Thursday, December 29, 2016

From my Examiner files: MASH - The Movie




The Movie

Originally released on January 25, 1970, director Robert Altman’s “MASH” is an antiwar black comedy set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. It was adapted from Richard Hooker’s “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” by Ring Lardner, Jr. and though it was set in South Korea, the film’s sardonic and irreverent tone was really a commentary about the then-ongoing Vietnam War. “MASH” was both a commercial and critical success; it earned five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing) and won one (Best Adapted Screenplay). It also spun off three television situation comedies – “M*A*S*H,” “Trapper John, MD,” and “AfterMASH.”

Starring Donald Southerland as Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, Elliott Gould as Capt. “Trapper John” McIntyre, Tom Skerritt as Capt. Duke Forrest, Sally Kellerman as Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, and Robert Duvall as Maj. Frank Burns, “MASH” is an episodic look at life at the 4077th MASH from the point of view of Army doctors and nurses – mostly draftees – in 1951 Korea. Although its narrative is hardly linear, the film follows the misadventures and assorted hijinks of Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke as they perform “meatball surgery” on wounded soldiers and carouse during their infrequent off-duty breaks.

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.

Of the three incarnations of “M*A*S*H,” Altman's film is perhaps the more sardonic and dark version. Because “MASH” is a feature film intended for adult audiences, Altman 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. 

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)

Frank Burns' mean spirited dig at a young orderly (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 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 Houlihan is a "natural blonde" 

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

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

The DVD   

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has released “MASH” on DVD in at least three editions. The 2004 edition included in the “M*A*S*H Complete Series and Movie” bundle is a one-disc version. 

This DVD presents the original version of Altman’s comedy-drama in its entirety. (20th Century Fox, in a bid to raise the struggling TV series’ popularity, released a heavily edited version of “MASH” in 1973 which excised the shower scene and an ad-libbed line by actor John Schuck which includes the first use of the F-word in a Hollywood movie.)

The DVD also includes a few interesting extras, including a director’s commentary track by Robert Altman, an episode of AMC’s behind-the-scenes documentary series “AMC Backstory,” a photo gallery, and 20th Century Fox’s promotional theatrical trailer.

DVD Specifications

Video
Codec: MPEG-2
Encoding format: 16:9
Resolution: 480i (NTSC)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Original aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Audio
English: Dolby Digital 2.0
English: Dolby Digital Mono
French: Dolby Digital Mono

Subtitles
English, Spanish

Discs
DVD Single disc (1 DVD)

Playback
Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Miscellaneous
·        Rated: R (Restricted)
·        Studio: 20th Century Fox
·        DVD Release Date: September 7, 2004
·        Run Time: 116 minutes


Unhappy family

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

As 2016 – a year that most of us would like to forget – ends and a New Year waits in the wings, memories of the not-so-distant past continue to haunt me.

Some of them, naturally, are about my mom’s long illness, mental decline and eventual passing. It’s been less than a year and a half since she died, so the emotional wounds haven’t quite begun to turn into scar tissue. The pain, which was intense in the beginning, has dulled a bit over time, yes, but it’s never truly gone.

I suppose that I feel this way in part because I miss my mom. After all, we lived together for more than 50 years, and we had a great parent-child relationship right up to the end of her life. For some reason, she never encouraged me to move out – I have cerebral palsy, and even though I am capable of living semi-independently, Mom felt that it was more mutually beneficial if I stayed at home. She once told me that she didn’t want me to live alone in a tiny Section Eight apartment in a bad Miami neighborhood. She also didn’t want to live under the same roof as my older half-sister, Vicky. (We had tried living with her as an adult three times in the U.S.; each attempt ended in angst-filled turmoil.)

Mostly, though, I have to admit that most of the pain I feel stems from the shabby and downright shady behavior of my half-sister since Mom passed away in July of 2015.

Not only has she forced me to go through a long, complicated estate fight in the Miami-Dade probate court system, but she has:

  • Conspired to sell my mother's house without my consent, believing that Mom's 2001 will was in effect. She already had a Realtor and a buyer lined up. Luckily, Mom made out a 2010 will that nullified the earlier one.
  • Stolen many family heirlooms, including three photos which she was supposed to make copies of, as well as my grandmother's china set. 
  • Asked for (and received) most of Mom's personal effects, while at the same time not showing any concern for my well-being (financial and physical). 


Luckily, she did not prevail at the hearing that she and her attorney had requested, but she got her hands on stuff that she was not entitled to.



Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Shadows of the past....


Well, two days have passed since Christmas Day 2016, and even though there is still some partying to be done to ring in the New Year, it’s back to the old writing desk for this garbanzo. I have several projects to work on – a novel, a bunch of new book and movie reviews, and a short story set during World War II that I’m trying to develop. In addition, I need to think of topics for the Cerebral Palsy Guidance blog, for which I get paid to write as a contributor. So…yes, there’s a bunch of things on my writer’s to-do list.

Today, however, I want to talk about more personal issues that weigh heavily on my mind and heart.

You see, even though this Christmas season has been the happiest I’ve experienced in over 20 years, I have been haunted by thoughts about my late mother, Beatriz.

To be honest, I consciously try not to think about Mom too much. It hurts me a great deal when I do. I don’t like dwelling on the circumstances of her death, for one thing. The last five years of her life were hard and painful; she spent half a decade mostly confined in the downstairs bedroom of the condo we shared, robbed of her mobility and independence by a series of physical and mental illnesses that eventually took her life in the early morning hours of July 19, 2015.

And, for the most part, I can go for long stretches of time – some lasting as long as two weeks, maybe three – without conjuring up the sad memories of the not-so-distant past. Instead, I try to hang on to good remembrances of movies we watched together, places we visited, or pleasant conversations we had over the years.  

The other day, for instance, I was rummaging through my Blu-ray collection in search of something to watch at the end of a day at my work desk. Almost impulsively I took the Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures box set from its niche on the shelf. I smiled wistfully at the box set – Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first movie I ever invited Mom to see in theaters.

And yesterday, as I was watching the 2004 documentary Empire of Dreams: The Making of the Star Wars Trilogy, I couldn’t stop thinking that Mom had given me the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set for my 41st birthday. (She pre-ordered it for me on Amazon in March of 2004; I received the box set that September.)   

So, yeah. I try to focus on the good memories and not the nightmarish ordeal we both went through from June 2010 till July 2015.

And yet, there are moments when I find myself feeling her absence. Or feeling angry at the consequences of her death – namely, the bitter and long-standing quarrel between my abusive older half-sister and me. Or wishing – rather uselessly – that I’d done things differently – and better – when she was sick but not yet a shadow of her former vibrant self.

So, yes. Even though I’m in a happier place than I was at this time last year, sometimes the cold, long shadows of the past darken my mood, like a lunar eclipse blacks out the Sun.  


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From the Examiner files: 2015 review of Marvel Comics' remastered adaptation of 'The Empire Strikes Back'



(C) 2015 Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm Ltd. Cover art by Adi Granov

Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (2015 Remastered Edition)

Based on a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and on the story by George Lucas
Writer/Editor: Archie Goodwin
Artists: Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon
Colorist: SotoColor
Editor-in-Chief: James Shooter
Cover Artist (2015): Adi Granov

As the countdown to the release of Disney/Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens nears the four-month mark, Marvel Worldwide (which is also owned by the Walt Disney Company) continues the “remastering” of its Classic Trilogy comic book adaptations with Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Published in hardcover on August 11, this oversized graphic novel (OGN) follows the publication of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope by three months. In November, Marvel will complete its remastering of the saga when it publishes Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

As the Imperial forces regroup from the Death Star’s destruction, they target the new Rebel base on the ice planet Hoth. Will Darth Vader’s troops find Luke Skywalker, or will a wampa get Luke first? Meanwhile, feelings run high in the galaxy’s greatest love triangle as bounty hunters target Han Solo. Luke seeks out the great Jedi Master Yoda on swampy Dagobah, but the Emperor has designs on turning the young Rebel hero. As the battle begins for Skywalker’s soul, will his fear lead to anger, hate and the dark side? It’s all heading to one of the greatest confrontations of all time. Prepare for a grave disturbance in the Force! – Publisher’s blurb, Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Comics – Then and Now

When Lucasfilm gave Marvel the go-ahead to adapt the screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas requested that the comic’s publication be delayed to preserve the element of surprise prior to Empire’s release on May 21, 1980. Marvel agreed, and the first issue (Star Wars #39) was not available until after the movie was in theaters. (This was in sharp contrast to Marvel’s release of Star Wars #1, which was released several weeks before Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977.)

As was the case with Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin’s 1977 Star Wars adaptation, Goodwin and artists Al Williamson and Carlos Garza didn’t have director Irvin Kershner’s finished film to based their work on. Instead, Lucasfilm’s Diana Attias gave the Marvel trio one of the drafts of the Brackett-Kasdan script and access to pre-production paintings by Ralph McQuarry and still photographs taken during principal photography in London’s Elstree Studios and on location in Finse, Norway.

According to Goodwin’s 1980 behind-the-scenes essay, Lucasfilm was extremely cooperative during the three months’ of prep time for Marvel’s five-issue adaptation. Attias and her staff would send Goodwin the latest available changes to Empire’s shooting script. In addition when Yoda made the transition from Ralph McQuarrie’s initial design to makeup artist Stuart Freeborn’s finished puppet, 
Lucasfilm provided Marvel with top-secret photos of the diminutive Jedi Master.

As Goodwin wrote 35 years ago, sometimes the updates reached Marvel’s New York office a bit late:

Our original concept of Yoda was based on one Ralph McQuarrie painting (all that was available at the time). Sometime after Al and Carlos had turned in the pages involving the little Jedi Master, photos of the way he’d finally look in the finished movie reached Diana; she raced the new version to us. The paperback book, which had the earliest publication date, had already gone to press, but Al and Carlos were able to make adjustments in the character for the super special and the 50₵ comic version. And honest, folks… We didn’t come up with this just to drive collectors into buying more than one version.

Because of the inherent limits of adapting one medium (motion pictures) to another (comic books), Goodwin’s version is not a frame-by-frame reproduction of Kershner’s 129-minute long movie. The Battle of Hoth, a set-piece sequence that pits Darth Vader’s force of Imperial All-Terrain Armored Transports (AT-ATs) and snowtroopers against Rebel snowspeeders and ground troops, is depicted in a handful of pages distributed among issues #40 and #41 (Chapters Two and Three of this book).

On a similar vein, due to on-the-set changes in the shooting script, there are differences between the finished film and Marvel’s comic adaptation. These include:
·       
An abridged version of Vader’s discussion with the Emperor (whose holographic rendition is not clearly shown in the comic) about the “son of Skywalker”

·        The scenes of Luke’s training with Yoda include material which was not in the final film, especially a sequence in which the Jedi trainee undergoes lightsaber training with remotes

·        Some scenes with Han Solo and Princess Leia, especially those set in Bespin’s Cloud City, feature dialogue and scenes that were changed or even deleted during the film’s production
·        
Events are compressed, and some of the more humorous scenes involving R2-D2 and C-3PO are absent.



As is the case with Marvel’s May 2015 remastered edition of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, colorist Carl Gafford’s 1980 pastel-style coloring has been redone by New York’s SotoColor studio. Purists who liked Gafford’s original work, as well as that of Glynis Oliver’s coloring in later reissues, may not like SotoColor’s revisionist style. However, other Star Wars fans and younger comics aficionados might embrace the remastered inking, which reflects a 21st Century sensibility and adds visual unity and coherence to the book.

Following the format of the Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope remastered edition, Empire is divided into six chapters, each of which corresponds to the following original issues:

  • Star Wars 39: The Empire Strikes Back: Beginning
  • Star Wars 40: The Empire Strikes Back: Battleground Hoth
  • Star Wars 41: The Empire Strikes Back: Imperial Pursuit
  • Star Wars 42: The Empire Strikes Back: To Be a Jedi
  • Star Wars 43: The Empire Strikes Back: Betrayal at Bespin
  • Star Wars 44: The Empire Strikes Back: Duel a Dark Lord


Each chapter is marked by a reproduction of its corresponding issue’s original cover art. As is the case with the 1977 comic book covers, the 1980 adaptation’s cover art is often fanciful and only reflects the theme of the story, not its content.

In addition to an introduction by actor Billy Dee Williams, Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back includes a section devoted to pinup art created by various Marvel artists and guest contributors. Some of the art is done by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon, but other in-house artists featured in this section include Joe Jusko (The Hulk), Bob Layton (Iron Man), Marshall Rogers (Daughters of the Dragon Marvel Preview) and humorist-comic artist Fred Hembeck.

The book also features a section devoted to covers of Marvel’s British weekly edition, which split the U.S. monthly edition into two issues each. This necessitated the creation of extra cover art, which was drawn by Carmine Infantino and inked by Gene Day and Dan Green.

The pinup art section at the end of Star Wars-Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back closes with a selection of art from the original pre-colored draft of Star Wars #39 and covers for various Marvel and Dark Horse Comics reissues. The book also comes with a code for digital copies for Apple iOS and Android devices.

As is the case with Marvel’s earlier remastered version of Star Wars,  the 2015 reissue of The Empire Strikes Back is a nifty addition to any Classic Trilogy fans’ book collection. As mentioned earlier, the new coloring scheme by Chris Sotomayor’s New York studio may displease purists, but Marvel did a nice job with this collectible slim hardcover.   

Book Specifications

  • Series: Star Wars
  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Marvel (August 11, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0785193677
  • ISBN-13: 978-0785193678
  • Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 0.7 x 10.9 inches


Marvel Comics' remastered 'Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope' comic adaptation released

(C) 2015 Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm Ltd. 



On April 12, 1977, a then-struggling Marvel Comics published Star Wars 1, the first issue of a six-part adaptation of George Lucas's Star Wars (aka Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope). Released more than a month before the movie was in theaters, Star Wars 1 gave many sci-fi and comics fans their first glimpse at Lucas's space fantasy set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."
Adapted by Roy Thomas, who was Marvel's editor-in-chief at the time, and with art by Howard Chaykin, Marvel's Star Wars comic series closely follows the basic plot of Lucas's 1977 blockbuster. However, since Thomas used Lucas's fourth revised draft of the screenplay and had access to a handful of publicity photos provided by Lucasfilm, his version includes several scenes that were deleted from the film before its May 25, 1977 release.
Star Wars' comic book adaptation was a major success. It saved Marvel Comics from bankruptcy and helped establish the "Star Wars" brand as a multi-media franchise. The six-part adaptation of Star Wars - Episode IV is also one of the most reprinted comics in the industry's history.
On May 5, 2015, seven months before the premiere of Disney/Lucasfilm's Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Marvel (which is also owned by Disney) published Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, the 11th reissue of Thomas and Chaykin's seminal comic adaptation. 
According to a December 2014 announcement by Marvel Comics, the oversized hardcover edition was originally  scheduled for a March 2015 release. It will contain the original script by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin's artwork. The new edition also features a new cover by Adi Granov and remastered coloring by Chris Sotomayor.
"When Star Wars took the world by storm in 1977, Marvel Comics was right there with exciting comic adaptations and new stories set in a galaxy far, far away," said David Gabriel, Marvel's senior vice-president for sales and marketing.  “With new Star Wars comics being published by Marvel in 2015, we’re proud to look back on this exciting remastered adaptation of the original film, with remastered adaptations of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi coming later in 2015.”
 Marvel followed the publication of Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope in August 2015 with a similarly remastered hardcover edition of Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson's adaptation of Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, with dust jacket artwork by Granov and new coloring by Sotomayor. That November, the trilogy was complete with the release of Star Wars - Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
All three titles are available on Amazon.
The classic Star Wars film trilogy is also available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Publication Specifications

  • Series: Star Wars
  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Marvel (May 5, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0785193480
  • ISBN-13: 978-0785193487







Monday, December 19, 2016

Movie Review: '633 Squadron'




Pros: Nice aerial photography, some exciting action scenes
Cons: Predictable, full of war movie cliches
It is spring, 1944.

World War II is entering its fifth year. Although the Allies have driven Hitler’s armies from North Africa, Sicily, and parts of Italy, most of Europe is still under German control. In the Eastern Front, the Red Army is massing for a summer offensive that will follow the long-promised cross-Channel invasion of France, which is scheduled for late spring.

Meanwhile, Allied intelligence has discovered the nature of mysterious concrete-and-metal installations being built by the Germans in northern France, Belgium, and Holland: they are launch pads for Hitler’s V-2 rockets, the “wonder weapons” that, if deployed in time, could wreak destruction on England and jeopardize the D-Day landings.

The Allies’ only hope is to destroy the Germans’ rocket-fuel plants in occupied Norway, and for this mission the Royal Air Force’s high command requires the services of 633 Squadron, a crack unit of De Haviland Mosquito bombers trained specifically for pinpoint bombing missions. Led by Wing Commander Roy Grant (Cliff Robertson), a veteran of the Eagle Squadron, the RAF’s U.S. contingent, this Commonwealth outfit will be working closely with the Norwegian resistance or Linge to attack and destroy the factory before the rocket fuel can be shipped to Western Europe from Scandinavia.

633 Squadron, directed by Walter E. Grauman and written by James Clavell and Howard Koch, is a slightly above-average war film that boasts excellent aerial photography and solid (but not outstanding) performances from its mostly male cast. Based on the novel by Frederick E. Smith, the film tries to be both a crowd-pleasing action-adventure while at the same time exploring some of the “war is hell” ideas that began to seep into World War II movies in the 1960s.

Like so many films that tell the story of a do-or-die mission that can alter the course of a war, 633 Squadron’s seemingly simple mission – destroy a factory – is made extremely difficult by the screenwriters’ imagination. The German rocket fuel factory not only lies at the end of a narrow, flak-battery lined fjord north of Bergen, but (yikes!) it’s also bombproof. The only way to destroy it, Grant is told, is to bomb part of a nearby mountain with special bombs and create an avalanche that will bury the whole installation.

The whole plan, of course, relies on split-second timing and the suppression of the German flak batteries by the Linge. To ensure this, Lt. Bergman (George Chakiris of West Side Story fame) first makes his way to England to help brief Grant about the target area, then is airdropped back to Norway to coordinate the ground attack on the flak batteries.

Meanwhile, the squadron, in typical war movie cliche fashion, goes through the usual train-like-hell-for-a-hush-hush-mission routine during the day, then do the whole party-like-there’s-no-tomorrow-and-chase-women bit at night. And because the target has to be approached in a specific manner at a certain airspeed, some of the magnificent pilots in their mostly plywood Mosquitoes do crash and die. There are the usual tame-now-but-bawdy-for-their-time come-ons by pilots to the local barmaid, and the viewer knows, if he or she has seen movies of the genre before, that the pilot who gets married to a lovely WAAF will not have a happy ending.

633 Squadron’s big on-screen romance between Grant and Bergman’s younger sister Hilde (Maria Perschy) is also predictable and intended to soften the Robertson character’s cynical outer shell. Sure, it’s really nice to see a bit of romance in an action-adventure movie – and Robertson’s scenes with Perschy do give us insights into Grant’s back story – but at the same time it feels, well, formulaic and a bit predictable.

In some ways, Robertson’s Roy Grant is the prototype for George Lucas’ Han Solo, a crack pilot who flies as though he was born with a joystick in his hands and good at what he does, but without Lt. Bergman’s belief in the anti-Hitler cause. Like Harrison Ford’s character in Star Wars, Grant goes from having a “this is just a job” attitude to a “we have to do this even if it kills us” stalwart leader even when things go from bad to worse.

Even though the story of 633 Squadron is pure fiction, it is loosely based on actual events, particularly a Mosquito attack on a Gestapo prison in Copenhagen in 1944. A similar event takes place here, but it has been fictionalized and made a bit more melodramatic for the film.

Although some of the special effects in the climactic battle look hokey as all get-out, 633 Squadron does have what Variety’s critic hailed as “some of the most rip-roaring aerial action photography ever recorded.” There are quite a few real Mosquitoes and vintage planes in this 1964 Mirisch Corporation production, and most of the air action avoids the use of models except when planes crash into mountains or are shot down by flak or enemy planes.

Composer Ron Goodwin’s score is suitably rousing but hardly memorable, consisting mainly of a main theme that appears constantly during flying scenes.

All in all, 633 Squadron isn't a terribly bad film; it doesn't bore the audience and at least attempts to defy some of Hollywood's war movie conventions. However, it's not a masterpiece of the genre; just good enough to kill 95 minutes worth of time, but certainly not in the same lofty range of Saving Private Ryan or even Memphis Belle 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book review: Star Wars: Survivor's Quest, by Timothy Zahn

Pros: Interesting Luke-and-Mara capstone to Timothy Zahn's novels set in the Star Wars universe
Cons:  Might confuse readers who haven't read previous Timothy Zahn novels; too ship-bound
If you are a more-or-less regular reader of the Bantam Spectra/Del Rey Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, you're doubtlessly aware that though each novel or series of novels is pretty much a stand-alone work, it's also part of a larger mosaic. There are many instances in which a minor character, planet, or even old pre-Empire projects mentioned in one book will later play a larger role in the continuing Star Wars narrative.

This technique isn't exclusive to the Lucasfilm-licensed Star Wars projects; Paramount's Star Trek franchise has published hundreds of paperback and hardcover novels which not only tell "untold tales" of the famous starships Enterprise and their legendary crews, but also have their own internal - if somewhat looser - sense of continuity by the use of characters that appear only in the novels and not in the TV shows or feature films.

One of the best Star Wars writers, Timothy Zahn, is one of those writers who can slyly turn a seemingly trivial "historical reference" or a bit of dialogue in one or two novels, then develop those into larger and complex stories later on.

Zahn, who wrote the best-selling Thrawn Trilogy (Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, Star Wars: Dark Force Rising and Star Wars: The Last Command) in the early 1990s and kicked off the Expanded Universe series, has a set of uncanny writing abilities and techniques that make him on of the few superstars in the pantheon of Star Wars novelists.

Take, for instance, the entire Outbound Flight storyline, of which Star Wars: Survivor's Quest is a part.  Introduced in the Thrawn Trilogy as part of the insane cloned Jedi Master Joru'us C'baoth's backstory, this top-secret Old Republic era project proposed by the real C'baoth has often been mentioned as the mission that earned the brilliant Chiss warrior Thrawn his high rank and position as the Empire's only non-human Grand Admiral.  (In the  Thrawn Trilogy, the Outbound Flight project is referred to as a Jedi exploration vessel task to go beyond the galaxy and travel across deep space in search of habitable worlds and intelligent life.  Thrawn, then a very young officer, had been tasked to intercept it - and destroy it.)

Though the story of the flight itself wasn't revealed until Zahn's Outbound Flight was published in 2006, readers found out a few more things about that ill-fated mission in Star Wars: Survivor's Quest, a 2004 novel set 22 years after the events of Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope.

Survivor's Quest 
might have been published before the Prequels-era Outbound Flight, but within the convoluted chronology of the Star Wars narrative it's the eighth and final Zahn novel dealing with Outbound Flight and Thrawn's legacy.

Survivor's Quest's story kicks off when Talon Karrde, former smuggler and sometime collaborator with the New Republic, arranges a clandestine meeting with Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and his wife, Mara Jade Skywalker to inform them that the Chiss, the blue-skinned, red-eyed humanoid race of which the late Grand Admiral Thrawn was a member, has sent Luke an urgent message.

The message, Karrde tells Luke and Mara, has been intercepted by someone in Karrde's organization, a middle-aged man named Dean Jinzler.

Worried that the message might have something to do with the vague but alarming unknown menace mentioned by the Chiss Admiral Voss Parck two years before on the planet Nirauan, Luke and Mara make their way to that Chiss world where Thrawn had set up a hidden fortress code-named "The Hand of Thrawn."

On Nirauan, Luke and Mara are informed that Karrde's report is true, the Chiss, by way of Aristocra Chaf'orm'bintrano (or "Formbi"), want the New Republic's most prominent Jedi Knight to know that they've found the remains of the ill-fated Outbound Flight, which had been destroyed by Thrawn several years before the outbreak of the Clone Wars and the formal rise of the Galactic Empire.

As a means for atonement and a gesture of goodwill, the Chiss (who disavowed Thrawn's actions as illegal) want to return what's left of the Outbound Flight spacecraft to the Republic.

Of course, Luke and Mara agree to go, but they're not the only ones who want to see the remmnants of the once-grand project, which not only carried six Jedi Masters, a select group of Jedi Knights, and a crew, but also some colonists who were intended to seed uninhabited worlds and provide a haven for citizens of the Republic if the Dark Times foretold in Jedi lore ever came to pass.

Not only does Karrde's ex-associate Jinzler surface aboard Formbi's vessel as a Republic "ambassador," butCommander Chak Fel, the son of the famous ex-Imperial ace Baron Fel, and his small contingent of stormtroopers from the newly-formed Empire of the Hand, and a few aliens from curious race known as the Geroons - who are "starstruck hero-worshippers" grateful to the Jedi aboard Outbound Flight for freeing them from slavers - join the party as well.

Through the Force, Luke and Mara know Jinzler is no "Ambassador," but his intensely emotional attachment to Outbound Flight piques their curiosity even though he has used deception to wrangle a spot on the Chiss ship. 

But instead of this being a simple interstellar cruise to the world where the remains of Outbound Flight lie, Luke and Mara realize that the situation is fraught with dangers.  The deeper the ship they're on travels into Chiss space, the more suspicious the Jedi couple becomes.  Soon, acts of sabotage and items that get stolen deepens the Skywalkers' sense of unease.

As if that's not enough, Mara has to wrestle the lingering sense of duality she has been fighting within herself ever since she met Luke Skywalker so many years before: Although she's now a Jedi Knight and loyal to the Republic, she can't easily hide the old feelings of respect she felt for Emperor Palpatine and his New Order when she served him as the Emperor's Hand.

Though Survivor's Quest has much of the trademarks of the Star Wars mythos - there are heroes, villains, use of the Force, snappy dialogue, and lightsaber action - it's a very small-scale story that refreshingly focuses on Luke and Mara's relationship early on in their marriage.  It's a bit "claustrophobic" because it's mainly set aboard the Chaf Envoy and none of the other major Star Wars characters (Han Solo, Princess Leia, or the droids) make more than token cameos, if at all.  Nevertheless, it allows Zahn to give readers a more in-depth look at the former farmboy from Tatooine in a way that channels actor Mark Hamill's earnestness and likability that very few other Star Wars writers truly get right.

Though Zahn infuses Survivor's Quest with lots of political chaff that some readers may not like much, he does have a very good talent for blending his story with those told in other writers' novels as well as the Star Wars movies.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the way in which Zahn starts blending in some tech and alien races from the Prequel Trilogy.  In one scene, a cantina owner seems to have somehow acquired a droideka (a.k.a. wheel or destroyer droid), one of the many weapons used by the Trade Federation at the time of Senator/Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's rise to power.  It's a technique the writer uses sparingly, but it gives the book some Star Wars continuity and also helps prepare readers for Outbound Flight itself.

Monday, November 14, 2016

'The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns' DVD review


  • (C) 1990, 2016 PBS & Florentine Films

Pros: Fine (if sometimes inaccurate) script, great narrator, and always-interesting presentation

"We have felt the incommunicable experience of war. We felt - we still feel - the passion of life to its top. In our youths our hearts were touched with fire." - Oliver Wendell Holmes.

On September 23, 1990, just as units of the XVIII Airborne Corps were taking up defensive positions in the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Public Broadcasting Service aired "The Cause," the first of nine episodes of director Ken Burns’ The Civil War.

It was an odd juxtaposition - as an almost unbelieving nation was sending the vanguard of what eventually became a 350,000-troop force to war against Saddam Hussein, millions of television viewers were watching what was to become the defining documentary about America’s bloodiest conflict.

Although Burns wasn’t an unknown filmmaker to many PBS viewers thanks to several shorter documentaries (Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, The Statue of Liberty) his nine-part look at the conflict between North and South not only became the standard by which most television documentaries are measured, but also the most successful public television miniseries in American history.


Co-written by Burns with Geoffrey C. Ward and Ric Burns, The Civil War doesn't merely present the War Between the States as a merely political-military conflict, but as a mosaic of intimately personal observations by people who either lived through the four-year struggle to preserve the Union and wrote diaries, letters and memoirs or historians who have studied the war, its roots and its aftermath, all framed within the context of a historical overview.

When I first read about Burns' ambitious project to tell the dramatic story of The Civil War as a television miniseries a few weeks before it premiered, I wondered how he was going to achieve his goal without resorting to using footage of re-enacted battles and lots of "talking heads" commentary by historians and writers. After all, the war took place 30 years or so before cinematography began taking its baby steps, so unlike World Wars I and II, there weren't any newsreels to borrow combat footage from. Using still photos and paintings would work, of course, but wouldn't they be static and boring after, say, 30 or so minutes?

Feeling somewhat skeptical, I still decided to watch "The Cause," the series opener, on that late September night. After all, if I didn’t like it, I could always change channels and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation or something along those lines.

But after the obligatory PBS "funding was made possible by" spiels were done and the Florentine Films logo faded out and I saw the stark image of a Civil War cannon’s silhouette against a beautiful sunset (or is it a sunrise?), I was hooked.

Not only was that an unexpected beginning - with the sound of wind blowing and the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote read by actor Paul Roebling - but Burns then did something really clever.

Instead of a dry, general "the war started in April 1861" introduction, narrator/chief historical consultant David McCullough (a fine writer and historian in his own right) begins "The Cause" with a prologue that begins with the travails of Virginia farmer Wilmer McLean, whose farm near Manassas was one of the properties on which the First Battle of Bull Run was fought. After seeing a cannonball wreck his summer kitchen, he moved his family to a "quiet little crossroads town known as Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room," McCullough says, "that Lee surrendered to Grant.... So Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, 'The war began in my back yard and ended in my front parlor.'"

Because the war was fought “in 10,000 places,” Burns’ film can’t cover every battle or every Confederate or Union commander of note, not even within the 11-hour running time of The Civil War’s nine parts. It isn’t meant to be an encyclopedic study of the war, its weapons, tactics, or political/economical ramifications; it’s supposed to be a human story of the conflict, told in a very personal way that connects with the viewer in an intimate way that no mere “history” ever could.

Burns achieves this using several interesting techniques, not the least of which is the script he wrote with Ward and his brother Ric Burns. Although it has several factual errors – in one episode, the number of Union soldiers under the age of 16 is greatly overstated - The Civil War nonetheless is painstakingly researched, not only in the macrocosm of “the Big Picture” dealing with the issues of slavery, secession, and the campaigns that followed the outbreak of the war, but also the microcosm – the experience of war through the eyes of participants, ranging from Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to enlisted men such as Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins.

He also uses what’s known as the Ken Burns Effect: slow pans in and out over paintings and still photographs that, when coupled with the narration, music and sound effects, counteract the static nature of the graphics and add drama and emotional content.


In late September 1862, Mathew Brady opened an exhibition entitled "The Dead of Antietam" at his New York gallery. The photographs were made by Brady's assistants, Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson. Nothing like them had every been seen in America.

"The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams," wrote a reporter for The New York Times.

"We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type...We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. It attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your front door and the corpse is carried over your own threshold...Mr. Brady has done something to bring to us the terrible reality and earnestness of the War. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along [our] streets, he has done something very like it."
 - from Episode Three: “Forever Free”



Adding to the use of the Ken Burns Effect is the choice of historians, writers, and political commentators who offer their insight, expertise, and opinions on the Civil War. The one who stands out the most for the series’ many fans is the late Shelby Foote, who – despite having written a three-volume history of the war – was a relatively unknown poet and sometime historian until the premiere of The Civil War. His Mississippi drawl, his lively eyes, and his sometimes poignant observations are definitely noteworthy.

Along with Foote, viewers will hear from historian Barbara Fields, ex-Congressman James Symington, writer Ed Bearss, and other Civil War historians and ‘buffs.” Mainly, however, they’ll be treated to readings from letters and diaries written by such diverse individuals as Mary Chesnut, the wife of an ex-Senator from Georgia, Gen. George B. McClellan, the ineffective Union general who would later run as a Presidential candidate in 1864, and George Templeton Strong, a shrewd New York observer who didn’t exactly like Lincoln but didn’t like the secessionists much, either.

Then, there’s the musical underscore. From the poignant "Ashokan Farewell" (the signature theme of the film) to a beautiful choral presentation of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the songs and military marches from the period added their powerful emotional content to an already engrossing television event.

The 2002 PBS Home Video/Warner Bros. DVD set not only contains the entire nine-episode miniseries, but it’s also a digitally restored/remastered version. It hasn’t been expanded or rewritten, but flaws in the original print – scratches, dust particles, and even stray hairs that marred the images – have been painstakingly corrected. The sound, too, has been upgraded from 1990s-analog to 2002 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, which is nifty in home theater systems and the newer televisions with stereo capability.

The five discs contain the following episodes:


  • Episode 1: The Cause (1861)
  • Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair (1862)
  • Episode 3: Forever Free (1862)
  • Episode 4: Simply Murder (1863)
  • Episode 5: The Universe of Battle (1863)
  • Episode 6: Valley of the Shadow of Death (1864)
  • Episode 7: Most Hallowed Ground (1864)
  • Episode 8: War Is All Hell (1865)
  • Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865)


This 5-disc set (which has been superseded by a 2004 set released by PBS and Paramount Home Video and a 2015 high definition Blu-ray set) also includes audio commentary by Ken Burns on some chapters of each episode, plus several featurettes about the 2002 remastering efforts to restore the series for its anniversary rebroadcast and the DVD set, Burns’ approach to filmmaking, and interviews with Burns, Shelby Foote, George Will, and Stanley Crouch. There are also battlefield maps, a “Civil War Challenge” trivia game, and biography cards of the various historical figures that shaped the war and its aftermath.

All in all, this is one of my favorite documentaries ever, and even though I am aware that there are several glaring errors in its narrative, Burns’ film is a masterpiece. It is a searing examination of what Shelby Foote called “the crossroads of our being.”