Yakety Max

As my Loyal Readers no doubt recall, I wasn’t overly keen on Mad Max Fury Road, a position that put me at odds with many friends as well as much of the Internet in general. My biggest issue with the film — aside from my utter boredom with Tom Hardy in the title role — was that I found it too over the top compared to the (relative) plausibility of the original Max films starring Mel Gibson.

However, every film buff knows that music has a tremendous influence over how an audience responds to the images on the screen. The marriage of the visual with the proper musical selection can raise a lump in your throat, coax the tears from your eyes, chill you to your core, or lift your heart all the way to heaven. A good film score can make the mundane soar… or the outrageous seem entirely natural. For example, witness how much better Fury Road would’ve worked with a, ahem, somewhat different soundtrack:

Tip of the chrome-studded leather hat to HeavyMetal.com… yes, that Heavy Metal, or at least the magazine it was based on, now living online like all the other detritus from my misspent youth…

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46th Anniversary

apollo-11_lander+armstrong-shadowHere men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.

I still think this day ought to be a national holiday.

 

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Another Time, Another World

live-aid-1985

Live Aid has been called my generation’s Woodstock — Joan Baez herself made the comparison when she took the stage in Philadelphia to kick off the U.S. half of the show — but I wonder if the globe-spanning charity concert really had that same level of cultural impact. I suspect the name “Woodstock” would still mean something to kids today, two generations removed from that epochal event, but would those same kids recognize the words “Live Aid?” I just don’t know. As big a deal as it was at the time, I haven’t heard much about it in the intervening years, at least not until today, its 30th anniversary.

Ah, but thirty years ago today, I was fifteen years old, and Live Aid was just about the coolest thing that I’d ever seen, aside from Star Wars and the space shuttle: a day-long concert taking place simultaneously in two separate venues on two different continents, broadcast live on multiple television networks to a globe-spanning audience of over a billion people, all in the name of charity. I didn’t watch all sixteen hours of it, of course. As I recall, the TV was on all day while I was in and out of the room, going about my lazy summertime routines, and I would stop from time to time when one act or another caught my attention. But even though I wasn’t giving it my full attention, just having the event playing in the background made me feel as if I were… connected… a participant in something of tremendous significance, something bigger than myself. I was a witness to history. Or so it seemed at the time. It could that I was just a 15-year-old music fan who was blown away by the line-up of stars marching across the stages in London and Philadelphia. You can see some of them in the poster above, although that’s not a comprehensive listing. Basically, anyone who was anyone was there, either at Wembley or JFK Stadium.

My main man Rick Springfield, for example:

And then there was Phil Collins, who appeared on both stages, thanks to a supersonic hop across the pond aboard the late, lamented Concorde:

Yes, the ’80s were a very different time, and a lot more things seemed possible then. Even a Led Zeppelin reunion, probably the highlight of the whole day for me:

The mighty Zep had disbanded only five years before Live Aid, but this reunion performance nevertheless felt like something that had been a long time coming, as if the gods of legend had returned briefly from Olympus long enough to remind we puny mortals that the Earth had once been theirs, before vanishing again into realms beyond our ken. The fact that their performance was widely panned by the critics, and even by the surviving band members themselves (who refused to allow its inclusion in the official DVD set released a while back because they’re embarrassed by it), didn’t change the momentous atmosphere that surrounded it.

And that, I suppose, is a handy metaphor for the entire event. Looking back at Live Aid across a chasm of thirty years, I honestly have no idea whether it ultimately mattered, or did anything to help the people it was supposed to help. But at the time, we believed it would help. We really did, all of us who watched. And that was what made Live Aid such a big deal. That simple, naive faith that the world could be united by music to do something good felt… momentous. Sadly, though, it was fleeting. I can’t imagine a similar event happening today, for a lot of different reasons, but mostly because people just don’t have the right attitudes anymore. It’s not that we no longer feel compassion, but rather because, as a society, we just don’t have the same optimism we did then. About anything. So in that regard, I guess I really was a part of a historic event… or at least, of history. Because while it’s difficult to believe 30 years have passed, that optimistic world of 1985 seems as remote to me now as the one where men wore powdered wigs and velvet breeches.

Oh, wait. They did that in the 1980s, didn’t they? Some of them, anyhow. Well, you know what I mean…

 

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Review: The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t generally enjoy so-called “hard” science fiction, i.e., that subcategory of SF that insists upon scientific accuracy and devotes a lot of time to talking about it. Not that I’m not interested in science, of course. But when it comes to fiction, I’m more of a “warp-drive-and-ray-guns” kind of guy. So I consider it quite a noteworthy accomplishment that Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, not only makes descriptions of chemical processes and engineering problems integral to the plot, but downright gripping as well. Weir accomplishes this by telling the story mostly through the first-person voice of Mark Watney, an astronaut who’s been left behind on Mars after an accident that results in his crew mistakenly believing him to be dead. Watney’s a smart guy, but he’s also an incredible smart-ass, and his frequent wisecracks, childish vulgarity, and gallows humor leavens the logical puzzles he needs to work out in order to survive in a place that is utterly inhospitable to life.

This is an incredible adventure tale that reads like a dramatization of real events. But it’s also a richly human story that evokes the fear, wonder, loneliness, courage, nobility, and above all the danger of manned space exploration. And it’s frequently a very funny book as well… I literally laughed out loud a number of times while reading it. (I was especially amused by the running gag involving disco music.) The time setting is somewhat indeterminate — the book never specifies what year it takes place in, but it must be sometime relatively soon, because an important plot point involves the expertise of people who were operating Mars probes in the 1990s, and of course there is the enduring appeal of 1970s pop culture. Also, none of the technology described is terribly futuristic, all of which contributes to a sense that it could be happening right now. Indeed, the descriptions of how a Mars mission could actually, logistically, take place are so convincing that I don’t know why NASA isn’t already doing it as I type this. (Okay, I do know; my point is, the book is eminently plausible.)

Beyond the “gee whiz” factor and old-fashioned NASA can-do spirit, however, the thing that keeps you turning the pages at a breathless pace is Mark Watney himself. His victories and setbacks and the final, last-ditch, edge-of-your-seat attempt at a rescue mission are the stuff of an instant classic. And no doubt this story is going to make a great movie, too; it’s already in the can and coming soon to a theater near you, starring Matt Damon as Watney… a perfect choice, in my opinion…

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This Will Be a Day Long Remembered

white-house-06-26-15

I’ve been trying to think all day of what I can say about this morning’s historic Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalizes same-sex marriage across the nation, and frankly… I’ve got nothing. At least nothing that others haven’t already said, and probably said better than I would anyhow.

I know there are many people who are unhappy about the verdict. Many people I consider friends are among them, and maybe a few of them actually made it past the photo at the top of the entry and are reading these words. To you, my religious conservative friends, all I can say is that I understand your bewilderment, your frustration, and your anger… and I’m sorry you’ve had such a shitty day. Sincerely, I am. I’ve been there too with issues I care deeply about that haven’t gone the way I hoped. But I know in my heart and in my mind that history will view this as a good decision, and a good day. A day that reaffirmed the first and most basic tenet behind the founding of this nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

What is more central to the pursuit of happiness than the freedom to marry the person with whom you want to build a life, and to have that union recognized by the same laws that validate and protect any other person’s union? That’s what this whole issue is and always has been about… not forcing churches to perform ceremonies they don’t approve of, but to ensure that everyone enjoys the same privileges and protections under the law, no matter whom they love.

People who say this country is going to hell in a hand-basket are wrong. This country just took a big step toward fulfilling the promise of what it’s supposed to be.

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Review: Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay

Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay
Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay by Harlan Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is widely regarded as one of the best — if not the best — episode of the original Star Trek series. But as every Trekkie worth his replicator credits knows, the version that got filmed was substantially different from the teleplay that science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison turned in. The notoriously prickly Ellison didn’t take too kindly to being rewritten, and he’s griped for years about how Gene Roddenberry screwed him and his story over, and how much better his version was than the one that viewers saw. Now his original teleplay has been brought to life in a form that gives us an idea of how it might have looked on the small screen if it’d been made the way Ellison wrote it. This graphic novel adaptation, with scripting by brothers Scott and David Tipton and artwork by J.K. Woodward, is an impressive piece of work. Woodward’s art is particularly noteworthy, a highly realistic painted style that captures the likenesses of actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Joan Collins, and Grace Lee Whitney with eerie accuracy. And it’s fascinating to see both the parallels and departures from the more familiar television version of the story. There’s only one problem: I personally don’t think Ellison’s version of the story is better (or even as good as) the revised one.

Oh, his ideas were grander than the revision’s, to be certain. His Guardians of Forever would’ve been much cooler than the “stone donut” the TV producers came up with as a cost-saving substitute, and his story features some poignant moments and themes that arguably shouldn’t have been left out. But Ellison’s teleplay also includes some really hackneyed space pirates, a lot of unnecessary characters (which of course would’ve cost money in the form of additional actors who need to be paid), and some cringe-worthy “far-out” sci-fi jargon that sounds like it came straight out of the rocket-ship movies of the 1950s instead of the more naturalistic style Star Trek was going for in the 1960s.

Also, I was deeply troubled by Ellison’s misunderstanding of the familiar characters. While it was great to see Yeoman Rand do some butt-kicking instead of playing the helpless female she so often was in the TV series, Spock comes across as a condescending, peevish, frankly kind of bitchy antagonist to Kirk. To be fair, Ellison probably wrote this before the series had really nailed down Spock’s characterization, but with the benefit of hindsight, this version of Spock is just flat-out wrong… except in the final scene when he tries to console his heartbroken captain. That scene works beautifully. But in general, Ellison’s teleplay, while entertaining and emotionally effective, feels more like an episode of The Outer Limits (which Ellison also wrote for) than Star Trek. It’s not that it’s bad, because it’s not… it’s very good as a science-fiction story. It’s just not very good Star Trek, if that makes sense.

Still, this graphic novel is well worth checking out for the artwork and the glimpse of what might have been. It includes all the variant covers by Juan Ortiz and Paul Shipper from the single-issue comic run, as well as an afterword that reveals all the “Easter eggs” the writers and artist slipped in. (Watch for an appearance by Ellison himself as “Trooper,” a character I’m deeply ambivalent about, because I don’t think the story needed him — as Ellison has always claimed — but I do like him and his interactions with Kirk.)

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In Memoriam: James Horner

james-hornerThe news started rippling out across social media last night before authorities had even confirmed the identity of the body: the Oscar-winning film composer James Horner was dead, killed in a plane crash.

I write about celebrity deaths all the time; it’s kind of become the schtick I’m known for, weirdly enough. I write about the ones that produce an emotional response in me, the ones I feel some degree of sorrow about. Some of them affect me more than others, especially if they’re sudden and/or unexpected. I’m positively numb over this one.

I’ve always had a few movie soundtracks in my music collection, going all the way back to the double-LP Empire Strikes Back album, but my interest in the genre really took off when I was working that notorious theater job in my early 20s, when I was immersed in the movie industry and exposed to film music constantly. Horner quickly became a favorite of mine, second only to the master, John Williams. He wasn’t always the most inventive of composers — he had a habit of reusing certain melodies and effects over and over, something I’m sure Kelly will address with more expertise than I can when gets around to writing about this — but he was a solid and prolific craftsman who turned out a lot of work that I love.

There’s not much else I can say right now. I don’t have any anecdotes about James Horner or his work, no personal recollections to speak of, beyond “I like his stuff.” And really, Horner’s music kind of says it all anyhow. So I’m going to take the easy way out and just share some of my favorite pieces with you, my Loyal Readers. I hope you’ll take the time to play the clips below, and that you’ll like what you hear. This music has, in a sense, been the soundtrack to my own life. Or at least a part of that soundtrack.

First up is a pulse-pounding track from Jim Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which accompanies the scene in which the Colonial Marines have made contact with the xenomorphs and are getting their asses handed to them; back aboard the armored personnel carrier, their inexperienced lieutenant is paralyzed with indecision, until Ripley finally takes matters into her own hands and seizes control of the APC and drives to the rescue. It’s some of the most adrenaline-triggering film music ever recorded, in my humble opinion:

If that sounds really familiar to you, it’s probably because it was became the standard “action-movie cue” used in countless trailers for several years during the ’90s. For an interesting exercise, compare it to “Surprise Attack” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). This is the moment when the Enterprise encounters another Federation starship, not realizing it’s under the command of the villainous Khan, who closes to point-blank range before opening fire on our unsuspecting heroes. You’ll hear a lot of similarities to the Aliens piece, including something I’ve never been able to identify but which sounds (to me) like someone rapping on a pipe with a drumstick, a sort of “ting ting” effect. But while Horner is guilty of relying on some of his favorite tricks on this one — the general sound goes back to Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), as far as I’ve been able to determine — he also introduces a nautical feel, suggesting the starships are two giant galleons exchanging broadsides under full sail. And he subtly incorporates a little flourish from the original Star Trek television series and a couple of callbacks to the cosmic weirdness that Jerry Goldsmith created for the previous installment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, making this score, in many respects, the most “Star Trek-y” of them all:

For Glory, Edward Zwick’s 1989 film about the first African-American infantry unit to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, Horner incorporates a vocal chorus and a generally softer tone. I’ve always found this track, from near the movie’s climax, especially moving. Its elegiac tone as the men of the 54th Massachusetts prepare for what they know is likely a suicide mission, followed by the rising pace of the martial drums as they begin their final charge, breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it:

And finally, here’s the main title from what is probably my favorite James Horner score, The Rocketeer (1990). It’s beautiful, upbeat, optimistic, and it perfectly captures the feeling of leaving the ground. A couple weekends ago, Anne and I took her father for a ride on a historic B-17 Flying Fortress, and this was what I heard in my mind as the runaway started to roll past the gunport I was looking through, and then fell away as the big old bird slipped into the crystal-clear sky with more grace than you’d expect…

Although the selections I chose here are all 25 years old (or more, in the case of Khan), Horner was no has-been. He worked steadily from 1978 right up to the present moment, and no doubt had a lot left to do. Three films featuring scores by him are due out this year: Wolf Totem, The 33, and Southpaw. He was only 61.

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Dude!

Apropos of the previous entry, here’s a fun little video that explores the origin and evolving usage of the word “dude”:

Just as an aside, the word has a rather personal connotation for me: Back in the theater days, my fellow ushers and I took to calling ourselves “The Dudes,” a self-aggrandizing nickname we still use when we refer to each other, and when we send out the invitations to our annual “Dudes reunion dinner” around Christmas time.

And of course the video leaves out the most famous modern-day incarnation of dudeness, The Dude himself:

the-dudeBut there might have been some licensing issues there. I still thought it was a pretty interesting little tidbit.

Via Boing Boing, naturally.

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What Did You Do with Your Saturday?

You know, the whole thing actually started as a joke.

Several years back, a good friend of mine was badly stressed while making arrangements for his upcoming wedding. Knowing of his affection for the film The Big Lebowski, and remembering something I’d run across in my wanderings across the endless InterWebs, I went to the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and got myself ordained as a Dudeist priest. I then sent him a message that said, essentially, “You can relax, all your planning troubles are over… I can marry you!” We both got a laugh out of it, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Some time later, I told this story to some other friends of mine, Geoff and Anastasia, and the next time Anne and I got together with them, they had a question for me. They wanted to know if that Dudeist thing was for real… if I could — if  I would  — perform their upcoming wedding? I was honored, flattered, and more than a little freaked out by their request. But I went ahead and made a couple phone calls, just to confirm that the State of Utah would recognize an online ordination from a tongue-in-cheek “religion” inspired by an oddball movie. And then just to be sure, I took out a more-legitimate sounding second ordination with something called the American Marriage Ministries. And then this happened:

Wedding-79_editAnd that, I thought, was that.

Except it wasn’t.

Two days before this past New Year’s Eve, Anne’s sister-in-law contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to do another wedding. Her sister wanted to tie the knot before the end of the year, and they didn’t know who else they could get on such short notice. I never did find out what the hurry was; something to do with taxes maybe. But hey, they offered to pay me for my trouble, and I was off work anyhow, so, in the middle of the afternoon on New Year’s Eve, I drove to a stranger’s house with my ordination certificates and a printed-out script and I married a second couple. Made some decent money doing it, too.

This past Saturday, I performed my third wedding, a favor for my good friend Mike Gillilan, a guy I met 26 years(!) ago, back in those infamous movie-theater days. We held it in a public park at the base of the magnificent Wasatch Mountains, with just a few family members and friends about. The sun was high and intense, but a bit of a breeze rolling up the side of the mountain carried away the worst of the heat, and I didn’t even stumble over the script this time. I just joined Mike and his bride Caroline in matrimony as easy as driving to the 7-Eleven for a Slurpee.

And then I went to a Willie Nelson concert.

Life takes you to some unexpected places sometimes, doesn’t it?

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Review: Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War

[Ed. note: I recently joined Goodreads, the social media platform centered around books and reading, in hopes of… I don’t know… recapturing some of the literary mojo I’ve been feeling like I’ve lost, I guess. I’m also a member of a similar online community called LibraryThing, if you’ll recall, but I never could get the hang of the social aspects of that site; I’ve always used it purely as a catalog of my book collection. Goodreads, on the other hand, seems a lot better designed for the way I socialize online these days. (Basically, Goodreads is not a siloed community like LT; you can easily share your Goodreads activity on your Facebook page, if you’re exhibitionistic that way… which, apparently, I am.) I still haven’t quite decided if I like Goodreads, or how much I like it, but if nothing else, it’s providing more inspiration to write reviews than I’ve felt in some time. Goodreads makes it easy to export your reviews to other platforms, too, so as an experiment, I’m going to let it crosspost them here on Simple Tricks. (People who follow me on Facebook will also get links there; sorry, I don’t mean to spam you, I just know there are Loyal Readers here who aren’t on Facebook.) If you want to read my earlier reviews, there’s a link at the bottom of this post. And if you want to follow me on Goodreads, my profile is here. And feel free to let me know if this is interesting content to you, or if you’d rather I knock it off… ]

Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War
Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War by Brandon Jerwa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Continuity in the Highlander franchise is a tricky thing to explain to any but the hardcore fan, so my apologies if the following is as clear as mud: This graphic novel (which collect issues 0-5 of the tie-in comic series by Dynamite Entertainment) takes place shortly after the events of the original Highlander film, but within the timeline of the Highlander TV series, in which the events of the movie were retconned a bit. Which means that Connor MacLeod has defeated the monstrous immortal known as The Kurgan, exactly as seen in the movie, only without winning The Prize… it was just another fight between immortals and not the final battle. Savvy?

Okay, now that’s out of the way… the story begins with Connor abruptly called away from his new bride, Brenda Wyatt, to reunite with two other immortals and an elderly human scientist for a secret mission into the heart of the Soviet Union. Through flashbacks, we learn that the four of them had confronted The Kurgan once before, 20 years earlier, along with an army of genetically engineered cultist warriors who were fanatically loyal to the villainous immortal. They thought they’d defeated the cultists then, but now that Kurgan is dead, they’re back and looking to avenge their old master. They’ve already caused the historic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, and now they have bigger things in mind. They’ve got to be stopped…

Following the resolution of this storyline (comprising issues 0-4), we have a short interlude (issue 5) featuring Connor’s kinsman Duncan MacLeod. Brenda has been injured in a car accident and is in surgery while the two immortal cousins talk, argue, and console one another.

Both stories capture the general tone of the Highlander TV series and are enjoyable, if rather superficial. The villains of “The Coldest War” are never fleshed out in any meaningful way and are merely “the bad guys”; the same with Paul and Tasya, Connor’s immortal comrades. We learn nothing about either of them and have no real emotional connection to them. The elderly mortal in the story, Doctor Volkov, fares a bit better, but only just. Brenda is a virtual non-entity in both stories. On the positive side, however, the writers have a good grip on the voices of the two MacLeods, and it’s easy to imagine the dialogue being spoken by actors Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul.

The artwork by Lee Moder in “The Coldest War” and Kevin Sharpe in “New Years Eve” is hit-and-miss, although I see a better resemblance to the actors in Sharpe’s work. The action is at least easy to follow, which I find is occasionally a problem in modern comics.

Overall, this is a pleasing but not spectacular return to the Highlander universe for fans of the franchise, but I can’t imagine it would make any new fans. I am willing to continue with Volume 2, though, so that’s something…

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