Friday, January 20, 2012

A Little Trip to Disneyland

So the plant where I work recently had some renovations done, so we were not able to process anything during that time, and so they (gasp!) let us have three consecutive days off. What to do with this opportunity? Disneyland. Why not?

During this time of year, it's very low key. No crowds, period. The weather is slightly windy and cool. You'd have to jog all over the park to develop a sweat. In other words, it's the best time to go.

Here's a few images of some of the nerd-related stuff I got a chance to behold while there...
ABOVE: In the Star Trader store, the one that catches you as you escape from the Star Tours ride, there's this almost-life-size X-Wing fighter that hangs over the herds of consumers... all of them oblivious to the possibility that this thing could, one day, fall on them. I say "almost-life-size" because I can't see how I could fit into the cockpit. My son, maybe.
LEFT: A couple of pics of a model of the Starspeeder, with color scheme for the most recent update of the attraction. This model was located inside the "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" lobby.
ABOVE: In the same lobby was this "miniature" of the Capitol Building. Obviously, it was still pretty big, about 15 feet long or so.
ABOVE: What's a trip without some silly souvenirs? On the left is NOT a stormtrooper kid's-size helmet. Over and over, while in the Star Trader store, I heard people walk over to the object and then lift it, look under it, and say, "Oh... it's a coin bank." It's about 9 inches tall, and has a coin slot on the backside of the top. Overall, the paint scheme is pretty accurate. The only complaint is the finish, which is this dull, porous rubbery plastic that is asking for someone with even slightly dirty hands to add permanent marks to the surface. It will sit on a shelf, and no doubt collect lots of dust, and God help me when the time comes to clean it. But for now, it looks pretty cool, guarding my coins.
The other item is an R2-D2 container that was sold with popcorn in it. You pop off the head, and inside he's hollow. When I got him, I was thinking of how perfect he'd be as a container for my pencils, and it looks like the inside is deep enough to accomodate them with the top on. He stands 10.5 inches tall, and of course, he's cool.

The only downer about this trip was that, on the way home, I was STRICKEN with fierce diarrhea, so bad that there were a couple of times that thank the heavens there was a gas station near an exit. I'm not so sure what got me, but I arrived home a few pounds lighter, and not just from money spent! Yikes.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Trip to Xanadu..
Um, I Mean Hearst Castle...
Um, I Mean La Something Encantada

I've always been a fan of movies, partilcularly older ones, and the movie that I consider to be my second favorite (behind the original, untouched Star Wars) is Citizen Kane. The film is so excellent in so many ways, its communication so subtle from numerous angles that collectively tell the story, that it's kind of impossible for me to explain why it's so good. I remember watching this movie with this dumb girl who didn't get anything out of it. After that, I was pretty much done with her.

Anyways, unless you've lived in a cave somewhere all of your life and you've recently been rescued, and if so let me say I congratulate you on the triumph of the human spirit, it's probably common knowledge to you that Citizen Kane was inspired by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was EXTREMELY wealthy, and, similar to Kane's opulent home "Xanadu" in the movie, Hearst built a his own lavish, slightly grotesque monstrosity of a home-- Hearst Castle. Well, it was known as something else during Hearst's life, but that's what the state of California calls it now.

A few months ago, I visited Hearst Castle, and here's a few pics. Because they do not allow flash photography indoors, and the interiors are pretty dark to start with, it's difficult to pull of decent photos in there (with a normal digital camera). But the exteriors are extravagant enough to give you an idea of what was going on inside!

By the way, it's impossible for me to walk around these grounds without a.)thinking of Orson Welles, and b.)hearing in my head Bernard Herrmann's music to Kane.

The tour guide this time around (we've been numerous times) was a school teacher-type who didn't know when to stop: constantly telling everyone the ground rules, constantly telling people that she'd take our cameras and help us turn off the flash option if we didn't know how to do it, etc. I don't think any of us cared for her, and the best part of the tour was when we were unleashed on the grounds, to walk around and check things out at our own pace. The weather was what I call perfect-- windy, and cold, though the images don't show it.

Being in California, you can live in one area and yet have reasonable access to another area with a completely different geography. Living in the hot, dry valley, it's nice to leave sometimes and head to these coastal places, if only to just sit on a rock on a isolated beach and watch the water. Life is pretty short, and it's easy to let the nonsense around you swallow you whole. Sometimes, the solution isn't "being a part of something bigger than myself," because sometimes you can feel pretty small to start with. Sometimes, the solution is to just know that life is going on, in different ways, all around you, and it's okay to notice that.

Here's a few pics from one of those journeys!
Hearst Castle

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze that Gripped the World" DVD

A few months ago, while thumbing through an issue of Filmfax Magazine (purchased at a bookstore that no longer exists), I read the news of the release of what looked like an interesting new documentary, "The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze that Gripped the World." Let me get this straight, I said to myself. Aurora? Documentary? Monsters? Models? Gripped? I took note, and kept my claws crossed that I'd been a bad enough of a boy this year for Santa to curse me with this DVD!

Well, apparently my wife believed I had been, so among my Christmas gifts was this dvd. As the cover indicates, it is indeed a documentary about the history of Aurora's monster line of models, an immensely successful series of kits that are still finding their way into modellers' (young and old) hands today. In other words, it's the kind of programming that's perfect for a Saturday afternoon, when a guy's just sitting in his chair in the living room, and everybody's doing something else, and he just wants to watch something fun.

Of course, it IS a documentary, so it has to also be educational. There's some really insightful stuff in here: interviews with box artist James Bama, as well as sculptor Ray Meyers and project developer Andrew Yanchus. Bama reveals that he's never owned a single Aurora kit, despite his 50+ year association with them! There's the heartbreaking information that all of his original cover art paintings were painted over for a later "updating" of the packaging, to give them a more modern, posterized look. It makes his statemtent about how he got paid $300 per painting, and even though he didn't make any more money from it, at least the art is still there... well, I guess sort of sadly ironic.

Andrew Yanchus's segment was, for me, the most interesting, as he discusses how they responded to modellers' desires to expand their kits, and yet still had to contend with keeping costs in check, thus resulting in scaled-down subsequent kits. Also of interest was the story of how parent's groups basically protested the later Monster Scenes series' dungeons, torture scenes, and women victims until Nabisco shut the whole operation down. I couldn't help but think of how it correlated to what happened to EC Comics, and how something really special was wiped out because it was misunderstood... by people who weren't even reading/building the subject matter.

A nice surprise was the short segment with Sideshow Collectibles' sculptor Matt Falls, who has done AMAZING WORK sculpting figures of the classic Universal Monsters (some of them I own). He gives a demonstration of how he sculpts the figures' heads, an interesting processing involving taking a pre-existing head and building atop it.

Of course, what would something be without some excessive flab? I could have done without the segment featuring Daniel Roebuck, one in which we basically see a guy's collection (congratulations, you have a lot of stuff; what did you do for the Aurora monster line?). Also, the bit featuring figure maker "Mad Gheppeto" was also pointless. One got the feeling that these guys were buddies of the producers of this documentary, and they got thrown a bone.

But the one thing that really annoyed me was the one thing that I'm sure they thought was a grand coup: the appearance of "cool ghoul" host Zacherley, paired up with dragon puppet Gorgo. Now, I'm 39 years old, which no doubt explains my head-scratching at their repeated interruptions of the documentary's flow. For those of you that don't know, this Zacherley fellow was a schlock theater host in the late 50s, known as "The Cool Ghoul." Back in those times, there'd be late-night monster movie shows that would feature occasional classics like the Universal monster films, or more often would feature grade Z flicks that might otherwise never see the light of day. Zacherley would be on a set, and would do his routine as host, taking you in and out of the commercial breaks. Often, from what I've read, he'd make the movies more entertaining experiences that they deserved to be. If you were young enough to see him in those days, then seeing him here is a sure heartwearmer. For me, it didn't work.

Part of me wonders if it's just because the guy is so obviously elderly. In any of the segments, I think he only stands once. The presence of the unnecessary puppet Gorgo was obviously put in there to punch up the presentation, as asking Zacherley to move around and carry it all by himself was no doubt asking too much. Again, I understand how his presence here fits in with the subject matter; he was one of the instigators of the whole monster craze. But, it might have been too late to pull off effectively.

The documentary runs 1 hour and 44 minutes. There's a very short behind-the-scenes segment that runs about 15 minutes and doesn't really do much. The real meat is the documentary itself, and despite what I've said, it has far more strengths than weaknesses. And besides, what do I know? This DVD did win the 2010 Rondo Award for best documentary. I'll give it an 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

[The New Intrada Release]

About 20 minutes ago, after what seemed to be a particularly prolonged "pre-order" period (when Intrada couldn't even tell when the order would be fulfilled), at last my remastered/expanded release of the motion picture soundtrack to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home arrived.

I remembered pretty clearly receiving this soundtrack for Christmas back in 1986. Yes, I can remember that. Not just because the '80s were an awesome time to be a sci-fi fan, but for other, less uplifting reasons. Frankly, I can remember playing this album in the background while messing around with my Christmas gifts... and being bummed out by it. "This thing stinks," I believe I told myself.

Of course, the fourth Star Trek movie was a real departure from the previous three, and it needed to be. After number 3, the movies were so "heavy" that I think we all needed a break. Think about all of the death and destruction in those films; now compare it to the source material (the Original Series). I kind of suspected that the hands responsible were trying to match the bodycount of the Star Wars films, to sort of say, "See? Star Trek is cool too." Well, The Voyage Home really DID take it back to the Original Series, and it turned out to be really cool. And as far as I know.... nobody died!

Anyways, back to the score. Though I listened to it multiple times back in '86/'87 and beyond, it never had the staying power with me that the James Horner scores did. This was probably a reflection more on me than on the score; when I was young, I didn't care too much for happy endings-- I was more into darker, more intense themes. Now that I'm older, I can listen to this old score and enjoy its happier tone.

But the one thing that always chewed at me wasn't so much the themes or overall compositions; it was the sound quality. It had this dead, shallow sound. It sounded like an orchestra much smaller than the one used for the previous films was responsible. It sounded like a 1980s TV score. No only was it small sounding, but also it was muffled/dull (even in the movie).

Luckily I'd realized this by the time that Intrada announced that they would be releasing a remastered/expanded edition of the score. I went ahead and took a chance, and I just finished listening to the initial 14 tracks, and let me tell you that the sound improvement is VERY noticeable. No more does it sound shallow or muffled or lifeless. It doesn't sound like a TV score anymore. The high-end sounds, like the chimes or the thin sound of the cymbals, are very bright and clean, giving the recording real depth that it never had before. Actually, it sounds like someone took the fat lady out of the Volkswagen beetle and let her sing.

Even the now-dated Yellowjackets' tracks, with their '80s synthesizers, sound like a modern recording of a band trying to recreate the older style.

There's 10 extra tracks, including a neat alternate Main Title that's basically the classic Star Trek theme by Alexander Courage, as well as the punk song "I Hate You," which the mohawk punk with the boombox was blasting before Spock dropped the Vulcan neck pinch on him. Just to make sure that we understood that they were throwing the whole sink at us, they've even included alternate versions of the tracks "Time Travel," "The Whaler," and "Whale Fugue." For me, the most interesting cue was the alternate version of "Home Again/End Credits," which features a version of Rosenman's theme that is slightly different in tempo as well as construction. For those of us who know the themes from the old score well, it's particularly jarring; it feels like the End Title sequence is struggling to be born into the world ("I can see the head... here comes the arms..."). It's there, but not quite there.

Even the album track versions, if perhaps they had a different ending than the one featured in the first 14 tracks, has been included, so that you can with peace of mind discard/donate/sell your original release version you've had all of these years.

Coincidentally, I watch Star Trek IV last night, so, with my memory officially refreshed, I right away noticed that some of the tracks here were not used in the movie, which makes them a real neat thing to have. There's the track "In San Francisco," which features a snare drum motif to "underscore the 'military mission' camaraderie of the Entrerprise crew" [from the liner notes], has an atmosphere and depth of sound that, if you'd heard it seperately, you'd never know they were meant to be used in this film. Actually, last night, I sort of cringed during the "Kirk on trial in absence" scene, when the replay footage of the Klingons being destroyed along with the Enterprise was playing. The cue sounded so shallow, so-- well, dead. With this release, even that cue sounds better. So even if it was released before, it sounds so much better that it's like you didn't have it before.

And that pretty much justifies this release. Often, in this age of Lucas or Peter Jackson's merciless re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-releasing of the same thing with just maybe two shots different (I own three versions of his overlong King Kong film), it's nice to see something not only get a re-release, but to see its quality so improved that the soundtrack can finally say, "My friends, we've come home."

Throw away the old version, and get this one!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"The Deadly Days"

What's worse... crossing the railroad tracks without knowing that a train is coming, or having your car stall on you while crossing the railroad tracks, with a train clearly coming? In the end, you still get splattered.

Last week, my baby got sick, vomiting at night. Well, it's just a baby having trouble keeping something down (right?). Then, my son, suddenly, on New Year's Eve, become fiercely sick and proceeds to vomit all night long and be completely slammed by some kind of illness. Then, the next day, my wife goes through the same routine. Oh boy.

Like clockwork, on Monday evening, boom, it started for me. It continued every twenty minutes or so, until around 8 the next morning. I was going crazy; there was nothing left to "evacuate"! I would lay there, shivering, and all I could think about was drinking this imaginary glass of cold orange juice. By the way, my wife went and got me some the next morning-- and I threw it all up.

So I had to call in sick for work, which I hate to do. I'm lying there in bed, and for comfort I watch some Star Trek (the Original Series). And what episode pops up? "The Deadly Years." Watching the normally virile Captain Kirk get rapidly reduced to a withered, arthritic invalid hit pretty close to home, let me tell you. I felt his pain!

I knew that neither I nor my clan had recently visited Gamma Hydra IV, nor had we been exposed to any radiation from a visiting comet. It is still a mystery to me, the source of this bug. But one thing's for sure: the image I've provided of Kirk passed out in his chair pretty much sums it all up for me right now. As a matter of fact, I'm done, I'm going back to bed.

Monday, January 2, 2012

RIP Bob Anderson
(The Man Who Fought for Vader)

You know how they say, "Behind every good man is a great woman"? Well, I don't know if that's always true, but in movies, it rings true that "Behind every great villain is a bunch of really creative people."

Darth Vader, perhaps cinema's number one baddie (at least until the prequels castrated him), was the cumulative product of many talented people, from David Prowse who wore the suit, to James Earl Jones whose voice is forever nailed to the character, to Brian Muir who sculpted the helmet/mask, to Ralph McQuarrie who made the initial costume design.

But one guy who, had it not been for Mark Hamill, would've never even been known of by the public, made Vader fight. His name was Bob Anderson, and though he was shorter than Prowse, his supreme fencing skills gave an air of authority and presence during Vader and Luke's first (and last) lightsaber battles.

Just compare the saber fight in Star Wars to the one in Empire. Though Lucas preferred that the jedis hold their sabers with both hands, I'm glad that Anderson made sure that his Vader used one hand in certain shots; a subtle message that Vader wasn't threatened by Luke, that this was indeed an adult taking on a "kid" in a sword fight.

A cool little side note: Bob Anderson was 58 years old when they filmed the sword fight in Empire. At that point, he was old enough to really be Luke's dad!

A few years back, Profiles in History auctioned off the stunt Vader helmet wore by Mr. Anderson. It was peculiar in that the face was see-through, a sort of tinted plastic, which allowed the swordsman to see better during the battle (and he needed all of the help he could get, with all of that smoke on the carbon chamber set).

The fact that Anderson could communicate supreme skill and presence despite the cumbersome (and stuffy) costume of Darth Vader really drives home what a top-notch talent he was. Bob Anderson was 89.
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