get all of your loved ones to read it, too.

Best Read, Re-Read Category: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
via Wikipedia
I first read Julius Caesar in high school - 27 years ago, I believe.  It was nice to read it again as an adult, knowing more about life, politics and so forth.  Julius Caesar is an unusual and clever story for the fact that it's never fully clear who the good guy is.  Plus the title character dies a lot earlier than he usually does in a Shakespearean tragedy!

Best Comics Find: Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Don't go thinking I don't remember book suggestions.  I picked this one up after my blogger pal Suze recommended it to me.  I've read a lot of graphic novels about history, including several about World War II in general and the A-bomb in particular.  Trinity earns big points for the clear explanation of the science of atomic energy, demonstrating the effectiveness of the sequential art medium.  I also admire the book's attention to the reactions of the scientists once they learned the full scope of their project and realized the unforeseen consequences of using nuclear weapons.

Athlete of the Year: Seabiscuit
via Wikipedia
For the second year in a row, I choose a deceased athlete from the 1930s.  Seabiscuit was also a horse - an unconventional choice, I'll admit.  While Sports Illustrated balked at choosing American Pharoah over Serena Williams - they were very wise to make that choice, by the way, and I'm ready to defend it anytime - my equine star had few rivals on the blog this year.  Harry Potter was tempting, though he's only a fictional character and my post about him didn't address his quidditch prowess.

Seabiscuit (1933-47) was one of the great celebrities of the 1930s.  More recently, he has been the subject of a highly successful book and movie.  I read the former last September.  Seabiscuit was a late bloomer.  I always have great sympathy for those.  Author Laura Hillenbrand did a wonderful job conveying the personality of the beast, as well as those of his human attendants.

Best Family Adventure: Nova Scotia
via Wikipedia
I have come to realize an undeniable truth of my adult life: I love Canada.  I love its quiet, its friendliness, its multilingualism, its beautiful, seemingly endless landscape, all of it.  This summer's big trip was Nova Scotia, the most populous maritime province.  We stayed in the Annapolis Royal area, not far from Digby, a stretch of coast famous for its scallops and for historical preservation.  They have lobster club sandwiches there.  What more does one need?  I truly did not want to go home from this trip.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Clone Wars: Padawan Lost

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Padawan Lost"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 3, Episode 21
Original Air Date: March 19, 2011
via Wookieepedia
In this week's episode, The Clone Wars borrows a page from Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game."  While engaged in battle on the planet Felucia, Ahsoka is kidnapped and taken to the Trandoshan moon Wasskah.  Island 4 on that world is maintained as a game preserve by the Trandoshans.  They hunt sentient beings for sport and their prey of choice is young Jedi.  Meanwhile, Anakin is in quite a state over his missing padawan, a situation aggravated by the fact that Master Plo Koon has counseled him not to run after her.  Ahsoka's Jedi skills are put to the test, as are Anakin's attachment issues.

Soon after her arrival on Wasskah, Ahsoka falls in with a group of Jedi younglings who have managed to survive for some time.  The leader of the small band is Kalifa, a young Corellian.  Kalifa is voiced by Gwendoline Yeo.
via Yodapedia
Yeo was born July 10, 1977 in Singapore.  She graduated with honors from UCLA at age 20 and also received a degree in classical piano from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  She also learned to play the guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument and played it on her own one-woman radio show on NPR-KCRW.  Her stunning beauty certainly hasn't hurt her career either.  She was crowned Miss Asian America in 1995 and Miss Chinatown USA in 1998-99.
via Wookieepedia
In addition to her voice acting career, she has had recurring live action roles on both Desperate House Wives and General Hospital.  Big screen credits include Night Skies, Freeloaders and The Jane Austen Book Club.  Kalifa is one of six different roles she voiced for The Clone Wars.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Wookiee Hunt."


Friday, August 19, 2016

On the Road: New Paltz and Smuggs

Lucky reader, I have more vacation slides for you today!  Since our last screening, we have spent a weekend in New Paltz, New York for a family wedding and one at Smuggler's Notch in Vermont for a lovely gathering with friends.  Dim the lights and pop the corn.  The kids are staying up late tonight...

New Paltz
Our protector at the New Paltz Hostel

My breakfast at Main Street Bistro

A drink invented by one of my new cousins: The Beet Goes On
Smuggler's Notch

Homemade pizza

Aviation, prepared by The Playwright

I bet you didn't know August 6th was National Root Beer Float Day!

A funny exchange with my daughter regarding the aforementioned holiday...

DAUGHTER: I can't believe there's a National Root Beer Float Day.

ME: There's a day for everything.

DAUGHTER: Root beer floats are not just anything!

Our gathering, with English Prof and The Playwright joining us from Worcester, was not merely about food and drink, though I can see how the photos might lead one to believe that.  There was also swimming, hot tubbing, movies and Olympics watching.  It was a most relaxing weekend.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Clone Wars: Citadel Rescue

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Citadel Rescue"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 3, Episode 20
Original Air Date: March 11, 2011
via Wookieepedia
The Citadel story arc comes to its conclusion.  Anakin, Obi-Wan, Ahsoka and their accompanying clone troopers are struggling to get Jedi Master Even Piell and Captain Tarkin out of the Citadel, a high security prison.  Unfortunately, the ship the rescue party came on has been destroyed.  Plo Koon is leading a task force through Separatist defenses in order to evacuate them.  This culminating episode of the arc wasn't quite as compelling as the first two for me but the budding friendship between Anakin and Tarkin continues to intrigue.
via Wookieepedia
Jedi Master Adi Gallia appears in "Citadel Rescue" as a member of the Jedi Council.  She made her first appearance in The Phantom Menace, played by model Gin Clarke.  Gallia is a Tholothian and her headdress with the long, fleshy tendrils is traditionally worn by Tholothian women.  In The Clone Wars, Gallia is voiced by Angelique Perrin.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Padawan Lost."


Monday, August 15, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Jules Tygiel

Title: Past Time: Baseball as History
Author: Jules Tygiel
via Amazon
Jules Tygiel was a history professor at San Francisco State University and a lifelong baseball fan.  In Past Time, he collected nine essays relating developments in the game to parallel changes in American society.  The nine are arranged chronologically, covering topics from the 1850s to the 1990s.

While I enjoyed the book for the most part, the essays were uneven.  I learned a lot from the chapters about the rise of radio and the efforts to survive the Great Depression.  The material on segregation was good, too, though I've read better books on the subject.  The weakest chapter was about early 20th century baseball, focusing on the careers of Charles Comiskey, Connie Mack, John McGraw and Clark Griffith.  I'm convinced all four were giants of the game but Tygiel tried too hard to link them together.  He would find common threads between two or three but rarely all four.  I'd rather have read a separate chapter about each man.

Somehow, Tygiel also completely missed the point of the film Bull Durham, claiming it was about fans, not players.  Really?  Did he actually watch the movie?  Or was he so dazzled by Susan Sarandon's admittedly wonderful performance that he was blind to the rest of the narrative?

If you want to tackle a lot of baseball material quickly Past Time would be a reasonable place to start.  The writing is informative and easily digestible.  If you have the time for Ken Burns's Baseball documentary, though, it covers a lot of the same topics and more effectively.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mock Squid Soup: September 2016 Blog List

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to present Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society!

Next meeting is Friday, September 9th.  As announced last month, the plan for this month is for each participant to pick someone else's movie from our ever-growing society library.  I maintain a list of those movies here, also to be found on my page list as "Mock Squid Soup Film Library."

The signup list:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mock Squid Soup: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

MOCK! and The Armchair Squid are proud to welcome you to Mock Squid Soup: A Film Society, meetings on the second Friday of each month.  Last week, society members posted three clues as to their chosen film for the month.  Today is the big reveal.  A reminder on my clues:

1. This film is one of a very popular series.  The original book series essentially saved the print media industry.  No, I'm not exaggerating.

2. It is the first film in the series to address the pain of romantic love.  Not mere jealousy.  Pain.

3. One of the actors in the film passed away early this year.  Universally revered as a supremely talented performer, he had impressive stage credentials in addition to his varied screen roles.  In this movie, in particular, I was struck by how beautifully he moves.

Drum roll please...

Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Director: David Yates
Original Release: 2009
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
It's been a Harry Potter summer at our house.  Our daughter, now twelve, had avoided the Potter books to this point.  This is a girl who loves fantasy, too.  Nearly every book she reads falls into that genre.  For whatever reason, Harry didn't spark her interest.  But this summer, she decided to read the entire series and so she has, The Cursed Child included.

To encourage this endeavor and to share in her experience, we have watched each of the movies as she finished each book.  Before this summer, my wife and I had only ever watched the first five films so the last three were new to us, too.  Generally speaking, I feel the first five movies decrease in quality as they go but the series finishes very strong, indeed, beginning with #6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  All credit goes to director David Yates.

I've loved Harry Potter from the first book.  My wife and I read it aloud to each other in our apartment in New York, trading off chapters.  While it doesn't quite match The Lord of the Rings or other classic series for florid language or sophisticated world building, the Harry Potter series brings a fresh angle to the genre.  We get a ringside seat as the principals go through the all-too-real transformations of adolescence.  The stories' progressive darkness matches an increasing maturity and sense of responsibility for Harry.  By the time we get to book #7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we have grown to love Harry and his friends in a way we are not always afforded with other characters in other stories.  We have watched them grow.  We have seen their joys, their pains, their insecurities.  We know, for instance, that as brilliant a wizard as Harry is, he's a terrible date and he was, at times, quite an obnoxious teenager. We also have grown to love Hogwarts, a place where we know our dear friends have felt safe.  We mourn as they do when it comes under threat.  Deathly Hallows is actually the most traditional fantasy adventure of the series: a team of adventurers on a quest, desperate to fight off the forces of evil.  And yet it's so different from other such adventures.  It is shrouded in a deep sadness that wouldn't be there if not for everything that has come before.

So, why is The Half-Blood Prince my favorite of the bunch?  From a film making standpoint, it's beautifully shot, the only one in the series to be Oscar-nominated for Best Cinematography - tip of the hat to Bruno Delbonnel.  I especially enjoy the scene in the Horcrux Cave.  But more importantly, Year 6 represents a vital moment in the story, the point when all that has seemed secure in Harry's world is threatened: his unquestioning reverence for his dead parents, his friendships with Ron and Hermione, his faith in Dumbledore and the impregnable fortress that is Hogwarts.  By the end of The Half-Blood Prince, the stakes have been raised significantly.  Our young heroes aren't kids anymore.  We can only hope they're adult enough to meet their new challenges.

In the scene that stays with me, Harry finds Hermione sobbing at the bottom of a staircase.  I've been to parties where I found a girl crying on the stairs.  I've comforted enough friends to know the difference between one who is upset by a minor setback and one who is overwhelmed by a deeper pain.  It's the difference between crying and sobbing.  Crying is a momentary fit.  Sobbing is a full-body convulsion.  Hermione is sobbing.

Ron is the reason why she sobs.  It's not just that he's with Lavender, another girl.  It's his failure to recognize how much Hermione loves him.  It's not a crush.  It's love.  We, as readers and viewers, know that Ron is simply too stupid to realize he loves her, too.  But Hermione doesn't know that, not yet.  All she knows is the pain.  It's a human ache that has nothing to do with witchcraft or wizardry.

The actor referenced in my third clue is, of course, Alan Rickman who plays the part of Severus Snape.  The Snape story is the hidden gem of the franchise.  If the film series has a failing, it is the fact that not enough material is devoted to the Snape story, so rich in the books.  Rickman, nonetheless, is predictably brilliant in the role.  I was struck by his movement in this particular movie, odd since for the most part, he doesn't seem to move much at all.  Sometimes, less is more.  There's a moment when he encounters Harry on a staircase, we see him only from the back and in silhouette.  Even without the scenes before it, one would know it was him.  Snape moves like a dancer, all the work done in the legs (which we can't see, because of the robe), the upper body essentially still.  Astaire would be proud.  Even the face barely moves.  Except when it does.  Then it's riveting.  Don't even get me started on the voice.  Rickman died on January 14th of this year, pancreatic cancer.  It was a huge loss for the art form.

I'm so glad there's a new book out, otherwise our Harry Potter summer would already be over.  I'll be sad to leave this world, just as I was after I finished reading Deathly Hallows myself.  I hope The Cursed Child is just the first of more books to come.

Next meeting is Friday, September 9th.  I'll post September's blog list tomorrow.  For September, pick another society member's choice from our ever increasing library to review.  Today, please visit my fellow cinephiles, listed below:

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Clone Wars: Counterattack

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Counterattack"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 3, Episode 19
Original Air Date: March 4, 2011
via Wookieepedia
The Citadel prison break story continues. When last we left our friends, Jedi Master Even Piell's rescue party had split into two groups: one led by Obi-Wan, the other by Anakin.  Anakin's half had just entered an old, hidden cavern passage running underneath the Citadel.  While there's a lot of good development for the Anakin-Ahsoka relationship, the main attraction for this story arc to this point is the emergence of Wilhuff Tarkin.
via Wookieepedia
As he enters The Clone Wars saga, Tarkin is captain of Piell's ship.  But of course, Tarkin will eventually become Grand Moff of the Galactic Empire (such an awesome title; Grand Moff Tarkin could just as easily have been the name of an early '70s glam rock band).  The banter between Tarkin and Anakin in this story foreshadows their future professional relationship in service to Emperor Palpatine.
via Wookieepedia
Wookieepedia's character bio pointed out something I've always known, yet somehow never articulated: back in the '70s, there was no Kenner action figure for Grand Moff Tarkin, a shocking oversight for one of the original movie's most important characters.  Thinking back, there were several miscellaneous Imperial figures but no Tarkin.  Veteran actor Peter Cushing must have been moffed... er, excuse me... miffed.  Kenner did make amends in the mid-'80s, finally producing a figure as part of an effort to keep the brand alive after Return of the Jedi.  In The Clone Wars, Tarkin is voiced by Stephen Stanton.
A later, Hasbro figure via YouTube
If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Citadel Rescue."


Monday, August 8, 2016

On the Coffee Table: House of Secrets

Title: House of Secrets
Authors: Chris Columbus & Ned Vezzini
via Goodreads
Our daughter is a total sucker for books about magic.  House of Secrets is chock full of it so it's not the least bit surprising she enjoyed it.  As she was handing it to me to read, I asked her what she liked about it.  "Lots of action," she said: a fair assessment, I would say.  The book is a collaborative effort between Chris Columbus, a prominent film director, and Ned Vezzini, a young novelist though one who already had a big success under his belt with It's Kind of a Funny Story

The Walker family have just moved into a magnificent yet mysterious new home: Kristoff House.  Dahlia Kristoff, the original owner's daughter, lives nearby and isn't too thrilled about the new neighbors.  She takes the form of The Wind Witch, trashes the house and, in the process, throws the three Walker children into another world, one filled with giants, medieval warriors and World War I fighter pilots.  In order to get back, they have to survive the perils of this realm and outwit The Wind Witch.

One can easily see a filmmaker's hand in the story.  We always get a detailed physical descriptions upfront.  In fact, everything about the book is upfront - no slow, subtle narrative build here.  The storytellers actually come across as a bit impatient.  They just can't wait to get to the good parts and there's no time anyway with all of the good parts they've crammed into the box.  I enjoyed the premise and certainly got caught up in the tale by the end but I could have done with a bit more finesse.

Another knock which is more along the lines of personal pet peeve: the writers tried a little too hard to tie the story to the here and now.  I'm okay with the inclusion of electronic devices but don't much like being clobbered with brand names like PSP and MacBook Air.  Was Columbus already thinking ahead to the movie and raking in some extra cash with product placement?

In my post-reading research, I was sad to learn that Vizzini committed suicide not long after the book was published.  Two sequels have been published posthumously.  A film for the first book is currently in development.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Mock Squid Soup: August's Three Clues

Today, for this month's edition of Mock Squid Soup, all society members are invited to post three hints about their film choice for the month.  All are welcome to guess, of course.  My three clues:

1. This film is one of a very popular series.  The original book series essentially saved the print media industry.  No, I'm not exaggerating.

2. It is the first film in the series to address the pain of romantic love.  Not mere jealousy.  Pain.

3. One of the actors in the film passed away early this year.  Universally revered as a supremely talented actor, he had impressive stage credentials in addition to his varied screen roles.  In this movie, in particular, I was struck by how beautifully he moves.

Any guesses?  Society reviews will be posted next Friday, August 12th.  See you then.  Meanwhile, please visit my fellow cinephiles today:

Thursday, August 4, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Joe Sacco

Title: The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
Writer and Artist: Joe Sacco
via Amazon
One evening this summer, on July 1st, to be exact, my wife pulled this book off our shelves and made a startling discovery.  It was exactly 100 years to the day after the date chronicled in the book.  She expressed regret over not having realized it sooner but I thought the unexpected coincidence was pretty darn cool.

Anyone who knows the work of Joe Sacco would know what to expect from this book.  As much journalist as artist, Sacco specializes in documenting wars and their impact on civilians.  His work has covered both the Balkans and Israel/Palestine extensively.  His collection Journalism explores refugee camps in several war-torn regions.  His examinations are brutal, detailed, uncompromising and deeply personal.  Who better to tell the story of a catastrophic battle, the day of greatest bloodshed in British military history?

While the substance is familiar Sacco material, the format is not.  Taking inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry - a 230-foot long embroidered rendering of the Norman conquest of England, dating from the 11th century - Sacco created a 24-panel drawing one could spread out across the room.  Time advances from left to right, beginning with General Haig's leisurely morning on his chateau, ending with bodies buried in trenches.

The Great War includes a booklet with annotated notes for the drawings as well as an explanatory essay by Adam Hochschild.  The Battle of the Somme was the largest battle on the Western Front in the First World War.  It lasted a total of 141 days.  Leaving 1,000,000 dead or wounded, it was one of the bloodiest battles in human history.  The first day alone saw over 64,000 casualties on the Allied side, 8,000 for the Germans.  Much of the damage was done in the first hour of the attack.  The lopsided numbers were due to disastrous tactical errors on the British side.

As with all of his work, Sacco's message to the reader is crystal clear: war is Hell for everyone involved.  To me, WWI has always seemed particularly pointless.  The level of human slaughter was, to that point, unprecedented and absolutely nothing was satisfactorily resolved.  If anything, the Treaty of Versailles left Europe in a worse state than before, laying the ground work for an even more horrific war two decades later.  Plus, WWI introduced chemical warfare to the world.  The war provided inspiration to a gifted generation of writers.  Otherwise, the world gained nothing and lost plenty.

The Great War is a powerful work.  In terms of text, it's a quick read but the essential lingering over the drawings may take some time.  It's not quite as depressing as All Quiet on the Western Front but it is still plenty upsetting, as it should be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Clone Wars: The Citadel

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "The Citadel"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 3, Episode 18
Original Air Date: February 18, 2011
via Wookieepedia
A prison break story!  It's actually been a while...

Even Piell, a Jedi master, has been captured by the Separatists.  He is being held at the Citadel, a facility designed to contain rogue Jedi.  Obviously a successful rescue will require all of the skill and cunning of Obi-Wan, Anakin, Ahsoka and their clone trooper entourage.   The story contains a couple of foreshadowing treats.  First, the strike team sneaks through the Separatist defense lines by having themselves carbon-frozen, thus evading detection by life form scanners.  Later, we meet Captain Wilhuff Tarkin, a man we already know will have a big role to play in the Empire that is to come.  His first interactions with Anakin are particularly interesting.
via Wookieepedia
Even Piell, a Lannik, was first introduced in The Phantom Menace as a member of the Jedi Council.  Michaela Cottrell played the part in a non-speaking role.  This three-part story arc is his only Clone Wars appearance.

In The Clone Wars, Piell is voiced by Blair Bess.  As an actor, he has appeared in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and Sunset Overdrive among other films.  He also worked as a production designer for the TV show Good Food America.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Counterattack."

Monday, August 1, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Bill Watterson

Title: Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue
Author: Bill Watterson
via Amazon
For many reasons, I believe I was born into a great era for pop culture, a time when telecommunications would transform the world, giving us all greater access to more media (if not always better media).  I was four years old when Star Wars first hit theaters, the perfect age for growing up with the franchise.  I was at just the right age when Dungeons & Dragons took hold.  True, I missed the Beatles but overall, I did well.

There is one medium I know I hit during a golden age: newspaper comic strips.  In the mid-1980s, I started each morning at the breakfast table with a bowl of raisin bran and the Washington Post's sports and comics sections.  Every day, I was treated to the three greatest strips that have ever graced the page: Bloom County by Berkley Breathed, The Far Side by Gary Larson and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.  By 1995, all three were gone (thank goodness, Bloom County is back via Facebook).  The daily comics have never been the same.

In 2014, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University presented an exhibition of Bill Watterson's work, primarily devoted, of course, to Calvin and Hobbes.  In conjunction with the exhibition, Watterson released Exploring Calvin and Hobbes which included examples of his work and a thoughtful interview conducted by Jenny Robb, museum curator.  The interview is wonderfully thorough, covering Watterson's childhood, his influences, his early days playing around in the medium, the tough road to syndication and, of course, his unexpected but enormous success.  I always enjoy an exploration of the creative process so his thoughts on craft, from his work schedule to his preferred pen, are fascinating to me.

There are a couple of controversial questions that have long dogged Watterson and Robb did not shy away from them.  One has to do with licensing.  Watterson left millions on the table by declining to allow his characters to be licensed for toys, lunchboxes and such.  He explains that he wanted artist control over how the images would be used and since no one would give him that, he refused to sign over the rights.   Mind you, the continuing strong sales of Calvin and Hobbes books have preserved the considerable cash flow for the Watterson household.

The other question, more dear to my own heart, is why he abandoned the strip in '95, seemingly at the height of his game.  Watterson provides a lawn mowing metaphor as explanation.  He didn't want to continually mow over the same stripe of ground for decades.  He felt he had taken Calvin and Hobbes as far as he could without resorting to retreads.  It's still sad but, from a creative standpoint, understandable.

The most interesting discussion centered on the current state of the industry, Watterson expressing his concern that it is no longer possible for anyone to have a career in comics like the one he had.  When I wrote that the comics have never been the same, I wasn't just waxing nostalgic.  It's true, and for a startlingly simple reason: people don't buy newspapers anymore.  The image of a family sitting around the living room, each member enjoying his/her favorite section of the local daily is downright Rockwellian at this point.  Through the miracle of newspaper distribution, Watterson's strip - along with Breathed's, Larson's and Schultz's - had a readership many multiples of what one could expect today.

Best of all, the book includes a number of the old strips.  I'd forgotten just how funny Calvin and Hobbes was, beyond its basic existential brilliance.  Quite a few of them had me in stitches.