Monday, July 30, 2012

Don't Panic! A review of the 1980s BBC TV production of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy


In the late 1970s, prompted by the success of Douglas Adams' original sci-fi/comedy radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the British Broadcasting Corporation's television department commissioned him and John Lloyd to adapt it into a six-episode miniseries.

Adams, who had also worked for a while on the venerable Dr. Who TV series, had already adapted part of the radio series into a couple of novels (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) was notorious for being a procrastinator, so the project took a while in getting started.

At first, the TV version of Hitchiker's Guide was going to be an animated series, but this idea was nixed in favor of giving viewers a live-action version featuring some of the original radio series' actors, particularly Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod Beeblebrox), Stephen Moore (Marvin the Paranoid Android) and Peter Jones (voice of The Book).

Other roles from the radio series, however, were recast; Susan Sheridan, who had played Tricia McMillian/Trillian in the BBC 4 Radio original, was busy with other projects, so she was replaced by Sarah Dickinson.

And because the actor who had played Ford Prefect in the radio series didn't physically match the desired look for his character, the producer, Alan J.W. Bell, brought in David Dixon as a replacement.

What the Miniseries is About:

As in the other incarnations of Adams' cosmic comedy, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent (Simon Jones), a hapless young Englishman who, after the Earth is destroyed by aliens in order to create a hyperspace bypass, accompanies his extraterrestrial friend, Ford Prefect (David Dixon), in a mind-boggling journey across the galaxy.

Along the way, Arthur and Ford encounter mean-tempered Vogons, Zaphod Beeblebrox (the hippie-like President of the Galaxy with two heads and three arms) and his companion Trillian, a cute Earth woman who decided to go off into space because she did not want to be an astrophysicist on the dole and various other bizarre characters, including the droll Marvin the Paranoid Android (voice of Stephen Moore).

Arthur's main source of information about his new environment (or is it environments?) is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an electronic reference book (voice of Peter Jones) which is "better selling than The Celestial Home Care Guide....and more controversial than Oolan Columphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who Is This God Person, Anyway?"

The show itself is a mélange of elements; it spoofs all sorts of sci-fi plots and conventions (Earth attacked by aliens, the origins of man, the search for THE TRUTH, and faster-than-light travel), satirical observations about modern folkways, silly visual gags, and - above all, lots of humor based on word play.

Ford: How do you feel?
Arthur: Like a military academy; bits of me keep passing out.

My Take:
If you have watched at least one "Britcom" (British situation comedy) on either BBC America or your local PBS station, you probably know that English humor tends to be a mix of low-key dryness and sometimes over-the-top silliness.

That is precisely what viewers get in the DVD version released by BBC Video (and distributed in the U.S. by Warner Home Video) in 2002: Adams' very hilarious characters and off-the-wall situations in a definitive, restored version of the 1981 TV series.

Because the series was not given a big budget, viewers also get a visually uneven product.  The on-location exterior shots look decent enough, sure, but the various interior sets look incredibly stage-like, which is one of the reasons I could never "get into" the old Dr. Who series.  The special effects look pretty cheesy; even the 1960s incarnation of Star Trek sometimes managed better ones.

Disc One, naturally, contains the fully restored six episodes as they were originally aired in Britain in 1981, although the DVD version has a remastered audio track as well as the original audio track.

Disc Two contains the bulk of the related extra features, which include:

The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Don't Panic!

Douglas Adams Omnibus (tribute program)

Recording of the radio series

Deleted scene from episode 2

Photo gallery

Peter Jones introduction

Pebble Mill at One

Tomorrow's World sequence
 


Recommended: Yes


Saturday, July 21, 2012

"I Love the Smell of Napalm in the Morning!"

Francis Ford Coppola’s original 1979 version of Apocalypse Now is a dark, sardonic, surrealistic yet mesmerizing reworking of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Fredric Forrest, Larry Fishbourne, and Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now trades Conrad’s African setting for the then-still largely unexplored (by Hollywood, anyway) jungles of Vietnam.

The film’s premise is deceptively simple. A hard-bitten, combat-weary Capt. Benjamin Willard (Sheen) is given a difficult (and highly classified) assignment: he is to travel up a long Vietnamese river on a Navy PBR (river patrol boat) to find the jungle outpost of Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), a highly decorated and intelligent Special Forces officer who has gone "rogue" and utilizing what one senior officer describes as "unsound methods" to fight the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Willard is to locate Kurtz and "terminate (him) with extreme prejudice."

In what many viewers of this movie consider the classic centerpiece of Apocalypse Now, Willard and his uneasy Navy companions need the assistance of Lt. Col. Kilgore (Duvall) and his Air Cavalry unit’s helicopters to get past a too-shallow part of the river, or else the PBR will run aground.

Trouble is, as Kilgore (a "warrior-surfer") points out, "Charlie" controls the mouth of the river. Still, Kilgore agrees to escort Willard and his PBR for two reasons: he loves a good battle, and the location is ideal for surfing. (When one of his soldiers points out that the place is known as Charlie’s Point, Kilgore barks, "Charlie don’t surf!")

What follows is perhaps the iconic scene no other Vietnam War movie has been able to top: the early morning helicopter assault on Charlie’s Point. In a terrifying yet oddly exhilarating sequence, we see Kilgore’s Huey armada sweeping in on the seaside village with the morning sun behind them and Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries" blaring from their loudspeakers. It culminates with a devastating air strike on hidden gun positions which have shot down a chopper, prompting Kilgore to utter the hallmark line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning…it smells like victory."

Coppola’s film then progressively gets darker and more surreal the farther the PBR makes its way upriver for Willlard’s rendezvous with the mystery of Kurtz. The deeper the motley group goes into the jungle and the more distant they are from the "world," the weirder things get.

It is at this point when Willard begins to wonder: what made Kurtz turn his back on the tactics officially endorsed by the Army and the Pentagon? Why was he being sent to kill Kurtz? What made the generals and politicians who ran the war any better than Kurtz?

Apocalypse Now is famous for having been difficult to make and for being controversial. When the Pentagon refused to allow Coppola to use its aircraft and equipment, the Oscar-winning (The Godfather Parts I and II) director turned to the Philippine Army, which lent its Hueys and other "toys" to the production.

It’s also well known that Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack during filming. What is somewhat not widely known is that Apocalypse Now was once a project George Lucas was heavily involved in.

As one of Coppola’s co-founders of American Zoetrope, Lucas and Coppola’s collaborator John (Red Dawn) Milius came up with many of the ideas incorporated into the final film. According to Dale Pollock’s 1983 biography Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, the concept of the journey to Kurtz via a boat was Lucas’.

Lucas had also wanted badly to direct Apocalypse Now, but when the production schedule dragged on and planning for Star Wars got underway, Coppola refused to wait till the science fiction film was finished to begin production of Apocalypse Now. He had set a release date for 1976, the Bicentennial year, and if Lucas went off to direct Star Wars, that date would be set back by a year. Coppola refused to budge, and Lucas went his separate way.

As it turned out, production problems, including a typhoon and Sheen’s illness, slowed down production anyway and the film was released in 1979. (If you look closely, though, you’ll see a visual homage to Coppola’s friend and protege: the intelligence officer played by Harrison Ford wears a name tag with the name Lucas on his fatigues jacket.)

The original Paramount Widescreen Collection DVD (not to be confused with the later issue of the longer Apocalypse Now Redux) is a barebones offering. Its single disc only has English subtitles, English and French audio tracks, the original theatrical trailer, a scene called “Destruction of Kurtz Compound” which has the only bit of director’s commentary by Coppola, and excerpts from the original theatrical program.

The Missiles of October: A Book Review

The trouble with history, particularly modern history, is that events can be interpreted and presented in different ways.

Consider, for instance, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Some books, such as Jim Bishop's The Day Kennedy Was Shot and Gerald Posner's Case Closed, point the finger at Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman.

Others, such as David Lifton's Best Evidence, claim there was a vast conspiracy to shoot Kennedy in Dallas, Texas and to cover this violent coup d'etat up so Lyndon Johnson could be President and escalate the Vietnam War.

I don't believe the conspiracy theorists and they'll never get a dime from me, but nevertheless there are plenty of people who do believe Lifton and his other "there was a second gunman in the grassy knoll" compadres. By taking a fact here, adding a supposition there, and by presenting information selectively to make it fit an author's particular slant, any historical event can be revised...even making outrageous claims seem very credible.

Of all the events in President Kennedy's 1,000 day administration (other than the tragedy at Dealey Plaza 40 years ago), perhaps the one that everyone remembers is the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. In most accounts, JFK is taken by surprise when U-2 spy planes photograph Soviet intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM's) being set up on the island of Cuba, only 90 miles away from U.S. shores.

 Galvanized by this bit of Soviet sleight of hand, the President and his advisers courageously mobilize American forces, improvise a non-invasive strategy of "quarantining" the communist-ruled island and stare down the wily Khruschev and make the Soviet leader decide between removing the missiles or starting a nuclear war.

I admit that I am not a scholar on the Cold War. I am also not an expert on Cuba or even the Kennedy clan. But when I read Robert Smith Thompson's The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, it soon became apparent that the author is not a fan of JFK.

Indeed, Thompson says the familiar accounts of the crisis (as presented in the 2000 film Thirteen Days and most histories) is a myth. By cleverly mixing a certain amount of "dirty laundry" related to Kennedy's political career, U.S. foreign policy vis a vis the Soviet Union, the massive political influence of the United Fruit Company in Washington, and even the TFX scandal of the early 1960s, Thompson states that not only did American foreign policy from 1945 on force the Soviet Union to take defensive measures of its own, but that Kennedy (who apparently ran a dirty campaign in 1960 with the assistance of old Joe Kennedy) knew of the Soviet missile buildup far before October 1962. JFK then, Thompson says, used the crisis for domestic political reasons.

Admittedly, Thompson, a professor who teaches foreign policy at the University of South Carolina, is a good prose writer and at times The Missiles of October reads like a technothriller. In the end, though, this book leaves behind a bitter aftertaste with its half-baked conspiracy theories centering on a crisis which could have ended in nuclear war.

(C) 2012 by Alex Diaz-Granados

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Writing for peanuts versus writing for decent dollars

Copywriting Infographic - How Much Should an Online Article Cost?
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The Bridge on the River Kwai: A Review of David Lean's 1957 Movie




World War II, for good or ill, has been the backdrop for hundreds – if not thousands – of movies produced by all the nations which participated in it even as it was being waged.

Of course, though “combat” films along the lines of A Walk in the Sun, Battleground, The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan often come to mind when the term World War II movie is mentioned, the genre actually straddles quite a few other film styles that aren’t restricted to movies about battles, campaigns or the hardware of the war.  Many love stories, dramas, comedies and even science fiction films have been set or partially set during World War II.

Naturally, the sheer scope of World War II – fought on three continents and involving millions of combatants – and its more or less unambiguous “good versus evil” nature resulted in the near-mythologizing of certain events by Hollywood and writers of fiction.

One of the most popular subgenres of World War II films is the “sabotage and commando raid” movie, in which a small team of what we now call special operations operatives is inserted deep behind enemy lines and is tasked to capture/retrieve/rescue/assassinate/destroy a strategically important target that conventional forces are unable to get to.

Another popular subgenre of World War II films is the Prisoner of War narrative, which often focuses on how POWs – of either side – bravely try to escape from enemy camps or stand up to their captors’ deliberate attempts to break their spirits.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was British director David Lean’s first epic-scale movie and would lead to a string of Big Pictures which range from Lawrence of Arabia to A Passage to India, is a multi-faceted mix of “partly based on a true story,” “POW narrative” and “sabotage and commando raid” movies, blended with some dark comedy and psychodrama elements.

Based on the French language novel Le pont de la riviere Kwai by Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes) and written by the then-blacklisted Harold Wilson and Carl Foreman, The Bridge on the River Kwai is partly based on the building of a Japanese railroad bridge linking Thailand to Burma by a combined “construction crew” of 180,000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied POWs in 1942-43.

Because 12,000 POWs and over 80,000 Asian workers died in the construction of the Burma Railway, the Japanese project earned the sobriquet of “The Death Railway.”

The Foreman-Wilson screenplay (credited to Boulle due to the Red Scare blacklisting of its authors even though the French novelist did not speak or write English) is a multi-layered script that actually tells two overlapping stories which dovetail dramatically at the film’s climax.

The best known element of The Bridge on the River Kwai is, of course, the initial clash of wills and cultures between the POWs’ senior officer, Col.Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and the Japanese commandant, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

Saito has been tasked with the twin jobs of running the Japanese Army’s prisoner of war camp and building the section of the Burma Railway which will span Thailand’s Kwai River.

Nicholson, meanwhile, is concerned with making sure the men under his command continue to behave like proper soldiers, especially those soldiers in the British and Commonwealth armies captured by the Japanese during the campaigns of late 1941 and early 1942.

For Saito – who in real life was reputed to be one of the few Japanese officers who did not behave sadistically toward Allied POWs – the main priority is to get that bridge built so that the Imperial Army’s long lines of supply can be more efficient and operations in the China-Burma-India theater run smoothly.  This means that he needs every prisoner – no matter what his rank may be – has to work on the bridge.

For Nicholson, however, Saito’s insistence that officers have to do manual labor alongside the enlisted men is a weightier issue than the whole concept of having to build the bridge for the enemy. 

This bit of the story is intriguing because it makes the viewer wonder why Nicholson, ostensibly a by-the-book career British Army officer, is willing to actively aid the Japanese in building the bridge even though most military codes of conduct prohibit such collaboration with the enemy.

Indeed, the POWs’ medical officer, Maj. Clipton (James Donald) poses the question to Nicholson:


Major Clipton: The fact is, what we're doing could be construed as - forgive me sir - collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity. Must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?

Nicholson’s attitude is both maddening and perplexing.  Maddening because there’s a very overt racist overtone to it – there are several scenes when he says to various characters that the prisoners’ efforts will be a monument to what the British soldier can do and that what they are doing will bring civilization to this neck of the Asian jungles.

It’s also perplexing because we never really know why he believes that building the bridge and helping the enemy is beneficial (other than, of course, seeing all his men shot by the Japanese). Is this Nicholson’s way of coping with Britain’s defeats in Singapore and elsewhere by a race he and other Westerners considered inferior prior to the war?  Or is this a sly strategic retreat carried out for with a future blow against the Japanese?  Or, perhaps even more elementary, has Nicholson gone insane under the strain of war and captivity?

Whatever Nicholson’s motives are, they propel him towatd conflict with not only Saito (over the issue of officers doing manual labor) but also with the rebellious Commander Shears (the top-billed William Holden), an unusually cynical American who hates the war, questions its sanity and can’t stand Nicholson or his “high-minded principles.”

Shears, who probably was captured as a result of the disastrous naval battles near what is now Indonesia, is the film’s clearest anti-war messenger and is prone to oppose not only his Japanese captors but almost all Allied authority figures.  His main priority: to survive and, hopefully, escape from the hellish prison camp,

Eventually, the film morphs seamlessly from “POW narrative” to “sabotage and commando raid” action-adventure once Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a Southeast Asia Command special ops commander based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is tasked with the bridge’s destruction.

My Take: Say what you will about The Bridge on the River Kwai’s historical inaccuracies (and there are lots), its racist undertones or the McCarthy-era treatment of Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman that denied them onscreen credit for their screenplay until the film was restored in the late 1980s*, but this is one of the great – if rather myth-based – World War II epics. 

Not only is the film extremely well-acted (Guinness earned the Best Actor Oscar for 1957 and was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II) and well-made, but it was also well-received by audiences and critics alike.

Even though producer Sam Spiegel had to cast (and give top billing to) William Holden to attract the ever-fickle American moviegoer to a story which features mainly British characters and actors (with some Japanese and Asian actors tossed in for authenticity and dramatic needs), the film showcases some of Britain’s most talented filmmakers and actors, including director Lean, Guinness, Hawkins, Donald, Geofrey Home, Andre Morell and Percy Herbert, just to name a few.

In my opinion, though Foreman and Wilson could have dispensed with the romantic subplot added to Holden’s character’s story arc and thereby cut the film’s running time a little bit, The Bridge on the River Kwai is definitely worth watching.

Sure, it takes liberties with the historical events it’s based on; the real-life British officer on who Col. Nicholson is patterned after was neither a collaborator nor a martinet, and – as mentioned earlier – Col. Saito was not a cruel Japanese Army officer chiefly concerned with saving face, nor was the bridge ever successfully sabotaged.

And with a running time of 161 minutes, it’s definitely not a film for viewers with a short attention span or who shun character-driven movies in lieu of high-octane, fast-paced action flicks.  It does have several action scenes, but the big fireworks of the movie are in the psychological clashes between characters and not in do-or-die battle sequences.

I also would like to comment about the racism issue that does rear its ugly head in the movie, if I may.

Racism, of course, is deplorable no matter what the context may be.  Whether it’s white supremacist ranting against people with darker pigmentation, African-American screeds against “White America,” Nazi ravings against the Jews, Slavs and other “non-Aryan” races, racist views are the antithesis of civilized thinking and have done as much harm, if not more, than religious divisions and war-for-profit.

Yet, as easy as it is to say that only the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and – to a lesser extent – Italy had extremely obnoxious racist attitudes that governed the way they waged war, it’s also true that the Allies, especially the Americans – whose military services were segregated – were not exactly free of noxious racist beliefs.

Indeed, it’s worth remembering that before World War II, most American, British and Australians dismissed the Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen as caricatures; the “Japs” were often characterized as bucktoothed, nearsighted and merely imitative who could be easily defeated after one or two bombing raids set their wood-and-paper cities ablaze.

So pervasive was this view of the Japanese that when news came of  the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans, even military men who should have known better, believed there were other reasons – German planning and participation in the surprise raid was one, but the biggest (and most unfair and untrue) was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s complicity so he could drag America kicking and screaming into World War II – for the Japanese success against American forces on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941.  They simply could not get over the fact that a supposedly inferior race had launched such a daring attack on the United States.

Thus, if The Bridge on the River Kwai has characters which are racist (Nicholson is perhaps one of those jingoistic Brits who couldn’t quite believe they had been bested by the Japanese in Malaya and elsewhere), or if it seems the movie is anti-Japanese, it’s worth remembering that the novel and movie came out in the mid to late 1950s, a decade after the equally racist Japanese kept Allied POWs in camps that were harsher than the average German POW camp overseen by the Luftwaffe and the Heer (air force and army).  (The SS-run concentration and labor camps, naturally, are in a special category of hellish prisons, and even some Japanese facilities were way more hospitable than Auschwitz or Treblinka.)


(*In 1984, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences retroactively awarded Wilson and Foreman with the Best Adapted Screenplay, albeit too late for them to hold their Oscars.  Wilson had died six years earlier, and Foreman died the day after the Academy made its announcement.)



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Positive Attitude is Key to College Success


The future belongs to those who prepare for it today. – Malcolm X

If you are a high school student in your junior or senior year and are seriously considering going to a college or university after graduation, you should start thinking about preparing yourself for the challenges of college life now instead of waiting till your first day on campus as an incoming freshman.

In addition to taking the SAT and a plethora of pre-entrance exams, choosing a major, registering for classes, applying for scholarships or financial aid and improving your study habits, you should also adopt a positive “I-want-to-be-here-and-learn” attitude about going to classes and completing your coursework. 

The expression “A positive attitude determines success in all things” sounds like a cliché or one of those aphorisms that we find in Chinese fortune cookies, but there’s a lot of truth behind it (otherwise it would not be a cliché).

If you don’t believe me, next time you happen to be in one of your high school classes take a long look at the young men and women who share the classroom with you.  Those students who eagerly raise their hand when your teacher asks, say, what was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 all about or to identify all the stages of the water cycle, or the ones who ask well-considered questions about the themes John Steinbeck touches upon in Of Mice and Men, those are the kids who will earn A’s and B’s in class.  The students who sit sullenly at their desks, take notes by rote and don’t participate with any enthusiasm In in-class discussions will be lucky to simply “get  by” with average or below-average grades.  Some, sadly, probably won’t pass the class.

You can probably make a case that some students are more geared for academic success because they’re more intelligent or come from emotionally and financially stable families, but that is basically a cop-out.  When I was in high school I knew quite a few  intelligent kids who came from good homes where both parents worked and provided both emotional and financial security, and yet didn’t do well in classes because they “hated” school.

The basic principle behind  the phrase “A positive attitude determines success” is easy to explain and understand: If you want to be somewhere, to undertake a task or achieve a specific goal, that desire will carry you forward and reap positive results.

A case in point: When I was a freshman majoring in journalism, I signed up for Prof. Peter Townsend’s Basic Reporting class at the beginning of my third semester in college.  It was actually the third day of class – my Pell Grant paperwork took a bit of time to be processed but was approved early enough in the Fall Term for me to add JOU 1100 to my schedule – and at first I felt as though I was an intruder in Prof. Townsend’s fiefdom of future journalists.

As intimidated as I felt at the moment when I handed my “add” card to the professor (who was also the campus’ director of student publications at the time), I wanted to be there.  Not to be too conspicuous or to be noticed right away, but I really had a desire to learn how to be an effective college  level journalism student.

As I sat in Room 3301 on that sunny September morning back in 1985, I surreptitiously took stock of my fellow students, expecting most of them to be as eager as I was to learn the tools of the reporting trade and be staff members of the campus student paper.  After all, I reasoned, most of the kids I’d known in high school who had worked either on the yearbook or newspaper staff had chosen to do so, so I figured the same concept of having a gung-ho,  “we’re here because we want to be here” attitude  applied to the 29 or so students in Prof. Townsend’s 10:00 AM Basic Reporting class.

Looking back on the moment over 20 years later, I suppose that I should have known better, but I was surprised to see that close to half of the students seemed to have a “Do I really have to be here?” attitude that was easy to discern, especially when Prof. Townsend informed us that by being students in this particular course, we were all staff writers for the campus newspaper and thus expected to be assigned stories for publication.

Those of us who had signed up for JOU 1100 because we wanted to be journalists greeted this announcement with quiet but obvious enthusiasm. Becoming reporters and section editors, after all, was our primary goal, so we were eager to face the challenges of finding stories and meeting weekly deadlines.

However, many students who were taking Basic Reporting as a prerequisite to other courses in the mass communications field, especially broadcasting and advertising, weren’t as excited about writing for the school paper. Some of them – who obviously had not read the course description in the college’s class catalog – wore expressions that ranged from mild disinterest to sheer surprise.

If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm. – Vince Lombardi

The attitude gap became even more apparent as the term progressed; those of us who considered ourselves journalists-in-training accepted editors’ story assignments quickly, while the non-reporter types had to be constantly coaxed into writing for the paper by reminding them that one third of their final grade would be based on the amount of “copy” they turned in for publication.  Some students in this group did their fair share of assignments and – after a lot of copy editing by either Prof. Townsend or student editors – got bylines in the school paper.

Other students turned in assignments which never saw the light of day or were reassigned to staff writers who earned bylines for them but still passed the course with C’s or low B averages.  A few of that group dropped the course and changed majors altogether because “college journalism’ was nothing like the high school electives they had taken previously and didn’t want to do the extra work which was required from all of us.  By the end of the semester, the handful of us “I want to be here” students either had been promoted to an editorial position that semester or were candidates for future advancement on the newspaper staff for the coming term.

Of course, the notion that positive thinking is the key to success is not unique to academic pursuits.  As Shawn Achor, founder of GoodThinkInc and author of the book The Happiness Advantage, writes:

Most companies and schools follow this formula: if you work harder, you will be more successful, and then you will be happy. This formula is scientifically backward. A decade of research shows that training your brain to be positive at work first actually fuels greater success second. In fact, 75% of our job success is predicted not by intelligence, but by your optimism, social support network and the ability to manage energy and stress in a positive way.

So if you are thinking about pursuing higher education after high school, make sure that you take a positive attitude  to the college or university campus with you,  along with good grades, extracurricular activities and passing SAT scores.

Source: http://goodthinkinc.com/speakers/shawn-achor/


© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 16, 2012

Star Wars Action Figure No. 200: Mara Jade

Photo Credit: JediBusiness.com




Five years after the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance has driven the evil Empire into a distant corner of the galaxy. But a new danger has arisen: the last of the Emperor's warlords has devised a battle plan that could destroy the New Republic. Before the death of Palpatine, Mara Jade was the Emperor's right hand assassin. Five years later and now a successful smuggler, the last thing Mara expected was to stumble upon her former arch-enemy - Luke Skywalker. - From the package blurb, Mara Jade.

In 1991, eight years after the theatrical run of Star Wars - Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and eight years before the premiere of Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Bantam Spectra published Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, the first volume of Timothy Zahn's best-selling Thrawn Trilogy cycle of novels.

Though a few authors had written several novels set in George Lucas's Star Wars galaxy during a seven-year-period close to the Classic Trilogy's theatrical run (in other words, between 1978-1985), what is now called the Expanded Universe really took off with the runaway success of Zahn's novels and many other Star Wars books from Kevin J. Anderson, Steve Perry, Kathy Tyers, Michael A. Stackpole and a platoon's worth of other writers.

One of the most popular Expanded Universe (EU) characters is Mara Jade, a young woman around the same age as Luke Skywalker who was "discovered" by Emperor Palpatine at an early age and groomed by the Sith Lord to become one of his most trusted operatives - the Emperor's Hand.

Trained in the ways of the Force by Palpatine and vested with almost as much authority as Darth Vader, the beautiful young woman not only carried out assassinations when her Master deemed it necessary, but she could give orders to stormtroopers and Imperial high commanders with equal ease.

She could also be an intelligence gatherer, saboteur, safecracker, skilled thief and computer slicer - all in the service of the Emperor.

In Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, though, Mara's life has been turned upside down by the Rebels' victory at the Battle of Endor and the death of the Emperor - supposedly at the hands of the Jedi known as Luke Skywalker. Because the Emperor's last Force-borne message relayed the command You must kill Luke Skywalker and implicated the young man from Tatooine for his undoing, Mara has grown to hate Luke and blames him for destroying the life she had at the height of the Empire's power.

Ironically, Mara finds herself in several situations during the Thrawn Crisis where she has to cooperate with the man she once hated so intensely, and in further novels the enemies-turned-allies develop a deep and meaningful relationship.

Since 1991, Mara Jade has been featured not only in novels and other literary versions of Star Wars, but also in video games, trading cards and, of course, action figures.

Star Wars: Expanded Universe: Mara Jade

Mara Jade, once the Emperor's assassin, becomes an ally of Luke Skywalker. -card biographical blurb

In 1998, Hasbro released Mara Jade, one of nine action figures based on characters from the Expanded Universe and one of three drawn from the novel/comic book version of Zahn's Heir to the Empire.

Based on the visual depiction of Zahn's creation as seen in the six-issue Dark Horse Comics adaptation of Heir to the Empire, Mara is clad in a black skin-tight outfit which consists of a sleeveless top, trousers, padded combat-climbing boots, a gun belt with holster, with a few white or light-colored items to break up the monochromatic scheme of her smuggler's togs (gloves, a set of goggles and scarf (molded on to Mara's neck) and a small backpack.

Mara also is one of the rare female Star Wars characters with long hair, so this feature has been depicted in the action figure with some success by Hasbro's sculpt-and-paint crew. As per Zahn's novels and the Dark Horse Comics adaptation, Mara sports her long, way-past-the-shoulder red-gold hair in a loose hair style. (Think of a young Lauren Bacall-type actress in a Star Wars outfit and you'll get a fairly good idea of Mara's overall "look.")

Her face reasonably captures Mara's strikingly good looks; she has nicely-rendered red-blonde eyebrows and piercing green eyes, and her lips look fairly sculpted and painted to give the figure a classic-1930s-style appearance. The only thing that mars the illusion of life-likeness is the somewhat graceless and toy-like neck, but it's probably hard to render human necks accurately in figures of the 3.75-inch scale intended for mass production.

To not make the figure look too toy-like, Hasbro decided not to add articulation points at Mara's elbows since her arms are bare and joints anywhere but the shoulders would definitely take away from the figure's visual appeal. Mara does have the expected articulation points at the neck, upper shoulders and hips, which are almost standard on Star Wars action figures.

Weapons and Accessories:

3-D Play Scene background
Lightsaber
Blaster

Hasbro not only included a wicked-looking blaster pistol and a blue-bladed, silver-handled lightsaber to equip the former Emperor's Hand, but the carded package is designed to be implemented as a "3-D Play Scene Background. There are dotted lines on the package which indicate where it should be carefully cut; if done right, the procedure should result in the creation of a backdrop/figure stand that resembles the artwork from the Heir to the Empire comics.

My Take: Though I have no fondness for the idea of destroying the package just to make a 3-D Play Scene background, all in all, I like the 200th Star Wars action figure (counting the ones made by Kenner, obviously) a great deal.

Sure, the figure does have limited poses; you can't have Mara sit naturally or get her to wear her headgear/goggles, and the figure can only hold one weapon at a time. However, with the exception of a few little flaws inherent in the figure's design and manufacturing, Mara Jade nicely depicts one of the most popular Star Wars Expanded Universe characters.

As with any Star Wars collectible, parents are cautioned that Mara Jade contains small parts that may be a choking hazard for very young children.

Recommended: Yes

Friday, July 13, 2012

Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Daredevils of the Desert deals with Aussie cavalrymen in 1917 Palestine

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Daredevils of the Desert
Formats Available: VHS (1999)

DVD (2007) Chapter 15: The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Daredevils of the Desert (Disc 8, Volume Two – The War Years)

Written by: Frank Darabont

Directed by: Simon Wincer


Palestine: October 1917:

Having completed several intelligence-gathering assignments in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, young Indiana Jones (Sean Patrick Flanery), known to his superiors in the Belgian army as Capt. Henri Defense, has been reassigned to the Middle East to assist the Allied war effort there.

As in the African theater of operations, the Anglo-French endeavors in Arabia and Palestine are considered a “sideshow to the main show” of the battlefields in Europe; Britain wants to protect the Suez Canal and her links to India from interference by  the Central Powers, while France seeks to expend her sphere of influence in the region, aided and abetted by her British allies.

To accomplish these strategic goals, the British and French have helped to instigate a revolt in the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces.  The Turkish-controlled Ottomans are allied with Germany, so naturally the Allies wish to fight in the outer fringes of the enemy’s huge territory and knock Turkey out of the war. 

However, with the bulk of the Allied armies fighting – and dying – in the trenches of France and Belgium, the Anglo-French strategy is to use the Arabs as proxies, giving them some weapons, assigning a few elite units to bolster the natives’ ranks and sending “military advisors” like Maj. T.E. Lawrence (Douglas Henshall) to train and guide the rebels.

The British commander-in-chief in the Palestinian front, Gen. Allenby (John Vine) wants to make a bold move from Gaza all the way to Jerusalem and capture the famous city by Christmas of 1917.  Not only will this move weaken the Turks’ hold on the region and give Allied morale a huge boost, but it will also earn Allenby an enhanced reputation as a great military leader and strategy.

But before Allenby’s mostly-British force can strike north toward Jerusalem, the Allies must capture the wells of Beersheba, where precious water supplies for men and beasts of burden are stored.  Most of the surrounding area is desert, and any army moving from Gaza to Jerusalem must have access to water, or else many soldiers, horses and even camels will die of thirst in the hot, sandy wastes.

Indy’s job is to assist an Australian light horse regiment by posing as an Arab merchant who deals in trinkets, household items and – in this particular case – a belly dancer named Maya (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Using his knack for languages and with Maya at his side, the intelligence operative must cross the desert, infiltrate the Turks’ defenses at Beersheba and prevent the destruction of the wells so the Aussie lighthorsemen can capture the city – and the precious stores of potable water.

Indiana Jones: What's it like, the desert?

T.E. Lawrence: It's like nowhere else on this Earth. It's the most terrible place there is. And the most wonderful.

My Take:

Though T.E. Lawrence is perhaps the best-known of all the historical figures featured in Daredevils of the Desert, his role here is not to act in a major, dominating role.  Instead, he is to Indy what Obi-Wan Kenobi is to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars – a friend and mentor who gives sage advice but doesn’t directly intervene in the young hero’s path to self-discovery.

The movie itself is essentially an expanded version of the unaired October, 1917 episode which was to have been part of the original series’ third season had the show not been canceled by ABC or the Family Channel. 

Its script was written by Frank Darabont, who had penned several other Young Indiana Jones episodes and would later become known for his three Stephen King adaptations (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist) for the silver screen.

Darabont obviously had fun with Indiana Jones’ character; the scenes where Sean Patrick Flanery has to act like an Arab flim-flam man are full of comedic delight yet mixed with a certain sense of jeopardy, and his depiction of the long-standing friendship between Indy and “Ned” Lawrence lends credibility to  the relationship between the fictitious future archaeologist and the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.

Many of Flanery’s scenes of Indy-as-Arab-merchant are shared with Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is stunningly gorgeous as Maya, a young woman recruited by the Allies to assist in the capture of Beersheba.  She is alluring, sexy and perhaps a bit dangerous, as was Alison Doody’s Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

If Daredevils of the Desert’s scenario involving the Australian cavalry seems familiar to war movie buffs, it’s because director Simon Wincer – an Aussie filmmaker – had directed The Lighthorsemen,  a 1987 feature film based on the Palestine campaign depicted in this adventure.   

Not only does Wincer provide the episode with a steady and narratively-sound sense of direction, but the finale’s showpiece cavalry charge is actually footage edited from The Lighthorsemen itself, which not only looks great on TV and lends Daredevils of the Desert a feature film-like sense of scale, but it also seems to have been a budget-saving move, since one of the reasons the series was canceled was its huge – for TV, anyway – costs.

It’s a pity that Daredevils of the Desert was not seen as part of the original series during its network run; it gives viewers a rousing, old-fashioned war movie-like adventure while cannily sneaking in some educational material about World War I, the Middle East and some of the military and political decisions which shaped that volatile region’s destiny.


© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Star Wars Silver Anniversary Figures: Swing to Freedom (Princess Leia Organa & Luke Skywalker)


For the past 34 years or so, Kenner and Hasbro have produced many diverse lines of Star Wars figures, from the Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to the current Star Wars collection, and as toy making technology improves and more tiny details can be added, the figures themselves are much more attractive and detailed. Costume variations and weathering, accessories (such as lightsabers and blasters), even characters' faces look more detailed and less generic than their 1978-1985 counterparts.

For several years now, Hasbro has released multi-figure sets called Scene Packs, Cinema Scenes, or more colloquially, three-packs (so-called for the usual number of 3.75 inch scale figures in each box), which are assortments of action figures posed in front of a nicely printed backdrop to form a mini-diorama of specific scenes from particular Episodes. Starting in the late 1990s with such Scene Packs as Purchase of the Droids (featuring Uncle Owen, Luke Skywalker and C-3PO) and heading into 2004 with the two Geonosian War Chamber sets, three-packs have been much sought-after collectibles, for they allow collectors to display their figures in ways they only dreamed about as children or teenagers in the 1980s -- and without having to open the packages!

But as nice as the three-packs are, good things, or great figures, sometimes come in pairs.

The Silver Anniversary of Star Wars, celebrated in May of 2002, was heralded (of course) by the release of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There were also conventions and the publication of various 25-Year retrospectives and Special Editions, including the Star Wars Trilogy novelization anthology. With all that and the very fast release of Episode II to home video (in VHS and DVD), it was only logical that a special set of Silver Anniversary figures be commissioned, as well.

In the spring of 2002, Hasbro released a trio of two-packs featuring six major characters from A New Hope, figures that, as Hasbro's packaging blurb puts it, reflect "the essence of Star Wars -- courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the strong bonds of friendship, and the inevitable confrontation between good and evil."

Swing to Freedom, featuring Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa, is a beautifully designed and executed rendering of the "swing to freedom" across the Death Star's seemingly bottomless central chasm. In an attempt to lock the blast door behind them, young Skywalker has also blasted the controls to extend the bridge that spans the artificial abyss. Now, Luke and Leia's only hope is the Imperial-issue grappling hook and cable in Skywalker's "borrowed" stormtrooper's utility belt.

Considering the small size of the figures, the detailing is fantastic. Luke's Tatooine outfit, which in the original 1978 Kenner figure had a perfectly white tunic and yellowish trousers and boots with matching leggings, looks more weathered and "sand blown" into a more beige hue, while Luke's face more closely resembles Mark Hamill's. The eyes are blue and you can see Luke's teeth (a rarity in Star Wars figures) as he prepares to make that heart-stopping swing.

Leia is just as nicely detailed; her right hand grips an Imperial-issue blaster, while her left arm is about to wrap itself around Luke's waist. Her eyes are fixed upon the grappling hook, but we know that in a moment she'll turn to her left and give Luke a quick kiss "for luck."

The plastic base is nicely rendered to look like the Death Star's floor, and the backdrop of closed blast door and wall paneling is nicely recreated (although the control panel, which should look "blasted" is oddly intact), and the eight-sided plastic packaging allows you to view Swing to Freedom from every angle except the extreme rear. This feature allows a serious collector to display the figures proudly without having to open the packaging; indeed, how to take the figures out of the package without damaging any part of the diorama poses various vexing issues. The safest thing to do is, simply put, to leave the packaging intact. Not only will this prevent breakage and/or loss of small pieces, but also it will preserve the value of the collectible.

The other two Silver Anniversary two-packs feature Han Solo and Chewbacca (Death Star Escape, which is actually a pose from a publicity still rather than an actual shot from A New Hope) and Darth Vader and Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi (Final Duel, which depicts the fateful reunion between the old Jedi Knight and his Padawan-turned-Sith Lord).



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Family Guy takes on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in "Something, Something, Something Dark Side"


With the success of the 2007 Star Wars parody episode Blue Harvest, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, writer Kirker Butler, co-developer David Zuckerman and director Dominic Polcino returned to that galaxy far, far away to skewer the second entry of the Star Wars Classic Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back.

The result: Family Guy's 148th aired episode, Something Something Something Dark Side, which mixes a condensed retelling of George Lucas's Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and the sometimes tawdry humor of the animated comedy series which Fox has canceled - and renewed - twice.

As in both Blue Harvest and It's a Trap! (the concluding chapter of Laugh It Up Fuzzball: The Family Guy Trilogy), Something Something Something Dark Side begins with the Griffin clan (voices of Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green and Mila Kunis) losing their electricity while watching television and paterfamilias Peter telling wife Lois, sons Chris and Stewie, daughter Meg and dog Brian the story of The Empire Strikes Back.

What follows is a hilarious yet faithful spoof of what is considered to be the best entry in the Star Wars saga, with the Griffin family and supporting characters recast as the heroes and villains of The Empire Strikes Back.

Peter and Lois pair off as Han Solo and Princess Leia, Chris steps into the role of Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker, baby Stewie plays Darth Vader, Meg gets a brief cameo as the space slug and Brian the dog is Chewbacca the Wookiee. R2-D2 and C-3PO are portrayed by Cleveland Brown (Mike Henry) and Quagmire. Lando Calrissian is performed by Mort Goldman (John G. Brennan), while Yoda is played by Carl (Jon Benjamin).

As in Blue Harvest, Something Something Something Dark Side closely resembles the look of The Empire Strikes Back; the CG and hand-drawn animation looks almost as though the artists rotoscoped actual footage from the original 1980 film but in fact they did not use this effects cheat.

This being Family Guy, the humor is - especially in the Blu-ray/DVD edition which was released before the edited version aired in 2010 - a mix of silly cultural references (when the Empire launches probe droids to find the Rebels, we see Elroy Jetson rocketing to his elementary school), bad puns (the Rebels on Hoth ride "dondons") and sardonic comments, some of them which point out flaws in the movie's logic:

Lois Griffin as Princess Leia: May I have everyone's attention, please? We're evacuating into outer space, with literally infinite directions in which to flee. However, we have decided that our transports will travel directly toward the fleet of Star Destroyers. Any questions?

Rebel Pilot: Yeah, um, is there someone from the military we can talk to? A man, perhaps?

This Family Guy presentation is not for everyone: the uncensored edition has adult-oriented humor, while overly sensitive Star Wars fans may be offended at the ribbing the saga is given here.

Nevertheless, as far as parodies of Star Wars go, this one is almost pitch-perfect and bitingly funny.

Family Guy Stewie Scarface Spoof Tee

One of Australian history's tragic but inspirational episodes is the backdrop for Peter Weir's Gallipoli


Although Mel Gibson's self-destructive behavior over the past decade or so may be ushering in a premature end to his days as a Hollywood star, there's no denying that the man has had considerable success as both an actor and filmmaker ever since he began his acting career in Australian television back in the late 1970s.

One of Gibson's earliest co-starring roles on his way to stardom was 1981's Gallipoli, Peter Weir's somber look at the experiences of Australian soldiers during World War I as they fight and suffer horrendous casualties in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of 1915.

Weir, who wrote the story on which David Williamson's screenplay is based, doesn't set out to give the Gallipoli Campaign - which was devised by a young Winston Churchill as a way to knock Turkey out of the war and give the Allies unfettered access to the Black Sea - the traditional "recreation of a major battle" treatment a la The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far.
 
Rather, Gallipoli is about the coming-of-age of two young men, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Gibson), who have contrasting personalities yet become fast friends at a time when Australia - which has only been independent from Britain for less than 15 years as the film begins - is experiencing its own coming of age as a nation.

Archy is the archetypical hero character of Gallipoli; think of him as Weir's down-to-earth version of Luke Skywalker (without, of course, the Force or a lightsaber).  He's in his late teens, idealistic and yearning to make his mark in the world - either as a fast sprinter or, as he gets caught up in the patriotic wave of the times, as an Australian soldier.

His uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) is not only Archy's father figure but his running coach, and that's how we first meet them - with the older man pushing the nephew to achieve his "personal best."
 
Jack: What are your legs? 
Archy Hamilton: Springs. Steel springs. 
Jack: What are they going to do? 
Archy Hamilton: Hurl me down the track. 
Jack: How fast can you run? 
Archy Hamilton: As fast as a leopard. 
Jack: How fast are you going to run? 
Archy Hamilton: As fast as a leopard! 
Jack: Then let's see you do it! 

Much of the film's first act is spent on setting up Archy's character as a very fast sprinter - a trait that will later be important once he becomes a soldier in the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) contingent in the Near East.  His racing exploits are nearly legendary; in one sequence he must race - barefoot - against an opponent on horseback.  Archy wins, yes, but his feet get pretty messed up in the process. Worse, Archy has another race scheduled three days hence!

Like Luke in Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, Archy is enthusiastic about someday going off to join the war and see the wider world beyond the confines of his home and family.  On his down time, the young Aussie pores over Australian newspapers and dutifully clips articles about the Great War and pastes them in his journal/scrapbook.

Eventually, Archy meets the Han Solo-like Frank Dunne, a cynical son of Irish immigrants who isn't as keen as his soon-to-be best friend to join the Army and fight in a war fought for the sake of England rather than for Australia's.
 
Archy Hamilton: What are you going to join, the Infantry? 
Frank Dunne: Not joining anything. 
Archy Hamilton: But you gotta be in it. 
Frank Dunne: Don't have to if you don't want to. 
Archy Hamilton: You gotta be. 
Frank Dunne: No I don't. It's a free country, or haven't you heard?
 
For all of Frank's cynicism and Fenian attitudes, he ends up accompanying Archy to the city of Perth, where they both enlist in the Australian army - Archy out of youthful idealism and wanderlust, Frank out of friendship and Big Brother Syndrome rather than patriotism and conviction.

As often happens in two-friends-go-to-war movies, Archy and Frank are not assigned to the same unit.  Archy ends up in a light horse cavalry unit, while Frank is assigned to a regular infantry unit.

Months pass.  For a good bit of Gallipoli, Weir turns our attention not on Archy but on Frank even though Mark Lee (Archy) has top billing.  We thus follow Gibson's character and his pals in the Infantry Regiment for a while, and then witness a reunion when the Light Horse Cavalry is on joint maneuvers with the "ground pounders" in their base camp in Egypt.

When the Light Horse Regiment gets orders to deploy to the Dardanelles without its horses, Archy convinces his superiors to arrange Frank's transfer so the two "mates" can serve together.  They're both experienced athletes, which enables them to be assigned as messengers from headquarters units to the front lines.

The last act of the film, of course, is essentially a somewhat fictionalized account of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, which is an almost-forgotten sidebar to the narrative of World War I but is commemorated by both Australia and Turkey as a key event in their national histories, albeit from two very different perspectives.

Because Weir wants the audience to focus on Archy and Frank and their "mates" in the Australian Army, we can assume that his intention is to make a very anti-war movie. 

Like William Goldman's more conventional script for A Bridge Too Far, David Williamson's screenplay has a basic theme: War Sucks. 

The fact that Gallipoli spends roughly two-thirds of its running time on the two young men as they become friends, share in the usual rites of male bonding (joking, carousing, and doing all the things guys do in buddies-go-to-war flicks) and then have to face the enemy in battle foreshadows the tragedy to come.

Even the choice of time period and battle - World War I and the Gallipoli Campaign - with their attendant horrors (infantry pinned down on a hostile shore, men cut down like tenpins while going "over the top" from friendly trenches to enemy ones) seem to be conveying to the viewers how wasteful - in lives most of all - war is.

To add to the funereal mood of the movie's third act, Weir chose as part of the score one of classical music's greatest forgeries, the Adagio in G minor for Strings and Organ,  attributed to the Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni but actually composed by the 20th Century Italian musicologist (and Albinoni biographer) Remo Giazotto.

Though this is not my favorite film by either Peter Weir or Mel Gibson, I find Gallipoli to be rather compelling and heart-rending, if inevitably predictable.

It is, in some ways, a very universal film because it tells a story that has been told for thousands of years: history is shaped by war, and young men tend to seek glory in battle, only to find death and destruction instead.

It's also universal because film viewers can see influences - unconscious or otherwise - from other films and genres.  Archy and Frank are very much like George Lucas's Luke Skywalker and Han Solo; two men with different world-views who somehow bridge their differences and become fast friends.

That having been said, Gallipoli is also a very Australian film that takes a look at a young nation that, like Archy, wants to make its mark on the world - even if it is as an appendage of the British Empire.  It celebrates the essence of the Australian spirit - the ANZAC legacy, the whole "mate" culture and the rugged frontier élan that is analogous to the American "taming of the West" mythology.

Recommended: Yes

Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock's Eye: A review of the Adventures of Young Indiana Jones TV movie



In March of 1992, almost three years after the premiere of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and 16 years before the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, George Lucas, Amblin Entertainment, and the ABC television network attempted to create a 70-episode television series that would explore the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of the globe-trotting archaeologist/adventurer best known for being an "obtainer of rare antiquities" imbued with supernatural properties. 

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was a collection of one-hour episodes that skipped back and forth in the chronology of Indy's formative years, some featuring a very young "Junior" (Corey Carrier), with most starring Sean Patrick Flanery as Indiana Jones between the ages of 16 and 21. 

Part Indy prequel, part history lesson, this was one of the rare television projects personally overseen by Lucas, and it was intended to entertain fans of the archaeologist/adventurer while at the same time introducing many of them to important persons with whom a young Indy might have interacted with as he followed his father, Professor Henry Jones, Sr., and mother Anna on a global lecture tour as a ten-year-old, then later getting into more Indy-like situations during World War I and the post-war Jazz Age. 

Lucas assembled a creative team that included top-notch writers (Frank Darabont, who wrote five episodes), directors (Mike Newell, Nicolas Roeg, Simon Wincer), and a crew that would later be better known for its work on the Star Wars trilogy of prequels - designer Gavin Bocquet, cinematographer David Tattersall, editor Ben Burtt, and producer Rick McCallum, plus a small army of actors, extras, and technicians and sent them to various locations in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The series earned decent but not spectacular ratings during its first season, but either ABC didn't give it good support or the viewers didn't take a shine to the mix of history lesson and entertainment, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles limped off the air with just 31 aired episodes, not even half of Lucas' hoped-for 70-show-run. (Sadly, not even a rare TV appearance by Harrison Ford as 50-year-old Indy could save the series from cancellation.) 

Over the years, Lucasfilm managed to keep the young Indy series in video's equivalent of life support. In the late 1990s, Paramount Home Video re-released the Chronicles in tandem with re-issues of the feature films, going as far giving the Harrison Ford flicks "chapter numbers" on the boxes' spines to make them fit into the series' timeline.

Additionally, Lucas and his creative team made at least three "feature-length" TV movies for the series' final "home" (the Family Channel), including such as Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock's Eye.

A Tale of Friendship, Obsession


Indy: Remy, this could be just a wild goose chase. It might not amount to anything.
Remy: I don't think so. Indy, you're my best friend. Let's do it together. One last adventure.


Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock's Eye. - which is Chapter 18 in the entire Indiana Jones saga which includes the four Steven Spielberg-directed movies - begins on November 11, 1918, the very day on which the First World War comes to an end.  Young Indiana Jones (Sean Patrick Flannery) and his Belgian buddy Remy Baudouin (Ronny Coutteure) are back in the trenches of the Western Front as officers in the Belgian Army, and though an armistice has been negotiated between the Allies and Germany, the shooting will not stop until 11 AM (the famous "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month").

Amidst this bizarre (but true) backdrop, Indy and Remy see that an Indian soldier attached to a British unit has run into "no-man's land" and toward the German lines in what looks like an act of last-minute desertion. Incensed by this totally mindless act of cowardice, Indy runs out to where the soldier, Rajendra Sing (Riz Abbasi) is seen briefly talking to a German soldier (Adrian Edmonson) before he is shot and mortally wounded by a last-minute machine gun burst.

Before Sing dies, however, he hands Indy a wrinkled piece of paper and utters his last words: The eye of the peacock. You must stop him. Stop him! The eye of the peacock...

The first act of this 1995 TV movie follows the recently-discharged Indy and Remy to London, where Remy's wife Suzette (Colleen Passard) and her kids from her previous marriage are waiting to be repatriated to Belgium.  In the Badouins' apartment, Indy and Remy make a fateful decision: they will go off on one last adventure together - to seek out the legendary Eye of the Peacock, a huge diamond once owned by Alexander the Great and now rumored to be stashed somewhere in India.

Remy believes that finding the Eye of the Peacock will make a fortune for both Indy and himself, and although his American friend is anxious to get back home and begin his college education to become an archaeologist, the Belgian's enthusiasm is contagious.  Indy agrees to go on this last quest before taking on the challenges and responsibilities of a young adult.

But before the two buddies go off to Cairo, Egypt on the first leg of their long journey, Indy takes a detour to Oxford to see his childhood tutor, Miss Helen Seymour (Margaret Tyzack - voice only), only to find that she died several weeks earlier, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19.

Saddened by this latest loss, Indy throws himself - figuratively as well as literally - into the search for Alexander's diamond, a quest that will take him and Remy on a long and danger-filled journey to Egypt, the Dutch East Indies and the islands of the South Pacific.

And in the tradition of the Indiana Jones features, the two friends will face many dangers, including an attractive but shady female fortune hunter/confidence woman (Jayne Ashbourne), tenacious adversaries, ruthless pirates, a long voyage by sea on a lifeboat and being stranded on a remote island, all the while pursuing a mysterious metal container which may - or may not - contain the infamous Eye of the Peacock.

My Take:  Like all the other "movies" derived from the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and its Family Channel follow-on features, Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock's Eye mixes some elements of the Lucas/Spielberg/Harrison Ford features (set-piece action sequences, a quest for a legendary relic) with some educational ones which involve setting (the end of World War I and the flu pandemic) and Indy's interactions with important people of the day, including author E.M. Forster (William Osborne), archaeologist Howard Carter (Pip Torrens) and sociologist Bronislaw Malinowski (Tom Courtenay).

Writer Jule Selbo (Cinderella II, Hercules and the Amazon Women) may not be on the same writing levels asRaiders of the Lost Ark's Lawrence Kasdan or David Koepp, who wrote the final screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but his work on several other Young Indy adventures earned him the chops to turn in a teleplay that is exciting, poignant and gives viewers insights on human nature.  Here, Indy faces many trials - some of which are purely adventure-driven like those of his "future" Harrison Ford incarnation, but others are of the mind and spirit.

Bronislaw Malinowski: What will you do when you find your diamond and the riches in your dreams?
 Indy: Go back home, become an archaeologist 
Bronislaw Malinowski: That's what you were going to do if you didn't find your treasure.
 Indy: That's what I want to do. 
Bronislaw Malinowski: So you don't need this diamond to fulfill your dreams. How long will you put off your dream looking for this diamond you don't need? Time, Indy, is the most precious thing we own.

Director Carl Schultz - who is the only other person to have directed Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones besides Steven Spielberg (The Mystery of the Blues) - applies his experiences with the series and gives us a riveting, well-paced TV movie which echoes the thrills and chills of the theatrical films.  Sure, the educational bits do seem, well, educational, but Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock's Eye  keeps even the most restless of viewers interested, especially during Indy and Remy's run-ins with the film's assorted baddies.

Recommended: Yes

World War II in HD: A review of the standard definition DVD set




Because World War II was the defining conflict of the 20th Century - its aftermath continues to shape our lives almost 70 years later - and because it was a globe-spanning conflict, it is not surprising that many filmmakers continue to chronicle those awfully bloody six years that ended over 50 million lives - most of them civilian lives.

Some, of course, are big Hollywood recreations of actual battles (The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far) or fact-based miniseries along the lines of Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

Others are fictional stories that range from the somber eulogy of Saving Private Ryan to the more action-oriented baubles a la The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, both of which exemplify the Commando Raid Adventure sub-genre.

Nevertheless, from the dawn of the Television Age back in the 1940s and ‘50s, the millions of feet of combat and propaganda footage shot by both the Axis and Allies have been mined for a plethora of documentaries made for television, starting with NBC's paean to the U.S. Navy and its Allied counterparts, Victory at Sea.

Now, you'd think that after 60 or so years, television documentary makers would probably have run out of ideas for World War II projects, especially those that are made for - or aired on - cable's History channel and its spinoffs.

After all, once you've seen all the Big Picture projects (such as the classic British documentary series The World at War or the Ken Burns/PBS non-fiction miniseries The War) and the plethora of narrowly focused works (Tora! Tora! Tora! The Complete Story of Pearl Harbor) which used to be History's "bread and butter" fare, you've seen everything about World War II, right?

Er, not quite.

WWII in HD: In November of 2009, History aired a 10-episode miniseries titled simply WWII in HD, which was "shot and remastered in high definition" and culled from - as the package blurb puts it - "three thousand hours of color film few knew existed" from several countries' archives.

Essentially, producer Lou Reda and writers Matthew Ginsburg, Bruce Kennedy and Liz Reph take a page from the Ken Burns playbook and follow the wartime experiences of 12 American men and women who participate in World War II either as combatants (Jack Werner, Shelby Westbrook), caregivers (Jane Wandrey) or reporters (Robert Sherrod, Richard Tregaskis) from Pearl Harbor Day to VJ Day.

The narrative, which combines color footage collected over a two-year world-wide search in Allied and Axis archives, interviews with now-elderly veterans and dramatic readings from the 12 "characters'" letters and journals to recreate as vividly as possible what they saw, heard, tasted, smelled and felt during World War II

WWII in HD is narrated by actor Gary Sinise (CSI: New York), who has done voiceover work for many documentaries, including When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions He does a good job of stitching the various storylines and complements the readings of the other cast members very nicely.

The People We Follow and the Actors:

* Jack Werner: Justin Bartha
* Rockie Blunt: Rob Corddry
* Richard Tregaskis: Tim DeKay
* Archie Sweeney: Mark Hefti
* Jimmie Kanaya: James Kyson Lee
* Charles Scheffel: Ron Livingston
* Shelby F. Westbrook: LL Cool J
* Robert Sherrod: Rob Lowe
* Bert Stiles: Josh Lucas
* Jack Yusen: Jason Ritter
* June Wandrey: Amy Smart
* Nolen Marbrey: Steve Zahn


About the HD:

Of course, when this aired on History in 2009 it was aired in two formats, HD and "standard definition" so that basic cable subscribers without HD packages or TVs could see it, and that's how it is presented on the standard definition three-disc DVD set, so I can't say that I was able to get the full visual impact of the series' "immersive HD" format.

My Take:

While WWII in HD is nowhere as moving or powerful as The War or as instructive as The World at War, it does give viewers a very personal view of the American experience in the Second World War.

The series' structure is fairly chronological, following the course of events from the start of the "European War" on Sept. 1, 1939 till the end of the conflict. Most of the pre-Pearl Harbor events are dealt with in pro-forma fashion because - as many international viewers will note - its focus is on America's participation in World War II.

That having been said, the series covers battles and campaigns that overlap, so sometimes the narrative skips backward and forward in time depending on which "character" it is following.

The 12 main characters, as I mentioned before, are real persons who in one way or another were caught up in the maelstrom of World War II. Some, we know (because we see them on screen) survived to the present time, while others either die during the war or a short while after.

Obviously, which format you buy will determine how HD WWII in HD is for you on home video. On DVD, naturally, playback will be standard definition on DVD players even if you have an HD TV set.

On Blu-ray, which is what I should have ordered, playback is fully HD, so the sound and audio should match the intentions of its creators if you have a Blu-ray player.

Though when WWII in HD aired on History (see Episode Guide below) the stated running time was 10 hours, the home version has a run time of seven hours and 35 minutes because there are no commercial breaks or channel promos.


Episode 1: Darkness Falls
Original Air Date-15 November 2009

Episode 2: Hard Way Back
Original Air Date-15 November 2009

Episode 3: Bloody Resolve
Original Air Date-16 November 2009

Episode 4: Battle Stations
Original Air Date-16 November 2009

Episode 5: Day of Days
Original Air Date-17 November 2009

Episode 6: Point of No Return
Original Air Date-17 November 2009

Episode 7: Striking Distance
Original Air Date-18 November 2009

Episode 8: Glory and Guts
Original Air Date-18 November 2009

Episode 9: Edge of the Abyss
Original Air Date-19 November 2009

Episode 10: End Game
Original Air Date-19 November 2009

Recommended: Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age