Wednesday, January 30, 2013

24: The Complete Series box set: A review (with link)


24: The Complete Series 
  
  
Reviewer’s Note: This Epinion focuses solely on the 24: The Complete Series box set (DVD format) and its particular features.  It doesn’t contain any season-specific content. It doesn't discuss plot or characters, either. However, links to the author’s reviews of the seven seasons found in the Epinions database have been provided in the  Content section of this review: 

On November 6, 2001, the Fox television network aired the first episode of 24, a hybrid of the action/espionage/political thriller and nighttime soap opera genres. Created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran (La Femme Nikita) and starring Kiefer Sutherland as Federal counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer, 24 portrays the events of a single day in “real time.” 

The series ran for nine years and eight seasons – the seventh being delayed by almost a year due to the Writer’s Guild strike of 2007-2008; it spanned 192 regular episodes and a two-hour TV movie, Redemption.  On May 24, 2010, 24 ended its original TV run with a two-hour series finale. 20th Century Fox, which owns the rights to the show, is reportedly working on a feature film follow-up; production is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2013. 

24’s success was not only measured by its consistent high ratings, but also by sales of complete season box sets.  Each of the eight seasons has been released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment on DVD, along with the 2008 TV movie Redemption, which was the “setup” story for Season Seven.  (The series’ seventh and eighth seasons are also available on Blu-ray.) 

24: The Complete Series - The Box Set     

On December 14, 2010, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released 24: The Complete Series, a 57-disc box set encompassing Seasons One – Eight, including Redemption and an exclusive Bonus Disc which contains several retrospective featurettes and an outtake from Season Eight titled Chloe’s Arrest. 
  
Although the manufacturer’s suggested retail price was a whopping $349.98, some stores (including Amazon) are selling it for $216.00.  

The Packaging: 20th  Century Fox Home Entertainment ensconces the 57 DVDs that comprise Seasons One – Eight and Redemption in nine multi-disc plastic cases.  These are contained in a slipcover package made of resilient (but hardly indestructible) cardboard.  The slipcover features the series’ “digital clock” 24 logo in yellow superimposed on a photo of a pistol-wielding Kiefer Sutherland.  The discs come in the “inner box” that you slide out of the slipcover’s outer shell and are arranged in chronological order. 

There is a small slot in one corner of the inner box which contains the Complete Series’ bonus disc.  Unlike the other DVDs in the set, this disc is protected by a laminated envelope which has a resealable flap. 

For more of this review, please click here.

Underage "party princess" causes a fatal hit and run in Miami Beach

There are times when I wonder why many people, particularly young people, simply don't understand why there are laws that prohibit driving motor vehicles after drinking alcohol or doing drugs.

After all, we've known that drinking and driving are a dangerous mix ever since the Automobile Age began at the turn of the 20th Century. Operating any type of vehicle under any circumstance is a complex process which requires much care and mental acuity. Drivers need to have quick reflexes and what aircraft pilots call "situation awareness" in order to avoid an accident while going from Point A to Point B.  Alcohol tends to dull the senses, impairs judgment and slows the mind's ability to react quickly, especially in situations when split-second decisions have to be made. That's why there are laws on the books to deter or punish individuals who choose to get behind the wheel of a vehicle after having several drinks.

Well, apparently Karlie Tomica, 20, didn't get the memo about the dangers of driving under the influence.

According to various news accounts, including this article in the Miami Herald, the self-described "party princess" struck and killed 49-year-old Stefano Riccioletti, a chef at the Shore Club in Miami Beach, with her car after completing her shift at the nightclub/bar Nikki Beach.  Tomica then attempted to flee the scene of the accident but was followed by a "Good Samaritan" who was driving to the gym.

As reporter Maria Lamagna writes in 3 lives intersect in tragedy on South Beach street:


Karlie Tomica was arrested near her apartment about four miles north of the tragedy. She was taken to Miami-Dade Jail and was released at the end of the day on $10,000 bond. Then she ran. She ran away from waiting reporters. And she still seems to be running — away from her life. Her once-prolific posts on Facebook and Twitter about her South Beach style have been wiped clean


Tomica, who hails from Port St. Lucie and attended Florida International University from 2010 to 2011, attempted to elude Jairo Fuentes' dogged pursuit once she realized she was being followed.  She didn't seem to care that she had killed Riccioletti and left his three children without a father.


According to the Miami Herald, the young woman - who had often tweeted and posted on Facebook about her drinking and partying - led Fuentes on a four-mile-long chase from the accident scene on Collins Avenue to her apartment building as he frantically called 911.



He was driving north on Collins Avenue at about 6 a.m. when a man crossing the street was struck by a vehicle and, as Fuentes describes it, sent flying through the air from the impact.
“I was in shock,” when he saw what had happened, Fuentes says. “I was screaming when I saw him fall on the floor, and I guess I was very angry too that [the driver] didn’t stop.”
Fuentes, 47, dialed 911 and followed the driver until he caught up with her north of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel. The passenger window of the car was broken. She had tried to lose Fuentes several times, pretending to go left at one point and doing U-turns on Collins Avenue. He yelled to her many times that she should stop. Her erratic driving and swerving led him to believe she had been drinking.
When she eventually got out of the car, Fuentes says she was wearing a bright orange dress, and she refused to speak to him. Blood covered the side of the car. Police arrived minutes later.
Photo Credit: Twitter

Though DUI hit-and-runs occur every day, what makes this case disturbing is that the self-styled "party princess" shamelessly flaunted her drinking habits on Facebook and Twitter
Tomica, who has apparently deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts since she bonded out from the Miami-Dade County Jail, crowed on her Twitter profile that she was "Livin (sic) the dream".  
According to Herald writer Lamagna, Karlie Tomica was hardly shy about her love for booze:
She has tweeted several times recently about drinking alcohol, including one post on “Margaritas & spinach dip to celebrate the end of midterms” on Jan. 17.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/01/29/3206969_p2/3-lives-intersect-in-tragedy-on.html#storylink=cpy
Oh, and here is the kicker. Karlie Tomica is not even old enough to legally consume margaritas, daiquiris or even a can of cheap, watery beer.  She's only 20 years old, two years older than the victim's 18-year-old son.
In her mugshot, which has gone viral, Tomica is shown in a teary-eyed, "woe is me" pose.

Is she sad because she killed a 49-year-old man whose three kids are now bereft of the presence of their dad? Is she crying because she knows she did the wrong thing thrice over? (After all, she broke Florida's underage drinking law, drove while under the influence of alcohol, and left the scene of a fatal accident....)
It would be nice to think that Miss Party Princess feels shame and remorse for her stupidity and reckless behavior. However, it's more likely that Karlie Tomica is not crying for the Riccioletti family or the loss she has caused. No, Karlie Tomica is mourning the fact that her days of "Livin the dream" are over.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/01/29/3206969_p2/3-lives-intersect-in-tragedy-on.html#storylink=cpy
Source: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/01/29/3206969_p2/3-lives-intersect-in-tragedy-on.html

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/01/29/3206969_3-lives-intersect-in-tragedy-on.html#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Things I Remember: Seville (Sevilla), Spain 1988


My Apartment in Sevilla

It wasn't exactly my apartment per se because I had to share Apartamento 2E at No. 1 Virgen de Robledo with two Spanish roommates.  When I arrived in Spain on September 21, 1988 I had it all to myself for about a week and a half; Juan Carlos, who was 18 and hailed from Jerez de los Caballeros in Extremadura, was the first to arrive; Demetrio, 31, was from  Madrid and he rented a room in that apartment every fall.

Apartamento 2E was owned by a middle-aged couple and was one of the many such lodgings used by the College Consortium for International Studies  to house American participants in its Semester in Spain program.  In my group, most of us lived in these residencias or in private homes with host families.  If memory serves, a few students opted to rent their own places without having to deal with Spanish roommates or host families; these, however, were a tiny subgroup in our 42-member CCIS Fall Term class.

Even though you might think that Apartamento 2E was located in the floor above the building entrance, it was actually in what we in the U.S. call the third floor.  I am not sure why, but in Spain the first story of an apartment building is called the "piso de abajo" and what we would consider the second floor is called "el primer piso."  I discovered this upon my arrival; Manuel, my landlady's husband told me that the elevator was temporarily out of order, so we had to lug my baggage up a very steep flight of stairs.  (This was not easy; I had two suitcases full of clothes, grooming materials and other essential items, and a carry-on bag for my Brother electric typerwriter and a Sure Shot camera I'd borrowed from my campus student paper.)

The apartment was located at the far end of a dimly-lit corridor, next to Apartamento 2D, which is where Josefa - the landlady - and Manuel lived. The door was made of heavy wood and was painted dark brown, with only the brass doorknob and the apartment number (also in brass) to break up the darkness.  The door wasn't exactly easy to open; Manuel had a bit of trouble unlocking it to let me in, but at least he could do it because he had years of practice. I didn't think much of this at first, but that lock would give me fits the next day.

The layout was pretty standard for an apartment of that size.  It had a large common room which served as living room, dining room, and refrigerator area.  A short hall to the left led to what had once been the kitchen; Josefa had the stove and oven removed six months before my arrival after a CCIS student nearly burned down the place while attempting to cook dinner. The former kitchen had been converted into an extra bedroom, albeit a small and uncomfortable one.

Before you entered that room, you would pass by the apartment's only bathroom.  It had the usual bathroom fittings you'd expect to find in Europe: a sink with a medicine cabinet/mirror, a shower (with the water heater inside), a toilet and a bidet.  It was all in white tile and impeccably clean, but the shower was somewhat cramped because the heater was placed on the "far" end from the shower head.  (The worst thing about the water heater being in the shower wasn't so much that you had to avoid running into it when you entered or exited. No, you had to make sure that you plugged in the heater to the power socket in the common room (it shared the same outlet as the fridge) so you could have hot water, then unplug it immediately before you took your shower!)

Back in the common room we had a long wooden table with four matching chairs; this was our dining area.  To the right of the dining area, Josefa and Manuel had set up a sofa and a small entertainment area with a shelf for a small black-and-white TV set.  A westward facing window with a view of the rest of the apartment building dominated the wall behind the couch.  The two bedrooms lay beyond the common room; the main bedroom had two beds, a dresser, a night table and a small work desk for us to do our classwork on.  It also had a huge window that faced the "core" of the building and let in sunlight during the afternoon hours.  The other bedroom was tucked inside the other corner of the common area and was Demetrio's exclusive domain.  (All the furniture, books and decor were his,)

The entire apartment had tile on the floor; with the exception of the bathroom and the former kitchen, the tile was gray-green.  The bathroom tile was white and the extra bedroom (which still bore the scars of the removal of the sink, stove and other fittings) had a lemon-yellow floor.   There were a few red throw rugs to break up the monotony, but not much else.  I don't remember if we had any photos or paintings framed on the walls, but I do recall that there was a map of the USA with the Lee jeans logo on one corner.

For the equivalent of $300 a month (in 1988 dollars), we were entitled to stay as long as we paid rent and one home cooked meal a day.  We had no washing machine or dryer, so we had to pay Josefa for laundry services (which cost an extra $40 a month, depending on how big our laundry loads were.).  For most of our other meals (Josefa provided el almuerzo or la cena as part of the deal, depending on our requests, we bought our own groceries and stored perishables in our fridge.  We had to let Josefa cook all the meals because she didn't trust us in her remaining kitchen; because her cooking skills left something to be desired, Demetrio, who was older and had a steady job in Madrid, often dined in restaurants.   Juan Carlos and I, who were on fixed budgets, often asked Josefa to prepare simple meals, which often were nothing more than ham sandwiches and tea.  I survived my three-month stay by eating calamares fritos  and drinking a bottle of Coke at a sidewalk cafe off the Paseo de las Delicias.

Like in most European apartment buildings of the time, our residencia had no central air conditioning or heating.  I arrived at the beginning of autumn so the weather was generally mild and there was no need for Miami-style A/C.  We kept the windows open during the day and the temperatures were fairly comfortable till the middle of October.  After that, however, the temperatures dropped and we'd only open the windows for a few hours from late morning to early afternoon.

From October till mid-December of 1988, Apartamento 2E was virtually a refrigerator, especially at night.  During one particularly strong cold snap, Josefa loaned us two space heaters.  We used them to warm up the "common area" so we could at least eat or watch TV without having to bundle up under layers of clothes.  Even so, our apartment was uncomfortably cold most of the time.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Taps: Hutton, Cruise, Penn and George C. Scott go to war...sort of

When I was a junior in high school, 20th Century Fox released director Harold Becker's Taps, a well-acted if rather unrealistic film about a group of teenaged military school cadets who, with visions of honor and duty in their minds, challenge local law enforcement agencies and even the Army National Guard to keep their military academy from being closed.

Starring a Patton-esque George C. Scott as Gen. Harland Bache, the superintendent of Bunker Hill Academy, Tapsalso features a cast of young actors who were either already Academy Award-winners (Timothy Hutton) or destined for future Oscars and/or greater success in Hollywood (Sean Penn, Tom Cruise).

Based on the novel Father Sky by Devery Freeman, the screenplay written by Robert Mark Kamen, James Lineberger and Darryl Ponicsan is best seen as an allegory about teenagers' extremist interpretations of such notions as honor, duty and courage rather than being a true to life mish-mash which blends a look at military school life and the Kent State incident of May 1970, which also featured a face-off between young American teens and the Army National Guard.

Taps starts out on a solemn note as Gen. Bache, a retired Army officer cut (unsurprisingly) from the same "blood-and-guts" leadership cloth as George S. Patton, Jr. leads that year's graduating class commencement ceremonies. Stirring marches fill the air as smartly-uniformed cadets march across the verdant parade field of Bunker Hill Military Academy (which was "played" by the real-life Valley Forge Military Academy), and old Gen. Bache watches this pomp and circumstance with steely eyes and heart-busting pride.

For junior-year cadet Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton), this moment is pure gold; he has been selected to be the captain of next year's graduating class, and he is looking forward to both celebrating his new rank with the general - whom he idolizes - and assuming the rights and responsibilities of leadership.

However, not too long after Moreland is granted the privilege of dining with Gen. Bache and sharing the traditional sip of brandy, he and his fellow cadets receive stunning, heart-breaking news: the academy's board of trustees has, in a rather heartless "it's only business" fashion worthy of the Mob, decided to sell Bunker Hill Military Academy to a wealthy developer who wants the land to build a condominium complex.

In real life, Moreland and his crew, which includes fellow upperclassmen Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and David Shawn (Tom Cruise), would have complained bitterly and loudly, and perhaps getting their parents to hire top-notch attorneys to fight the board of trustees in court.

However, Taps isn't very interested in reality; it is essentially a post-Vietnam War drama (with no small amount of anti-military sentiment in its theme and tone) mixed in with plot devices similar to those in William Golding's The Lord of the Flies.
Thus when the beloved Gen. Bache is removed from the movie (I will leave this plot point for a new viewer to discover without spoilers), Moreland decides to "take up arms against a sea of troubles" and leads the Bunker Hill Academy cadet corps into an armed stand-off with local police officers and - eventually - an Army National Guard unit commanded by the no-nonsense Col. Kerby (Ronny Cox).

My Take: Though Harold Becker isn't a mediocre filmmaker - he is, after all, the director who made 1979's The Onion Field and 1980's The Black Marble (both based on books by Joseph Wambaugh) - Taps is a relatively average film which is blessed by a plethora of good performances by its cast but saddled by some unbelievable details and plot devices.

Naturally, when I first watched Taps back in the 1980s, such concerns did not bug me too much.  Watching the dramatic confrontation between the cadets and the "outsiders" intent in closing down their academy was - and still can be - a riveting experience, and the quality of the acting outshone the script's somewhat less realistic conceits.

Watching Taps nearly three decades later (and with the benefits of some grounding in film criticism and review-writing), however, is a sobering experience. 

For instance, in many instances I found myself wondering why the audience is never really shown more of the school's faculty and staff.  Having gone through both private public schools and community college in two countries, I know that a school of that size has to have had a large faculty and support staff, i.e. adults who could have supervised the cadets and avoided the tragic events which propel the film's plot.

Also, I keep on wondering how on Earth a non-U.S. Government run private military academy can let teens and tweens get their hands on M-16 rifles and M-60 machine guns with freaking live ammo.  Guns with blanks I can accept; weapons which could be issued to the rebels in Libya, well....not so much.

But such concerns would simply get in the way of the screenplay, which seems to be an examination of how easily teens can be indoctrinated into becoming soldiers and the inevitable clash of wills between the more gung-ho cadets (especially the one played by a very intense Tom Cruise) and the ones who want to find a less violent resolution to the face-off with the National Guard.

Thus, Taps earns three stars from this reviewer; I like the intensity and gravitas of the young actors and the channeling of Patton by George C. Scott, but I am annoyed by the script's not-so-subtle anti-military slant.

Fantasies and Delusions: 10 Classical Piano Pieces by Billy Joel

Over 30 years have passed since Billy Joel debuted as a pop/rock singer with his "Piano Man" album  Listeners throughout the world know him as a versatile songwriter/singer with the ability to change styles almost effortlessly. And even in some of his "pop" songs, careful listeners can detect influences of such classical composers as Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin and Grieg. 

Listen, for instance, to the doo-wop styled "This Night." The catchy chorus? The melody is from a Beethoven piano concerto. His "Lullabye (Good Night My Angel)" started out as a straightforward solo piano piece; owners of the Limited Edition box set can hear this version on the fourth CD of the collection. I have even heard that "Uptown Girl" was once a piano piece....I close my eyes and can hear the melody as a Mozart-like composition. 

The 10 compositions for solo piano are played skillfully by Richard Joo, and they definitely show the influence of those composers Joel admires most. Although my favorite piece is Waltz #1 (Nunley's Carousel) because it is bold, brisk, and somewhat sunny, I also enjoy his very quick Invention in C Minor, which lasts less than one minute! There are also reflective pieces (most piano music in this style is suitable for reflection and daydreaming on rainy days), and his Suite for Piano (Star-Crossed), the longest composition in this CD, is particularly atmospheric and melancholy. Lovers of Ireland will be stirred by allusions to "Danny Boy" in Air (Dublinesque), and fans of 1940s films will love Fantasy (Film Noir). 

Despite what some snobby classical music critics might say about Joel's classical debut as being derivative, I enjoyed Fantasies and Delusions very much, not only as a Joel fan, but as a music lover. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Robert Altman's M*A*S*H: Anti-war satire is sardonic but memorable

Although most people nowadays tend to associate the title M*A*S*H with the Emmy-winning TV series which aired originally on CBS from 1972 to 1983, the truth is that the very popular show is a spinoff from two sources - the novel by Richard Hooker (real name: Richard Hornberger), and the 1970 film directed by Robert Altman (Nashville, Gosford Park). 

Based on Hornberger's experiences as a draftee doctor who served in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, the three incarnations of M*A*S*H all share various characters, settings, and situations. Most of the action takes place at the 4077th MASH near the South Korean city of Ouijanbu, where Captains Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John and their colleagues practice "meatball surgery" on wounded GIs just a few miles behind the front lines. In their free time, Hawkeye and Trapper are drinking copious amounts of "hooch" from their still in The Swamp, having sex with the nurses, and thumbing their noses at what they consider "chickensh!t" Army rules and regulations. 

Of the three incarnations of M*A*S*H, Altman's film is perhaps the more bitingly sardonic and dark version. For obvious reasons, Altman certainly had more leeway than the TV series' adapters to depict both the horrors of war and the somewhat raunchy and alcohol-laced off-duty escapades of young, bored, lonely, and often horny doctors and nurses in a hellish locale in Asia. 

Colonel Blake: Hawkeye Pierce? I got a TWX from headquarters about you... says you stole a jeep.
Hawkeye Pierce: No sir, no, I didn't steal it. No, it's right outside.
 

Based very loosely on Ring Lardner, Jr.'s screenplay, M*A*S*H is essentially a collection of interconnected vignettes which encapsulate the tours of duty of Captains Benjamin Franklin Pierce (Donald Sutherland), "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliott Gould), and "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt). We're never quite sure how much time passes from the opening title sequence that features the song "Suicide is Painless" to the end of the trio's Army service, but we are whisked along for the 116-minute oddyssey as they attempt to keep from going crazy in the middle of a war. (Altman, who basically co-opted Lardner's screenplay and allowed the actors to ad-lib freely, didn't emphasize the Korean War setting too much, wanting the audience to basically think "Vietnam" instead.) 

Although most of the major (and some secondary) characters from the film would later have their TV counterparts, Altman's vision of M*A*S*H is gorier, darker, and far more irreverent than its spinoff series. Like the TV show, the film is pointedly anti-military, with most of the "heavies" being either Regular Army types (Col. Wallace Merrill in Tokyo, Margaret O'Houlihan) or religious fanatics/hypocrites such as Frank Burns, who is played here by Robert Duvall. 

As in all his subsequent films, Altman uses multiple storylines, a large ensemble cast, innovative cinematography (including the use of zoom lenses), and carefully choreographed sequences that veer from the bloody operation room to a climactic football match between the 4077th MASH and the 325th Evac Hospital. Other vignettes include: 

* Hawkeye's arrival at the 4077th, in which he "liberates" a jeep and antagonizes yet another Regular Army guy (Bobby Troup) who mutters "goddam Army" several times in pointed disgust 

* Frank Burns' meanspirited dig at a young orderly (Harold and Maude's Bud Cort), in which he blames the sensitive private for a patient's death and incurs the wrath of Trapper John 

* The "Suicide is Painless" sequence, in which Hawkeye, worried that Capt. Walter Kosciusko 'Painless Pole' Waldowski (John Schuck), the unit's unusually well-endowed dentist, is suicidal over impotence and other "issues," convinces Lt. Dish (Jo Anne Pflug) to have sex with the despondent man after he swallows the infamous "black capsule" 

* The "shower scene" where the surgeons attempt to settle a bet regarding the question of whether or not Margaret O'Houlihan is a "natural blonde" 

* Hawkeye and Trapper John's escapades in Tokyo and the "pros from Dover" bit, in which they turn an Army hospital practically upside down (figuratively) in their efforts to save a Congressman's GI wounded son 

I've always had mixed feelings about this movie, partly because it's so much more sardonic than the TV show (which I was a fan of), but mostly because I am disturbed by some of its political subtexts. While billed as a comedy and having more than its fair share of funny lines, M*A*S*H is definitely geared to be antiwar and antimilitary. Most of the doctors and nurses are draftees and clearly don't want to be there cutting off limbs and having to perform quick-and-dirty operations to get wounded soldiers patched up just enough to transfer them to Seoul or Tokyo Army hospitals. Their (and Altman's) disdain for all things military is obvious, and perhaps because this film was shot and released at the height of the Vietnam War, inevitable. 

Hot Lips O'Houlihan: I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps.
Father Mulcahy: He was drafted.
 

Thus, while I'm laughing at such witty dialogue as the exchange between Margaret O'Houlihan and Father Mulcahy, I do get impatient with Altman's generalizations about the U.S. Army, since the implication seems to be that even the existence of the institution is inherently immoral and an affront to decent people everywhere. 

Fans of the television show will probably tell you that the only actor from this movie to have a major role in the more sedate spin-off is Gary Burghoff, who played Cpl. Radar O'Reilly. Here he still seems to have the knack to know what C.O. Lt. Colonel Henry Blake is going to say before the colonel does, but his take on the character is less innocent and more sarcastic than the more familiar, almost child-like version from the TV series. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Day Kennedy Was Shot: A short book review



(This review was originally written for Amazon.com in November 2003 by Alex Diaz-Granados...me.  I've altered it slightly to mark the fact that 2013 will be the 50th Anniversary of JFK's assassination.) 

Over the past 50 years, no event in American history has been so scrutinized or conjectured about than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Millions of words have been written about that tragic day in Dallas: Some point the finger of blame solely at Lee Harvey Oswald, while others weave a confusing web of conspiracy theories that accuse the Mafia, French criminals, Fidel Castro, anti-Castro Cuban exiles and/or militarists in the government who wanted to expand America's role in Vietnam. 

One of the best books on the Kennedy assassination is the late Jim Bishop's gripping The Day Kennedy Was Shot, a detailed hour-by-hour account of the events of November 22, 1963, starting with the President's 7:00 AM wake-up at Fort Worth's Hotel Texas and ends 20 hours later in Washington, DC. Bishop follows all the major players -- JFK, Jackie, Lyndon B. Johnson, Oswald, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby -- and eyewitnesses -- Helen Ganss, an elderly Ft. Worth widow who had been allowed to stay at the Hotel Texas even when the other guests were moved out by the Secret Service; Linnie Mae Randall, an Irving, Texas housewife who, while washing the dishes in her kitchen, she "saw Lee Harvey Oswald, bare head down, coming up Fifth Street with a long package in his hand. He held the fat part under his arm; the tapered end was pointing at the sidewalk. The rain didn't seem to bother him. He walked steadily, up Fifth, across the corner lot, toward Mrs. Randall's garage. She kept watching him, a dark, pretty woman with shoulder-length black hair. By rote, she set the dishes upright in the drain." 

John F. Kennedy had less than six hours left to live, of course, but while turning the pages of Bishop's 1968 book one feels the tension building up with each seemingly mundane detail (such as Mrs. Randall's dishes). The reader knows that once the President's party leaves the Hotel Texas for Carswell Air Force Base to board Air Force One for that short hop to Love Field, his fate is sealed. 

Bishop, working from various sources despite Mrs. Kennedy's attempts to block publication of his book, describes every minute detail of those tragic 20 hours -- from the rainy weather over Texas to the bloodstained pink dress that Jackie Kennedy wore throughout that horrible day -- in crisp and clear prose. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Star Wars - Outbound Flight: Book Review

If you are a constant reader of noted science fiction author Timothy Zahn's Star Wars novels, you may have noticed that he often introduces a character, concept, or strand of storyline in one novel, seemingly leaves it alone for some time, then develops that person, concept, or situation more fully in a later novel. Such was the case when in The Last Command (1993), Zahn had Borsk Fe'lya make a comment that a Rebel mission to the Emperor's treasure trove on the planet Wayland could possibly have serious consequences for the Bothan people. In that Thrawn Trilogy novel nothing untoward happens, but a later visit to Wayland by Princess Leia and its dire repercussions become prominent plot points in Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future

One of the more prominent secondary storylines in Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy is the tale of Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth and his ambitious plan to seek out new worlds and new civilizations beyond the galaxy in a huge colony-ship with 50,000 civilians and no less than six Jedi Masters. Code named Outbound Flight, this expensive starship set out from the Galactic Republic six years before the outbreak of the Clone Wars...and was never heard from again. 

That, of course, was the official tale spread by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's office to the Senate. The reality, as Zahn wrote in the 1990s, was that Palpatine, knowing that the chance to rid himself of six Jedi Masters - including the arrogant C'baoth - was too good an opportunity to pass up, so he cleverly manipulated events and people until a young Chiss commander named Thrawn is forced to destroy C'baoth's expeditionary vessel and most of its passengers and crew. 

Not surprisingly, Zahn's new Prequel Era novel, Outbound Flight, finally tells a more detailed account of the mystery-shrouded maiden voyage of C'baoth's ill-fated starship and the genesis of his previously established clone, Joruus C'baoth. 

Outbound Flight is set five years after the events depicted in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. As an apparently well-meaning but ineffective Palpatine attempts to stem corruption and political turmoil in the Galactic Congress, dark forces conspire to bring down the Republic and destroy the 10,000 Knights of the Jedi Order. 

One of these Knights is Jorus C'baoth, a powerful and talented Master whose skills in the Force are counterbalanced by arrogance and ambition, two traits that can lead him to the temptations of the dark side of the Force. Renowned for his skills as a negotiator, C'baoth tends to see all non-Jedi as "lesser beings," an attitude that he tries to pass on to his Padawan learner, Lorana Jinzler...much to the dismay of other Jedi like Obi-Wan Kenobi. 

In the book's early chapters, which switch back and forth between the C'baoth storyline and another involving a young smuggler named Jorj Car'das, his two crewmates, and a Chiss officer named Thrawn, the publicity-hungry Jedi Master is desperately trying to get Palpatine to pressure the Senate into funding Outbound Flight. With its six Dreadnaughts linked to a huge central storage pod, the project is prohibitively expensive, and the politicians have tried to cut its financial support. Even the Jedi Council has misgivings and authorized only six Jedi Masters to go on this risky enterprise. 

But after C'baoth, with the aid of Lorana, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and 14-year-old Anakin Skywalker, has a particularly spectacular success in defusing a conspiracy on the planet Barlok, the Senate and Palpatine have no choice but to approve the launch of Outbound Flight as soon as possible. 

But even as C'baoth, Kenobi, Lorana, and Anakin board the huge spacegoing colony ship, Darth Sidious prepares to take steps to destroy Outbound Flight and its precious complement of six Jedi Masters. Dispatching his agent Kinman Doriana and a Trade Federation fleet to intercept C'baoth's vessel in the fringes of Republic space, the Sith Lord sits back in his Coruscant haunts, seemingly aiding his Jedi enemies while taking steps to make sure their plans - and their expensive vessel - fail utterly...and fatally. 

As in all of his Star Wars novels, Zahn moves back and forth between two or more narrative threads that start apart but become interwoven as the book progresses. This is exactly what George Lucas does in the Star Wars movies, but Zahn seems to accomplish this in book form far better than a lot of authors. Particularly interesting is the interplay between the young Thrawn and the three human smugglers who have strayed into Chiss space. Here, we see the future Imperial Grand Admiral as an up-and-coming officer in his people's space forces, with his innate curiosity and knack for analytical thinking coming to the fore. He is a good tactician, but more importantly, he is genuinely interested in other species and how they think and act. Thus, for me, the chapters in which Thrawn bonds with his human guests are the most interesting, especially knowing that Dorianna, Sidious' scheming agent, will cleverly get the young Chiss to help him ambush Outbound Flight..... 

Because the novel is set between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan and Anakin are aboard Outbound Flight for only a short leg of the journey, yet their presence in this story gives the novel a true Star Wars feel to it. Zahn has always been good at getting the essence of the movies' characters down on paper, so the appearance of Kenobi and Skywalker fits in nicely rather than feeling like a forced cameo role tossed in needlessly as a sop to the fans. 

The writing, as always, is excellent. Zahn's style is lively, full of concrete detail, and his characters are very well developed. He also uses subtle references to the films; in this book the events of The Phantom Menace are alluded to several times, and there are subliminal references to the other movies as well. 

In short, Outbound Flight is a perfect summertime read for anyone who enjoys stories full of adventure, intrigue, and the magic of that "galaxy far, far away." 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My "top 10" favorite songs by Billy Joel


Part One: Lost in Let's Remember, or How I Became a Billy Joel Fan Without Really Trying....

Although my taste leans heavily toward the classical/symphonic end of the musical spectrum, there are a few other genres that I like to visit from time to time, and pop/rock is one of them. Granted, I am a bit narrow-minded when it comes to rock; I tend to meander about in the softer, more sentimental stylings of early rock 'n' roll from the Fifties and early Sixties, preferring to listen to the Platters, the Skyliners, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles rather than to KISS, Metallica, or Alice Cooper. Hell, I'll even try listening to Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks if given a good incentive...say, a romantic evening with someone special who likes those singers and will be patient and loving enough to play me her favorite songs by those country singers to share part ofherself with me. I've learned, from personal experience, that a positive introduction to unfamiliar musical styles often results in awakened interests; singing in South Miami High's various chorus classes made me a fan of various singers and/or genres that I probably wouldn't have been exposed to had I not signed up for either the Boys' Choir or the Mixed Chorus courses starting in 10th grade.

One of the singers/songwriters that I gradually became a fan of at that time is Billy Joel. I couldn't stand him at first -- the constant airing of Just the Way You Are in 1977 on the radio was a big turn-off, and it didn't help matters that this was one of my older sister's favorite songs and she played it constantly. (To be fair, I bet she was annoyed whenever I hogged the family stereo to listen to my Star Wars LPs!) Ironically enough, she did have an eight-track cassette of Joel's 52nd Street, the album where I first heard My Life, a song which I secretly adopted as my junior high student's anthem of rebellion. I borrowed it so many times from my poor sister -- who was then studying to become a Licensed Practical Nurse -- that she told me (sweetly, of course) that if I liked it so much, she was willing to part with it.

But one song doesn't a Billy Joel fan make, and even though I grew fond of other songs (Honesty, Rosalinda's Eyes, Until the Night), it wasn't until I heard my best friend Juan Carlos Hernandez's copy of An Innocent Man album that I really got to appreciate Joel's talents both as a songwriter and performer. Maybe it was the album's retro theme -- so many songs in it are in the styles of doo-wop and early Sixties rock -- or maybe it was the way An Innocent Man moved me with its lyrics (Some people stay far away from the door /If there's a chance of it opening up) about the pain and fear that accompany love and heartbreak.

Whatever the reason, I became a Joel fan and listened or owned most of his post-1983 records (on CD), starting with An Innocent Man and on to his River of Dreams farewell-to-rock album.

Part Two: It's Still Rock and Roll To Me: My 10 Favorite Billy Joel Songs

Song/Album

1. And So It Goes/Storm Front: I first heard this bittersweet ode to a doomed love affair -- as Billy Joel describes it, "about a relationship you know won't last" -- while watching his HBO concert from Yankee Stadium in 1990. Billy hadn't performed it in the concert proper -- either on the TV special or the live show I had attended several months before -- so when I heard the sad piano solo intro and the opening lines (In every heart there is a room/A sanctuary safe and strong/to heal the wounds from lovers past/until a new one comes along...), I was not only surprised, but I actually misted up. As another Joel song title would put it, Don't Ask Me Why; I wasn't dating anyone nor would I seriously fall in love with anyone for almost a decade, but I had to bite my lip to keep from crying. Perhaps it was just the melancholic mood of the words and music, or perhaps it was foreshadowing a life-changing event, but And So It Goes never fails to move me, as it brings to mind a certain young woman who I sang this song to when we met one chilly February afternoon.

2. An Innocent Man/An Innocent Man: All of us, or at least most of us, have had romantic entanglements that have gone wrong or been cast off like so much highway debris when it suited our partner's whims, or we have fallen deeply in love with someone who has been betrayed, abandoned or rejected. An Innocent Man is a song not only about people who have given up on love and humanity in general, but is also about Joel's belief in the redeeming power of unconditional love (But I've been there and if I can survive / I can keep you alive /I'm not above going through it again / I'm not above being cool for a while /If you're cruel to me I'll understand).

3. We Didn't Start the Fire/Storm Front: Not only is this song a wonderful way for teachers to get their students to learn about history -- Joel wrote it to sum up the events that shaped his first 40 years -- but it is a kick-butt guitar-driven rock song, a rarity for the keyboard-oriented "Piano Man." Its lyrics (We didn't start the fire/no we didn't light it/but we tried to fight it) are delivered in a fast and furious fashion -- the pacing, rhythm, and delivery would have failed miserably had it been a piano piece.

4. It's Still Rock And Roll To Me/Glass Houses: Another of Billy's "fun songs," it is really a humorous argument between Joel's naive half (What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing?) and his more worldly half ("Can't you tell that your tie's too wide?") about fashion, cars, and music. Like We Didn't Start the Fire, it's a fun song to listen to; it's full of energy, has an edge to it, and a nice bouncy beat. See? I'm not always listening to sentimental ballads!

5. Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)/Turnstiles: As I understand it, this song was a wry commentary on New York City's financial woes and the Federal Government's reluctance to step in with aid, but it's also a scary forecast of things to come, as the lights nearly did go out on Broadway on Sept. 11, 2001 (I've seen the lights go out on Broadway / I saw the mighty skyline fall/ The boats were waiting at the battery / The union went on strike/ They never sailed at all.) It's a sci-fi rock song told from the point of view of a former Big Apple resident who now, obviously lives in Florida as a Cadillac-owning retiree.

6. Goodnight, Saigon/Nylon Curtain: As a writer, listener, and former singer, I tend to love songs that tell stories, and this touching tribute by Joel to his friends that went to fight in the Vietnam War is both searing and heartbreaking. Its haunting "helicopter rotor" intro segues into a melancholic solo piano melody and a sad opening first verse (We met as soul mates/On Parris Island / We left as inmates / From an asylum / And we were sharp / As sharp as knives / And we were so gung ho / To lay down our lives) and steadily gets more fierce and yet reflective as Joel describes the sights and sounds of battle (We held the coastline / They held the highlands/ And they were sharp / As sharp as knives /They heard the hum of our motors / They counted the rotors / And waited for us to arrive) that lays no blame on either the Vietnamese or the Americans, but pays equally respectful tribute to both sides' young soldiers.

7. Honesty/52nd Street: Billy Joel's gentle yet yearning commentary about relationships' most precious -- and harder to obtain -- commodity grabbed me when I first heard it as an awkward and lonely 15-year-old boy still coping with his first bad break-up and the resulting loneliness and resentment that followed. With lyrics like Honesty is such a lonely word / Everyone is so untrue / Honesty is hardly ever heard / And mostly what I need from you, it isn't hard to see why I adopted this song as my "Why did you leave me for another guy" anthem that I longed to have my ex-girlfriend hear. Of course, life, love, and sexual relationships are far more complicated than that, and because I, too, have strayed in my romantic misadventures, maybe I ought to have taken Honesty's message to heart.

8. She's Always a Woman/The Stranger: If a screenwriter and director were ever so desperate to make a movie about my life, they'll need to get permission to include this Joel song as part of the soundtrack when they get to the part when I was in college and fell deeply in love with a beautiful classmate in my psychology class. It was my freshman year, and I was still so shy around women, particularly gorgeous women, that I often debated the issue of "do I tell her, or do I keep it to myself?" for so long that by the time I'd "go for it," the semester would be over or she'd already be dating, be a lesbian, or married. In the case of my psych class "sweetie," the semester ended before I got the gumption to tell her anything. I did try to bolster my courage by listening to
She's Always a Woman. Like most of my truly favorite songs, it grabbed me with its simple "vamp" and bittersweet opening verse (She can kill with a smile / She can wound with her eyes / She can ruin your faith with her casual lies / And she only reveals what she wants you to see / She hides like a child / But she's always a woman to me). Annoyingly, I also listened to it far too much when I had a similar situation when I fell for one of my fellow journalism students...and again did not tell her for fear of rejection.

9. She's Got A Way/Songs in the Attic:: Oh, hell. In my case, it is more like "She Got Away" rather than She's Got A Way, but I met someone who, for good or for ill, always comes to mind when I dare listen to this song, especially the lines She's got a smile that heals me / I don't know why it is / But I have to laugh when she reveals me / She's got a way about her / I don't know what it is, / But I know that I can't live without her anyway. In all the time I've known her, we have spent more time apart than we've shared in person, but the precious time we did share was profoundly moving and important.

10. Piano Man/Piano Man: Yes, it's a cliche...most Billy Joel fans would probably have this on their Top 10 songs, but it's one of those really great story-telling ballads. It's based on Joel's short stint as a...well...."piano man" in a West Coast bar, and the people he described (John the bartender, Paul the "real estate novelist," and the politics-practicing waitress was Billy's first ex-wife.) were all real people. I like the lyrics; I mean, how can you go wrong with a line like there's an old man sitting next to me / making love to his tonic and gin? Even 30-plus years after its release, this song is still a crowdpleaser, as anyone who has ever participated in a Joel concert's encores/singalong can tell you.