Tag Archives: Movies

Rowling Along the Reading Rainbow

I never much cared for book learnin’ when I was a wee lad. I still don’t do much reading now, to be honest, but I at least have changed my stubborn, childish tune from “books are stupid and long and hard and I don’t want to read them!” (younger me really set myself up for ridicule from someone with a dirty mind). Today, I have put some literary miles behind me and have dabbled in just about every major genre of fiction, a fair degree of nonfiction, and I write a decent amount on my own (clearly). I owe a great deal of this to a good required reading list throughout high school and an excellent English teacher whose enthusiasm encouraged me to actually read the books I was assigned. Thanks Mr. H! His job would have been considerably tougher though were it not for the fact that I had already approached one book series with gusto where I had previously dismissed others with little regard. When I was in grade school, my mom came home from a weekend trip with some of her friends and I was pretty stoked to have her return; not because I missed her, oh no, but because she had some loot for me! She promised a present and delivered me… a book? What? What am I supposed to do with this? You’ve ruined me, mother. I’ll just go over here and lay face down in shame for the remainder of my life.

Yeah, I was a melodramatic youth, but aren’t we all? But hey, what was I to make of a book with a bespectacled British boy flying on a broom reaching out for a ball with wings? The book in question was of course Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s if you are American where we like alliteration) and today marks the 20th anniversary of its release on June 26, 1997.

Like many young readers of the late ’90s, once I took a look inside the book I was quickly turning pages, engrossed by the magical world within. This is interesting for me now as I never was one for fantasy outside of the realm of space until my teenage years when I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed The Hobbit in my aforementioned English teacher’s freshman class. I was an extremely devoted fan to cinematic space-based fantasy like Star Wars, and was easily more excited about the newest movie in that series that had come out a month prior to the book about the boy wizard. Now it is easy to say that absolutely Harry Potter is superior to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but young, developing in body and mind me was not at the same level I am currently. And for what it’s worth (nothing; it’s worth nothing) I did enjoy reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone more than watching Episode I. What is worthwhile, is that Harry Potter helped me change my stupid stance of protest towards leisure reading. In an historic occasion where the desires of a parent actually occurred after she actively encouraged it, my mom did get her wish of Harry Potter making me excited to read. Truly, all credit should go to another mom, Joanne Rowling, better known by her pen name J.K. Rowling – because unfortunately having your clearly female name displayed on your book can turn people away from it.

Thanks to the contemporary take on a magical world, it was easy for me as a non-fantasy fan to become engrossed in all Harry’s world had to offer, from Privet Drive to Diagon Alley to Hogwarts, I was onboard with the owls, monsters, spells, ghosts, and even a school that you live at. Ugh, it would have seemed like torture for younger me were it not for all the cool shit! Yet therein lies the grandest appeal of Harry and his world to a little boy about the same age as him. Harry was extraordinarily relatable to me as he was just like me, y’know, just without the parents I had. Even though he was a product of it, Harry was as new to the magical world hiding around the corner as I the rest of us were; we discovered everything with him. For me and others my age, we continued to discover the magic, both dark and light, not just within the ensuing series of books and movies but within our own bodies. This time I am intentionally referring to the sexy stuff, or more specifically the hormonal changes that arise throughout our teenage years to biologically drive us to reproduce with the avalanche of side effects that amplify our every emotion. The Harry Potter series will always be near and dear to my heart not just because of its rich fantastic lore, but mostly because of its incredible sympathy for my puberty. I have never read a book or seen a movie – not even the terrific adaptations of these books – that understands the natural growth of young people in mind, body, and society. Nowhere else has the development and deterioration of friendships, families, and world views been better captured.

At the crux of it all is the most difficult or frightening concept for us to tackle: death. Rowling has stated many times that the central theme of the story is dealing with death. Harry is an orphan whose parents are the first to die in the story, and he bears a permanent physical scar from their death that helps to accentuate his emotional scars that help define his character. Voldemort wants to avoid death at all costs to himself and others and hold dominion over it so that he is master of it. Throughout each book more characters meet their mortal end, and the frequency and impact of deaths ramp up as the series gets darker, just as Harry and his friends become impacted by the darkness of the world around them at an age where we begin to recognize how hard life is and how little we know, typically by blindly professing how we can do anything and know everything.

The Harry Potter series remains one of my favorite book series, with each book building more and more upon its world and most importantly it characters. I remember vividly finishing the first and last books of the series as they were similar situations. In both instances, I was up until about 2:30 AM and feeling tired, but nowhere near sleep because I was so close to the end of each text I was too excited and had to finish. I was exhausted after wrapping up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, not just because of the late hour, but because it marked the end of an era for me and at a critical time in my life. In the summer between my graduation from high school and my preparations to go away to university, I had Deathly Hallows‘ release to offer me the one constant I had for that summer. Everything in my world was changing quickly, but not simply because of the next step within my adolescence, but because of death. Throughout my high school years – when the released books in the series were growing darker – I experienced a number of notable deaths of loved ones. I lost both of my grandmothers my freshman year of high school, three great uncles over the next three, and most devastating of all, my father shortly before my graduation. My dad’s death was still weighing extremely heavily on me when I began reading the all the more fittingly titled Deathly Hallows and the sense of dread I felt while reading it was more real than with anything else I have read. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter helped me to cope with the hardships of my youth by showing me that even in a fantasy world with a semi-snake psychopath and literal soul-sucking demons the most terrifying part of life is growing up.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please drop me a line at monotrememadness@gmail.com. If you have not already, I would greatly encourage you to check out the Harry Potter books, and after you cross those off your list go ahead and watch the films too to see one of the best complete casts ever assembled perfectly play their respective characters. R.I.P. Alan Rickman. You will always be my favorite professor at Hogwarts, even if you were a dick most of the time. Time turn your way back here next week for some more fantasy fun.

I Expecto (Patronum) to see you again,

Alex

Advertisements

Da na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na That Man!

Batman has always been and will probably always be my favorite comic book hero. There’s something about a man dressed as a bat who comes out at night to pow, wham, and biff criminals to serve up some hard justice that just appeals to little boys growing up in 1990s America, as well as so many others. Batman has consistently worked within the fringes of what is legal and moral in order to protect people from the (sometimes literal) monsters among them, all the while keeping to the shadows in a world as gray as his actions’ ethics. Except for the 1960s, when Gotham City was more colorfully kooky than Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. This strange departure from the normally dark and brooding detective and his grimy Gotham that is as filthy as the bad guys within it may be looked at it with some disdain or at least annoyance from some Batman purists. However, while I too am more on the side of the Dark Knight being, well, dark, I also believe that taking into account the full history of a thing is essential for recognizing its impact over time and its probably bearing on our future. For example, early zoos began as menageries to showcase exotic beasts from faraway lands and frequently housed the animals in poor conditions with little to no idea of what was best for them in the way of food and social development, however now zoos have evolved into conservation organizations that provide a safe haven for endangered and threatened species to educate and expose people to them and their plight, all the while working to establish or restore habitat spaces that will be viable homes for the progeny of the animals in their collection, and in some cases directly rehabilitate species of this generation. Modern zoos are often upfront with the fact that their beginnings were not always graceful and that they have learned much from the mistakes of the past. Now they work to preserve bats all around the world, helping to save the winged wonders that make up roughly 20% of all mammal species for the future.

The environment and entertainment industry are not regularly similar, but in this instance, the world of comic book characters was brought into the forefront of American culture by ABC’s popular series Batman which ran from 1966-1968 and featured Adam West as the Caped Crusader. The television show started in January and a full length film starring the same cast was released later that year in July marking the first time Batman had been brought to each respective screen, and one of the first times any comic character did so in such grandiose fashion. It’s easy to forget in today’s comic crazed cinema that superheroes were not always such popular fare. The 1960s Batman series helped to infatuate America with heroic figures dressing up in costumes to battle bad guys for their well-being. It was colorful, it was campy, but most of all it was centered by a man who knew he had to own it and play the part as straight as he could, all the while embracing the silliness off-screen, which he did for decades after until his death just a few days ago. Adam West passed away last Friday at the age of 88 and left behind a legacy dominated by his time in the bat cowl, but there was more to the man than paving the way for superhero stories and being a role model for children.

Born William West Anderson in Walla Walla, Washington (which sounds like a jump rope chant), West played many a cowboy and cop before he was Batman, among some comedic roles. During his stint as the world’s greatest detective, West was a righteous figure not just dishing out boofs and bams, but also encouragement to be a good citizen, especially to children whom he preached the merits of healthy eating and living and responsible work ethic to.

West beat out Lyle Waggoner for the title role, apparently chosen after being seen in a Nestle Quik commercial where he played a caricature of James Bond. Waggoner eventually got into the DC universe in the role of Steve Trevor in the 1970s Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter. As it happens, West almost got to be the actual James Bond too. Executive producer for the Bond series, Albert Broccoli (not pronounced like the vegetable like I always assumed in my youth) offered West the role of the suave super agent in the film Diamonds Are Forever which saw Sean Connery reprise the role once more officially after the one-and-done by his initial replacement, George Lazenby. Think about that for a moment, Adam West could have been both Batman and James Bond, two of the most iconic and coveted roles in pop culture history, but he turned down the role because he felt Bond should always be played by a British man.

West’s career post-Batman was hampered by him being typecast, but he grew to embrace it, as much for laughs as for capital gain. My favorite of these is when he and Burt Ward (who played alongside him as Robin for those Batman years) voiced the younger versions of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in a SpongeBob episode.

West did find other work outside of his bat-related fame, but most of it was in poorly-received films, some of which he acknowledged were not great, yet he always gave his best in his performance and addressed his true feelings toward the projects with humor. A great example is Zombie Nigthmare an 80s B-movie that is best known now for being the subject of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. West introduced this episode while hosting Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day on Thanksgiving in 1994 and made good-hearted jabs at himself and the character he played in the film.

Years later, West found a resurgence as he played a wacky version of himself who was certifiably crazy, but also the mayor of Quahog, Rhode Island, the town Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy is set in. MacFarlane helped West earn a new group of fans at Comic-Con and West helped a show that could easily fall (and has fallen) to be a derivative of the Simpson‘s to offer something more unique.

Whether you first saw him dressed as a bat dangling from a hot air balloon constantly asking your grandma how he and Robin were going to get out of this one while she smiled because she’d already seen them all, or if it was when he stabbed the ocean to avenge the sailors it had presumably swallowed up or when he rolled in toxic waste to gain superpowers to battle the gifted Griffins, chances are you felt a pang in your heart when you saw the news of Adam West’s passing. Cheers to you, Mr. West. Thanks for the funny and cartoonish moments always, both from your cartoon and live-action roles.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to send your questions, comments, and suggestions to monotrememadness@gmail.com, and be extra sure to head back here next week.

Same Bat time, same Bat channel,

Alex

Just Let Me Hear Some of That Rock and Roll Music

All due respect to Elvis Presley, we lost the true King of Rock and Roll this past Saturday, March 18th. Charles Edward Anderson Berry, better known simply as Chuck Berry, graced this Earth for 90 years during which he helped create and refine Rock and Roll music by combining the best the blues, R&B, country, jazz, and swing had to offer and throwing in plenty of his own energy and electric guitar to boot. The primary influence to the first round of rock and rollers the world over, Chuck Berry was a force in the genre throughout his life, even completing another album that he announced the release of on his 90th birthday last October. This album, Chuck, will be released in the near future, but Berry’s already cemented legacy will live on forever as a rock pioneer, guitar god, and crowd pleasing entertainer. We’ll miss you, Chuck.

Berry attributed his success and the peak of the growth of rock and roll to greater radio playtime throughout the country reaching a wider audience. Indeed, Berry had a grand appeal to many whites which helped to connect black and white culture during a time of racial turmoil. He ushered in an era of vibrant new music that was infused with the essence of the genres that came before it and in doing so provided something that everyone of all walks of life could love. He especially found a following in America’s youth, who serve as the subject matter of many of his songs. Young Americans flocked to the fast-paced, guitar and piano-fueled mania of early rock, and Berry and his fellow first generation rock and rollers like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Of course it was not just Americans who raved over Berry and his buds as every major act of the British Invasion was heavily influenced by them, with many scoring hits of covers of Berry’s songs. Ever heard of these guys?

It did not stop there either. The years went on, rock and roll evolved and incorporated new sounds and sensations, branching off into styles like psychedelia and birthing other genres like hip-hop, yet artists continued to aspire to follow Chuck Berry’s shining example of how to capture the essence of rock and roll. Just as every test pilot wanted to be Chuck Yeager, every girl and boy with a guitar wanted to be Chuck Berry. The greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix, played some Berry tunes, most notably Berry’s best known hit “Johnny B. Goode”. AC/DC covered “School Days” and called for all of us to Hail Hail Rock and Roll in their own brutal powerchords. George Thorogood and the Destroyers did a rollicking rendition of “It Wasn’t Me”. Softer acts like Nina Simone and Linda Ronstadt gave some of Berry’s songs a go, and ELO had a hit with their always inventive style worked into Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” featuring some of the eponymous composer’s own opus. Rod Stewart made his own version of “Memphis, Tennessee” with The Faces. Hell, even Motorhead paid their dues to the man and brought Berry into metal with “Let It Rock”.

Berry’s riffs may have been basic in composition, but the now familiar formula they follow make it so that his music serves as the building blocks of rock and roll music. Furthermore they are easily transferable to any style of music, as you can hear from any of the aforementioned covers (and any of those not mentioned). Nowhere is this better proven though than in the classic scene from Back to the Future (1985) that has been the source of many amusing musings on Berry’s life. Through an enthusiastic Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox (and Mark Campbell who is doing his singing, and Tim May with the guitar) show us the 30 year evolution of rock and roll in three minutes complete with a clever time travel related reference to the man who made all this music possible.

Honestly, he was doing everything Chuck Berry would have done up until he starting leaping and shredding like Eddie Van Halen, but hey, Chuck Berry’s indelible impression is found in that joyous noise from the 1980s too. Through his long and illustrious career, Chuck Berry made a name for himself not only as a great musician, but as a stage presence who demands to be seen as much as heard. He was natural at engaging an audience and entertained all with his humor, honesty, and signature duck walk – the oft copied, never duplicated solo strut that is synonymous with Berry. You can see it and his many other exploits on display in these clips from live performances over the years:

You know you are popular when everybody wants to play alongside of you. Over the years, many who grew up loving Berry were able to share the stage with him at one point or another. Keith Richards got that wish granted much to his excitement considering he has said that Chuck Berry made The Rolling Stones. He was the one who got to induct Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986. Chuck Berry was actually the first person to be inducted into the vaunted Rock Hall, and his legacy shows why. He shared the honor of being in the inaugural class with Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, talent scout (and not dinosaur park owner) John Hammond, producer Sam Phillips, and disc jockey Alan Freed. That’s quite a class to be at the top of!

The Rock Hall wrote a great biography of Berry, including a clip of his induction which I encourage anyone who enjoys Keith Richards high to watch.

Beyond his influence on other artists, Berry had some scintillating songs that are essential for any rock and roll fan to hear. In addition to those already mentioned, be sure to check out these terrific tunes:

“Maybellene” – One of the first rock and roll songs, Berry’s first hit was a reworking of  a song called “Ida Red”. Berry livened it up with music and lyrics that became the standard for other rock songs of the early rock era.

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”

“I’m a Rocker”

“Woodpecker” – This instrumental piece takes an easier pace than most of Berry’s lightning striking introductions and riffs and remains one of his more jazzy and unique song.

“No Particular Place To Go” – I first heard this as a kid in a commercial for a Power Wheels car. You remember those toy cars that kids could drive? Those were the envy of every child’s eye when I was a wee lad, and I was fortunate enough to get one for Christmas one year… until the goddamn battery died and the electric system fizzled out and I was left with a oversized Hot Wheels car too heavy for child me to push out of the garage. Anyway, I grew to love this song which details an evening of teenage love that never really gets anywhere because the narrator cannot unbuckled his date’s seatbelt.

“School Days” – Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Nobody said that Chuck Berry was a widely varied artist, but when you invent the go-to licks for rock and roll, you can run through them as much as you need. I mentioned the AC/DC cover earlier, but this song bears repeating for its encapsulation of the musical zeitgeist of the days of early rock.

“Run, Run Rudolph” – One of the few songs that I look forward to hearing every Christmastime, this original seasonal song has stood the test of time as a classic in both rock and holiday music.

“Shake, Rattle, and Roll”

“Soul Rockin'”

“Little Queenie” – If you’ve heard T. Rex’s hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” then you’ve heard a part of “Little Queenie”. The riff is taken from Berry’s song, as are the closing lyrics, “Meanwhile, I’m still thinking….”

“Almost Grown”

“You Can’t Catch Me” – I love The Beatles, but I do not love all of their songs. The most played of their that I just cannot get on board with is “Come Together”. You may feel differently, but no matter what you think of the song, it has some Chuck Berry influence. Like some of their other non-sequitur songs from the era, The Beatles drew upon many pop culture references to fill the cryptic lyrics, and “Come Together” has some of “You Can’t Catch Me” in it, namely old Flattop.

“Back in the U.S.A.” – The Beatles once again drew upon Chuck for inspiration when they twisted this song’s title to be a little more Russian. The lyrics of their superior “Back in the U.S.S.R.” are mostly a parody of The Beach Boys though. Then again, where did The Beach Boys get their soul-of-American-youth-summer-jams style from?

“Thirty Days”

“Route 66” – Being a native of St. Louis, Missouri, Berry undoubtedly took a few trips down the legendary highway that runs from his hometown to Los Angeles, California.

“You Never Can Tell” – Who knew this would be a hit that would be covered by numerous artists and danced to so successfully by Uma Thurman and John Travolta? C’est la vie say the old folks….

“Reelin’ and Rockin” – This song makes for great rock and roll and the title makes for good fishing advice.

“Johnny B. Goode”– The song that is synonymous with Chuck Berry and early rock and roll. Covered by countless individuals, professional and amateur musicians alike, and brilliant featured as one of the most memorable movie moments ever, Berry’s song about a little country boy with a natural talent to play the guitar is one of the greatest songs ever made. Originally, the lyrics were going to be “little colored boy” but Berry changed them to avoid it being shunned by disc jockeys afraid of potentially poor or angry reception. the song is partly about Berry himself, but mostly based on his bandmate Johnnie Johnson, who gave Berry his big gig and eventually let Berry take charge of his band since he recognized the natural talent he had not just at playing and writing music, but at energizing the crowd.

This song also has the honored distinction to be the only rock and roll song on the Voyager Golden Record. The phonographic record included on both Voyager spacecraft features a selection of images and sound recordings, with music from around the world to showcase the varied cultures on Earth to whomever finds the records. Whether it be intelligent extraterrestrial life or humans in the far future, the recoverers of the Golden Record will be able to hear Chuck Berry’s best song. This opportunity almost did not happen though, as many on the selection panel that decided the Record’s content thought rock and roll was “adolescent”. Fortunately Carl “Sick Burn” Sagan pointed out “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” Damn Carl, that’s you tell ’em!

Chuck Berry left a lasting legacy of music, but his impact on others both musically and culturally, especially in helping incorporate harmony in the diverse youth of America, is what really raises him up to the level of icon. His death was not by any means sudden, and he certainly lived a full life, but he will still be missed by his many adoring fans. Thanks for the music and memories, Chuck Berry!

Thanks for reading and listening! Please send any questions, comments, and requests to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Rock and roll on back next week for what will hopefully not be another eulogy for one of my heroes.

Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!

Alex

 

It’s a TRAPPIST-1!

It has been a week of star-studded news. Yes, there was that insane debacle at last night’s Academy Awards that saw the wildest finish to any Oscars presentation when the wrong movie was announced as the Best Picture. Actually, the wrong movie has been announced as Best Picture lots of times, as I discussed a few years ago, but in this case the movie that official won the award was only announced after the award had already been presented to the producers of another movie who were halfway through their acceptance speeches! For a fun and thorough wrap-up of all the action, check out the annual Screen Junkies Grouchies award show.

As bonkers as that was, and as interesting as I am in the goings-on of the film world, I am much more intrigued by what’s happening with another world. Seven, in fact. Moonlight is the least of my concerns when starlight and planetary transits creating shadows that our space telescopes can see are occurring.

For decades, numerous astronomers have been tirelessly searching for other worlds like ours throughout the universe. These exoplanets as they are called when they are outside of our solar system, are the key to further observing what the most common planets are like and how ours stacks up in the grand cosmic scene. Additionally, the search for Earth-like worlds give us a greater look at areas that may have the right pieces to harbor life. This can mean that we may discover the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on one of these worlds, and/or find another world suitable for future human habitation.

Last week, NASA revealed that such a solar system had been found with not one, but seven – yes, seven! – Earth-like planets orbiting around a small star. Three of the seven exoplanets are within the habitable zone for humans, also known as the Goldilocks Zone because its conditions are not too hot or cold, but just right for humans to live within. Most exciting of all though, this star system is but 12 parsecs, or about 39 lightyears away! Now while this is about 250 trillion with a “T” miles away from us, in relation to the massive scope of the universe as we know it, this is extremely close. A lightyear is as its name implies, the unit of distance that it takes light to travel in the span of one year. Light is the fastest moving thing we know in the observable universe, clocking in at around 299,792,458 meters per second, or 671 million with an “M” miles per hour. That’s pretty darn quick, and we couldn’t hope to match it with our current technology, and probably never will manufacture a real-life Millennium Falcon to exceed it, but it is very much within the realm of possibility for a spacecraft that can manage one-fifth (1/5) the speed of light to be made. In fact, such technology is currently being worked on.

Is this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Make no mistake, it will take some time for us to reach the recently discovered star, called TRAPPIST-1 after the terrestrial telescope in Chile that first found it in the constellation Aquarius. However, the great potential that this system and the exoplanets within it hold for the future of our species is tremendously exciting. I won’t get to go there in my lifetime, but maybe the great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren I’m not planning on having will start to see humans making their way toward landing on the TRAPPIST exoplanets, perhaps with the chance to colonize them. Much sooner within my lifetime, as in the next few years, we will probably know what the composition of the exoplanets’ atmospheres are made of and whether or not they contain oxygen, a biological marker that heralds the presence of living organisms. It at least seems likely that the exoplanets, which we know are rocky like our world and not gaseous like Jupiter, contain water, the liquid form of which is the necessary component to life, as you may have heard before. Who knows? Perhaps we may even have definitive proof of life outside of Earth unearthed within our remaining spins around the star we know and love best. Hopefully it’s less hostile than what Private Hudson experienced on LV-426. Game over, man! Rest in peace, Bill.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn much more about the TRAPPIST-1 system than I can tell you then check out the ever reliable NASA webpage for continuing updates, as well as the beautiful and information-filled TRAPPIST-1 site found here. There is a great set of pages that detail everything from what we know of each exoplanet so far, and the timeline of the discovery. Be sure to check out the cute and colorful comic on the “Stories” page that features an astronomer rabbit explaining the find to her panda pal in terms that make it accessible (and fun) for us all. Send any questions or comments my way to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Make your way back here in a little less than one TRAPPIST-1f year (nine days!) for more fun and informative stuff.

To TRAPPIST-1 and Beyond!

Alex

The Next of the Movie Moments

A few months ago, in the wake of the annual summer superhero blockbuster movie overload extravaganza, I wrote a piece that expanded on the ideas put forth by Nerdwriter1 as to why Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice League, Here It Comes! Look Out, Marvel; DC’s in the Game, Bitches! was a movie with a lot a noise, but little substance. Today and for the future, I will be expanding on the positive part of this to discuss some more movie scenes done right. Just as I delved deeper into the scene of Django exacting literal and metaphorical revenge on slavers in 2012’s Django Unchained in that post, in this post I am looking at another scene that does so much at summarizing the plot, showing us character depth and development, providing some great movie moments (and music), and direction to bring it all together in a compelling sequence that has our every sense attuned to the screen in anticipation of what happens next while reveling in what just did.

The sequence of the day for this post is taken from the climax of the 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. This story has been translated to film before, but never so beautifully. Apparently the novel is a rough read, so making the most of its source material to tell an entertaining story that is a mixture of frontier adventure, romance, war, and set among a real period of American history that is not frequently featured on film is quite the achievement. The costumes and weapons are period accurate, and the acting is fantastic; this is one of the chosen few films that Daniel Day-Lewis has chosen to star in, and features the breakout performance of Madeline Stowe’s career, and another solid notch in the belt of Wes Studi. In spite of all this, the real star of this rendition is the magnificence of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the sweeping score that melds perfectly with the cinematography. However, we cannot discount the directing talent of Michael Mann, who takes a step out of his typical contemporary urban action/thriller/mystery setting to run through the woods and waterfalls of 1757 New York in the midst of the French and Indian War.

If you have not yet seen the film, I highly recommend it. Furthermore, I highly recommend watching it if you have not already before you read on, for the scene I am looking at today is from the end of the film, and you wouldn’t want to spoil it for yourself would you? Besides, it will save me a lot of strife from having to recap the film if you are already familiar with it. With that said, let’s get into it.

This sequence is the climactic chase given by protagonists Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas, and Cora after Magua and his Huron tribesman who have Cora’s sister and Uncas’ love interest, Alice, in their possession. Hawkeye and his adoptive father Chingachgook chase after the Huron war party, while his adoptive brother Uncas runs ahead and confronts the Huron head on along the precarious promontory.

Just to be clear, Ennio Morricone, excellent as he is at film composition, did not write this score. Mostly Trevor Jones did with some help from Randy Edelman. Now that that’s been established, let’s look at what’s going on here.

Uncas jumps out at the exact moment the front man of the Huron war party comes to his hiding place and takes the man down. He comes out blazing through the first warriors in a scene familiar to some of Michael Mann’s other work. The reminiscence ends there though, because they could reload much quicker in Heat. Uncas takes one shot and sticks and stones, or rather rifle butts and tomahawks his way through the next few until he meets Magua. They fight and Magua meets Uncas’ every strike with a parry, then deals the first cut on Uncas. This shows Magua’s fighting prowess that we’ve seen throughout the film is no joke. He can more than hold his own against the young Mohican, despite all that we’ve seen from Uncas up to this point too. And boy are there stakes to this contest! Both men want Alice, but where Magua desires her as a pretty piece of vengeance against her colonel father (for whom Magua has already fulfilled one promise to “eat his heart”), Uncas is in love with her and is willing to do anything to save her. This is all shown in his gaze at Alice before he pushes Magua back and leaps up to continue their fight. We can also see that Alice feels the same concern for Uncas, as she tries to go to him before being promptly pushed back behind the Huron warriors as they watch the duel their leader is engaged in. The hints at their blossoming love that was hidden in plain sight behind the more apparent romance between Hawkeye and Cora are confirmed in these moments. Her breathe of relief to see Uncas still standing and looking at her after being wounded is palpable, and it only takes a second for us to feel her juxtaposed comfort and panic; he is still alive, but in danger, and soon he is knocked down again. Alice feels helpless, and turns away; unable to bear watching him die. Perhaps he will be saved by his father and brother who we get a quick cut of running along the precipitous path the Huron have traversed before being stalled by Uncas. The music swells as Uncas stands again, and Alice straightens up, feeling her hero’s newfound strength as a glimmer of hope comes across her face.

Uncas, of course, is bested by Magua, who catches his next strike and stabs him with his other hand. Chingachgook rounds the bend just in time to see his son’s throat slit before Magua tosses him unceremoniously down the cliff face. The slow motion silent scream is a moment done right, that combined with the rest of the scene displays the full emotion of it exceptionally. We see this again not two minutes later, but I’ll get to that.

Hawkeye also screams out in torment as his brother falls. He continues to follow behind his father in pursuit of the Huron. The vigor that Uncas had in his drive to save Alice is now within the two of them, especially Chingachgook, only this time the drive is vengeance.

But first, we get to take in the best part of this sequence, where Alice finds her courage and drifts away from the Huron party toward the precipice near where Uncas just fell. The rotating camera, the tears in her eyes, oh man, this is what we’re here for! She locks eyes with Magua who is still stonefaced, and she continues to back up to the edge of the cliff. The moment where she slowly looks down to where Uncas landed and the water droplets fall from the rocks above is the best in this film, and I think the best moment Mann has ever filmed. It captures the peak emotion of this scene, and Mann draws out her decision to jump and join her love in death for a full minute. We all know what she is going to do when she starts to step toward to mountainside, but Mann milks so perfectly with shots between Alice and Magua trying to coax her back,. When she turns back to Magua after gazing below, she has clearly made up her mind, and her eyes seem to ask, “What are you going to do? What can you do?” She is finally the master of her own destiny, for the first time in her life, just in time for the last moment of it. Magua lowering his knife and beckoning her back with his hand are empty calls for her. She turns and steps off, freeing herself of her captivity once and for all. She was held prisoner by her father and English customs her whole life, until she met Uncas and the Mohicans, then she was held prisoner by Magua and his Huron clan, but it her final act, she is free. Nothing tugs at the heartstrings like tragic love. I love too that we see her “swimming” through the air with her arms and legs. She is not falling helplessly like she would if she were thrown. Perhaps she is even working her way toward Uncas with her last effort.

Cora’s shock stops her in her tracks. Magua’s pragmatic expression and turn away now that his prisoner is gone is the foil to Cora’s grief, which is briefly seen and heard, similarly to how Chingachgook reacted to Uncas’ death.

Speaking of which, here he comes, gaining on the Huron party, with Hawkeye close beyond. We’re about to see the skill of the Mohicans at its most furious. The last warrior of the Huron party notices the two men closing fast and raises his rifle, only to be shown how Hawkeye got his name. Hawkeye shows off his finesse with a firearm as the chase goes on, especially when he fires two single-shot rifles at once while running. Definitely a Mann moment, right there, but he earns it by bringing home the emotional punch with every shot fired and ax swung. For as handy as Hawkeye is, the highlight hero of this chase is his father, who rolls up on Magua likes it’s nobody’s business. With the help of his son holding off the rest of the Huron warriors with an unloaded gun (shh, don’t tell the Huron he’s already fired that rifle), Chingachgook makes the most out of his single combat with Magua. Where Magua always had the upper hand on his son, Chingachgook never lets Magua get a swing at him, and absolutely wrecks the man we’ve seen kick some serious ass up to this point, thereby showing that Chingachgook didn’t outlive his brethren by mistake.

This has remained one of my favorite films since I first saw it. It is the most unique departure from his standard that Michael Mann has yet made, and personally it is my favorite from him (although Heat‘s pretty damn good!) The music is easily one of the greatest film scores and fits so well in every scene in the film, but most appropriately here in this awesome ending sequence. The final scenes of the film are sad, but realistic with Chingachgook mourning the loss of his line and declaring himself the eponymous last of the Mohicans, before going on to say that someday even the likes of people like his adoptive son and his family to come will be gone. “But once, we were here.”

Thanks for reading and watching! Seeing as there are no shortages of excellent movie scenes to highlight the effectiveness and entertainment of, I have a lot to choose from. So much so, that I think this will be a recurring segment of my writing. If you ever have any questions or feedback, please drop me a line at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Run back here next week for the quarterly recap of my past posts in the next State of the Season.

Keep on rolling,

Alex

Queen of the Princesses

Farewell Miss Fisher. You are already missed.

From the first moment we got a look at those cinnamon buns on the side of your head, the world loved you. I see no reason to stop admiring your courage and honesty now. You will be remembered forever thanks to a stellar performance in a film role that nobody else could have played, in a movie franchise that is universally larger than any other. And you owned every minute you were in it. However, your career spanned far beyond the reaches of that galaxy far, far away, and you had success with other films, both before and behind the camera. You became a renowned writer, penning novels and screenplays, and always infusing them with the truth you knew too painfully well. Yet despite all the hardships you endured and inflicted upon yourself, you kept smiling. I think the only tear that you would have shed regarding your death is that your beloved mother’s followed it so quickly.

We have shed many tears for you both, and we wish the best for your daughter. I cannot imagine what she is going through, but knowing that she was raised by you gives me comfort that she is as optimistic, and perhaps she even has thrown up her hands and shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, fuck,” and laughed aloud her rotten luck as you would.

I never met you, and I guess I never will know you through any other means than what I have already been presented with, but I trust that your candor in every interview I have witnessed or read is enough for me to respect you to the point that I feel sad to have lost you, but not despondent, because why should I be? You taught me better than that.

billie-lourd-carrie-fisher-debbie-reynolds-sag-awards


One of my highlight songs from my annual list of must-hears that I published last week is Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”. I included it because of its ability to capture the emotions one feels toward a notable person they love who is gone now, despite not ever having met, or sometimes lived during the same time as that person. Carrie Fisher was first introduced to generations who existed long before I did, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, made her mark even earlier, yet I greatly appreciate their contributions to entertainment. The first major role for both of them were terrific performances in two of the most justifiably revered films ever made. Many more shining moments in cinema were to follow… as were many less glorious happenings. Carrie Fisher was born into such a circumstance, with her father leaving her mother for her best friend. Her parents divorced when she was just two years old. She never finished school. She had many partners, but was married only once for less than a year to Paul Simon. Yes, that Paul Simon – did you think the better half of Simon and Garfunkel was out of her league? Buddy, Carrie Fisher was in a league of her own. Not the movie, but she did star with Tom Hanks once, as his wife in The ‘Burbs, one of my favorite comedies that deserves a look. She would have certainly fit in a movie like A League of Their Own, but she already had done so much to inspire women. Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia, and no one else will ever be, not even a CGI representation shoehorned into the last minute of a movie. As Leia, she commanded the respect of everyone else. The most heroic of heroes and baddest of bad guys all learned that she was a force to be reckoned with, and so did everyone watching. As a kid, I never understood why our culture is so male-driven because my favorite movie growing up showed me that women could be the heroes too. The Star Wars films have always done a great job at this, and Carrie Fisher taking charge as Princess Leia is the reason why. Not a big reason, the reason. The franchise’s success is hinged so much upon her nailing her role. Everyone else fits within an archetype – as a video I hope you’ll watch later explains – but Princess Leia shatters hers. She is not a damsel in distress, but a firm, strong, and caring person who excels at organizing a group of downtrodden people in a mission of hope for a better world in every world. She needs to be solid for everything else to work, and for four films across four decades, she has been. Even at the start of The Force Awakens, the first two human characters we meet mention how much they revere Leia. She’s still got it!

As a result, Carrie Fisher has been a role model not just for women, but for us all. She always had a smile on her face even when talking about a rough patch in her life. She could have told others to look at only her achievements, like Star Wars, The Blues BrothersWhen Harry Met SallyHannah and Her Sisters, and so on. Instead, she made her failures into achievements. She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel that she turned into a screenplay that became a Meryl Streep movie. She was upfront about her struggles with drugs and addiction. She opened up about her bipolar disorder and encouraged others suffering the same to not give up, but live more fully. She was always true to herself and to us all. Don’t shy away from your mistakes; don’t get lost in them either.

Goodbye, Carrie Fisher. I will miss you.

There are a lot of tribute articles and videos out there, but these three touched me the most. The first is an article that Star Wars co-star Mark Hamill wrote about their friendship. I particularly like him comparing Carrie to Auntie Mame.

HelloGreedo “Carrie Fisher – You Will Be Missed”


Star Wars Explained “In Memory of Carrie Fisher”


One of those fiercely candid moments they are talking about occured recently on The Graham Norton Show.

I won’t say that that metal bikini made a man out of me when I was eight years old, but Carrie Fisher’s garb on Jabba’s sail barge in Return of the Jedi is what introduced me to a new kind of visual excitement, and that’s not nothing. Everyone remembers (at least buried deep down in their psyche) the person who first elicited their sexuality. Chock that up to the list of reasons why Carrie Fisher meant so much to me.

Thanks for reading, and I apologize for the vomit on your keyboard. Please send any questions, comments, and suggestions to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Corellian cruise your way back here next week for something hopefully less sad. Come on, 2017, we really need you to not kill as many people as last year.

May the Force be with You,

Alex

Consider Again That Dot

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. We are all part of the same pieces that exploded into existence as we know it with amazing energy 13.8 billion years ago. From that magnificent beginning of this universe, everything within it has grown and evolved. And that’s even before life on Earth formed. The ideas we study today regarding the Big Bang and what has occurred in the expansion of the cosmos since are relatively new, having come into scientific understanding during only the last century or so, however, the study of the stars and the infinity beyond has existed for millennia. Astronomers have long impacted our knowledge of our world and what exists beyond it, helping to pave the way for other subjects of study. We remember and revere the names and lives of many such people who helped teach us more about our place in the universe. Today, I am writing about a hero of mine and many others who did this in more ways than one, showing us just how small and special we are as a planet and a species.

Tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the saddest days in science education history. On December 20, 1996, the world lost a man who saw its incredible beauty and recognized how infinitesimally small we are on it and in the grand scheme of the cosmos: Carl Sagan. Sagan was an inspirational figure whose efforts to educate are still felt strongly, especially in the medium of television that he utilized so perfectly. His studies and insights also continue to be prevalent in his many books, as well as the lessons reiterated by his students who teach us today as he did decades ago.

Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York to a Russian immigrant father and a native New Yorker mother. He and his sister, Carol, were raised Jewish, but not with a great emphasis on religious practice and teaching placed upon them. His parents not only allowed him to question everything, but encouraged it, something that he stated aligned perfectly with the scientific method and his quest for knowledge.

Sagan was smart from the start, thanks in large part because of his many interests in many subjects, such as astronomy, biology, and chemistry to name a few awesome ones. He frequently read about the wonders of the natural sciences, and visited the world-class museums that New York had (and still has) to learn as much as he could. It paid off for him as he attended college early, studying at the University of Chicago when he was 16. There he encountered some of the preeminent scientists and teachers of the era, including geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller and chemist Harold Urey (remember the latter). Sagan’s dissertation was done under the tutelage of Gerard Kuiper, for whom the Kuiper Belt (where Pluto and two other dwarf planets live) is named. From Chicago, Sagan went on to the University of California at Berkeley in 1959.

Sagan became an assistant professor at Harvard University at 1963 after his peers in academic astronomy were impressed with his work, specifically his Science article regarding Venus’ atmosphere. However, even after years of teaching at the university and working at the nearby Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Sagan was not granted tenured status. In fact, numerous members in the academic community voiced their concerns with Sagan’s wide window of study as opposed to the traditional finer focus on a specific pursuit of study. The strongest voice against him, and the greatest dagger to his tenure hopes, came from a former advisor at the University of Chicago, that’s right, Harold Urey. Urey was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and had worked on the Manhattan Project, so he had authority in the scientific community. He argued against Sagan becoming a full-time professor, and Harvard listened.

Sagan was understandably disappointed, but where one Ivy League door closes, another gets to say “Suck it, Harvard!” today as a reward for not being overly concerned with the comprehensive interests of its professors at the time. Sagan had actually had an offer from astronomer Thomas Gold and Cornell University to come to teach prior to this decision from Harvard. The outcome of that decision made it easy for him to take his talents to Ithaca. He became an associate professor in 1968, and just two years later a full professor. His educational efforts were not confined to the classroom though, as in addition to continued research in astronomy and other fields, Sagan worked with NASA to prepare the Apollo astronauts for their lunar missions and to develop robotics. Sagan is also the man responsible for the creation and inclusion of information regarding humans and the Earth placed on some deep space probes sent out in the 1970s and 1980s. The first of these is the Pioneer Plaque which was attached to Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The plaque depicts a naked human man and woman and an illustration of our solar system and other items used to indicate the origin of the spacecrafts in the event that they are found by intelligent extraterrestrial life. An explanation of the illustrations can be found here.

carl-sagan

The two Voyager probes launched in 1977 contain an updated plaque, called the Voyager Golden Record. Like the Pioneer Plaque, the Golden Record was attached to the spacecraft with information pertaining to humans and the Earth.

Sagan was all about finding other forms of intelligent life and making contact with them. He encouraged search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, projects and co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980 with SETI initiatives in mind. In 1985 he published the novel Contact about making first contact with intelligent alien life. The book was made into a movie of the  same name that was released in 1997, a year after Sagan’s death. The story is representative of many of Sagan’s ideals, especially where the relationship and often duel between scientific fact and religious faith are concerned. Contact provides intelligent insight into the relationship of government and science as well. All of these are themes that exist in other popular science stories like Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life that was recently released as movie called Arrival, which has many similarities to ContactInterstellar does as well, including Kip Thorne’s input regarding wormholes and Matthew McConaughey being all right, all right, all right.

Sagan had other (non-fiction) books and many published papers and reports, but undeniably his greatest impact was through his television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. With Cosmos, Sagan took his grand encompassing interest in the big picture out of the classroom and into our homes. The show was superbly received and is one of the most watched series ever to air on PBS. Sagan was successful at inspiring everyday people into asking “Why?” and helped to make scientific ventures popular. Two of Sagan’s most notable students at Cornell would go on to have similar success with similar programming on TV. From 1993-1998, Bill Nye was the titular science guy in his show aimed at teaching children the basics of science. Nye was a senior at Cornell when he took Sagan’s underclassman course for easier credits, but he has stated that the class was a critical building point in his life that helped him to realize his potential and shape his life. Neil deGrasse Tyson did not attend Cornell and take Sagan’s class as Nye did, but he was a student of life of Carl Sagan’s and kept close ties to him from his teenage years. Tyson has hosted the StarTalk podcast (and later show) since 2009, and in 2014 he made another Cosmos series called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. In the opening episode, Tyson explains how he first came to know Carl Sagan. Tyson had sent an application to Cornell, and the admissions office had forwarded it to Sagan. Sagan then wrote a letter to Tyson inviting him for a visit. Tyson was impressed to say the least with Sagan’s knowledge, but mostly his character. Of his mentor and friend he said, “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”

Cosmos was good for Sagan as well, as his co-writer, Ann Druyan, would within a year become his wife. Druyan was Sagan’s third wife, but she and he remained happily married until his death. Near the end of his life, Sagan suffered from a myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which the blood cells in bone marrow does not develop properly. It often leads to leukemia. He was able to keep it at bay with bone marrow transplants from his sister, however he developed pneumonia which took his life on December 20, 1996.

Carl Sagan was exceptional at presenting simple and complex information alike in an easy and enjoyable way to the public. Whether or not you are young or old, or as wild about science as Carl was when he was younger or not, then you can learn and love what Sagan has to share in his show and books. He had many famous musings in his beautifully poetic presentations, but the most renowned is his “Pale Blue Dot” speech given at Cornell, in which he ponders on the whole of human existence while observing a picture of Earth taken by Voyager I from about 6 billion kilometers away. This may be the most important speech I have ever heard or read. It summarizes the actions of our species so perfectly and presents us with a spectacularly humbling realization that we are so, so small in this enormous universe. However, this makes us and our planet so incredibly special and grants us the wonderfully privilege to make our world the best it can be. I hope that it moves and inspires you as it does me.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or requests for future topics, then please email me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Orbit back here next week for some more out of this world fun.

Science shed lights on the unknown,

Alex