Lucy in the Sky minus diamonds

lucy2Natalie Portman is as terrific as ever in a drama that never really ignites or fulfils its potential, but which I nonetheless quite enjoyed. It serves as an unintended but welcome companion-piece to First Man, offering a more contemporary, and female, perspective on how Space affects the human experience; I think its very interesting, and certainly most welcome, that new films are starting to revaluate the Space Race and humanity’s faltering steps into the Cosmos. Its a pity that there’s little particularly profound in these films, but we’re clearly getting there. 

In First Man, the engineer/test pilot enigma that is Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, inevitably remained the enigma, even though the film offered some suggestions regards what made the man ‘tick’.  The sense of the unknowable (in Armstrong) was mirrored by the unknowable in Space, the immensity of the cosmos: better to send a poet to the moon if we ever hope to come close to understand, engineers and test pilots can only be frustrated by their own limitations when trying to explain the unknowable. Where that film succeeded was in how it reinvigorated that adventure of space travel for new audiences, and indicated how terrifying it can be.

That sense of the profound, the intensity of the life-changing experience of seeing all the Earth from a distance, cannot be understated, and proves a centre-point of Lucy in the Sky, telling the true story (or an approximation of it) of  Lisa Nowak, a Nasa astronaut who after a space shuttle mission flew off the deep end threatening to kidnap/harm a love rival in a tempestuous astronaut love triangle. Noah Hawley’s film Lucy in the Sky  posits that Nowak was suffering from an existential crisis having been ‘changed’ by her experience in orbit: essentially leaving her unable to cope with the mundane back on Earth.

lucy1In this I think it succeeds, thanks largely to Portman’s great performance, as she shows herself grasping vainly at life on Earth when all she really wants is to go back up ‘there’ in order to experience again that exhilarating, incredible ‘high’. The film suggests that you can recruit the intellectual and physical Elite, train pilots and engineers for the mechanics and procedures of spaceflight, but cannot really prepare them for the experience and what it might do to them emotionally and spiritually. There is something fragile and broken within Lucy back on Earth, something disconnected from her husband and those around her, something wholly unfulfilling about ordinary life. Maybe this would have been enough for the film- its when it goes on with the crime story elements, telling a soap opera through the lens of the Nasa Elite, that the film falters somewhat. The irony of course is that even some of the most fantastic elements of the story actually turn out to be quite true, or very close to it: I suspect some viewers instantly dismiss some of the wildest stuff as Hollywood invention, not realising how close to the truth it is (much has been changed and Lucy’s story remains very loosely based on that of Lisa, but what surprise many is just what was changed and what wasn’t- I won’t expand upon it here for fear of spoilers, but anyone who watches the film would be encouraged to read up on the true story). 

Ultimately Hawley struggles to balance the profundity with the inanity – the life-changing endeavour of humanity in Space with the mundane everyday strife of messy relationships. It may struggle and fail but I think its worthwhile all the same; at least it raises some interesting questions, even if, like First Man, it fails to arrive at any convincing answers.

 

The Strange Journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

Juno to JupiterIndeed, how strange. Vangelis has a new album coming out on September 25th, titled  Juno to Jupiter, which, in a similar way to both his 2001 Mythodea album and 2016 Rosetta album, is thematically tied to a space mission exploring the solar system. Vangelis has a deep interest in the cosmos and its wonders and as Carl Sagan discovered many years ago, his music is ideally suited to dealing with such futuristic/grand subjects. Anyway, that isn’t whats odd about it. The odd thing is that I’m listening to the album now, have been enjoying it for several days in fact. Have I used a Time Machine to travel to the future and pick up a copy of the maestro’s latest work in order to bring it back to this grim summer of isolation, social distancing and working at home?

In a nod to a sign o’ the times (sorry, Prince), it was announced several weeks ago that Vangelis had this new album coming out soon, but that it would first be released as a digital download, only coming out later on CD. This has happened increasingly over the past few years- Watertower Music, for instance, has released soundtracks to HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld on digital as soon as  their respective seasons have aired, only bringing out CD editions a few months later (I seem to recall Max Richter’s Ad Astra soundtrack album also had a delayed physical release). No doubt many musicians have done the same, but Vangelis finally going the digital route first seems, well, just a further indication of the shift away from physical releases and is a bit annoying in truth. I also think there are so few factories actually producing CDs, Blu-rays, Game discs etc now (I actually read awhile back that it was as few as four worldwide, I have no idea if that’s true), that there is a long waiting list perhaps only exasperated by Covid 19, and that many new film releases on DVD/Blu-ray have had limited initial runs creating some shortages at retail.

The original news of the album coming out was unofficial, just the usual Internet Grapevine, lacking any release date info, although someone involved in the album, Soprano Angela Gheorghiu, originally mentioned a July date that clearly never happened. It would seem however that an August date was possibly originally intended, because a music news website suddenly announced an August 7th release date for the digital version, and immediately an online store suddenly started selling it. It should be noted that his was a reputable online store of classical music (based in the UK) which I was familiar with myself, that has been in business for nearly twenty years online and with a high street store longer than that. The album didn’t appear on Amazon or other vendors though, who still  didn’t even have the album up for pre-order. It would seem someone had jumped the gun, and since this online store clearly had the music files there would seem some credence to the possibility that August was an original release date that was at some point deferred, possibly to ensure it could get a proper marketing/publicity push in the meantime. Maybe both the site that issued the news about August 7th and the store that sold it didn’t get the memo that Covid had possibly spoiled/delayed yet another party.

Ha, ha, there’s a thought- Vangelis suddenly has something in common with James Bond and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

I don’t know how digital releases work, or how close to a release date content files etc are distributed out to retail outlets. I know with physical releases stocks of CDs/vinyl albums tend to arrive from warehouses a week or so prior to release date, but digital files? Like cinemas having digital copies of movies on secure hard-drives, digital is all smoke and mirrors to me, and pretty much irrelevant as I’m old-school physical.

So anyway, many Vangelis fans eagerly went to the online store and bought a copy that weekend. I didn’t hear of this till a day or two later, when it was announced as a leak -which I suppose it was, even though it wasn’t a case of someone simply illegally uploading an album onto YouTube or a file-sharing site for the sea-faring mob wearing eye-patches. Fans were buying the album like any other retail purchase, and I assume at least some of the money went to the label/Vangelis, but the label and Vangelis’ team weren’t too impressed and immediately ordered the site to remove the album from sale, questioning its authenticity and stating its proper release date of September 25th (elsewhere it seemed to become established that the CD was getting released on November 6th). The online store dutifully removed it from sale.

Fans able to have purchased the album and listened to it described it as very good and a welcome addition to the maestro’s discography, with flavours of Rosetta and Mythodea, while some professed amused bemusement that it might not actually be Vangelis’ album, but some sort of sophisticated Replicant instead (see what I did there?). The album was quickly becoming as fabled and notorious as his original limited edition release of El Greco.  Confusion reigned triumphant. As a longtime fan of Vangelis (since the late 1970s and the glory of his Nemo days) I was naturally annoyed to have missed out on the opportunity to buy the album – I’d be buying the CD edition, naturally, but getting the chance to hear it a few months early for a few quid would prove impossible to resist. Its a few more coppers in the bank for Vangelis and his label and maybe would improve its sales record- I’m pretty sure, after all, that these early digital releases are at least partly about getting fans to double-dip, and take advantage of their fandom/eagerness. Its done with movies these days and I’m always  amused at the daftness of folks buying digital downloads to see a film a few weeks before their Blu-ray copy arrives, people want everything NOW these days, unable to wait. But films are one thing, Vangelis quite another- I’m sure I would not be alone in buying a CD copy after the download, and I’m also pretty sure others would go one step further and buy the vinyl album edition if/when it comes. Oh well, it immediately seemed purely hypothetical.

And then a few days later the online store put the album up for sale again. Maybe it was getting released after all. Confusion reigned triumphant once more. Fans online in newsgroups etc were perplexed, what was going on? Still didn’t appear on Amazon or other sites yet (indeed as I type this, it still hasn’t, oddly enough). But I couldn’t resist. I’ll be honest, as daft as it might seem to many, had it been a file posted on the ‘net to download for free, I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole, but what seemed to be a legitimate retail transaction? Less than a tenner to listen to a new Vangelis album while sitting at my desk here in my spare bedroom/man-cave being miserable ‘at work’? The next morning I noticed that the album had been removed from sale again. Locked away for a few more weeks, I expect.

You know, I quite wish for the old days, the simpler times, and that Vangelis and the label had simply released it on CD at the same time as digital, whether it be September or November. I have no idea how often this kind of thing happens but it does seem a bit farcical, more akin to how our current Government here chooses to run our country. Juno to Jupiter is a wonderful album and vintage Vangelis (I suspect it isn’t a sophisticated Replicant, but if it is, its hoodwinked me, and I’ve been listening to the maestro’s music for decades. It really doesn’t deserve to have been subject to this strange journey. I would be absolutely fascinated to learn what went wrong, how and why, regards its preemptive/aborted release, maybe that info will come out. Seems all rather bonkers. Something to do with living in an increasingly digital world, with so many of us still pining for the analogue world of our past. I think back to the pre-internet, and being so pleasantly surprised and elated at an advert for Vangelis’ album Direct, out just a week later as if out of nowhere…

Out of respect to Vangelis, I won’t be posting a review of the album until its release date, and I shall of course be pre-ordering the CD as soon it is becomes available to do so, so it can join all my other Vangelis albums in my collection. I will just point out that in these days of lockdown and working from home and all this other Covid 19 madness, this music has been a very helpful tonic. Its a great, great album with some genuine surprises, and is a big improvement on Rosetta (an album I liked but never really loved).  As usual for Vangelis, the magic is in how lushly romantic the music is, and how his electronic textures evoke the ancient past as well as the distant future. I don’t know how he does it, but it never gets old. Deeply emotive and following a narrative that mirrors the odyssey of discovery that Juno represents, the music is at turns symphonic, funky in a jazzy sort of way (no doubt that/s Vangelis improvising all the time), uplifting, scary… its Vangelis at his very best, albeit lacking that particular Nemo sound that I am so attached to (Vangelis must be so weary of old fans like me). As well as Mythodea and Rosetta, I’d also note a surprising similarity to some of Oceanic. Definitely an album anyone interested in Vangelis’ music should be looking out for when it is finally, properly released in September (or November, depending on format).

What a strange, crazy Covid world we live in these days. But I have to say, Juno to Jupiter has just been making it easier. Bravo, Vangelis, as always.

Back to the Moon

Hey, here’s some topical news I thought I’d mention here as we’re approaching a certain special anniversary this July 20th- NASA has today successfully tested their Orion spacecraft’s launch abort system, an important stage towards its goal of returning to the moon. What I found really interesting is the schedule they have in place, which currently has NASA returning to the moon by 2024. Which really isn’t that far away when you think about it.

orion

Orion looks similar to the Apollo capsule, but this is deceptive- it is larger, able to carry four crew rather than Apollo’s three, and thanks to an array of solar panels will be able to stay in orbit for months at a time. An unmanned test of the hardware will be repeated by a manned mission that will take its astronauts on a long orbit around the moon that will last about 25 days – a far cry from the 8-day period of Apollo 11 or the 12-day period of the final Apollo 17. This is clearly a ‘bigger, further, longer’ equivalent of the Apollo 8 mission, and I cannot see details of an actual  lunar lander other than this non-NASA link here so I suspect any lunar landing will be later.

I have seen reports of a Lunar Gateway, which is a planned space station orbiting the Moon and used as a bridge between the lander vehicle and the Orion capsules travelling to/from Earth, and also serving as an eventual launchpad to Mars. Heady stuff. Just thinking about a space station out there brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while the Lunar Gateway is obviously much smaller, I have to marvel at the sheer ambition of it; to my mind still the stuff of science fiction movies, but you never know.

Apollo was certainly ahead of its time and the technology we had; maybe the tech has finally caught up with the ambition of landing on the moon and the grand vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Such a pity both Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke aren’t here to see it – but I hope I’m still young enough to be around to see it myself…

The Last Man on the Moon (2014)

last1This terrific documentary is a salient reminder of how much the world has changed since the 1960s and the glory days of Apollo. As a lad who grew up fascinated by the space program of that era, it’s hard to express what the future looked like back then, when everything seemed possible. Of course, I was a kid struck by the romantic adventure of going to the moon, I didn’t understand the political expediencies of budgets and a Vietnam War. The future I thought was ahead of us, that I thought we would inherit, was not what eventually transpired.

How can it be that the last time a human left a footprint on the moon, or even left low-Earth orbit, was back in 1972? What happened? How is it that the launch pads and all the NASA infrastructure is now left just rusting in the sun?

Such thoughts are inevitable, and the sentiments considered, watching this fascinating documentary film that is, as the title suggests, chiefly centered upon the life and thoughts of Gene Cernan, the titular last man on the moon, and his adventure on Apollo 17 in 1972. Its a surprisingly candid and emotional film that reveals much of those heady days of the space program, his life that lead to it and the cost to his private life because of it.  Of course there is a lot of ego demonstrated here- Cernan was not the reclusive type like Neil Armstrong was, but there are a few moments towards the end where Cernan reflects at what he lost by being so obsessed with his career. The knowledge that time is indeed finite – and that Cernan himself only had a little time left, as he passed away in 2017- makes his story rather poignant. How does one live anything like an ordinary life having been a part of something as massive as Apollo? When you are one of only twelve people in all of human history to have stepped on the surface of another world?

This documentary doesn’t really have the answers, but it is very informative and quite emotive and beautifully shot. It is indeed a very sobering reminder of what we as a species can do when the political will is there, but also a reminder of what can be lost when we lose our way. Was the expense and effort behind Apollo a folly? What was the point of it all? Will we ever follow in the footsteps of those original twelve? These are questions that rattle around in your head after watching something like this. Its all very inspiring but rather depressing too. The future isn’t what it used to be.

Bring Him Home: The Martian (extended cut)

marty2017.75: The Martian Extended Cut (2015)

While it’s debatable just how much ten minutes of footage can impact or benefit a film (I suppose fans of the cocoon sequence in the first Alien might have an interesting opinion), I must say I certainly enjoyed this repeat viewing of The Martian, and perhaps this was aided by that ten minutes of extra footage. Mostly tweaks/extended scenes, nonetheless I think that while it may not have improved the film greatly, I did appreciate the additional shots of Mark Watney’s emaciated figure towards the end, clearly establishing the physical ordeal and impact of his lengthy stay on the red planet, and some of the other character beats littered through the movie.

Indeed, I think the extended cut (note it isn’t called a ‘Directors Cut’, I wonder what is the distinction?) does improve the film, and the fact it’s only ten minutes extra footage means the film doesn’t slip into the longer attention-span/pacing issues pantheon of extended cuts that, say, leave me still preferring the theatrical cut of Dances of Wolves or Apocalypse Now.

One of the biggest impressions from rewatching this film is just the observation of how good a Ridley Scott film it is, just how good he is given a decent script. Tellingly, the film is not one he himself developed; instead its one he was hired -onto during development and it clearly benefits from his keen eye and visual techniques whilst not being harmed by some of his aesthetic choices idea-wise that probably harmed Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. It makes me think about the case of Terry Gilliam and The Fisher King (but also the case that a John Carpenter movie was never a ‘real’ John Carpenter movie when he was simply hired-in to direct some studio project) . The distinction is sometimes lost these days between a film-director as a film-maker and perhaps as an auteur/director whose sole ‘vision’  or voice dominates a film for good or ill. Film-making is a collaborative enterprise and I think some directors would be advised to be more directors than producers, and perhaps leave professional writers etc to do their jobs. But what do I know? I’ve yet to see if Luc Besson dominating the Valerian movie resulted in a great or flawed movie, but yeah, it just makes me wonder.

It still feels wrong feeling thankful that Ridley Scott didn’t make BR2049, but as that film clearly had a great script etc maybe it would indeed have turned out okay directed by Ridley- but would Ridley have been unable to resist insisting Deckard be revealed as a Replicant, forcing that personal view onto the other film-makers less inclined to agree with him (or an actor for that matter)? Ridley still has great films in him in the right circumstances, as evidenced by the successes of The Martian.  It’s quite possible some viewers/critics are of the opinion that it is in fact his best movie, period.

While I’m unable to watch the 4K disc in this package (a regular refrain going forward into 2018, I’m sure) I will say this release/double-dip does benefit from a solid bunch of extras, including a commentary and a fine series of docs produced by Charles de Lauzirika whose name on a doc always means quality (and to whom I will always be indebted to for the stupendous Blade Runner Final Cut release several years ago). The visual-effects breakdowns alone are enough to make me reassess the achievements of this film and the ‘genius’ of Ridley and his team- so much taken for granted is the result of huge amounts of trickery (they even CGI’d his beard in on some shots, it’s bizarre, where were the make-up crew?). Some interesting Q&A discussions involving NASA staff regards the real exploration of Mars round out a great all-round package.

So if nothing else, my estimation of The Martian, towards which I was always a little reserved, has improved no end. It’s a great film with a hell of a lot going for it, and whilst the extended cut’s differences/additions are perhaps not substantial enough to be an essential purchase for those happy enough with the film in its original form, I do think its an improved movie and the extras package finally gives the film the treatment it deserves. And who knows, maybe the film really sings in 4K with HDR etc.- for me that will be a pleasant discovery for some other time down the road.

The Farthest Voyager

far22017.58: The Farthest (2017)

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, and it seemed the simplest thing there might be. After all, men were walking on the moon, Captain Kirk and his Enterprise was exploring strange new worlds, the future seemed full of possibilities. Of course they were actually impossibilities, but try telling a seven-year old kid that when there are people walking on that moon in the sky.

Can you even imagine that now? You used to be able to look at that moon, and people were there.

Some years later, with me still being fascinated by space-travel and astronomy, reading 2000 AD every week and with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters on the big screen, and NASA sending Viking to Mars and Voyager to the outer planets, it was still a pretty amazing time to be growing up. Then Carl Sagan made (and wrote) his incredible tv series Cosmos. Sagain was hugely good at being able to articulate all kinds of scientific theory, opinion and discoveries to the layman. With Cosmos he became a science superstar, much to the chagrin of many of his contemporaries. I cannot explain the profound impact of that show, and its book and its soundtrack, had on me at the age of fourteen/fifteen. After growing up with the interests that I had, it was like it was created just for me.

Of course, I didn’t become an astronaut, or work in any profound science or space-based career- we can’t all be Brian Cox. But I never lost my love for reading about science or space discoveries, and just the sound of Carl Sagan’s voice is enough to send a tingle up my spine.

Carl Sagan shows up a few times in period footage during The Farthest, a remarkable space documentary that charts the formation, execution and legacy of the Nasa Voyager mission launched in 1977- a Grand Tour of the outer planets. I remember the news updates when Voyager sailed past Jupiter and Saturn- this was in the days before 24-hour news coverage, so the bulletins were all we had until BBC’s Horizon documentary series caught up with it periodically. The Farthest is almost an uncanny window to the flybys that commenced in 1980, throwing me back, through music and video footage and stills, to those amazing discoveries, and more than that, through the voices of key scientists and engineers behind the project, to learn the amazing true stories behind it all.

Brutal reality bites home when one of the scientists comments about Voyager’s flybys of Uranus and Neptune- we will all be long dead and buried, he says, before mankind ever visits those planets again. Its one of those realisations that seems shocking and yet suddenly commonsense: they are just too far away, and the will and expense needed to return just aren’t there. How wonderful that we are alive, now, when we have made those first visits, discovered those worlds for the first time. And can watch incredible documentaries such as this. In a world so mundane and dominated by the most moronic and narrow-minded political worldviews, it’s a glimpse of what’s possible when we as a species Think Big.

The Voyager spacecraft will, it is asserted, outlast us all- long after our civilization, or whatever follows it, or indeed after mankind as a species has become extinct or our world destroyed by the sun, or indeed long after even our own sun has died, the Voyager’s and their gold discs with The Music of Planet Earth will attest to the fact that we were here- We Were Here. You don’t get bigger than that. Enthralling stuff.

Apollo 13 (1995)

APOLLO 13, 1995

I recently purchased Apollo 13 on Blu-ray; the 20th Anniversary edition- yes, another sobering reminder of the march of time; has it really been twenty years? This edition apparently sports a new remaster which improves on the image quality of earlier HD editions, but as my previous copy of Apollo 13 was its first R1 DVD edition from many, many moons ago (sorry, couldn’t resist) then this would no doubt certainly be a richer experience than before. I hadn’t seen the film in years, just catching isolated moments on its many tv airings so I looked forward to watching it.

Sadly the subsequent tragic death of James Horner last week made re-watching the film rather poignant, as his score is such a large part of the film’s success. It’s a wonderfully effective score, melodic and powerful, the kind of score deemed largely unfashionable these days.I gather that Horner’s career had stalled somewhat in recent years largely because of how tastes in film-scoring have changed. His Apollo 13 score is a reminder of his work at its height and of a time when film-scoring in general was treated differently by Hollywood. Half my pleasure in re-watching Apollo 13 stemmed simply from listening to Horner’s fine music again. Indeed, it has me thinking of digging out some of my other Horner-scored Blu-rays that I haven’t watched in awhile, like Field of Dreams, Glory and Legends of the Fall, over the next few weeks.

So how was Apollo 13, rewatching it again some twenty years after first being blown away by it at the cinema and then enjoying it over the years on DVD and catching bits of it on tv airings? Well its a rather sobering experience to be frank. Its still a good film, but I think my tastes have changed a little perhaps or I have become more disenchanted with contemporary blockbusters than I thought. I say this because I can now clearly see that Apollo 13 heralded so many of the bad things that annoy me most in modern blockbusters. I’m not suggesting that the film is bad, of course its not,  but some things surprised me.The film lacks a sophistication that otherwise might have gained it the stature of greatness; it is clearly more a ‘product’ than ‘art’.

Apollo 13 is unabashedly manipulative. Of course, all films are manipulative to some degree or another, but Apollo 13 is unreservedly so and it can be rather distracting. Some of this is purely dialogue-driven, lines spoken to explain what is going on or to add dramatic tension- in this sense the film is rather prophetic, as films these days, particularly the summer blockbusters, are full of this nonsense (I can imagine ‘Blockbuster Film’ Schools showing Apollo 13 to budding screen-writers as a lesson in how to write the modern blockbuster movie, the lecturer ranting “the public are stupid! Show them! Tell them!” over and over). This dumbing-down of movies is something I get increasingly irritated by. Apollo 13 has a fantastic central story, it simply doesn’t need this hand-holding of the audience. Or maybe it does; to be fair, the film was hugely successful with a general public who weren’t even alive when NASA went to the moon so maybe the film-makers were right, but for me, as someone who has always been fascinated by the space program and read widely about it, this stuff is really irritating. Other than the sometimes-painful dialogue, there are scenes written expressly to raise the dramatic tension, such as with the astronauts arguing. Dramatic license I guess. But was it really necessary?

apollo3The 20th Anniversary is a lost opportunity then, as it would have been enlightening to have heard a new commentary track by director Ron Howard. It would have been fascinating, after so many years, to have Howard re-evaluate his work and perhaps comment on what he did right or what he did wrong. Perhaps he would never be so candid anyway, but still, it would have been interesting. Would he have cringed at the manipulative moments, the over-explanatory dialogue, the astronauts mild hysterics?

Some things hold up surprisingly well. Technically the film is very good indeed- the special effects largely stand the test of time even under the scrutiny of HD and as I have mentioned, the music score is simply wonderful. The cinematography however does look rather flat in places and uninspired; likely this is down to a pseudo-documentary approach and an attempt to mesh the then-cutting edge cgi with the live-action photography. This last point may be something we notice more as we re-watch films from the early days of cgi special effects. The cast is pretty much wonderful, and here the film really benefits from its age, seeing so many once-familiar faces doing their work. Its pretty close to a ‘who’s who’ of Hollywood at the time it was made and also an opportunity to see the likes of Bill Paxton in a starring role (a cast-reunion commentary would have likely been a blast, I expect, so thats another lost opportunity).

So rather mixed feelings about Apollo 13 then. I guess you have to be wary about re-watching your old fave movies.