Saturday, 27 June 2015

Favourite Movies, Part III: Battle Beyond The Stars...

(Note: I began to write this shortly after the passing of Jimmy Murakami, but never finished it. It seemed appropriate to have another try, following the recent untimely death of composer James Horner (to whose music I'm listening even now).

In 1994, before I was a Captain, but when I was working as a Post Office counter clerk, a man came in with a parcel he wanted to send to his son in the USA.

As I was weighing the parcel to determine the correct postage, I noticed the return address. The sender's name was printed as 'J.T. Murakami'.

'Excuse me,' I said, ''but I couldn't help noticing the return address. Would you by any chance be James Murakami, the movie director?'

The man looked surprised, but said yes, that was indeed he.

"Battle Beyond the Stars?" I said, unable to believe it. I mean, of all the post offices in all the world...

"Yes, that's right," he replied.

"Excellent! I love that movie!"

Now that I see it written down it looks kinda fanboy-ish but hey, it's not every day you get to meet the director of one of your favourite films. Of 1980. And there was the whole Sybil Danning thing, which was also good, and which gave rise to, among other things, an interest in working in space (and we know how that worked out, don't we?).

Sybil Danning (see what I mean?)
A small but interesting episode, which leads me neatly into the rest of this post.

A Roger Corman-produced vehicle, BBTS is, of course, a reworking of The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai, but I like the Western better) in which the inhabitants of the agrarian world Akir, ravaged by interstellar bandits, hire a band of mercenaries to help them to defend themselves.

Which, in spite of the odds, they do.

The villain in this instance is played by veteran baddie John Saxon, while the good guys feature such stalwarts as George Peppard as a bourbon-drinking cowboy spacefarer called 'Cowboy' and Robert Vaughn, reprising his Magnificent Seven role (of Lee) as Gelt, an interstellar gunfighter with a long past and nothing but enemies.

There's also Richard (John Boy Walton) Thomas, the idealistic young farmer determined to save his people from the bandits.

And Sybil Danning as St. Exmin of the Valkyrie, a warrior race who...

Where was I?

Oh, right.

The movie, made on a tight budget (much of which apparently went to pay the salaries of the headline stars), was an early entry in the careers of several individuals who would go on to distinguish themselves in later years, most notably Special Effects Director James Cameron and Score Composer James Horner, both of whom would be honoured by the Academy in later years. 

I was particularly impressed by James Horner's dramatic score; written long before his later work on Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens, one can hear, in certain cues and sequences, much of what would evolve in his later work, and I was surprised it took so long for the Academy to recognise Mr. Horner.

But the man behind the megaphone was none other than Jimmy T. Murakami, who even now was standing before me. We chatted briefly about what he was doing in Ireland; I learned that he had set up an animation studio here and had some projects in the works.

And that was about as much as I got to find out, since the customers were starting to appear and I had to get back to work. We wished each other well and he went on his way.

Subsequent research showed that Murakami had been involved with several well-known animated features, most notably "The Snowman", segments from which are used by An Post (my employer) to promote Christmas posting times and seasonal stamps. 

Also, a recent documentary, entitled 'Jimmy Murakami - Not an Alien', provided an insight into the man and his life, including time spent as an internee in California during WWII.   

James Murakami passed away on February 16th, 2014, in Dublin, aged 80 years.

James Horner died as the result of a plane crash, aged 61, on June 22nd, 2015.

Battle Beyond The Stars will live forever...

Sunday, 8 March 2015

L'Chaim - To Life...

My godson turns 21 today.

I feel very proud, and not a little old.

It's hard to believe that he's about to graduate from college - I mean, I was there when he was born (not actually, but you know what I mean), babysat him when his parents had a night out for their wedding anniversary (he was three), went to his communion and confirmation ceremonies, watched him grow up, and it still doesn't seem like 21 years.

Alex is a good lad, and his parents are my oldest friends and have every reason to be proud of him. Like my nephew, I couldn't be prouder of him than if he were my own son.

Long life to him...

For The Good Of My Health, Part III...

It's been a bizarre few months, health-wise; I've twice been out of work with respiratory infections, and have also had blood tests and some dermatological procedures that, although not life-threatening in any way, have cost more in time, effort and stress than I care to think about.

In some cultures it would have been considered comedy.

The regular reader will have noted that I have had some small concerns regarding my health since June of last year. Possibly involving exposure to deadly Argonite (q.v.) during my career as an interplanetary policeman, there were suggestions of stroke, heart issues and/or other neurological conditions that have largely sidelined me as an active participant in any major heroic endeavour in the last eight months.

And while I realise that such concerns wouldn't stop Clark, Hal or J'onn, I am after all only mortal, so a cardiac event halfway to Neptune would probably mean curtains for the Captain. With that in mind I've been taking things easy for a while and watching my diet, etc.

And it appears to have paid off.

The results of my blood tests came back a couple of weeks ago, and it appears that my cholesterol is 3.0, with all other indicators within normal parameters. This, I'm told by my GP, puts me at 3% risk of heart attack in the next 5 years, while my chance of stroke in the same period is 1%.

I'll take those odds.

The relief is, well, incredible. It's been quite a thing to have had the prospect of early check-out over one's head for the past 9 months, and I think it behooves me to take steps to ensure that I don't need to worry about it ever again.

Life is, after all, too short...

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Poetry Corner...

Poetry, I hear you ask?

Haiku, to be precise - I got a thing called 'Haikubes' for Christmas, where you get 63 cubes with words on, and have to make a haiku out of the top faces when they're thrown.

There are two cubes that can offer a theme for your verse, but I haven't got to that level yet.

Here are my first two efforts:

Haiku #1:

"No friendly shape;
Happy tiger;
Life journey over."

Don't ask me...

Haiku #2:

"Eyes following me -
Moonlight whispers;
I quickly mature."

There was nothing to suggest cherry blossom or snow softly falling - I'm told these are essentials in ay good haiku, if only to use up syllables.

Further research is indicated...

Monday, 29 December 2014

From the Vault: Breakfast In Dublin, Lunch In Monaco...

(Note: This was supposed to have been posted sometime in 2007/08, with photos, but I forgot. So let's wind the clock back 7 years - to the Twilight Zone...)

That was my weekend, anyway.

It's something we do where I work; we figured out it was less expensive to go abroad for a Christmas party than it was to have one at home, so midway through the year the 'committee' sits and picks options.

The first year, we went to Madrid, which cost us about €50 a head less for flights and two nights' board than one night in Kilkenny City (transport not included).

The following year, Munich.

Last year, Amsterdam.

This year, Nice.

This year there were ten of us, and we flew out on Friday morning in high winds and rain, arriving two and a half hours later in bright, cloudless sunshine and temperatures of about 18C (any Fahrenheit heads out there, you know what to do).

The plane flew down along the coast, as if announcing our arrival, then banked sharply before turning back to land at Nice airport. Luggage was on the carousel as we walked into the baggage area; passport control barely gave us a second glance, let alone a first.

Three taxis and ten minutes later, we arrived at the Westminster Hotel, Promenade Des Anglais.

After checking in, we arranged to meet up in the bar before heading out later for dinner. Generally speaking, we look for a restaurant specializing in local cuisine one night, with our second night being more casual. Friday night we had a reservation at Le Tire Bouchon, a short distance away by foot, at 8pm.

Anyhow, we met up and sat outside on the terrace, drinking Heineken beer and watching the jetliners come in along the coast. The sun gradually sank into the sea, a ball of molten gold in a cobalt ocean, and we headed out for dinner about 7 o'clock.

It was just as well we left early - although I had nothing to do with it (see my adventures in Berlin and Rome), we got lost. We asked for directions from some local people, but misunderstood 'keep to the left' as 'turn to the left' on one occasion, which just made things worse.

We were about to give up and take our chances with another establishment when we decided to explore fifty meters farther down a street we'd already been halfway along, and found what we were looking for.

The food and service couldn't be faulted; I had quail as a starter, followed by salmon baked in cabbage leaves on a bed of avocado and onion. With an apple-and-red berries crumble as dessert, followed of course by coffee, I have to say I haven't eaten so well in weeks. My friends and colleagues enjoyed their meals equally well, and we spent a good three hours and €500 doing so, including a healthy tip for our hostess (who bore an uncanny resemblance to actress Greta Scacchi). 

(Note: One of the lads returned with a friend a couple of weeks ago and went back to the same restaurant - sadly, he didn't enconter 'Greta').

Afterwards, we went in search of a bar and found an Irish joint called 'Ma Nolan's' in the Market district of Vieille Nice.

Here's the thing - in Ireland, there's a total ban on smoking in enclosed public places. You want to smoke, you go outside. It's been in force a couple of years now, and people have gotten pretty much used to being able to breathe in bars again.

In France, there's no such ban, so when we walked into Ma Nolan's we walked into a cloud that even the smokers among us had trouble with. We stayed for one drink and moved on, some to another venue, some back to the hotel.

Saturday, and Monaco.

The tiny principality, home to millionaires, their money and their yachts, is twenty minutes down the coast by train. Deciding it would be rude not to visit, we did so.

Monaco is an amazing place. It's built on (and possibly in) a mountain, and everything in it reeks of style and money.

We walked down from the train station towards the harbour, then up to the Royal Palace. A steep climb, but worth it. The place was so picturesque and almost clinically clean, it put me in mind of Lord Farquad's castle in Shrek.

The palace guard challenged a British tourist who wandered too close to the gates, proving he wasn't just there for show and the idiot, who either failed to understand or chose to ignore the challenge, was ushered away quietly by a gendarme before he could be shot.

After the palace we wandered down to the harbour, where there was a Christmas market.

Being Monaco, the local council did it in style, turning an Olympic-sized swimming pool into an ice rink, and building snow runs for the kids to ski or ride snowmobiles. The snow brought the temperature to near freezing, so we stayed long enough for a quick lunch before going on our way.

Traveler's hint: If you are planning a visit to Monaco (and I do recommend it) be aware that there are public escalators to save you having to walk too far uphill. Classy or what? Fortunately we found them as we were heading back to the station - if we hadn't, I doubt anyone would have had the energy to go out for dinner that evening.

Back in Nice, we went out for pizza. Our waitress took orders for ten starters, ten pizzas and drinks, all without a notepad. If the order came out perfect, she'd deserve a decent tip.

She got the drinks right, and eighteen of the other twenty items - there was one mistake with a starter, and a pizza that didn't arrive (and when it did was undercooked because they rushed it), but nobody's perfect. After a brief renegotiation of the bill, we found a little French bar with an outdoor tent and heaters, and settled in with a few beers.

There was a Celine Dion song playing on the stereo, but we toughed it out, even when one of a party of French people began to sing along with it. Her lack of talent was matched only by her unbridled enthusiasm, and we almost applauded when she had finished.

The bar closed at 2a.m., and we wandered back to the hotel, where someone opened some vodka. I got to bed at about 4 and don't remember falling asleep (Just tiredness - honest).

And that was more or less it - except for getting stuck on the Ferris wheel with Therese and Jennifer, an unexpected visit from President Sarkozy and 'near-death by running club' (narrow escape there), all in all it was a 'Nice'* weekend...

*I know - sorry...

Saturday, 6 December 2014


I learned today, with no small amount of relief, that Netflix has picked up Longmire for a fourth, 10-episode season.

Originally aired by A&E (apparently it doesn't mean 'Accident & Emergency), the network inexplicably cancelled it following the third-season finale, despite consistently-high ratings. Season Three (it hasn't aired here yet) apparently ended on a cliffhanger, so it'd be a shame not to see how things play out for Walt and Absaroka County.

I first became aware of the Longmire character about a year ago, while visiting Canada and short of something to read. In a Toronto bookstore I happened upon a copy of Craig Johnson's 'The Cold Dish', and was hooked.

For the uninitiated, the stories follow the exploits of Walt Longmire, sheriff of (fictional) Absaroka County, Wyoming; a man recovering from the untimely death of his wife and having to deal with re-election and the day-to-day management of law and order in his territory.

The setup is not unlike Ace Atkins' character of Quinn Colson, a returning US Army Ranger who becomes sheriff of his own home county following the suicide of his uncle, the previous sheriff, although neither can be said to be taking from, or even confused with, the other.

It was upon reading the Longmire novels that I discovered that it was being developed for TV, with Australian actor Robert Taylor taking the lead, and backed up by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) as Deputy Victoria "Vic" Moretti, a former Philadelphia PD homicide detective; Cassidy Freeman (Smallville) as Cady, Walt's daughter, Lou Diamond Phillips (Stargate:Universe) as Henry Standing Bear, owner of the Red Pony Bar and Walt's oldest friend; and Peter Weller (Robocop hisself!), as retired Sheriff, Lucian Connally.

And although some characters were at odds with their description in the narrative, or created simply for the TV version, the casting was, for me, spot-on, with Taylor especially seeming to have stepped out of the pages and onto the screen. I will, of course, watch Katee Sackhoff in anything.

A character created for the show is that of Deputy Branch Connally (Bailey Chase), nephew of the former sheriff, Walt's friend and mentor, Lucian (Peter Weller). Branch is young and eager, and wants to bring policing in Absaroka into the digital age; this places him at odds with Walt, who believes in the more traditional approach. The pair are frequently seen at loggerheads, but Walt sees something in Branch that tells him he'll make a good Sheriff - someday.

An overarching storyline within the series is the investigation into the murder of the man suspected of the murder of Walt's wife in Denver, with evidence leading ambiguously to both Walt and Henry, and a seemingly-relentless detective on the case, unwilling to let go.

I haven't seen Season Three yet, but I'd hate for a series as good as this one to simply drop off the radar - so thank you Netflix!

And on we go...

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Holidays Are Coming...

November is fast becoming history, and December will be upon us in a matter of tick-tocks.

Starting Monday, I have a four-day project to upgrade my company's backup and recovery application, and then the shopping can begin.

This will be the first year in about fifteen that I will not be on call over the holiday period, and the first in about five years where I'll be able to take the whole holiday off, so I'm actually looking forward to it for a change, if only for the rest.

As I will have mentioned previously, I don't particularly enjoy Christmas. Of course, there's Christmas dinner with family and visits to (and by) friends, but the holiday itself leaves me with a sense that something's missing. I have my own ideas about that, and won't burden the regular reader, but the feeling hasn't diminished over the years, and so I generally just put my head down and make a charge for January.

I also still have several days' leave to take (three-and-a-half, if anyone's counting) plus a flexi-day (bonus time worked), so I'll have time for a bit of Christmas shopping and people-watching. For the last couple of years, I've taken to visiting a pub in Dublin called 'The Old Stand', which has a large window looking out onto a four-way junction in the heart of the centre of town.

Armed with a pen and a (cheekily overpriced)  pint, I sit for an hour (or even two) watching people go by, wondering what's going on in their minds, what their stories might be.

In some ways it's like being in an Edward Hopper painting, only on the inside, looking out...

Last year, I watched as, among others:
  • The CEO of my company went past, carrying a plastic shopping bag and checking a list or similar as he did his shopping; 
  • A group of four young women, laden with shopping bags and unable to agree on where to go next, who went into Butler's Chocolate CafĂ© for a coffee while they decided; and 
  • A young couple, reluctantly going their separate ways, finding reasons to delay taking their leave of each other. There was a brief exchange, then each produced a cellphone, no doubt to exchange details. It struck me that they hadn't known each other more than a number of hours.But then the time came to part - it was like something out of 'Brief Encounter'.

Ah, holidays...

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Stand By For Action!!!

As a child, I was something of a TV addict (I blame my father for sitting me down in front of 'Batman' when I was about 4). I loved adventure shows; 'Champion the Wonder Horse', 'Lassie', 'Skippy' (featuring a young Liza Goddard ); and more grown-up programs like 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.', 'The Saint' and so on.

Then of course, there was Doctor Who, a show I watched without really understanding until Jon Pertwee took over from Patrick Troughton, who I always thought was silly with his tin whistle.

Star Trek came along later, and some of my fondest memories are of sitting with my dad on a Monday evening and watching an episode on BBC1 (without commercials!). I recall he was scornful of the Horta in "The Devil in The Dark", and the flying parasites in "Operation:Annihilate!"

"You can see the strings!", he'd laugh, but we both enjoyed it anyway.

Which brings me neatly to the point, nay, the meat of this article, for throughout my childhood, my favourite shows were those that featured the logo "Filmed in SuperMarionation" and were produced by Gerry Anderson's APF Productions or, later, Century 21.

Stingray, Thunderbirds, Joe 90 (a favourite then, but less so now) and Captain Scarlet - all of these brought 30 minutes, or in Thunderbirds case, an hour of non-stop action, edge-of-the-seat adventure, incredible explosions, daring rescues, knife-edge suspense and a little humour injected in just the right places. Using puppets. And you could see the strings.

For me, the strength of the stories made one forget that the players weren't human, so the strings didn't matter. The mechanics of the vehicles, buildings that retracted or sank into the earth, all of these fascinated me. I could watch Zero-X be assembled twice...

What crystallised it all, of course, was the music, all of which was composed by Barry Gray.

A long-time collaborator of Anderson's, Gray produced elaborate scores for the various shows, with strong, dramatic themes and incidental pieces arranged for orchestras of anything up to 60 instruments, predominantly strings (an in-joke, perhaps?) and brass.

Gray's compositions stood out by being almost characters in their own right; the music treated the material as though it were regular, prime-time adult drama and not part of a children's production. This, in the era of ITC classics like The Saint and Danger Man, was important in that it meant (to me, anyway) that the producers of Thunderbirds and Stingray were treating their audience with the same importance as those of the live-action shows.

This, as much as the strength of the material, conspired to make me a TV addict.

I remain unrepentant.

And to this day, the music of Barry Gray can be found on my phone's MP3 player in the form of a playlist to which I return regularly, especially when I need to concentrate my mind on a task or de-stress.

They don't make them like this any more...