Jackie Cooper: 1922 - 2011

Another sad passing to report. Jackie Cooper, a child actor in the "Our Gang" comedies back in the '30s, but who also transitioned successfully into an adult acting career, died Tuesday at the age of 88. He was probably best known to genre fans and moviegoers of the last 30 years as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Christopher Reeve era Superman movies.

Cooper also had a varied behind-the-scenes career, serving as director on a multitude of TV series in the '70s and '80s, and even a five-year stint in an executive position for Columbia Pictures' TV division. But to me, he will forever be remembered (as will most of the cast members of the '80s Superman movies) as the definitive silver-screen incarnation of his role, the cantankerous Perry White.


May The Stores Be With You

I went out shopping last weekend, mostly for the usual kind of stuff ... and for no apparent reason, it ended up being a Star Wars kind of day. I unexpectedly found a few decent bargains, and they all happened to be of a Star Wars nature. Here's what I got:

The Star Wars Poster Book (by Stephen Sansweet and Peter Vilmur, published by Chronicle Books) -- This isn't a collection of posters that you can hang on your wall, as the title might imply. Instead, it's a lush, illustrated history of Star Wars poster art, carrying the reader through all six movies, and the plethora of promotional tie-in art in between. Quite a few of the posters we've all seen before, but there are many rare, weird, and wonderful oddities to be found as well. This one, a big, hardcover, "coffee-table" book, was in the bargain bin for an unbelievable $5.99 (publisher's price: $50.00)! At first glance it didn't have any damage other than a slightly tattered dust jacket, but after I got it home and looked more closely, I could see the reason for its rock-bottom price: some asshole Sith apprentice had gone and torn three pages out of it in various locations. I'm not complaining -- for six bucks, how can you -- but at some point I'll definitely go seek out a higher-quality specimen, 'cause I can picture myself browsing this one again and again.

Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago... Volume One (published by Dark Horse Comics) -- This is a trade paperback collecting the first 27 issues of the original Marvel Comic book series, which launched with a six-issue adaptation of the first movie back in 1977. I'd had my eye on this one for quite awhile, and when I found the one and only copy on the shelf, in excellent condition, for 20% off at the Waldenbooks store-closing sale in the local mall, I decided it was time to pick it up. I'd never bought or collected that comic series when it was being published, so I'm going to enjoy reading this.

Star Wars: Infinities - A New Hope (published by Dark Horse Comics) -- This is another one that had caught my eye when it was published several years ago. I've always liked "what if" stories, and this is one that suggests what might have happened if Luke's proton torpedo run at the first Death Star hadn't succeeded. This was probably the sweetest deal of the day ... its original price was $12.95, and I got it for just $3.99! It'll be quite fun to read this one too.

So, as you can see, The Force was definitely with me during my shopping rounds last weekend ... and now I've got plenty of reading material to tide me over for quite awhile ... if I can ever remember to read during my idle time, that is.


The Adventures of Captain Tight-Pants

"A priest, a hooker, and a mental patient are hiding out on a spaceship that's run by a cowboy." Let's face it, nobody other than Joss Whedon, the mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, could make a thoroughly cool, enjoyable, and smart -- and, consequently, short-lived -- TV series whose premise sounds like a crappy, off-color joke. A friend of mine had convinced me to start watching Buffy on DVD several years ago (awhile after the show had ended), and I made it through three seasons plus the first season of Angel before I lost interest, and that had been the extent of my exposure to Whedon's work; I wasn't sufficiently intrigued by the premise of Dollhouse to even try it out.

What took me so long to give Firefly a spin, you ask? It certainly wasn't an aversion to Joss Whedon -- anyone who can keep a guy, who's not a fan of vampire stories, watching vampire stories for three-and-a-half seasons deserves major kudos. It has mostly to do with the fact that I like my sci-fi shows set in an idealistic future: the all-humankind-living-in-peace, I'd-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing optimism of the Star Trek Universe speaks to me in a way that the downbeat, war-torn dystopia of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate just don't. But the few bits of buzz on the web that I didn't ignore, the rave reviews from a pair of co-workers (who, aware of my geekdom, were visibly shocked at hearing I'd never seen it), and finally an unbeatable sale price of $20 for the DVD set, convinced me that I'd put it off long enough.

When I'd first heard that Firefly was in essence a sci-fi crossed with a western, I was understandably intrigued; the one thing that kept me from laughing at the concept was knowing that the only person who could pull it off was Joss Whedon ... and pull it off he did. An intricately steampunk-styled, warts-and-all cosmos, populated with a motley assemblage of all-too-human characters whose quick and acerbic wit, punctuated by "Mandarenglish" phrases borne of an imperialistic American-Chinese alliance, and their plucky attitude makes them difficult not to root for ... what's not to like? And leave it to Whedon to dare show the outer-space POV shots with no sound effects, as scientific accuracy would demand.

The things that make this show awesome don't end there. How about the presence of Ron Glass (yeah, the guy from Barney Miller!) in the cast, and the fact that it's got a country song, complete with a banjo, as its theme? For some reason, it's taken me until disc 3 to really get into the show, but now I can hardly wait to watch the rest of it (followed of course with the Serenity feature film) ... and probably re-watch the whole thing again. Mind you, I'm not nearly as in love with it as my beloved Star Trek, and probably never will be, but at this rate it's got a real shot at becoming a favorite.


Greetings, Programs!

When the movie Tron hit theaters back in 1982, my twelve-year-old self was totally obsessed with it. I glommed onto the soundtrack album, the storybook, the action figures and toys ... if it had the Tron logo on it, I begged my parents to buy it for me. I even made myself a "computer world" outfit out of white (actually I think it was a light heather-grey) fleece, using a blue Marks-a-Lot marker to draw the circuits all over it ... even topped it with a makeshift helmet that I fashioned from something I now can't remember ... and of course, I had to have an "identity disk" (frisbee) to complete the ensemble. It was crap compared to the work of art that The Tron Guy came up with, but for me it was just perfect.

So, considering I was so in love with Tron as a kid, you'd think that I'd have been first in line (camped out for days before, even) to see the long-awaited and recently-released sequel, Tron: Legacy -- especially since I'd been wondering for years before it was announced what mind-blowing things they could do with Tron if it were remade nowadays ... but no, I didn't see it until this past weekend, a month into its run. Hey, an adult does have more going on in his life than a 12-year-old does, making "getting around to" things take a little longer, but still, shouldn't I have been chomping at the bit more than I was? I usually only see one movie, maybe two, per year on the big screen, so by that measure I did go out of my way to see Tron: Legacy as soon as I could.

I guess what it comes down to is that I was afraid I'd be disappointed. So many movies nowadays sacrifice the substance of a story for the style of eye-popping digital effects, assuming that the audience won't notice (and, as far as the roughly under-20 demographic is concerned, their assumption would be correct). But it turns out that the writers of Tron: Legacy took the care to provide enough of a story to satisfy those of us who get bored with too much visual razzle-dazzle, and to give it enough continuity with the original film to satisfy those of us who have been waiting 28 years to see whatever became of Kevin Flynn and company.

Now, I knew before I even set out for the movie theater that I wasn't going to be blown away by the visuals in Tron: Legacy nearly as much as I was by those in the original film. After all, digital effects were in their infancy back then, and no movie audience had ever seen anything like Tron before. By contrast, digital imagery has not only grown by leaps and bounds -- if it can be conceived, it can be put to film -- but is also so ubiquitous that it's got to be seriously impressive to make a lasting impression on the audience. But the makers of Tron: Legacy were smart ... they knew that, as far as the visuals are concerned, less is more. Case in point: arguably the biggest light-show of the original film, the main character's transition from meatspace into cyberspace, was understated here -- shortened from over 60 seconds down to about 2, and consisting only of a comparatively colorless but still kind-of trippy 3-D pixelation sort of thing.

Whereas the live-action elements of the computer-world scenes in the original film were photographed on a "blank" stage àla green-screen, with all the digital scenery inserted photographically in post-production (remember: there was no digital film editing back then!), the actor-centric scenes in the virtual world of Tron: Legacy were filmed on actual sets, with only the finishing touches (the glowing trim of the costumes, the digital landscapes, etc.) added in later. That adds a certain "realness" to the scenes that no amount of digital trickery can replicate. The same is true of the digitally de-aged face of Jeff Bridges, used quite necessarily for the Kevin Flynn flashbacks and the central presence of his program, Clu -- impressive and splendidly done, but there's something about the human face that will never be convincingly faked by computers.

All in all, I rather enjoyed Tron: Legacy, and I considered it a perfectly fine payoff for the 28-year wait. It had a sufficiently substantial story, impressive visuals (up to and including the studly Garrett Hedlund himself), and enough nostalgia thrown in to make us '80s kids happy. There was a Journey song playing on the arcade's jukebox (Journey recorded a song especially for the first movie), lines of dialogue from the original film were uttered on a few occasions, and seeing good ol' Bruce Boxleitner reprising his role of Alan Bradley was like seeing a favorite uncle I hadn't seen in 20 years. Sure, it wasn't a perfect movie, but Kevin Flynn wouldn't have it any other way (you've gotta see the movie to get that reference).

End of line.


Irvin Kershner: 1923 - 2010

Sad news: Irvin Kershner, most famous to us as the director of The Empire Strikes Back and RoboCop 2, has passed away at the age of 87. He was also an instructor at the USC film school, and none other than George Lucas was amongst his students. May the Force be with you, Mr. Kershner.

(Photo found by way of BrickTuts.)


Welcome To The 24th Century

Holy crap! Holy crap! Did you know about this? I didn't until yesterday! Holy crap!! If I'd known about this earlier, I wouldn't have bought the last dozen or so CDs I did buy (well, not necessarily the last consecutive dozen, but a dozen) and would have saved up for this instead! But I still bought it anyway, 'cause I just gotta have it. Seriously, I honestly don't know how I would be able to go on living without having this in my possession as soon as humanly possible. Want to know what it is? Maybe you'd better sit down, 'cause I myself had a geek-out on a transphasic level when I found out about this.

It's a limited-edition box set of not four, not six ... no, not even eight ... no, keep going ... would you believe a whopping 14 -- yes -- FOURTEEN CDs jam-packed with never-before-released music from dozens of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation! Devoted solely to the work of Ron Jones, who traded off scoring duties with Dennis McCarthy through the first four seasons of TNG, "Star Trek: The Next Generation -- The Ron Jones Project" includes nearly every note written and recorded for 42 of the series' first 94 episodes (the score for "The Best of Both Worlds" two-parter is already available on the GNP Crescendo label, so just some bonus tracks from it are included here) plus numerous outtakes, as well as a disc devoted to his work for a pair of Trek video games released later.

The panicked evacuation of the Enterprise in "11001001" ... the tearful farewell of Tasha Yar in "Skin of Evil" ... the appearance of the Romulans in "The Neutral Zone" ... Riker's escape from the Mintakans in "Who Watches The Watchers" ... the terrorist attack on the ship in "The High Ground" ... Lal's tragic demise in "The Offspring" ... the perilous journey across the arid wasteland in "Final Mission" ... they're all cues that I've been waiting 20 years to hear unobscured by dialogue and sound effects, and now's my chance! With this doozy of a package being limited to a production run of just 5,000, I couldn't waste any time in seizing the opportunity to add it to my collection, since the price is certain to only start going up on the aftermarket.

Widely regarded as the best composer that Star Trek: The Next Generation ever had, Ron Jones was known for delivering sweeping, attention-grabbing, feature-film-worthy scores for countless episodes. The problem was that TNG's producers didn't want attention-grabbing music; they wanted the episodes' scores to lay quietly in the background. So after almost four full years of flying in the face of the producers' demands, Jones was fired and replaced by Jay Chattaway (quite a dandy composer in his own right, to give credit where it's due). But I always thought the Trek producers were not only making their episodes just a bit less memorable by taming down the music, but they were also forsaking a perfectly good merchandising outlet. Fans have been clamoring for Ron Jones' scores to be commercially available for years, and I have to wonder how many CD sales they missed out on by missing that opportunity and never licensing retail releases until all these years later.

If you can't live without it, like I couldn't, this incomparably amazing Trek-a-thon of music will set you back a healthy $150 (plus shipping), but at 14 CDs that ends up coming out to less than $11 per disc, which is a great price, especially for something that's a limited-edition collectible like this. It's available for purchase now at SAE and at Intrada, and further information is available from the Film Score Monthly website (and thanks to them for the links to the audio clips!). A friend of mine has all but challenged me to bundle it up in giftwrap when it arrives and not open it until Christmas morning ... but that's gonna be a really tough test of my will.


Your Friend In Time...

It's hard to believe that it's been a quarter-century since Marty McFly hit 88 miles per hour and flux-capacitored his way into movie history with Back To The Future. I can remember when I was a teenager -- much more of a geek than I am now, come to think of it -- and my family and I took a seven-week vacation to Europe. What was one of the few things I can remember taking along with me to keep me company? It was a Walkman cassette player and (along with other tapes, at least I hope) two cassettes onto which I had recorded the audio portion of the entire Back To The Future movie. I must have listened to those a half-dozen times over the course of that vacation, I was so bored otherwise.

Needless to say, I couldn't go without picking up the brand new 25th-Anniversary edition of the Back To The Future trilogy on DVD. I can't wait to see all the deleted scenes and new bonus features they've packed into this set, not the least of which is, finally, long-rumored actual footage of Eric Stoltz in the role of Marty. And of course there's the neatest extra of all -- here's my geekiness shining through again -- digital copies of all three movies, which I can load onto my iPod if I want to! It's full circle in a way ... I have to wonder what my younger self, armed with mere cassettes of only the movie's sound, would think if he could have in the palm of his hand full-color video and stereo sound of not just the first movie, but of many others, not to mention hundreds of albums of music!?!

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. This was a groundbreaking movie series in a number of ways, one of which being that it was the first one for which more than one sequel was filmed back-to-back (The Matrix is the most noteworthy other example), and it was also one of the first -- and certainly the first with such broad appeal -- to successfully integrate science-fiction with comedy to such an extent that the movie can fit neatly into either genre; Ghostbusters, Innerspace, and Men In Black picked up on the idea and ran with it. Part II definitely laid on the sci-fi a bit more strongly, what with its frequent and potentially confusing references to paradoxes and hopscotching between time periods, and Part III was an almost completely different movie altogether, with a decidedly Western feel and an almost fully self-contained story (not to mention a supporting role by the always enjoyable Mary Steenburgen).

But then, I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know about the best time-travel movie ever made. Suffice to say I love each and every chapter of the adventures of Marty and Doc, I'll probably sit down and watch the first of the three tonight ... and I'm very soon going to secure my digital copies, too!