Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cost of going to college getting steeper, student debt growing larger

Since the late 1940s - as a result of the passage (in 1944) of what is colloquially known as the GI Bill - Americans have been brought up to believe that almost universal availability of a college degree is the Golden Key to attaining the American Dream.  For the young men (and women) of the Greatest Generation, their kids and grandkids, the idea that going to a college or university and earning a degree practically guarantees success in getting a good-paying job, owning a house, and the ability to raise well-educated children has been drummed into our collective consciousness that it almost seems like an inalienable birthright.

From my perspective, although there are many grains of truth to the Great American College Myth, it seems to me that going to college and earning a bachelor's or post-graduate degree is less a guarantee of getting a well-rounded education and attaining financial security and more of a quixotic endeavor that does more harm than good.

According to Time magazine reporter Kayla Webber's article, College Graduates Face Record-High Debt In the Age of Record-High Unemployment (Time magazine, November 14, 2011):

"The news just keeps getting worse for college graduates. According to a report out today from the Project on Student Debt, college seniors who graduated with student loans in 2010 owed an average of $25,250—the highest level ever recorded and a 5% increase from the previous year.Those debt-carrying graduates also faced an impossibly tough job market, as unemployment for new college graduates hovered at 9.1%."

Webber points out that the average student debt levels in the report do not take into account private for-profit institutions such as University of Phoenix or Kaplan University, "which often saddle their students with much more debt than a traditional college, as too few provide the data to be included in the study — meaning that the state of student debt is likely much worse than we know."

The article also cited some other findings from the report:
  • The average debt load ranged from $950 to $55,250, and the proportion of students who graduated with loans ranged from 2% to 100%
  • 98 colleges reported that their 2010 graduates owed an average of more than $35,000
  • 73 colleges reported that more than 90% of their graduates left with debt
  • The states with the highest average debt are all in the Northeast and Midwest, while states with the lowest debt are concentrated in the West
  • New Hampshire had the highest average debt at $31,048, followed by Maine with $29,983
  • Utah had the lowest average debt at $15,509, followed by Hawaii with $15,550

If that isn't enough to make one worry about one's college plans, consider the plight of Florida high school seniors and college students now attending state universities such as Florida International University. The state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 12 public universities, approved a tuition hike that averaged an increase of 15% (not every institution received the full amount) even though Gov. Rick Scott was opposed to such a move.

According to the Miami Herald, "It was a defeat for Scott, who spoke out against raising the rates when he appeared before the board on Tuesday. He said he was disappointed.

" 'Tuition rates have risen 71 percent over the past four years and graduates are facing unprecedented levels of debt,' Scott said in a statement. 'We can't continue on this path.' 
"University officials, though, say the increases will still leave Florida tuition rates among the nation's lowest and that they are needed to at least partly offset a $300 million budget cut that Scott and Legislature ordered for the State University System."

Not only do high school graduates have to look forward to the many challenges inherent to college life (being on their own for the first time, balancing work with studies, dating, the daily grind of academia, tough professors and even tougher exams and term papers), but now they face the prospect of graduating from college, knee-deep in debt...and in a still-stagnant job market.

Read more here:

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Prequels don't suck; they're just not as great as the Classic Star Wars Trilogy (review)

On November 4, 2008, roughly seven years after Lucasfilm Limited and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the two-disc DVD set of Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and slightly four years after the unveiling of the somewhat controversial Star Wars Trilogy box set, the two companies went ahead and issued the first box set of Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy in tandem with a redesigned Star Wars Trilogy box set comprised of the 2006 Limited Edition DVDs which contain – due to high demand from fans – both the enhanced Special Edition and original theatrical release versions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

For some reason, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment waited a bit over three years to produce a box set of the Prequels – Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – which had previously been released in separate 2-DVD sets.

(A careful search of either Epinions or its parent site shows that some stores offer “bundles” of the 2001 The Phantom Menace and 2002 Attack of the Clones original DVD releases , and Amazon often offers low-priced deals if customers buy the three separate sets in the same order.)

What's New?  

As is often the case with DVD reissues, the big differences between the 2008 Star Wars Prequel Trilogy box set and the original "individual two-disc" 2001-2005 DVD releases are in packaging and price.

In addition to being bundled together in a Sith-themed slipcover dominated by a Drew Struzan illustration of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber duel and featuring dark side-related red, orange and black colors,Episodes I, II and III now come in the same space-saving slimcases used in many multi-disc sets a la 24: Seasons 5 and 6.
These slimcases I prefer because they don't have any parts that wear out or can break, and they also take up a bit less shelf space than the traditional DVD cases.

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy box set is also now a bit more affordable; if you have not yet bought any of the Star Wars DVDs or if you want to purchase a "backup" set to tide you over until the inevitable ultimate collection of all six Episodes is released in the high-definition Blu-ray format, getting this box set is a good option.

Consider: I purchased the original DVD editions of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith at Amazon for what was then a reasonable $22.00 each.  (That's $66.00, plus shipping and handling).  Currently, Amazon is selling the entire trilogy at $38.99. which is 22% less than 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's MSRP of $49.99.  (The older DVD editions are, of course, still being sold and are a bit cheapernow, but even if purchased at their current $14.99 prices, the complete trilogy will still cost $45.00 - $6.00 more than the 2008 box set.)

What's Old?

If you own the 2001, 2002 and 2005 two-disc editions (Disc 1 with the feature film, Disc 2 with the extra features) and hope to find anything new added to the 2008 re-issues, forget it.  With the exception of the slipcover and slimmer DVD two-disc cases, you're going to get exactly the same content. The feature films and extra features have no revised materials.

The 2-disc sets even have the same "blurbs" on the back panels of the slim DVD cases as the original 2001-2005 "first editions" with minor edits to reflect the changing times (Episode I no longer boasts its For the first time on DVD status here).  

My Take : 
Although I own the original 2001-2005 DVDs, I decided to get this Star Wars Prequel Trilogy box set anyway.  First, the wear-and-tear factor has crept in; the little stud which holds Disc 1 to its tray in the Episode Ipackage is worn out and no longer grips the movie disc securely.  This has forced me to swap the Feature Film disc with the Extra Features disc, since I really hate it when a good movie gets so badly scratched that it needs to be replaced. (So far, the Extra Features disc hasn't gotten too many dings, but it does get jostled whenever I takeThe Phantom Menace from its place on my DVD shelves....)

Also, people do ask me to lend them my movies from time to time, and though so far I've always gotten them back in good shape, I consider the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies to be my "crown jewels" and tend to be overprotective of them, so a backup set seems to be a good investment...just in case something untoward doeshappen.

On the whole, this set will appeal more to consumers who are first-time buyers of either the Prequel and/or Classic Trilogy or Star Wars fans who like Episodes I-III and want a just-in-case backup DVD compilation to tide them over until the definitive Blu-ray editions – with new extra features and interviews – come out.

For reviews on the individual Prequel films, please see:

Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Recommended: Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children up Ages 

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Extended Editions of "The Lord of the Rings" go Blu....(Blu-ray box set review)

Pros:Visually stunning HD remastering; more in step with source novelCons:Might be too long for non-Tolkien fans; otherwise noneThe Bottom Line:As good as Peter Jackson's adaptations of The Lord of the Rings books are, these Extended Edition versions are even better.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals no details about the movie's plot.

Author’s Note: This review is solely based on 2011’s  The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition Blu-ray Collection.  There will be some comments on plot and characters in the critiques, but no reviews of the films themselves.

Although I have always been more of a Star Wars/Star Trek buff than a high fantasy one,  I’ve been a casual fan of John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories – primarily The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - ever since I saw Ralph Bakshi’s laudable 1978 animated adaptation of the latter novel during its theatrical release.

Though Bakshi’s film only encompassed parts of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and ended abruptly in mid-tale – it had been originally titled J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Part One – its tale of how the hobbit Frodo Baggins and eight companions set out on a perilous quest to destroy an evil being’s magic ring intrigued me enough to want to read Tolkien’s literary trilogy.

I was still in middle school at the time and not yet aware of the differences between books and their celluloid adaptations, so when I tried to tackle The Fellowship of the Ring in the two weeks which I had to read it (I had checked it out from the school library), I was overwhelmed by its complex mythology, characters and situations that had not been included in the film, and all of Tolkien’s songs and poetry.

A few years later, when I was about to graduate from high school, I bought a four-book collection which included both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  I found that The Hobbit was easier to read – it is after all, a children’s book – and The Lord of the Rings requires a great deal of time and patience to get through its tapestry of adventure, mythology and literary themes.

Indeed, I spent most of the summer of 1983 reading The Lord of the Rings; it took me about two months to get from The Fellowship of the Ring to The Return of the King – a feat made possible only by skipping some of the poems, songs and the chapter in which Tom Bombadil appears.

Now, even though I was – and still am – a very casual Tolkien fan, I wondered if Ralph Bakshi would ever be allowed to complete his animated version, but unfortunately that project never got green-lit.  (Rankin-Bass, the animation studio which had made a TV adaptation of The Hobbit in the ‘70s, did produce a made-for-TV movie based on The Return of the King, but it wasn’t as well done as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.)

Peter Jackson Tackles Tolkien

Bakshi’s film – incomplete as it is – did have an audience back in 1978, and one of its fans was a New Zealand teenager named Peter Jackson, who became a devotee of Tolkien’s legendarium – which is his far larger saga of Middle-earth, of which The Lord of the Rings is only a small part.

Jackson - who also was a Star Wars fan - eventually went on to study film-making and became a director of indie movies along the lines of Bad Taste (1987) and Heavenly Creatures (1994).

In the 1990s, Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh approached Miramax Films with a two-part script for a live-action adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  That project eventually went nowhere, but Miramax honchos Bob and Harvey Weinstein supported Jackson’s ensuing deal with New Line Cinema – a subsidiary of Time-Warner – which encompassed a three-film adaptation instead of the condensed two-part project originally pitched.

The entire three-film project was shot in New Zealand over a four year period, with all of the principal photography done in a 16-month span of time and with “pickups” and re-shoots of scenes being carried out from time to time until 2003.

Jackson, Walsh and co-writer Philippa Boyens condensed much of Tolkien’s 1,000-plus page novel and restructured its plot so The Lord of the Rings could work well as a screen story.

Many of Tolkien’s characters and situations were either excised or reduced in scope, and some events were moved around to make the story clearer and faster paced. Still, the theatrical releases of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King have running times of  178, 179 and 201 minutes respectively.

Obviously, some of Tolkien’s devoted readers have stated that Jackson’s films only scratch the surface of the author’s literary opus and that they are more action-oriented than they are character-driven.

Jackson – to give him credit – says that the movies he made are just one possible interpretation; in the behind-the-scenes documentary “From Book to Script” he points out that (a) Tolkien himself thought The Lord of the Rings is un-filmable “as is” and (b) that a full-on adaptation would be a mess.

Nevertheless, as good as the theatrical movies ended up becoming – The Return of the King alone won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, becoming the first fantasy movie in film history to earn the top Oscar prizes – some of the criticisms aimed at them hit the mark.

Not only are some of the lighter, more humorous aspects of the story reduced or missing, but the ending of one major character’s story arc – Christopher Lee’s Saruman – is anticlimactic and very unsatisfactory.

Jackson and his production team, however, knew that the then-new DVD format would give them an opportunity to expand the films’ story and add depth to its characters and plot just enough to make The Lord of the Rings a bit more in line with Tolkien’s vision without deviating too much from the theatrical versions which were already out on DVD.

In collaboration with editor John Gilbert, Peter Jackson evaluated material which had not been used in the original editions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.   They painstakingly reworked this material, some of it shot in the “pickups” phase of secondary photography, so that it would blend in seamlessly with the existing versions of the three films.

Once the editing process was finished, composer Howard Shore composed and recorded an all-new version of the musical score so that the Extended Editions would flow naturally instead of seeming as though the new visuals and music had been simply tacked on as an afterthought.

Packaging and Content

Like 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment/Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Complete Saga 2011 box set, The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition has a book-themed slipcover made of heavy cardboard and made to look like a one-volume hardcover edition of the novel. The front “cover” is actually a flap which swings open to reveal the three five-disc BD jewel boxes. When opened, the flap reveals a group poster photo of the Fellowship of the Ring’s main heroes where the book’s table of contents would be, and the frontispiece illustration is a map of Middle-earth.

The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition box set consists of 15 discs; six BDs hold the three Extended Editions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, while The Appendices are contained in nine DVDs.  Each movie comes in its individual five-disc BD jewel case container, with appropriate cover art and back cover blurb labels.

The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition consists of the following discs:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring feature, Extended Edition – Part 1 (BD)

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North – The Untold Story Trailer

Director and writers
Design team
Production and post production teams


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring feature, Extended Edition – Part 2 (BD)

Director and writers
Design team
Production and post production teams


The Appendices
Part 1 From Book to Vision (DVD)
Peter Jackson Introduction
J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Middle-earth
From Book to Script
Visualizing the Story
Designing and Building Middle-earth
Middle-earth Atlas Interactive
New Zealand and Middle-earth Interactive

The Appendices Part 2 From Vision to Reality (DVD)
Elijah Wood Introduction
Filming The Fellowship of the Ring
Visual Effects
Post Production: Putting It All Together
Digital Grading
Sound and Music
The Road Goes Ever On…

Behind-the-scenes documentary created by filmmaker Costa Botes during filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (DVD)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers feature, Extended Edition – Part 1 (BD)

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North – The Untold Story Trailer
Director and writers
Design team
Production and post production teams


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers feature, Extended Edition – Part 2 (BD)

Director and writers
Design team
Production and post production teams


The Appendices Part 3: The Journey Continues (DVD)
Peter Jackson Introduction
JRR Tolkien: Origin of Middle-earth
From Book to Script: Finding the Story
Designing and Building Middle-earth
Middle-earth Atlas
InteractiveNew Zealand as Middle-earth

The Appendices Part 4: The Battle for Middle-earth (DVD)
Elijah Wood Introduction
Filming The Two Towers
Visual Effects
Editorial: Refining the Story
Music and Sound
The Battle for Helm's Deep is Over…

Behind-the-scenes documentary created by filmmaker Costa Botes during filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (DVD)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King feature, Extended Edition – Part 1 (BD)
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North – The Untold Story Trailer
Director and writers
Design team
Production and post production teams


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King feature, Extended Edition – Part 2 (BD)

Director and writers
Design team
Production and post production teams


The Appendices Part 5: The War of the Ring (DVD)
Peter Jackson Introduction
JRR Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth
From Book to Script
Designing and Building Middle-earth
Home of the Horse Lords
Middle-earth Atlas
New Zealand as Middle-earth

The Appendices Part 6: The Passing of an Age (DVD)
Filming The Return of the King
Visual Effects
Post-Production: Journey´s End
The Passing of an Age
Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for Into the West

Behind-the-scenes documentary created by filmmaker Costa Botes during filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King(DVD)

Note: Though (as in the case of the Star Wars: The Complete Saga BD set's Bonus Discs 1 and 2) the Appendices can be watched as long three-hour documentaries with branching galleries of still photos and drawings included, viewers can watch the individual featurettes one-by-one in no particular order.

Additionally, each five-disc set comes with a booklet which contains some behind-the-scenes text on the Extended Editions, plus a chapter list and a flowchart-like contents guide to the Appendices discs.

My Take:  Although The Lord of the Rings is far from being my all-time favorite movie series and I was mostly content with owning the DVDs (and Blu-rays) of the original theatrical versions, I decided to use my Amazon Visa Rewards points to get the 15-disc The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition at Amazon.

Now, I recently received as a Christmas gift the Blu-ray disc (BD) versions of the 2001-2003 theatrical editions and I have just finished watching them.  I still find them impressive and enjoyable, but knowing that there was a box set titled The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition priced at $49.00 (and that I could snag it with my rewards points) spurred me on to get it.

My decision to get The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition was based mostly on my reaction to the previews I have seen on the original DVD releases which promise what amounts to be all-new movies which make the theatrical versions seem like Reader’s Digest Condensed Book editions in comparison.

(More savvy videophiles might want to get The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy – Extended Edition on BD not simply because of their content, but because the 2010 BDs of the theatrical versions have issues with their high-definition image quality; apparently the video transfer was made using an older master.)

Like many viewers, I don’t normally like movies that have super-long running times, so at first I questioned my ability to sit through any one of The Extended Edition versions in one viewing session.

Then it dawned on me that home video formats of the 21st Century are more suited for watching longer movies than their 20th Century videotape forebears or even their in-theater original versions.  With the former, you could pause or stop the videotape if you had to go to the bathroom or get more snacks from the fridge, but that was about it, and with the latter, if you got up in the middle of a scene when nature called, you would have to miss a huge chunk of a movie no matter how fast you went and did your business.

Now, with the help from the Select a Scene option on a BD or DVD, a Tolkien buff (casual or die-hard) doesn’t have to watch the now-228 minute long version of The Fellowship of the Ring in one or two sittings.  The movie can now be approached very much like the novel – to be enjoyed at one’s leisure.

For the record, Jackson and his team have either restored scenes not included in the theatrical versions or extended some existing ones.  This means that the movies have longer running times, which are listed as follows:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – was 178 minutes long in its original version; had over 30 minutes’ worth of material added for a total running time of 228 minutes.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – was 179 minutes long in its theatrical edition; the Extended Edition now clocks in at 235 minutes.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – the longest of the original films with a running time of 201 minutes (that’s three hours and 21 minutes, folks) has had nearly an hour added to it.  The Extended Edition lasts 263 from fade in to the last of the fan club credits.

(Fan club credits are lists of The Lord of the Ring fans who paid $35.00 apiece for the privilege of appearing on The Extended Editions’ DVD credits.)

Considering that I’m not a huge Tolkien buff, I have to admit that Jackson’s huge gambles – first in making the original versions of The Lord of the Rings films, then in producing these longer editions – paid off nicely for both the artist and the audience.

Obviously, the Jackson-Walsh-Boyens team does not attempt to recreate Tolkien’s entire novel to appease The Lord of the Rings’ most ardent fans.  Characters such as Tom Bombadil, Fatty Bolger and the Elf Glorfindel have either been left out altogether or their roles minimized (the not-in-the-movie character Glorfindel’s important material has been handed over to Liv Tyler’s Arwen), and scenes, characters and dialogue moved around to fit the movie’s cinematic needs and speed up the story somewhat.

However, each film now has more story and character development that is richer and more satisfying than in its original version, as well as more in tune to Tolkien’s writing.

For instance, The Fellowship of the Ring now features a longer beginning based on the book’s Concerning Hobbits preface, while The Return of the King gives us a more complete version of the aftermath of the Battle of Isengard (which was the climax of Saruman’s story arc in The Two Towers).


Recommended: Yes

Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey grapple with issues of science vs. faith in Contact (Movie Review)

When most of us talk about the genre labeled "science fiction"  or "sci-fi," we often associate it with such movies or franchises as Independence Day, Star Trek and/or Star Wars, with perhaps a nod to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind thrown in almost as a distracted coda.

Star Wars, of course, isn't true science fiction; George Lucas's multimedia franchise is better described as "space-fantasy" or "space opera" and is instead a high tech update of the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s and early 1940s.  

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (and its various spin-offs) is closer to true science fiction but it's still more of an action-adventure tale gussied up with plausible but still fantastical advanced technology (warp drive, subspace communications and transporters) which is designed to get around the limits of physics and the laws of relativity for dramatic purposes.

And Independence Day?  The 1996 blockbuster straddles the no-man's-land between space opera, Trek-like action-adventure and tip-toes, if only a few inches, into what purists consider to be true science fiction or "speculative fiction" based on real science.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) - who replaced Aussie filmmaker George Miller in mid-shoot - teamed up with screenwriters James V. Hart (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Hook, August Rush) and Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Green Lantern) to adapt Carl Sagan's 1985 novel Contact as one of Hollywood's rare sallies into the realm of sci-fi.

Starring Jodie Foster as astronomer Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway (who is also played as a young girl by Jena Malone) and Matthew McConaughey as religious scholar Joss Parker, Contact is a rarity in American cinema - a movie that asks such questions as "Is there intelligent life on other worlds in the Milky Way?" and "Can science and religion coexist, or do the two have to always clash?"

If you've read any of the late Cornell University astronomer/writer/educator's non-fiction works or watched his landmark PBS series Cosmos, you are aware that he believed that there is a credible chance that extraterrestrial life exists.  

This theme, of course, is at the core of Contact, which started out - ironically - as a screen story written by Sagan and his future wife Ann Druyan in 1980 but was turned into a novel after several years of "development" in the Hollywood system, then was finally bought as a "property" by Warner Bros. in the 1990s.

After a cool main title sequence in which we hear fragments of Earth-origin radio signals crossing the vast expanses of the galaxy, Contact begins in the early 1960s with a sequence which introduces Ellie as a precocious nine-year-old who is fascinated by her father Ted's (David Morse) ham radio and its ability to link people from all over the U.S. and the world.

Ellie asks her father - who has raised his daughter as a single parent since his wife's death - if Earth radios can receive signals from nearby planets; Ted says that with a big enough antenna, they can.  Then, setting up the movie's main theme, she asks him a deeper question:

Young Ellie: Dad, do you think there's people on other planets? 

Ted Arroway
: I don't know, Sparks. But I guess I'd say if it is just us... seems like an awful waste of space.

30 years later, we see the now-adult Ellie as a full-fledged astronomer, recently assigned to the Arecibo radio telescope observatory in Puerto Rico, where, with her blind colleague Kent Clark (William Fichtner) and others, she is working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project and listening for radio signals from other stars in the galaxy that will prove, once and for all, that we are not alone in the Universe.

While in Puerto Rico, Ellie meets and "hooks up" with Joss Parker (McConaughey), a handsome, witty and deeply religious man who describes himself as a "man of the cloth - without the cloth."  They have a civil discussion which touches the film's secondary theme (the debate between science's need for proof and religion's reliance on faith.)  

During the post-coital sequence in which Ellie and Joss exchange their views on God Versus Science, we learn that Ted passed away when Ellie was nine and that she blames herself for his death.  (In a touching if somber scene, we see the younger Ellie attempting to reach her father via their ham radio set.)

Joss is smitten by Ellie even though she is a woman of science and he is a man of faith, but she is more committed to her quest for other life in other worlds and pretty much ditches him (she doesn't even pick up a piece of paper with his phone number that he left in her bungalow).

But Ellie's quest runs into a snag of the bureaucratic kind when her boss (and chief nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerrit) cuts funding for the SETI program and tells her that she's ruining her career and life by pursuing this academic wild goose chase.

 We must confess that your proposal seems less like science and more like science fiction.

 Ellie Arroway: Science fiction. Well you're right, it's crazy. In fact, it's even worse than that, nuts.

 [angrily slams down her briefcase and marches up to the desk] 

Ellie Arroway: 
You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an "airplane," you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it's ridiculous, right? And what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon, or atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right? Look, all I'm asking, is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history... of history.
Furious and determined, Ellie decides to strike out on her own with the help of Kent and a few other fellow scientists.  She spends months seeking a sponsor with deep pockets and a visionary mind without much success - until her presentation impresses the reclusive and eccentric S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), a cross between Bill Gates, Howard Hughes and George Soros. 

With Hadden's generous grants and the aid of her motley crew of techies and astronomers, Ellie gets access to the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes in New Mexico to search the skies for those elusive alien radio signals.  And for four years - presumably during the first Clinton Administration - the results are negligible and Durbin persuades the government to get the SETI team out of the VLA.

Under the gun of a three-month deadline before she must leave the VLA looming, Ellie goes out at night to listen to the stars - and finally, as she always dreamed she would, she hears something that is clearly not mere galactic background radiation or static.

My Take:  
Contact is one of those movies that, like Kubrick's 2001 and Spielberg's Close Encounters, asks cosmic questions, stirs up some debates, provides audiences with spectacular vistas and serves as an antidote to big budget space adventures which depend on noisy battles, screaming spaceships and simple storylines along the lines of Independence Day.

If you watch Contact, you'll notice that Zemeckis and his crew were deeply influenced by 2001 (indeed, the cast and crew watched the 1968 classic in pre-production).  It tackles - with far more dialogue and many more characters - some of 2001's nuances and much of its pacing.  Even when Earth follows up on Ellie's discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence and sends out an emissary to seek it out, Contact steers clear of "full disclosure" about how and why some races managed to discover faster-than-light travel and what happens after the movie fades to black.

also borrows several pages from 2001 and Close Encounters when it highlights the tensions between scientists' need for openness and the government's near-manic concern for national security.  This is personalized by the conflict between Ellie, Hadden and her colleagues with National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (James Woods), who wants to keep a lid on Ellie's discovery and all its consequences lest the aliens pose a threat to the United States.

Where Contact sometimes gets a bit bogged down is when it delves into its other Big Theme, the Fact Versus Faith Debate.

Though by and large the opposite ends of the spectrum are represented in a rational manner by the relationship between the agnostic Ellie and the Christian Joss, the film's one violent villain is a cartoonishly-exaggerated "religious nutcase" played by Jake Busey without any nuances beyond being a more-Fundamentalist-than-Jerry Falwell type.  One look at this man's wild stare and predatory grin marks him an American Osama Bin Laden type, which is a bit offputting (even though there are people with this world view in the U.S. and elsewhere.)

is also leisurely paced, with a running time of 149 minutes. It doesn't seem as glacially slow as some parts of 2001, but it requires tolerance for a complex plot and lots of character development that a film such as Star Trek would eschew in lieu of action sequences and space battles. 

was the source of some controversy when (a) it tweaked footage of then-President  Bill Clinton's speech about a Mars rock found on Earth back in the mid-1990s to make it look as though he is talking about the alien radio signal, and (b) when several CNN reporters and anchorpersons appeared as themselves but as part of the movie's scenario.  The White House attempted to take some form of legal action but nothing came of it.  

However, after Contact, CNN stopped allowing its reporting staff from moonlighting in feature films as themselves in their company roles and limited Hollywood studios' use of its well-known logo because the Atlanta cable news organization feared that people would perceive it was actively sponsoring a commercial product. 

Despite its weak points and sometimes all-too-leisurely pace, Contact is a well-done and interesting science fiction film.  It features good special effects supervised by Ken Ralston (who worked on several of George Lucas'sStar Wars movies), including a magnificent opening sequence which makes good use of early CGI techniques.

As for the acting in Contact,  Foster, McConaughey, Fichtner, Skerrit, Morse, Woods, Angela Bassett and the rest of the cast - except Jake Busey - turn in good, solid performances and give their characters emotional and intellectual depth.

The film also features a nifty score by long-time Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri, who has also composed music for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future trilogy.  Though not as operatic as John Williams' scores for Star Wars or Close Encounters, Silvestri's themes and cues convey the beauty and vastness of space and the grandeur of the human adventure to explore the unknown.   

This movie sometimes can get pretentious and bogged down by its Cosmic Questions themes, but on the whole,Contact is an effective, intriguing and mind-expanding science fiction film that speaks to viewers who want to watch a "space movie" that is not about evil aliens, battling starships or big, loud explosions.

Recommended: Yes

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hasbro Star Wars Luke Skywalker 100th Figure

At the heart of the original Star Wars trilogy, amidst the epic battles between the evil Galactic Empire and Rebel Alliance, is the journey Luke Skywalker makes from his humble Tatooine farm boy roots to hero of the Alliance and, more importantly, to becoming a Jedi Knight. In classic mythological and storytelling terms, Luke's role is that of the Hero on a Noble Quest, propelled into action by a captive Princess' call for help, helped along by a wise mentor and a motley crew of friends, and, along the way, confront and ultimately redeem his father, the fallen Jedi-turned-Sith Lord Darth Vader.

Knowing all this, I thought it was quite proper that Hasbro chose Luke Skywalker as its 100th 12-inch scale Action Collection figure. Yes, Han Solo is the more contemporary character in the Classic Trilogy, getting some of the best lines -- and the Princess' heart -- in the films A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, but just as the current prequels are Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader's story, the Classic Trilogy is Luke's.

Even though I am a big fan of the Star Wars franchise, I made a conscious decision early on to limit my Star Wars collection to the 3.75-inch "action figures" and their accessories for both financial and space limitations. With figures selling (back in 1978) at $1.99 and basic vehicles selling for $15.00 (the Millennium Falcon vehicle set me back the then-exorbitant amount of $29.99), I knew I had to avoid being a completist as far as collecting went. Thus I didn't go for buying the larger 12-inch action figures until very recently.

As I might have mentioned in my review of the Hasbro Power of the Jedi Sith Lords 2-pack, my large-size action figure (a term invented by Hasbro way back in the early 1960s as a marketing tool to sell the original GI Joe; it was coined because no self-respecting male child would be caught dead playing with dolls!) collection is very small compared to my 200 or so 3.75-inch figures from all the Kenner/Hasbro lines starting from 1978 to the present. In addition to the Darth Vader and Darth Maul Sith Lords, I also own Princess Leia in Ceremonial Gown, Anakin Skywalker (as seen in the very end of the original version of Return of the Jedi), and Luke Skywalker (as seen in A New Hope.)

Hasbro, knowing full well who its main audience is, made this "commemorative figure" incredibly difficult to resist. (Maybe the marketing division found a Jedi Holocron and learned how to use the mind trick?) The package is very attractive, sporting the blacks, greens, and gold of its 2000-2002 Power of the Jedi line and offering a wonderfully sculpted likeness of Luke Skywalker wearing his Tatooine moisture farmer outfit -- complete with poncho and boots -- and grasping a long barreled blaster rifle. That in itself is impressive and would have pleased most collectors.

But, as so many TV sales pitches would put it, "wait, there's more!" Not only does young Skywalker come with his basic outfit and the long laser rifle that failed to survive that run-in with a Tusken Raider's gaffi stick, but also he is literally surrounded by all kinds of accessories:

Hand-held blaster
Blast shield helmet
Training remote with stand
Imperial blaster
Stormtrooper Comlink
Grappling hook/cord
Desert hat (from scenes filmed for A New Hope but deleted, you can see the outfit on the publicity shot on the back cover of the package)
Stormtrooper belt
X-wing outfit
Flight helmet
Data cylinders
Life support unit
Gear harness
Flak vest
Flight boots

All of the extras are authentically detailed, down to the weathered scuff marks on Luke's Rebel-issue X-wing flight helmet, remaining true to the Star Wars movies' trademark "worn and used" look that was so atypical of science fiction films, in which most ships looked scrubbed clean and futuristic.

Hasbro recommends this toy for children ages 4 and up. There are plenty of small parts that could pose a choking hazard, so it's not safe for children under 3. However, given the price of this figure ($50.00 when it first appeared in toy stores in 2000) and the unique "commemorative figure" status -- not to mention its value as a collectible -- I really think this action figure is best appreciated by older kids or adult collectors who like to show off their figures as neat displayable conversation pieces.

Recommended: Yes

Amount Paid (US$): 50.00
Type of Toy: Action Figure
Age Range of Child: Kids to Teens

Monday, June 4, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Episode 21: The Arsenal of Freedom

This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

The Arsenal of Freedom
Stardate 41798.2 (Earth Calendar Year 2364)
Original Air Date: April 11, 1988
Written by Richard Manning and Hans Beimler
Story by Maurice Hurley and Robert Lewin
Directed by Les Landau
On stardate 41798.2, the Galaxy-class Starship USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), under the command of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), arrives at Minos, a Class M world located in the Lorenze Cluster.  Her assignment: to find any trace of the missing USS Drake (NCC-20381), a Federation starship of the Wambundu class commanded by Capt. Paul Rice (Marco Rodriguez).

For the Enterprise’s First Officer, Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), the disappearance of the Drake is of interest on both a professional and personal level, for not only is Capt. Rice a friend of Riker’s from their Academy days, but Riker had been offered command of the Drake, an assignment he had turned down to serve aboard theEnterprise.

The Enterprise scans Minos for life signs and finds none, but apparently the ship’s sensor sweeps trigger off  a hailing message froman automated Peddler (Vincent Schiavelli), which apparently was recorded during the Erselrope Wars.

"If you need a little something 'special', be it for one target, or multiple targets, we got it, you'll see it here on Minos, where we live by the motto, 'Peace through superior firepower'.
" - The Peddler, in the automated message played to Enterprise

Riker assembles an away team that includes Security Chief Lt. Natasha Yar (Denise Crosby) and Ops Chief Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) and beams down to Minos.

On the surface, the away team finds shards of molten tritanium, a super-dense metal used in the construction of Starfleet vessels, as well as a sophisticated weapon mount sited on a structure’s ruins. 

Because tritanium is over 20 times as dense as a diamond, Tasha muses that any weapon strong enough to melt it requires a highly advanced technology level that is beyond any known by the Federation and its allies.

Shortly thereafter, Riker is amazed to see his friend, Capt. Rice, emerging from the bushes.  The two chat amiably for a while, but the Enterprise first officer begins to feel that something is wrong when Rice starts asking questions about the Federation flagship’s defensive capabilities. 

His suspicions reinforced by readings which indicate a power buildup in the same area where Rice is standing, Riker evades Rice’s questions in ways which Capt. James T. Kirk would have applauded:

"Tell me about your ship, Riker. It's the Enterprise, isn't it?"
"No... the name of my ship is the... Lollipop."
"I have no knowledge of that ship."
"It's just been commissioned. It's a good ship." - Rice's hologram and Riker

Riker’s instincts are correct: the real Paul Rice has been killed by a Minosian superweapon and his image duplicated by the weapon’s computer systems in order to create an intelligence-gathering hologram.

When the Rice-illusion is revealed to be false, the Minosian weapon  –  an Echo Papa 607 drone – drops all its pretense and attacks the away team.  Tasha destroys it with her phaser, but not before the Echo Papa unit encases Riker in a force bubble that can’t be penetrated by Federation technology.

After all efforts to beam Riker aboard the Enterprise fail, Capt. Picard and Chief Medical Officer Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) transport down to the planet surface in attempt to assist the beleaguered away team, leaving navigator Geordi La Forge  (LeVar Burton) in temporary command of the Enterprise…..

My Take:  
Even though The Arsenal of Freedom is one of the better episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation’ssomewhat uneven first season, it does have some weak points that bear some scrutiny.

Like most of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its fellow spinoffs, The Arsenal of Freedomfollows an A-B story structure, with the main story taking place on Minos and a secondary (but dramatically-linked) plot set aboard Enterprise.  Arsenal’s A-storyline focuses on the away team’s efforts to switch off the Minosian Peddler’s automated weapons system and return to the Enterprise, while the B-story deals with Geordi’s efforts to assert his command authority in the face of Chief Engineer Logan’s (Vyto Ruginis) objections. Logan believes that he should be in command because he outranks Lt. La Forge by one grade.

Though this bit of the plot is a refreshing attempt to break away from series creator Gene Roddenberry’s edict that there should not be any interpersonal conflict among the Enterprise crew, I’ve always had some misgivings about the Logan-La Forge  “who should be in command” issue.  Intellectually I know that Logan is probably motivated solely by the fact that he is a full lieutenant and that Geordi is only a lieutenant (junior grade), but as portrayed by Ruginis, the ship’s Chief Engineer doesn’t have confidence in the young blind navigator’s command abilities and questions all of La Forge’s orders. 

Now, then; is this lack of confidence based on purely professional concerns about Geordi’s relative lack of command experience, or is it because Logan doesn’t think that a blind navigator should be in a position of command?

Another issue that sort of weakens The Arsenal of Freedom’s dramatic impact is that it has a schizophrenic subplot that introduces subtle (and perhaps not-so-subtle) hints of a  budding romantic relationship between Capt. Picard and Dr. Crusher, only to backtrack and douse it with a figurative cold shower.

Indeed, in Robert Lewin’s original concept there was a strong storyline which was supposed to lay the foundations for a Picard-Crusher romance, but Roddenberry, who was at the time in full creative control of the show, overruled Lewin and Maurice Hurley was given the task to change some of the scenes which were going to reveal that Beverly has romantic feelings for Picard.  (Roddenberry’s insistence that The Arsenal of Freedom be revised was one of the reasons behind Lewin’s decision to leave as one of the show’s producers at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season.)

On the other hand, the series’ 21st episode is an enjoyable combination of action-adventure and morality tale (here, the show examines the lunacy of amassing an arsenal of advanced weapons that might turn on their creators).  Except for the two subplot-related issues that I find vexing as a viewer, The Arsenal of Freedom is nicely written and features solid performances from a cast which is now familiar with the characters and their personalities.

"Relinquishing command, Captain."
"As you were, Lieutenant."
"Mr. La Forge, when I left this ship, it was in one piece. I would appreciate your returning it to me in the same condition. Do you concur, Number One?"
"Absolutely, sir." - La ForgePicard, and Riker, just as Picard and Riker arrive on the battle bridge

Recommended: Yes

Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12