Thursday, June 6, 2013

Axis & Allies: The Board Game revisited

I first played Axis & Allies almost 30 years ago when Milton Bradley (now Avalon Hill/Hasbro) first published it as a board game. It was heavily promoted in Playboy magazine with an impressive print ad campaign.  When Hector Perez, a college buddy of mine, and I were looking for an intellectually challenging pastime, I suggested we look for a copy of Axis & Allies. Even though it was pretty pricey for my budget ($30.00 at Toys R Us), Hector and I went "halfsies" and bought a set. We ended up playing Axis & Allies all afternoon and well into the night, with the Axis (under Hector's command) triumphing over the overmatched Allies (yours truly).

Change the Course of History in a Few Short Hours
AXIS & ALLIES is a classic game of war, economics, and strategy. Victory goes not only to the team that conquers its opponents on the field of battle, but also to the individual player who seizes the most enemy territory.

Axis & Allies has many virtues as a board game. It is set in the spring of 1942, which was the "high water mark" for the Axis powers (Germany and Japan; Italy is, for simplicity's sake, not a player and absorbed into the Axis-controlled Southern Europe region). Germany and Japan are at the height of their military potential but financially vulnerable. The Allies (USSR, United Kingdom, and U.S.A.) are militarily weak but industrially strong. 
Each player had color-coded troops,ships, subs, planes and tanks, plus industrial complexes and anti-aircraft guns, all of which had to be placed on the mapboard as indicated by each nation's quick reference card. Each player also had a certain starting income measured in Industrial Production Certificates (IPCs) based on the total value of the territories under his or her control. Each player placed his forces as indicated, then went through several steps -- Weapons Development, Unit Purchase, Combat Moves, Non Combat Moves, and New Unit Placement -- during a turn to carry out his or her country or coalition's strategic goals (to defend own turf while grabbing enemy territories and more IPCs in the bargain). After either a military victory (each coalition capturing two of the Capitals) or an Axis Economic Victory (based on a particular increase of IPCs), the game would end.

The board game, of course, required quite a bit of time to set up. Units had to be set up "just so," not placed at a player's whims. The mapboard, which was (and still is) color coded for each of the warring nations (brown for the USSR, gray for Germany, light brown for the U.K., yellow for Japan, and olive drab for the U.S.A.) could accomodate stacks of units and even had extra spaces to ease the confusion between land and sea spaces or to solve "overcrowding."

Still, even with the game's reference cards to serve as a guide, this stage of the game still took about 15 minutes, sometimes more. There was also the matter of moving the forces from the main mapboard to the battle board. Also, keeping track of national markers to reflect changes in territorial ownership and IPC levels required patience, attention to detail, and dexterity. 
Photo: Wikipedia
As in most board related war games, units had attack/defense factors built in (Infantry, for instance, attacked at rolls of 1 but defended at 2) and the factors defined both strategy and battle results, since "combat" was resolved with throwing dice. For each unit on the Battle Board (where you placed your pieces in a Combat Move) you had a die, and each unit was placed on the Battle Board according to its attack/defense number. You rolled dice by category (Infantry first, because it had low roll numbers, for instance), so if you had five infantry units, three tanks, and one bomber (with attack values of 1, 3, and 4, respectively) you rolled five dice for the infantry, then the tanks, then the bomber. If three of the five Infantry dice resulted in 1, three defending units were hit. If the tanks rolled 3 or less, they'd hit...and so on. The defender would then place his/her "killed" units behind the casualty line, roll for ALL the units (since combat was considered to have taken place simultaneously), and if he/she scored hits on the attacker, both players would then remove their "dead" and the attacker would decide if he/she would continue the attack or retreat, based on the casualties and remaining enemy strength. (Amphibious attacks and submarines had special rules, as did AA guns.)

Once the player had enough IPCs to warrant the gamble, he/she could set aside 5 IPCs for one attempt to develop new technology. For each attempt one had to buy a die (at the expense of buying a combat unit), and in order to "develop" something the roll had to be a 6. Then the die had to be rolled again to determine what new tech the player had discovered. Most players skipped this step in early stages of the game in order to buy combat units, only risking IPCs when they had a comfortable advantage over their opponents.

As in Risk, the more combat situations each player could carry out in one turn the better, assuming that there was enough of a mix of air, land, and sea forces to ensure victory in as many as possible. Of course, the attacks not only depended on the ratio of attackers to defenders, but also on the randomness of the dice. Often, what looked like a flawless plan involving Navy battleships and transports, Army tanks and infantry, and Air Force bombers and fighters would fall apart because the die rolls were

It wasn't a game that required a degree in modern history, obviously, nor did knowledge of the actual war matter, but a certain amount of patience and analytical skills was essential. Players had to be aware that a certain mix of units was necessary to defeat an opponent; sending Infantry units alone, no matter how numerous, against an enemy territory defended by Infantry, Armor, and Fighters was and always would be suicidal, and sending a Fighter or Bomber to attack a space defended by a single Infantry unit was a waste of effort, since even if the defender was destroyed, the air unit could not occupy the territory desired. So a player with a head for numbers and some tactical savvy could nearly always defeat a player who knew his/her history but was clueless about random numbers and attack/defense ratios.

Nevertheless, I thought Axis & Allies was a good game and loved to play it, even though I rarely did once my friend Hector moved out of town. I've recently introduced it to a few friends of mine, with mixed results. Some liked it and played when they had a free day, while others found it nice to look at but tedious and time consuming to set up.

Axis & Allies contains
299 Plastic Playing Pieces
1 Game Board
Industrial Production Certificates (money)
Instruction Book
7 Charts
Control Markers
12 Dice
6 Storage Trays
Plastic Chips
2-5 Players

Recommended: Yes

Amount Paid (US$): 30.00
Type of Toy: Board Game
Age Range of Child: Other

Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: A Book Review

Nos·tal·gia: Pronunciation: nä-'stal-j&, n&- also no -, nO-; n&-'stäl- Function: noun Etymology: New Latin, from Greek nostos return home New Latin -algia; akin to Greek neisthai to return, Old English genesan to survive, Sanskrit nasate he approaches 
1 : the state of being homesick : HOMESICKNESS 
2 : a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia 
- nos·tal·gic /-jik/ adjective or noun 
- nos·tal·gi·cal·ly /-ji-k(&-)le/ adverb 


For most of us, the past sometimes seems more attractive than our present or somehow less frightening than the undiscovered country of the future. It's an illusion, really, but memory has a way of dulling all but the sharpest pains, the saddest memories, and the rest of all our yesterdays become a series of sepia-colored memories in which we take refuge from our 21st Century red state-blue state, conservative vs. liberal, war-on-terror, and bad news on CNN realities. 

Most of us, too, indulge ourselves with trips to the past through many gateways. For some of us, certain foods or beverages will trigger off happy memories of days gone by: a slice of homemade pie, perhaps, or a distinctively-shaped bottle of chilled Coca-Cola, or a particular brand of chocolate. 

But there are other gateways to the rose-colored days of the past we sometimes crave, as well. Music, of course, springs to mind; who among us doesn't have a song that stops our hearts and makes us think Oh, I remember the first time I heard this.... or makes us misty eyed? Almost any medium...a movie, a television show, a magazine, or a book, particularly one that is well-loved, dog-eared, battered almost to the point of disintegration because it's been read and re-read so many times. 

For me, one of those books is the late Douglas Adams' comical science fiction satire, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I first read it when I was 18, and for the past quarter century, this masterpiece of humorous wordplay has lightened my moods, brightened gloomy days, and taken me back in time to my own nostalgic utopia. 

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has -- or rather had -- a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

So the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
 -- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 

One of my favorite books to re-read has always been Douglas Adams' wacky "sort-of adaptation" of 
his scripts for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe hilarious BBC 1978 radio comedy. I bought my first copy of the Guide in 1981 after hearing some of the episodes on National Public Radio and laughing till my sides ached at the insane and inane misadventures of poor, befuddled Arthur Dent and the beings he meets when he's whisked off the Earth a few moments before its destruction. 

Because most of the characters and situations Adams created are so bizarre, he gets the reader to buy into the premise by making Arthur someone we can identify with. He's not a heroic figure like Buck Rogers or Indiana Jones, but rather a very ordinary fellow, 

about thirty...tall, dark-haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too -- most of his friends worked in advertising. 

Poor Arthur. To understand what he goes through in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, imagine yourself waking up one Thursday, looking blearily out your window, seeing a bulldozer, going on about your morning routine, then having the word "yellow" pop into your head with something to connect with. Wander about. Do more morning stuff. Look out your window. Yep, the bulldozer is still there. Hm…is that a hangover you have? Yep. Were you at a bar, perhaps? Mad about that expressway the city commission approved several months before and now your house is to be demolished? Oh, and you drank way too much, too. Better rehydrate. What? Where are you going? Are you crazy? Lying down on the mud in front of a bulldozer is NOT going to save the house….. 

That his house is going to be knocked down by a crew of workmen led by a direct descendant of Genghis Khan is actually the least of Arthur Dent's worries, for unfortunately the world is, in fact, going to meet the same fate but in a vaster scale: the Vogon Constructor Fleet has arrived; its big, ugly ships -- yellow, of course -- primed to demolish the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. 

Fortunately for Arthur, his friend Ford Prefect has managed to flag down a ride off the Earth with the Dentrassi, the happy-go-lucky cooks of the Vogon fleet, allowing the very unprepared Englishman -- still clad in his bathrobe -- to survive his home planet's demise. Over the course of the novel, Arthur and Ford will survive being tossed out of a Vogon airlock, encounter the very trippy -- and two-headed -- Zaphod Beeblebrox (and his lovely girlfriend Trillian), endure the complaints of Marvin the Paranoid Android ("Life. Don't talk to me about life."), discover the true nature of the Earth on the lost world of Magrathea, and start off on a new quest for the Ultimate Question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything. 

On Adams' Style: 

First-time readers should be aware that this is not a conventional novel spiced up with "funny bits," nor is it a funny-on-the-surface, seething-on-the-inside satirical look at a real place a la Carl Hiassen's Skinny Dip. It's more along the lines of Monty Python's Flying Circus, poking fun at every science fiction storyline ever written and then some, taking gentle sideswipes at almost every aspect of modern life, ranging from local politics and planning boards to the global presence of McDonald's hamburgers. As the book critic of The Atlantic stated,The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is "lively, sharply satirical, brilliantly written....Ranks with the best set pieces in Mark Twain." 

Adams, who died a few years ago at the age of 49, was a master of gentle puns and sharp satire. He was fond, for instance, of exaggerating the ridiculous situations to get the reader to laugh. He'd take an idea and literally stretch the language for comic effect, sometimes subtly, and sometimes not. For example, he came up with a character who comes up with a bizarre explanation of what, exactly happens to ballpoint pens when they go missing: 

There followed a long period of painstaking research during which he visited all the major points of ballpoint loss throughout the Galaxy and eventually came up with a quaint little theory which quite caught the public imagination at the time. Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, fishoids, walking treeoids and super intelligent shades of the color blue, there was a planet entirely given over to ballpoint life forms. And it was to this planet that unattended ballpoints would make their way, slipping away quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely ballpointed life-style, responding to highly ballpoint-oriented stimuli, and generally living the ballpoint equivalent of the good life. 

Adams also was fond of one-liners, as in this exchange between Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect: 

Ford stared at [Arthur] blankly in the darkness. He helped Arthur to some peanuts. 'How do you feel?' he asked him.

" Like a military academy," said Arthur, "bits of me keep passing out."

Interpersed throughout the main plot of Arthur's misadventures with Ford, Zaphod and Trillian are the "reference entries" of the Hitchhiker's Guide itself. Ford Prefect, after all, is a roving researcher for the Guide, which is one of the best-selling books in the known Galaxy, partly because it is slightly cheaper than the Encyclopedia Galactica, but mainly because its definitions are wickedly funny.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Aisle Seat: John Williams and the Boston Pops' CD of music from the movies

To me, one of the best things about the movies is the vast variety of themes that composers have created over the years. From Max Steiner’s “Tara Theme” of Gone with the Wind to “The Flying Theme” from E.T., composer/conductor John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra take us on a musical journey spanning nearly four decades in Aisle Seat. 

Of the 10 themes presented in this Philips CD, three were composed by Williams. Two are famous in the Williams repertoire -- “The Flying Theme” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark March” -- but they were still relatively new when this album was first released 21 years ago.

 The third Williams composition is “If We Were In Love,” a romantic theme from Yes, Giorgio, a forgotten (and forgettable) movie starring Luciano Pavarotti. No matter…even if the movie flopped, the theme survived. It’s sweet and sweeping, almost operatic, yet you can hum it -- if nothing else, great movie music often is catchy and easy on the ears. 

The other composers featured in Aisle Seat include Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz), Vangelis (“Chariots of Fire”), John Kander (“Main Theme” from New York, New York), Nacio Herb Brown (“Main Title” from Singing in the Rain), Dmitri Tiomkin (“Main Theme” from Friendly Persuasion), and Ralph Blaine & Hugh Edward Martin (“The Trolley Song” from Meet Me In St. Louis)

As always, the Boston Pops Orchestra performs each piece with the appropriate styling for each era. I like the mix of relatively contemporary themes (when I owned the cassette version of this CD the Williams and Vangelis pieces were still relative newcomers) and classic “Old Hollywood” standards. Particularly poignant is Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” evoking memories of a young Judy Garland. Indeed, don’t be surprised if you see mental images of Gene Kelly, Harrison Ford, or a certain long-limbed extraterrestrial being flashing in your mind’s eye as you listen to this album.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spider-Man 3: Too many villains, too little focus on characters

One of the toughest problems that faces filmmakers involved in creating and selling any "franchise" movie series (whether it's Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman or Superman) is "How do you keep an audience's interest (and repeat business) in your characters and situations without getting stale or silly?"

Now, there are lots of possible good answers, but two of the most obvious are "Be consistent and follow the rules of the universe you create, and above all, don't be constantly remaking the first movie over and over again."

Unfortunately, not every screenwriter, director or creative team keeps these rules of the road in mind.  TheSuperman movies which starred the late Christopher Reeve started out with a classic (Richard Donner'sSuperman: The Movie) then qualitatively slid downhill when the producers decided to give the next two movies to Richard Lester.

So when Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies proved that there are people in Hollywood who understand that comic book superhero films work best when they focus on the human aspects of their characters rather than on the special effects or high-octane fight sequences (yes, Michael Bay, I'm talking about you), I figured that 2007's Spider-Man 3 would be as good, if not better than, the two previous films.

At first glance, the third installment in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man saga (co-written by Sam and Ivan Raimi with Alvin Sargent) is a logical extension of the story as it unfolded in the 2002 and 2004 movies.

Though three years have passed from our perspective, only a few months have elapsed since the events inSpider-Man 2.  Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has, at last, managed to find some balance in life as he juggles college studies, work as a freelance photographer for The Daily Bugle, his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and, of course, battling crime in New York City as "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."

So well-adjusted is Peter's life that he is able to attend one of his girlfriend's Broadway appearances without being, as he was in Spider-Man 2, "an empty chair" because of his chronic tardiness.

The only outstanding problem in Peter's current situation is the terribly strained relationship with Harry Osborn (James Franco).  Once Peter's best friend (and rival for the attentions of MJ), Harry is seething with rancor toward him; he knows that young Parker is also Spider-Man, whom Harry blames for his father Norman's death.

Obviously, Harry's New Goblin and Peter's Spider-Man alter egos must face off eventually, and if Spider-Man 3'screators had chosen to focus on this plot point, the film would have been amazingly great.

Spider-Man 3 still would have been excellent if the Raimi brothers and Sargent had limited the supervillain count to two; adding either Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) or Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace) would have complicated the story somewhat but in a good way and still left an audience hungry for a fourth movie.

But Marvel Studios' Avi Arad, who is one of the franchise's producers, lobbied hard for the inclusion of Venom into the already complex story the Raimis and Sargent had mapped out.

Perhaps Arad was thinking that Venom's huge fan base would bring in more butts (and bucks) to the movie theaters, but in retrospect, it saddled Spider-Man 3 with more story content than its 140-minute running time can comfortably hold.   

Consider this: How can a filmmaker find a healthy balance in a story which features three different supervillains, two love triangles (with the introduction of Bryce Dallas Howard's Gwen Stacy and Grace's Eddie Brock further complicating the Peter-MJ-Harry thing) and Peter's internal struggles with his own demons once he's "taken over" by an alien symbiote?

If I had been in Raimi's shoes, I'd have gone with the introduction of Eddie and Gwen and the Spider-Man vs. Venom fight, even if it meant saving the resolution of the Harry and Peter feud for Spider-Man 4.
Unfortunately, the screenplay was probably almost complete when Marvel Studios insisted on the addition of Venom (who, by the way, is never mentioned by name on screen); a rewrite would have delayed Spider-Man 3's release by several months to a year.

Thus, Spider-Man 3 ends up being bloated and somewhat repetitive, especially where the relationship between MJ and Peter is concerned.  Just like in Spider-Man 2, the couple's relationship is on again, off again as it veers from near-married bliss to nebulous indecision on Mary Jane's part.  There's even a portion of the film where an amnesia-stricken Harry and MJ seem to be heading for a PG-13 rated "side thing" at the same time as Gwen looks like she is making a move for Spider-Man.

Mary Jane Watson: Let me ask you something. When you kissed her, who was kissing her? Spider-man, or Peter? 

As in the two previous films, Tobey Maguire does a magnificent job at doing the dual role of Peter and Spider-Man.  Even though he was in his early 30s when Spider-Man 3 was filmed, he is still convincing as a young 20-something college student.

Indeed, the whole cast, including J.K. Simmons as the irascible J. Jonah Jameson, Rosemary Harris as Peter's Aunt May, James Cronwell as Captain Stacy (Gwen's father) and guest villains Church and Gopher, turns in solid performances.

Church's Flint Marko/Sandman is both menacing and somewhat sympathetic; he's a guy who has committed crimes, yes, but like Alfred Molina's "Doc Ock" in Spider-Man 2, his transformation from mere human to supervillain is purely accidental.  Even his crime spree is motivated by a father's love for his sick daughter, a girl he barely knows because he's been in jail for a while.

Grace's Eddie Brock/Venom is also interesting, but because Brock is smarmy and is essentially the antithesis of the normally nice Peter Parker, he is less likable than Flint Marko.

As good as the performances are , as great as the set piece action sequences and special effects look, and as funny as Raimi-bud Bruce Campbell's de rigeur cameo is, Spider-Man 3 is much too baroque for its own good.  Not only do the filmmakers mess up the Peter-MJ romance by becoming repetitive, but the many arcs of the script's story take the movie to a plethora of directions instead of remaining focused on a simpler but compelling main plot/interesting subplot combination.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Star Wars: Death Star is an entertaining novel by Perry and Reaves

Cover art by John Harris. (C) 2007 Del Rey/Lucas Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

This station is now the ultimate power in the Universe! I suggest we use it. - Admiral Motti.

One of the most important locales in George Lucas' Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope is the Galactic Empire's gigantic battle station code-named "Death Star." Essentially an armored sphere the size of a small moon (its diameter is stated as being 160 kilometers) and powered by something called a "hypermatter reactor," the Death Star carries nearly 1,000,000 crewers, stormtroopers, TIE fighter pilots, med techs and doctors, political prisoners, bureaucrats, Fleet and Army personnel, and even civilians who have been enticed to open stores and other businesses aboard.

At the heart of the Death Star is its Prime Weapon, a planet-killing superlaser which takes time to charge up and requires top-notch gunnery experts to run.

These "facts," of course, are well-known to millions of filmgoers who have watched Star Wars: A New Hopesince its premiere in 1977. Indeed, the Death Star is the focus of everyone's motivations in the film: the Rebels, particularly Princess Leia Organa, are keen on keeping the Death Star's stolen plans and seeking a design flaw they can exploit, while the Empire, personified by Lord Darth Vader and the Death Star's "godfather" and commander Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, hustle to complete the battle station and retrieve the stolen data tapes from the pesky Rebellion.

Star Wars: Death Star, co-authored by Michael Reaves (Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter) and Steve Perry (Shadows of the Empire) draws from events depicted in A New Hope, particularly in the action-packed second half, as well as the Prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. But because other Star Wars-related novels and role-playing sourcebooks have established that Raith Seinar and Imperial scientist Bevel Lemelisk had a hand in helping Tarkin create the Death Star, the authors have to somehow mesh the films' data with those from the books, and this they manage to do rather well without getting the reader to say Whoa, there! Didn't Rogue Planet state that Sienar "invented" the Death Star concept? Or didn't Emperor Palpatine first laugh at Lemelisk when he presented the plans to the Sith Lord in Kevin Anderson's Darksaber?

Although the battle station's fate is no secret - the reader knows that Luke Skywalker will, with the assistance of the Force, shoot a pair of proton torpedoes into the station's only weak spot - Reaves and Perry manage to make Star Wars: Death Star an amazing page-turner of a novel. They do so by focusing only on characters who are involved in its creation, operation, and defense, which is a big challenge because in the film, the Death Star's crew is portrayed one-dimensionally; Tarkin, Motti, Vader and their faceless underlings are ruthless, anonymous and always-obedient, unquestioning drone-like servants of the Emperor's New Order.

That's fine for the storytelling needs of the movie, but had Reaves and Perry done the black-white-no-shades-of-moral-gray bit, I doubt that any reader would have enjoyed the 363-page long novel past the first part. To their credit, however, the authors populate the Death Star with a cross-section of fully-developed characters whose various storylines converge and diverge as the plot follows the battle station's construction and deployment.

Take, for instance, Kornell "Uli" Divini, a medical doctor who served in what was the Republic Grand Army during the Clone Wars and has been kept on active service by the Empire. He's a man who wears the uniform of the Imperial Army but is tired of the death and waste of war.

Or Villian Dance, a lieutenant in the Imperial Navy and a crack TIE fighter pilot who wants to become one of the best "sticks" in the service but begins to question his role in the war against the Rebels after two combat missions and the "test" of the planet-killing superlaser on Alderaan.

There are others, of course, including a sergeant in the Imperial Marines with a high midi-chlorian count; a Twi'lek female whose Coruscant pub mysteriously burns down and signs on to run a similar dive in the Death Star; a Zelosian smuggler who escapes from the prison world Despayre and finds his way aboard the space station; and the crack Star Destroyer gunnery officer who wants nothing else but to fire "the big gun," only to have moral qualms about his duty later. All of them seem fully-fleshed out and truly believable.

Even the movie's best-known characters - Vader, Tarkin, and Motti - fare well in Death Star, especially the Dark Lord and the ambitious Grand Moff. The writers, by using references to Vader's past life as Anakin Skywalker, add dimension to the Man in the Suit that's a bit absent in the film version of the events, while Tarkin, whose affair with the beautiful yet ruthless Admiral Daala was chronicled by Kevin Anderson in other novels, is a bit more interesting. His ambivalence about his role in the Empire - is Tarkin content with being simply the Emperor's high-ranking subordinate, or does he plan to overthrow Palpatine once the Rebellion is crushed? - is nicely depicted by the authors.

All in all, this novel is one of the best Star Wars books I've read in a while. It doesn't get bogged down in technobabble, the prose is crisp and flows well, and even though the ending is pre-destined, the story is gripping and very entertaining.

Recommended: Yes

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Star Wars: A Musical Journey (DVD Review)

One of the nicest things about Sony Classical's soundtrack album from Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the bonus DVD that comes with the CD. Titled Star Wars: A Musical Journey, this is a magnificent collection of 16 music videos that span the entire six-Episode saga. The Prequels' four major themes (Duel of the Fates, Anakin's Theme, Across the Stars [Love Theme from Attack of the Clones), and Battle of the Heroes) underscore beautifully edited montages from the 1999-2005 trilogy, while action/setting cues and major themes from the Classic Trilogy feature scenes from all six Star Wars films to follow the Skywalker family's pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire. 

Of all the film series that feature classical-styled scores, George Lucas's Star Wars saga (which he personally calls The Tragedy of Darth Vader) is certainly a prime candidate for music videos. Indeed, Lucasfilm produced three MTV-styled vignettes (Duel of the Fates, Across the Stars, and A Hero Falls) for the Prequel Trilogy; each has aired at least once on MTV since 1999; in addition, the videos are included in the extra features discs of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: A Musical Journey's 16 videos are arranged in roughly chronological order from Episode I: The Phantom Menace to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, with only two videos being deliberately moved out of sequence. To illustrate the rise of the evil Galactic Empire, Episode V's The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) precedes the trio of themes from Episode IV: A New Hope. And to bring the Musical Journey to a triumphal end, director Tippy Bushkin has chosen Throne Room/Finale from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for A New Day Dawns

While the vignettes are all well done and form a visual Cliff's Notes to the two trilogies, it should be noted that whileA Hero Falls is the same video that appears on Disc 2 of Revenge of the Sith's DVD set, the videos Dark Forces Conspire and A Fateful Love are not the same videos that were used for Duel of the Fates and Across the Stars. The presentation in both is different as far as video footage is concerned, and A Fateful Love goes even further, using the same musical material as in the Episode II album rather than the blend of the Main Title and Love Theme from Attack of the Clones heard in the 2002 Across the Stars video. 

Actor/director Ian McDiarmid (who plays the evil Darth Sidious in five of the six Episodes) introduces each clip with an introduction taped at Abbey Road Studio, where the world-famous London Symphony Orchestra recorded the scores for many of the Star Wars films. Viewers have the option to play the videos with or without the introductions, but McDiarmid's mellow voice and theatrical delivery are enjoyable and add much to the presentation of the various musical montages. 

In addition to the various viewing options (you can watch all the videos in the 70-minute long DVD as one feature, choose individual vignettes, or skip the intros), Star Wars: A Musical Journey contains a very nifty trailer for Lucasarts' video game tie-in to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

While I wish the director had kept the original videos from the first two prequel films, having watched A Musical Journey a few times has made me realize that their mix of film clip, quick shots of the actual production preparations, and footage of Williams conducting the LSO don't quite match the presentation of the other 13 videos. The vignettes are wonderfully edited and blend footage from the six films in a unifying manner, and the music is endlessly compelling and memorable. 

Chapter List

1. A Long Time Ago: 20th Century Fox Fanfare and Star Wars Main Title from all films 
2. Dark Forces Conspire: Duel of the Fates from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 
3. A Hero Rises: Anakin's Theme from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 
4. A Fateful Love: Across the Stars from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones 
5. A Hero Falls: Battle of the Heroes from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 
6. An Empire is Forged: The Imperial March from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
7. A Planet That Is Farthest From: The Dune Sea of Tatooine and Jawa Sandcrawler from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
8. An Unlikely Alliance: Binary Sunset and Cantina Band from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
9. A Defender Emerges: Princess Leia's Theme from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
10. A Daring Rescue: Ben's Death/TIE Fighter Attack from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
11. A Jedi is Trained: Yoda's Theme from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
12. A Narrow Escape: The Asteroid Field from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
13. A Bond Unbroken: Luke and Leia from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 
14. Sanctuary Moon: The Forest Battle (Concert Version) from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

15. A Life Redeemed: Light of the Force from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
16. A New Day Dawns: The Throne Room/Finale from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Photo Credit: Lucasfilm Limited via Star Wars Wiki
© 2005-2014 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thoughts on review writing...

I know that many, if not most, of the problems that affect everyone's hit counts are purely technical or related to the site's business model. We reviewers can't solve those problems. Sure, tech-savvy Epinions members who know how to crunch data and have hands-on experience with website design and operation should chime in and suggest fixes to Damon and his colleagues. I'm a writer, so I can only sit on the sidelines when we discuss Google Panda, Alexa ratings, the SdC database, and things of that nature.

As a writer, though, I think we need to consider the possibility that we need to change how we write our reviews. Many of us, including me, tend to write long and detailed reviews in an attempt to cover every feature of a product. We have a site-wide tendency to describe not only a product's important features, but to pad reviews with "facts" that a typical website reader might not care about.

The average reader does not like having to wade through unnecessarily long articles just to see if Zero Dark Thirty is worth checking out or if Fancy Feast cat food is better for cats than Friskies. He (or she) wants to get the necessary information in a clear and concise review, not a doctoral dissertation on why Zero Dark Thirty is a reflection on America's War on Terror. Many of us, including me, tend to write overly complex sentences and paragraphs that are full of what William Zinsser calls "clutter."

Why do we do this? I think part of it is that we have created a culture of writing "to the rating" instead of writing to the reader. Many of us worry that advisers and category leads will withhold Very Helpful or even Helpful ratings if we don't describe every detail of a product or include the skinny on "why we bought this." As a result, we write reviews that try to cover everything we believe a "blue hat" or "red hat" wants to see. There are categories, such as Electronics and Computer Games, that might warrant the "more is better" approach to review-writing. However, by writing to the rating, we are failing to attract and retain the readers we need to get page views. 

I am one of those reviewers who writes reviews which are too long and full of unnecessary fluff. I'm guilty of using complicated sentence structures and "impressive" stuffy words that make my reviews hard to read. I know that I need to improve my writing so that it's clear and concise.

Maybe if we look at how we write and identify those problems that we can fix, we can give the average reader reviews that catch the eye and receive badly needed page views. I'm willing to try and change my writing style if it will help keep Epinions survive.

© 2013 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Billy Joel's Greatest Hits - Volume III: A Quick Review

I got to admit it...I almost didn't buy this album.

When "Billy Joel Greatest Hits: Volume III" was released in 1997, I wasn't sure if I wanted to purchase it. I hadn't bought many of Joel's post-"An Innocent Man" albums (although a few good friends had given me "The Bridge," "Kohcept," and the "Greatest Hits: Vols. I & II" as presents); I'd heard the quality of the songs had veered from great to good to mediocre, and because I was building up my classical music CD collection, I wasn't about to spend my limited music-buying bucks on albums that would disappoint me. So when I read a review in my local newspaper that stated, in short, that Volume III wasn't exactly the most fitting "adieu" to pop/rock recording by "the Piano Man," I said to myself, "Nah, I better not waste my money on this CD; let's get Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields' Amadeus soundtrack instead."

This I did, but about a year later, I was trying to find something worth getting with a $50 gift certificate at one of my favorite brick-and-mortar stores when I spied the Limited Edition 4-disc Billy Joel Greatest Hits Collection. My Volumes I & II CDs were getting worn out from repeated playing, and they needed replacement anyway, so I figured, "What the heck, I'll get a good bargain if I replace two discs with four."

When I got home, I decided to not listen to Discs 1 and 2 first but went for Disc 3, which of course was Volume III, the so-called "runt of the litter." I knew, just by looking at the play list, that I'd like the first five tracks; I had those songs in my cassettes of "An Innocent Man" and "The Bridge," after all. It was the other 12 songs that were, at the time, musica incognita.

To my surprise, I was totally blown away by the songs that I almost missed out on because of that "professional" music critic's review. I found myself moved to the verge of tears by Joel's end-of-the-Cold War anthem "Leningrad," which tells the parallel life stories of Viktor, a Russian circus clown born in 1944 and Joel, born in suburbia five years later. With its opening piano chords reminiscent of a Russian military march and its haunting lyrics, "Leningrad" is a very personal statement about Joel's personal peace with a citizen of what was once the "evil empire." ("He made my daughter laugh/then we embraced; we never knew what friends we had/Till we came to Leningrad.")

Although there are many songs that I loved right from the git-go ("We Didn't Start the Fire," "The Downeaster Alexa," and the Gospel-tinged "The River of Dreams"), three are particular favorites of mine.

"And So It Goes" is a bittersweet song about a love affair that is star-crossed, doomed, and that Joel knows it is not going to last. It is, like some of his best melancholy songs, restrained and accompanied only by Joel's keyboards, and the lyrics ("So I would choose to be with you/that's if the choice were mine to make...") speak volumes to men and women who have gone through the heartbreak of loving someone yet knowing the other person is moving on.

Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" started out as a purely classical piece in the style of Edvard Grieg, but acquired lyrics during the period when the songwriter/singer's marriage to Christie Brinkley was coming to an end during the creation of "The River of Dreams" album. It is a song similar to "And So It Goes" both in tone and performance, but the words are a promise to his daughter Alexa that "no matter where you go, no matter where you are" Joel will never be too far away. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and I sometimes wish Joel had included the solo piano version in his "Fantasies and Delusions" album of classical piano pieces.

Finally, there's Joel's inspired cover of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," in which the singer takes his voice and imitates Dylan's rough-edged tone to good effect. (One thing I had not known about Billy: he's a great mimic. He can sound like a Beatle in a cover of "A Hard Day's Night" or Dylan in "The Times They Are A' Changing.") I have often listened to this song thinking about loves of the past, thinking how I, too, would do all I could to "make [them] feel my love."

I eventually ended up not only embracing Disc 3 of that boxed set, but I also later bought this original release version. Aside from the packaging and the disc's labeling, they are one and the same. For budgetary reasons, of course, the boxed set is a better buy (you get 4 discs in one nice package, plus a booklet of photos, bio and lyrics), but it's often hard to find -- even on Amazon -- so if you don't have many of Joel's albums, I recommend this edition along with Vols. I and II. It's not the most comprehensive Greatest Hits collection ever...quite a few favorites of mine were left out ("Honesty," "Rosalinda's Eyes")... but it still gives long-time fans (or new ones) a pretty good retrospective of Joel's long musical career.