“My God, it’s full of stars”: rekindling that childhood awe of the night sky

September 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

the-milky-way-is-undimmed-by-outdoor-jim-richardson

The Milky Way – copyright Jim Richardson

At around four o’clock this morning I abruptly awoke with that horrible feeling of suffocation that signals an impending asthma attack.  The room felt achingly stuffy and I coughed and wheezed before sitting up and fumbling around the bedside table for my inhaler.  I moved to the open window in a bid for fresh air.  That’s when I noticed a sky positively gleaming with stars.  Concentrating on this amazing spectacle, amidst puffs of my inhaler, my breathing began to settle.

I don’t think I have seen as many stars from my bedroom window in ever.  There was no moon, just a sky punctured with stars.  I pulled a fleece on over my pj’s, put my slippers on and opened the back door of the house.  What I saw took my breath away (not literally – the asthma had been doing that pretty well).  I saw the Milky Way; our galaxy; a spectacular band of billions of stars (and planets), some appearing, and living up to the galaxy’s name, as a milky white blur along the band.  Words cannot describe how beautiful it was - possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.  As I looked around The Plough looked as close to Earth as I have ever seen it; Betelgeuse, the red supergiant on the shoulder of Orion, brightly glowed pink and to the left of Orion, Jupiter shone so amazingly bright.  I saw Pegasus, Andromeda and Cassiopeia, shooting stars and copious satellites.  I stood in awe for a very long time until, eventually, cold, tiredness and a sore neck intervened, forcing me to go back to bed.  I could still see stars peeping in my window as I lay under the duvet; they began to fade with the rising sun, though it hadn’t yet breached the horizon.

I don’t ever remember seeing the Milky Way as a kid (unless, of course, you count the chocolate bar, which was quite familiar to me) and I don’t ever remember seeing as many stars, growing up in town.  Now, in the country, where the light pollution is minimal, amazing spectacles like the one I saw early this morning are probably commonplace.  Yet, it seems I am too busy, too cold, getting into the car, or watching TV, and don’t make the effort to look as often as I should.  It took an asthma attack to rouse me from my bed, forcing me to look out of my window before I saw it, otherwise I may have missed it entirely.  Looking up at that starry sky, in the night-time silence, I honestly felt that same excitement of childhood – ecstatic at seeing stars and planets with my own eyes; feeling alone, yet wondering if there is anyone else out there; simultaneously feeling part of something bigger and infinitely beautiful; wishing I was an astronaut, or an astronomer.  Maybe we should all take the time to stop, look up there and just appreciate how amazing it is, and we really are.  When was the last time you really looked?

Underrated: Fallen (1998)

September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Dir: Gregory Hoblit
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Gabriel Casseus, Donald Sutherland, Embeth Davidtz, James Gandolfini, Elias Koteas

This dark, scary alley might not have been the best shortcut

This dark, scary alley might not have been the best shortcut

A late Friday-night showing of Fallen (1998), on BBC 1, reminded me how great this movie was, and still is, yet there are still people out there who have never even heard of it, let alone seen it.

Directed by Gregory Hoblit who had, two years previously, directed the excellent Primal Fear (1996) – which catapulted a great, unknown actor by the name of Edward Norton to stardom and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod - Fallen is a mix of detective thriller/mystery and supernatural.  A stellar cast featuring the always-awesome Denzel Washington as Det. John Hobbes with support from the likes of the late, great James Gandolfini, John Goodman and Donald Sutherland, ensures that a sense of realism is maintained throughout, serving to increase the growing sense of fear and dread.  We are as sceptical as Hobbes is, refusing to believe anything out of the ordinary.  The opening title sequence and a later, very clever ‘pass-the-parcel’ scene both make use of the Rolling Stones’ Time Is On My Side, which I have been a big fan of for years and I now always think of this movie whenever I hear it.  You really care for, and fear for, the main characters – another stand out performance is the brilliant Gabriel Casseus as Hobbes’ brother Art.  Like one of my other underrated films, Constantine (2005), Fallen leaves you begging for a sequel, but the ending is so good that it would be a shame to taint it by taking it any further.

If you haven’t seen it yet, why not?  It’s fifteen years old, but it certainly doesn’t show it (time is on it’s side) and it’s as enjoyable today as it was then.  Definitely amongst my favourites.  I urge you, seek it out.

Soundtrack Genius: Clint Mansell & John Murphy

September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

John Williams is a household name, and for good reason. His brilliant work on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Schindler’s List, et al. is instantly recognised by the world (arguably more so than the work of Mozart or Bach).  More recently, Hans Zimmer has gained similar worldwide recognition for his work on all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, most notably The Dark Knight (2008), as well as on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

My favourite pieces of music, however, soundtrack or otherwise, are by two composers, the names of whom are still widely unknown – Clint Mansell and John Murphy.  You may not have heard of them, but you will recognise their work when you hear it – Lux Aeterna and Adagio in D Minor, respectively.  Both of these beautiful compositions have moved beyond their original movie soundtracks to be used in numerous adverts, film trailers and TV programmes.

The haunting Lux Aeterna features in Mansell’s soundtrack for Darren Aronofsky’s (much underrated) Requiem for a Dream (2000). I’m no expert in music but the shifting strings, played by the amazing Kronos Quartet, are perfect for Aronofsky’s film.  They expertly echo the swift cuts and hip-hop montages; the changing situations of the movie’s protagonists.  Just hearing Mansell’s piece immediately conjures the sadness and desperacy associated with addiction, life, death, depression – that feeling of life slipping away.  Amongst the melancholy is an element of calm submission.

It takes a lot to make me cry, but every time I listen to Murphy’s Adagio in D Minor tears begin to form.  Something that affecting has to be pretty special.  Written for Danny Boyle’s (also deeply underrated) Sunshine (2007), Murphy’s music is as poignant as John WIlliams’ Skywalker Theme from Star Wars (1977) and as majestic as the infamous use of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Murphy has been a frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle and another of his outstanding compositions, In the House – In a Heartbeat appears on the soundtrack of 28 Days Later (2002).  Similarly, Mansell often works with Darren Aronofsky and their more recent association, on Black Swan (2010), is also another exemplary work, which cleverly makes use of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  Mansell also recently worked on the brilliant soundtrack to Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013).

Although the names Clint Mansell and John Murphy may not be altogether familiar, their genius will be forever remembered in the music of Lux Aeterna and Adagio in D Minor.

Columbo: you were great, but that case would never hold up in court

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

My previous post, on Quincy ME, got me all nostalgic for another of my favourite shows, the brilliant Columbo.  Another influential classic that has stood the test of time.  Peter Falk was faultless in his genius portrayal of the clumsy, bumbling and dishevelled detective; seemingly harmless, but always several steps ahead of the murderer, armed only with his notebook and pencil, cigar and the choking fumes from his Peugeot 403.

The episodes always had the best titles, like ‘A Stitch In Crime’ (1973), where the murderer is a surgeon and ‘Uneasy Lies the Crown’ (1990), where the murderer is a dentist.  Columbo was also frequently directed by now-familiar names such as Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme and Sam Wanamaker, and featured an array of well-known actors in the role of the murderer – from Leonard Nimoy to John Cassavetes, Donald Pleasance, Jack Cassidy, George Hamilton, and even Johnny Cash.  William Shatner amusingly appears in two unrelated episodes – with ‘Fade Into Murder’ (1976) a must see for the ski-mask/sunglasses combo disguise which Shatner’s character adopts in order to carry out his crime.

Spock, does this ski-mask make me look fat?

Spock, does this ski-mask make me look fat?

Of course, I’m giving nothing away by exposing the actors who played the murderer, as Columbo always followed the ‘inverted detective story’ format, immediately revealing the perpetrator of the crime.  That was the fun of it – guessing that little bit of evidence; that loose end that Columbo would pick up on to catch his crook.  Although, most of these ‘loose ends’ would be unlikely to hold up in court.  In fact, there have been episodes where Columbo has seemingly got his man through entrapment.  In one such episode, ‘Agenda for Murder’ (1990), Columbo, amazingly, claims that bite marks on a piece of cheese, that was found at the crime scene, match those on a piece of chewing gum that he retrieved from the murderer’s wastepaper bin, implicating him.  The murderer gives himself up, but Columbo later reveals that the dental x-rays he showed the murderer, and supposedly used to match up the bite marks, were actually his own.

Oh...just one more thing

Oh…just one more thing

There were rumours that the crumpled detective was to be resurrected in a film, produced, and possibly, played by Benicio del Toro – a huge fan of the show.  I’ve heard no more of this, but I think del Toro may be an inspired choice to play an updated Columbo.  I also think it would work best if it was made as a TV series.  After all, TV is where it began, and the high calibre of current shows have made TV work highly desirable.

‘Agenda for Murder’ features my favourite Columbo guest-murderer, Patrick McGoohan, who appeared in four episodes and also directed, wrote and produced for the show.  He was always fun to watch and the perfect foil to Falk.  I guess one of the appealing and nail-biting aspects of Columbo was that we were actually rooting for the bad guy, in a way.  We knew they did it and we knew that Columbo would figure it out and finger the murderer in the end, but there was always that sense that maybe, just maybe, he (or she) might just get away with it.

Quincy ME: without you there’d be no CSI, House, Dexter, etc.

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I genuinely shed a tear last December 24th upon hearing the news that Jack Klugman had died, aged 90.  As a kid, I adored Quincy and now, getting on a bit, I still do.  It’s one of those shows that was great back then, and still is.  It made forensic pathology cool.
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Quincy was stubborn, professional, had an eye for the ladies, a penchant for boats, a mischievous sense of humour and a heart of gold.  Klugman made his character hugely likeable and Quincy’s banter with his sidekick Sam, his boss, Dr Astin, and Lt Monahan, was always fun to watch.  Furthermore, Quincy had such a great theme tune.

Quincy made me want to be a forensic pathologist long before the likes of CSI made everyone want to be one.  Sadly, I never fulfilled my dream, but I still think about what could have been and I still wonder if it would be as awesome as Quincy made it look.  It certainly did look like ‘the most important and fascinating sphere of police work’.jack-klugman_2436579b

I miss the 80s: before everything was rendered in CGI and actors didn’t have to appear perfect

August 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

jack-in-american-werewolf-in-london

“Have you seen the CGI in An American Werewolf in Paris? Hilarious!
At least the beast who got me was actually there”

First of all, let me just say that I am not slating CGI – in certain contexts it can be brilliant.  It works best, in my opinion, when it is used more subtly, for example, in films like Fight Club, Interview with the Vampire, Inception.  There are films which have successfully and brilliantly used CGI to create the impossible – Jurassic Park for one – although it did feature a combination of CGI and animatronics – and a great story.

What I’m fed up with, though, is the increasing reliance on having every element of a film computer generated, in place of a built set or make-up.  I watched the recent showings of the Star Wars saga on ITV2 (it’s been a while since I’ve seen them) and I couldn’t believe how much the latest films – Episodes I-III – have dated, purely due to the fact that virtually every element of the sets and each scene are CGI.  The original, and best, Episodes IV-VI, with their model ships, travelling matte backgrounds, motion control, puppets and real sets etc. still look FANTASTIC (except for the CGI elements that were added later for the Special Edition releases).

Kudos to directors like Christopher Nolan, who likes to film as much as he can get away with in live action and favours location shooting and real sets.  Ridley Scott also built huge sets for Prometheus, in a similar vein to AlienMoons director, Duncan Jones, also used excellent model work for his movie, proving that lower budget sci-fi films often have an element of problem-solving required for the special effects which, more often than not, turn out much better than the CGI option.

I also mourn for the days when actors didn’t have to be perma-tanned, hair extensioned plastic, with teeth so white that looking at them for too long could damage your retinas.  People looked better back then.  They were still beautiful – look at Sean Young in Blade Runner.  Yes, I know, there was still make-up and wigs and expert lighting and Vaseline smeared on the camera lens, and I’m sure that people did get surgery and veneers then, too, but it was all much more subtle.  Although they were still gorgeous movie stars it all seemed, somehow, more attainable; identifiable.   Everything, and everybody, these days seems so…illusory.

Underrated: Clue (1985)

July 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dir: Jonathan Lynn
Cast: Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn, Lesley Ann Warren, Michael McKean, Martin Mull

Monkeys brains, although popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not often to be found in Washington D.C.

Hugely entertaining comedy murder mystery, based on the classic boardgame Cluedo (which is called “Clue” in the U.S.).  Features the original Cluedo characters, potential weapons (lead pipe, revolver, rope, etc.) and rooms (library, study, etc.), and adds a clever story and a genuine whodunnit? 

The film is seriously atmospheric, with the mansion and rooms capturing an old-fashioned, creepy ambience, which really adds to the tension.  With a great cast, including the wonderful Tim Curry as Wadsworth, the butler, Eileen Brennan as Mrs Peacock and a fabulously fiesty Lesley Ann Warren as Miss Scarlet…..lets not forget the brilliant Madeline Kahn as Mrs White.  Also, a great script, based on a story by none other than John Landis and the film’s director Jonathan Lynn (who wrote Yes, Minister).  Genuine laughs, brilliant score, a saucy maid called Yvette, and even alternative endings – what more could you want?  Oh, and I forgot the great end credits.

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this film!  Never get tired of it, and it never dates.  Rumour has it that a “remake” is in the pipeline, not quite sure what to say about that.  See this one, and love it!

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