Friday, November 30, 2012

Low Point

If you are a regular visitor to my blog, you've probably noticed that as of late most of the entries are movie reviews, some of them which are complete and others which are essentially "teasers" which contain links to the original versions at Epinions.  Over the past few months, that's all that I've really been doing; I've written a few "op-ed" columns about Trayvon Martin and the civil war in Syria, but not much else which can be called original blog content.

If this disappoints some (or all) of you, I apologize. I started this blog last year with every intention of providing a variety of entries that weren't limited to movie reviews and/or the creative process. I wanted to explore all kinds of topics which may be of interest to a diverse audience, and that is still my hope, because I want this blog to, as the Vulcans say on Star Trek, "live long and prosper."

However, I must point out that this is possibly one of the lowest points of my life. My mom's health, which has been declining over the past seven years, has taken a turn for the worse.  She's been confined to a hospital-type bed for over two years now after back surgery, and even though she was making progress in 2011, a (stupid) mishap with her wheelchair resulted in a broken ankle and long-lasting psychological consequences.  Worse still, she is exhibiting signs that she's either suffering from dementia or the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

I will not go into detail about her symptoms; there are too many to list and I don't really have the time or inclination to write an entire blog entry about them.  I can say this, though: things here are getting worse on a daily basis, and they are taking a toll on me in every aspect of my life, including my abilities to work, relax, or even socialize.

The biggest issue that I have right now is that my mom has become more demanding and difficult to deal with.  She and I still get along better than she does with my older half-sister.  That family dynamic has been a constant all my adult life, and readers who have one or more siblings can probably relate.  Maybe that's why Mom seems to be clinging to me more and demands a great deal of my attention, time and energy - even when there are aides (provided by both the State of Florida and Easter Seals) present.

Over the past six months, my mom has been in a very depressive state.  She is not interested in getting out of her bed (even though the physical therapists she sees three times a week tell her to get out of her room and move around the house more).  She doesn't eat enough even though we get donated meals and I cook at least four times a week.  She gets inexplicably angry over the most trivial of things and even says she wants to commit suicide or hurt herself.  It's getting too hard to bear, and yet I must try to bear her pain, anger and frustration because she is, after all, my mom.

The worst thing of all is that people are starting to notice.  Last night, for example, the evening aide who has the 5-7 PM shift told me that she was shocked to overhear my mom telling me that she hated me and that I should leave her house immediately one night because she thought it was 10:30 PM (it was actually 7:30 PM) and wanted her nighttime medicines.  On that occasion, no matter how much I tried to show her the correct time and explain to her that she could not have her pills that early, she had such a fit of fury that her blood pressure shot up to 188/96 and required a dose of Norvasc.

The next day, of course, she did not remember any of this and greeted me as sweetly as she (almost) always does.  However, these incidents are becoming more and more frequent, and almost always in the evenings when we are alone.

I'm tired. I'm nervous and feeling overwhelmed .  I haven't really had too many good days lately.  Writing is increasingly difficult; I'm not able to focus on work as well as I would like to.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Back to Bataan: Not one of John Wayne's best WWII movies

One of the problems about making a movie an actual conflict while said conflict is still raging is that sometimes events on the ground tend to overtake the filmmakers’ production schedule, especially if the movie is set in a specific place where battles are being fought. 

This is exactly what happened to producer Robert Fellows when he was making Back to Bataan, a blend of action-adventure, wartime propaganda, and a not-so-subtle reminder to the American public that the Philippines wanted independence not only from their Japanese occupiers but also from their U.S. “protectors.” 

Written by Ben Barzman (who was pro-Communist, as was director Edward Dmytryk), William Gordon, and Aeneas MacKenzie, Back to Bataan starred John Wayne as a U.S. Army colonel who stays on Luzon to help organize a U.S.-Filipino guerrilla group to fight the occupying Japanese forces and help pave the way for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s long-promised return. 

During the filming of Back to Bataan,  which took 130 days to complete, the U.S. invaded the Philippines. Because the battle situation changed often and quickly, this caused many problems for the cast and crew.  Producer Fellows, who would later become one of John Wayne’s chief collaborators as partner and co-producer of various films, had to ask Barzan and the writing team for various rewrites. 
As a result of the delays, the writers – assisted by an accommodating U.S. military – incorporated a recreation of the most recent and newsworthy event in the Philippine campaign – the Rangers’ raid of the POW camp at Cabanatuan (January 30, 1945). 

Using the recreation of the “Great Raid” as bookends, Back to Bataan follows the story of Col. Joseph Madden (Wayne), who is ordered to stay behind on Luzon and raise a guerrilla army made up of Filipinos and U.S. soldiers who have avoided capture after Gen. Wainwright’s surrender at Corregidor (May 1942).  

Madden commands what amounts to  be a raggedy battalion of Filipino and American guerrilla fighters who, from mid-1942 to early 1945, wage a dogged resistance campaign against Imperial Japanese troops on Luzon. Using tried-and-true methods such as hit-and-run raids on enemy garrisons, ambushes against Japanese patrols, and inciting passive resistance among the Filipino people, Madden’s bunch becomes a big headache for Gen. Homma (Leonard Strong), Col. Coroki (Philip Ahn) and Maj. Hasko (Richard Loo). 

Col. Madden’s right hand is Capt. Andres Bonifacio, a Filipino officer whose grandfather was a nationalist hero during the period of Spanish rule.  Initially a POW of the Japanese, Madden springs him not just because he’s a good officer but also because he is Andres Bonifacio, a figure the Filipino fighters can rally around. 

To his dismay, Bonifacio’s girlfriend Dalisay Delgado (Fely Franquelli) is the Philippines’ equivalent of Axis Sally or Tokyo Rose. In order to survive the ordeal of Japanese occupation, she has agreed to broadcast pro-Japanese propaganda on Radio Manila. To most people, Dalisay is a despicable collaborator, but is she really? 

For more of this review, please see Back to Bataan (1945: Hum-drum action and heavy-handed propaganda mar this John Wayne film

Monday, November 26, 2012

Hasbro's Bail Organa (Alderaan Senator) from Star Wars Saga: Attack of the Clones

vSenator Bail Organa of Alderaan is a trusted advisor in Chancellor Palpatine's inner circle. An impassioned supporter of civic virtue, Bail regrets that to counter the Separatist threat, the Republic must deploy a newly discovered clone army. Although the Republic garners an equivocal victory at the Battle of Geonosis, it is only the first step in a much larger, carefully conceived Clone War. The noble Senator stands in somber observation as thousands of clone troopers, marching in military formation, board countless warships and disperse throughout the galaxy to new battlefronts. - From the Hasbro Star Wars Saga - Bail Organa (Alderaan Senator) action figure's package blurb 

Introduced in 2003 as the 33rd action figure of the Saga line, Bail Organa (Alderaan Senator) is the very first figure depicting one of the future founders of the Rebel Alliance. 

 As "action figures" go, this is a good example of how Hasbro lavishes attention to detail on figures whose characters, no matter how pivotal they may be in the overall story, have limited screen time in one particular Star Wars Episode. 

Though the sculpt is not exactly one of Hasbro's most life-like efforts, the figure's physical features do resemble actor Jimmy Smits' patrician-yet-heroic ones in Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones.    Bail's hair, eyebrows and Francis Drake-like goatee are black against pale flesh skin tones, giving the character a somewhat interesting and timeless blend of Flash Gordon-meets-Elizabethan Era looks. 

Further enhancing the character's neo-Elizabethan looks is the nice replication of costume designer Trisha Biggar's outfit for Bail as the Senator from Alderaan.  With the exception of Star Wars-style knee-length black boots, Organa's outfit is done in different shades of blue, featuring a cerulean-shaded shirt with what looks like a small neck ruff (thus the Francis Drake reference) matched with a royal blue overtunic/cape combination with matching trousers. 

Reflecting both Alderaan's peace-and-neutrality philosophy and its prominent role in the Republic as one of the influential Core Worlds, Bail's outfit is both elegant and a visual representation of his people's political and artistic sensibilities. 

Articulation is fairly limited to the basics of neck/head, upper arms/shoulders and hips.  Bail, after all, only appears in three short scenes, one of them without any dialogue, and none of them feature him as a warrior or action hero. 

Weapons and Accessories: 
Obi-Wan Kenobi Hologram 

Because Bail only appears in three short "Loyalist Council" scenes where he shares screen time with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine and other Republic supporters, his action figure only has one "extra" feature: a translucent blue "hologram" of Obi-Wan Kenobi; presumably this is derived from the scene where Bail, along with other politicians close to Palpatine, watches the Jedi's hurried - and interrupted - report from the Separatists' secret outpost on Geonosis. 

Though it's fairly small, the holo is a pretty cool mini-figure of the young Jedi Master; Obi-Wan is shown in a "ready stance" with a freshly-ignited lightsaber, just as in the scene when his message to Coruscant is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Separatist droidekas. 

The holo comes with a silver-gray "holo-emitter" base. 
My Take: Considering that Bail Organa is a crucial supporting character in the Star Wars mythology, it matters not that Smits did not have too much screen time in Attack of the Clones; he did have a few lines (at least) and his role was expanded a tad in Revenge of the Sith.  The fact that he did get to be "introduced" in Episode II was enough to earn him the right to be "figurized." 

Because he's a "political" character in Episode II, his figure obviously doesn't lend itself to any "action figure" derring do.  He has no blaster or any weapon (unless kids have him throw the holo emitter at a "pretend" villain), so this figure will more likely appeal to older collectors (nine and up) rather than its supposed target audience of children four and up. 

As always, parents are strongly cautioned that Star Wars figures have small parts that can be choking hazards for kids three and under, and that Hasbro recommends this toy for children aged four and up. 

Hasbro's Garindan (Long Snoot) Star Wars - The Power of the Force: Action figure review

Garindan, a Kubaz informant, works only for the highest bidders - usually the Empire or Jabba the Hutt. Garindan followed the young Skywalker and his mentor Ben Kenobi through the alleys of Mos Eisley.  - From the package blurb. 

The shadowy spy retroactively named Garindan only appears briefly in A New Hope as the shrouded figure with the long nose and goggled eyes, he is the character who tips off the Imperial stormtroopers that Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi have gone to Docking Bay 94 in Mos Eisley.  He appears twice or thrice, following the Jedi Knight and his new apprentice through alleys and bystreets and muttering into a handheld comlink in a squeaky language. 

Garindan is not identified by name in the film or the 1976 Alan Dean Foster-penned novelization; the figure is also known colloquially as "Long Snoot" because of his long proboscis. 

The Figure: 

 Height: 1.85 Meters
Status: Spy
Classification: Kubaz
Affiliation: To The Highest Bidder
Weapon of Choice: Blaster Pistol, Hold-Out Pistol 

Bipedal and roughly humanoid, the Kubaz alien is roughly the size of an average human but has that long snoot that gives him his nickname.  Garindan is attired in a hooded cape - done in plastic - and goggles to protect his vision from the twin suns of Tatooine. 

Though Garindan never wields a weapon in Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, Hasbro has equipped him with a hold-out blaster.  After all, he is a spy who will work for organized criminals such as Jabba or the local Imperial authorities, and spying is a nasty, dangerous business. 

The figure was actually released in three different packaging variants; the toy itself was not modified but it came in two Green Collection carded bubblepacks, one with a picture and one with a hologram in foil, and one Freeze Frame carded bubblepack.  This last one included a Freeze Frame slide with a still from A New Hope that could be used in a slide projector. 

Weapons and Accessories:
Hold Out Blaster 
 Plastic Cape 
 Freeze Frame (.01 only)   

My Take:  
Although Garindan is only seen for less than a minute in Star Wars: A New Hope, his actions lead to the docking bay shootout between Han Solo and a squad of Imperial stormtroopers before the fateful flight of theMillennium Falcon.  This kicks off the first adventure Luke Skywalker has in his quest to become a Jedi Knight, so the spy's small but pivotal role makes him worthy of his own little action figure. 

As far as detailing goes, it's very nicely done.  The dark gray, almost black outfit is perfectly suited for skulking about in the alleys and sideways of Mos Eisley and elsewhere; the sculpt is nicely done for a figure of 1997 vintage.  The only bit of unclothed Kubaz - the long nose - is rendered in simulated brown skin tones with almost-elephant-like wrinkles and folds on the surface. 

As far as articulation goes, it's not too shabby.  Garindan's hooded head can be turned from side to side even though he's a cloaked figure.  That's because Hasbro did not affix the cape's hood to the rest of the simulated garment to allow for neck movement.

The figure's arm movements, though, are restricted by the cape, which is rendered in plastic instead of cloth.  The arms have no elbow joints so posing the figure naturally is difficult.  Additionally, the figure can only be posed In standing or "walking" stances, since there are not enough articulation points in the legs to have him sit unless Garindan is sitting with his legs stiffly straight. 

On the whole, the figure is for serious collectors only; Garindan is hard to find in local stores unless you go to a comics-and-collectibles store.  Prices there can vary from $1.00 for a Long Snoot loose and without his blaster to $15.00 and up for one in a carded bubblepack in mint condition

I bought mine about eight years ago from a private collector who was going to go to college and was selling off her figures.  I paid $10 and it was packaged, but the seller put the carded bubblepack in a too-confined box, so the  near-mint figure's bubblepack was all bent and no longer displayable that way, so I decided to open Garindan and pose him on a shelf.

As always, parents are cautioned that Star Wars figures have small accessories or parts that can be choking hazards for children under three years of age, and Hasbro recommends this toy for kids ages four and up.

(c) 2010, 2012 by  Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: A brief review of the Original Soundtrack album

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade's soundtrack recording, like most albums of the genre, has its virtues and vices. Even keeping in mind that it was released originally in 1989 in records, cassettes, and the still-new CD format, it is still an album that offers John Williams' score for the third film in the Indy series, but not enough of it. 

Having veered by design into dark thematic and musical territory in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas and composer Williams decided to revisit the more fun and thrilling tones of Raiders of the Lost Ark, adding depth to Indy's character by including his father, Professor Henry Jones, Sr. and new themes reflecting the father-son dynamic and the quest for the Holy Grail. 

Keeping in mind the limitations of this album, the music here is enjoyable. Listen to "Indy's Very First Adventure" (track 1) and you can almost see young Indiana Jones (as incarnated by the late River Phoenix) as he goes after the Cross of Coronado in a Utah cave, then is chased as he rides first a horse, then a circus train, to get the relic to the sheriff before a band of thugs catches him. It's a very 1930s-style action key in the vein of Erich Korngold, but (and here's the rub) it is missing the segue to the conclusion of the sequence as seen in the final scene, when the rogue archaeologist places his fedora on young Indy's head, then with the appearance of the Raiders March Phoenix's face is obscured, to be replaced by Harrison Ford's as Spielberg flashes 26 years forward to 1938 and a storm-tossed freighter off the Portuguese coast. 

The music of The Last Crusade veers from the rollicking "Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra" (track 3 and one of the most clever cue titles), which has a recurring motif heard as underscore during Henry and Indy's adventures as they evade their Nazi pursuers. Williams intercuts that lively theme with a darker musical idea for the Nazis, which evokes an evil militaristic order (in the style of his Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back) with its minor keys and jeering brass notes. The short cue "No Ticket" (track 6), heard when Indy, dressed as a German airship crewman, punches out SS Col. Vogel (Michael Byrne) and sends him flying from the Zeppelin's window, is wryly humorous, while "The Belly of the Steel Beast" (track 10), with its suspenseful atmosphere and rising crescendos recalls Indy's attempts to rescue his dad and Marcus Brody from an enemy tank in the desert of Hatay. 

The famous Raiders' March is seldom heard on this CD, being briefly stated in tracks 3 and 10 and only coming to the fore in track 13, "End Credits (Raiders' March)," where it is married to the "Scherzo" and the sentimental theme for Henry. Nevertheless, for Williams' aficionados, this CD is an enjoyable one. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Douglas Adams' Mostly Harmless (Book Review)

Depression, it’s been claimed, sometimes triggers spurts of creativity, particularly in writers and musical artists. Either that or it inspires creative people later on to give the world memorable songs or poems – such as Jerome Kerns’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” 

Unfortunately for fans of the late Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy five-volume “trilogy,” the author’s bout with the blues didn’t help much in the writing of Mostly Harmless, the bleak, somewhat underwhelming final book in the series. 

As in the previous four novels, Adams pokes fun at various science fiction themes, mainly the concept of parallel universes and the notion that aliens have been monitoring the Earth’s various television and radio broadcasts since the mid-20th Century. And of course, as in the other volumes, Adams also makes various brilliantly funny observations about life in the Universe…or in New York City: 

One of the extraordinary things about life is the sort of places it’s prepared to put up with living. Anywhere it can get some kind of grip, whether it’s the intoxicating seas of Santraginus V, where the fish never seem to care whatever the heck kind of direction they swim in, the fire storms of Frastra, where, they say, life begins at 40,000 degrees, or just burrowing around in the lower intestine of a rat for the sheer unadulterated hell of it, life will always find a way of hanging on in somewhere.

It will even live in New York, though it’s hard to know why. In the wintertime the temperature falls well below the legal minimum, or rather it would do if anybody had the common sense to set a legal minimum. The last time anybody made a list of the top hundred attributes of New Yorkers, common sense snuck in at number 79.

At first, Mostly Harmless seems to be a promising continuation of the misadventures of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Tricia McMillan – or Trillian – and the rest of the zany Hitchhiker’s troupe. Adams explores the bizarre notion of parallel universes by having Tricia going back for a handbag at a crucial moment, and this somehow changes the fate of the Earth so (a) it doesn’t get blown away by the Vogons and (b) some of the events in the previous entries of the wildly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy are hereby negated. 

While Tricia, now a successful television reporter for a BBC-like network, copes with her failure to get a job with an American network in New York and returns home to Britain, she encounters the seemingly mindless crew of an alien spacecraft that has been orbiting Rupert, the solar system’s tenth planet, not knowing its mission, yet monitoring all the Earth’s broadcasts. When she agrees to help the Grebulons, she sets out on a bizarre set of adventures through various alternate universes and comes across a daughter she was previously unaware of, a wild and angry girl named Random. 

Arthur, meanwhile, has been stuck on the primitive planet Lamuella and is making a living as a creator of, um, sandwiches. He hasn’t had much good luck since the start of the series, what with having been the only survivor from Earth in one alternate universe and losing, in a bizarre manner, the love of his life, Fenchurch, who he had last been seen with at the end of So Long and Thanks For All the Fish. 

As for the other characters, Adams only mentions Ford Prefect, who is back at work as a roving reporter for the Guide…and he’s not very happy about it either. Gone is the happy-go-lucky, Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster-swigging, hitchhiker-friendly publication Ford had once written the phrase “mostly harnless” for. Now it’s a “politically correct” entity, and it has become all-powerful and all-knowing as well. 

In typically incomprehensible turns of plot, Ford eventually turns against his employers and steals the new version of the Guide, which changes hands several times and sets off a disastrous sequence of events that leads to the bizarre fulfillment of a dark prophecy from one of the earlier novels. 

Even the most ardent of Adams’ fans will read Mostly Harmless and come away with the feeling that this wasn’t the sort of ending they expected for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. For one thing, its brilliant comic riffs are offset by an uncharacteristically dark and morose tone; the loss of Fenchurch and the arrival on scene of Random are too jarring and too bleak in contrast to Adams’ earlier books. Many readers, this reviewer included, became rather fond of “Fenny” and were glad to see Arthur find some sort of happiness at last, only to find out that she was taken away by the bizarre random vagaries of the Universe. 

Another weakness of the novel is the absence of Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin the Paranoid Android from the plot. Maybe Adams was too depressed and forgot to create a subplot for these long-running characters, or maybe he figured he’d given them enough time on stage – as it were – and left them out on purpose. Whatever the reason, the absence from Mostly Harmless of the hip, womanizing two-headed ex-President of the Galaxy and the morose robot is keenly felt. 

Because Adams’ death in May 2001 precluded a possible sixth novel, Mostly Harmless will remain the final complete work of the series. It still packs some of Adams’ trademark wry humorous punch, but its dark and turbulent undercurrent of bleakness will, in the end, disappoint even the most fervent fan of the various Hitchhiker’s works. 

(c) 2012 by Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Attack of the Hawkmen: Young Indy goes aloft in unfriendly WWI skies

After the cancellation by ABC of his ambitious and expensive television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, executive producer George Lucas tried several methods to save the show and give viewers - especially pre-teen kids and young adults - its trademark mix of education and entertainment.

For instance, after ABC axed Young Indy from its lineup (citing the show's lavish budgets as its primary reason), Lucasfilm Limited produced four made-for-TV movies which aired on cable's Family Channel over a two-year period (1994-1996). 

Another life-saving measure was the hiring of film editor T.M. Christopher, who not only had worked with Lucas as an editor on the Classic Star Wars Trilogy, but also with Milos Forman in cutting 1984's Amadeus.

Christopher (who also was involved in the 1997 updating of the original Star Wars films into their still controversial Special Edition versions)  was assigned to  re-edit 44 episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and fashioning 22 "movies" out of them by marrying chronologically-close stories together into a (hopefully) seamless narrative. These were then sold on VHS as The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones and released in conjunction with a box set of the first three Indiana Jones theatrical movies. (Because the TV show and the original Harrison Ford films were part of the same narrative arc, the Young Indy "movies" were labeled Chapters 1-22, while Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were labeled Chapters 23-25; the VHS box set of the theatrical films also included The Treasure of the Peacock's Eye because it is essentially a prequel of sorts to Temple of Doom.)

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones - Attack of the Hawkmen
Also known as: Chapter 12:  Attack of the Hawkmen (Austria 1917)
Written by Matthew Jacobs, Rosemary Anne Sisson and Ben Burtt, based on a story by George Lucas
Directed by Ben Burtt
Formats available:
VHS as The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Attack of the Hawkmen
DVD as Chapter 12: Attack of the Hawkmen, Disc Five of The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones Volume Three: The War Years
France, 1917:  The world war which was sparked by the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo is now in its third bloody year and with no end in sight.  Germany and her Central Powers allies are beating the ill-trained and poorly led Russian armies in the east even as the Romanov dynasty is being overthrown by popularly supported revolts.

Meanwhile, the situation on the Western Front is still a bloody stalemate as France and Britain continue to send the flower of their youth to the deadly trenches of Flanders, the Somme and Verdun.  Millions of soldiers on both sides fight, suffer and die in battles which often result in no significant exchanges of territory but exact a deadly toll in lives and materiel lost.

It is to the war-torn landscapes of France and Belgium that young Indiana Jomes (Sean Patrick Flanery) and his Belgian friend Remy Baudouin (Ronny Coutteure) are returning after a long and arduous tour of duty in Africa.
Now, after many months of serving together as junior officers in the Belgian Army (where Indy is known as "Captain Henri Defense"), the two friends are reassigned to new intelligence-related postings which will take them on divergent paths - Remy is transferred to serve as an undercover agent in German-occupied Belgium, and Indy is posted to a fighter squadron based in Ravane (France) as an aerial recon photographer.
World War I - as the bloody 1914-1918 conflict eventually was named - is known not just for its massive death toll and its geopolitical repercussions which still haunt us in the early 21st Century, but because of its many military "firsts."

Not only did the war bring on large-scale use of machine guns, submarines, and trench warfare - all of which had been introduced in primitive fashion during the American Civil War and other conflicts around the world - but it also saw the introduction of tanks, poison gas, flamethrowers and, of course, large scale use of military aviation.

In 1995's Family Channel presentation, Attack of the Hawkmen, Indiana Jones is assigned to the famous Lafayette Escadrille, a French Air Force fighter squadron staffed mainly by American volunteers who seek honor, glory and adventure while fighting for the Allied cause at a time when the United States is still officially neutral.

The Lafayette Escadrille has been in action for a year when Indy is given a "temporary" posting as the unit's recon photographer even though the future archaeologist doesn't like flying and is not a pilot.  Commanded by Raoul Lufberry (Daniel Kash), the squadron consists of very young - and socially well-connected - Americans whose exuberance and eccentricities - the unit has a lion cub named Whiskey as a mascot - makes them stand out in the new fraternity of aerial warriors.
Indy is not exactly thrilled with his new assignment as a back-seat photographer on a reconnaissance plane, and his enthusiasm is reduced to basement levels when he is told just how dangerous his "temporary" gig really is.
Indiana Jones: What's so funny? 
Len: Well, you see, the longest any reconnaissance guy ever lasted with us is eight days.
Indiana Jones: Why is that? 
Len: Well, you fly in low and slow, and you got a camera in your hand when what you need is a gun.
Hobie: Hey dog breath, give him a break. 
Len: The kid ought to know, right?
It's not too long into "Henri Defense's" tour with the Escadrille that Indy sees exactly what Len meant when he explained the shortened life expectancy of reconnaissance airmen, because while on a mission over German-held territory, Indy and his pilot are shot down by a crack squadron commanded by Manfred von Richthofen (Marc Warren).

Because aerial warfare was still in its "knights of the air" stage and pilots on opposite sides still treated each other like gentlemanly rivals, Indy is invited to sit at Baron von Richthofen's luncheon table before being sent to a POW camp in Germany.

In this somewhat surreal setting, Indy is not only introduced to Manfred's younger brother Lothar (Manuel Harlan), but he also sits at the same table with a young fighter pilot named Hermann Goering (Karel Dobry), the future leader of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe.

Of course, such chivalrous bonhomie can't last forever, and Indy is taken under guard to a convoy which will take him to a German prisoner of war camp.  Now it looks like only a miracle can save the young intelligence officer from a long and dreary stint behind barbed wire.....

For my take on Attack of the Hawkmen, please visit the complete review here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine: A Star Wars Action Figure Review

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away....

It is a time of turmoil in the galaxy. A decade after the Naboo crisis and the election of Senator Palpatine as Supreme Chancellor, a new menace to democracy has emerged as Count Dooku, a former Jedi Master, becomes the leader of a Separatist movement that has enticed ten thousand systems to secede from the Galactic Republic.

In the face of this and other crises, the Galactic Senate has allowed the charismatic and seemingly incorruptible Supreme Chancellor to remain in office despite constitutionally mandated term limits. Quiet, unassuming, and devoted to maintaining peace and justice in the galaxy, Palpatine seems to be reluctant to use force against the Separatists.

But as it becomes apparent that the 10,000-strong Jedi Order may be becoming overextended in its efforts to maintain the peace throughout the galaxy, Palpatine's stance on negotiations shifts to a harder line as his operatives in the Senate and elsewhere push for the creation of an Army of the Republic. If the Separatist threat continues, Palpatine seems poised to gain absolute power for the duration of the emergency.....

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine: Character Background 

For all their flaws (real or perceived), the Star Wars prequels finally get around to explaining how a once-great and thriving democracy evolved into a tyrannical dictatorship even though it was protected by the formidable Jedi Order. The Republic didn't become the evil Empire because Palpatine -- who was introduced into the film series in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi -- came from another galaxy and took it over by an external attack, but because the Senator/Sith Lord wormed his way patiently into the office of the Supreme Chancellor by using the weaknesses of the democratic system against itself. By allying himself with greedy ultra-capitalist organizations such as the Trade Federation and employing subtle "dirty tricks" to remove Supreme Chancellor Valorum from office, Palpatine cleverly manipulates people and events to get himself elected as head of the Senate and the Republic's Chief Executive. 

As George Lucas points out in the audio commentaries in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones DVDs, Palpatine's rise to power is based not on that of a leader like Fidel Castro who took power at the point of a gun but rather more like that of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome or Adolf Hitler in 1930s Germany. Both used the established political system to get themselves elected, and both used internal and external threats, real or fabricated, to subvert and finally overthrow the weak democratic institutions and become dictators. 

As portrayed by Ian McDiarmid, Palpatine is the ultimate politician, seemingly devoted to democracy and peace. He projects an aura of calm reflection and confidence, and most people, even most members of the Jedi Council, trust him. Only a few -- Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi among them -- seem to have any misgivings about Palpatine's sincerity. 

Of course, Palpatine's relationship with Anakin Skywalker is the most important aspect of the character in the Star Wars saga. Ever since the Battle of Naboo in The Phantom Menace, Palpatine has been keeping a close watch on the powerful and headstrong Jedi; he becomes a father figure to young Skywalker and monitors his career, waiting patiently for the right moment to slowly but surely turn him away from Obi-Wan Kenobi's teachings and turn him to the dark side of the Force. 

You don't need guidance, Anakin. In time you will learn to trust your feelings. Then you will become invincible. I have said it many times, you are the most gifted Jedi I have ever met. 

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine: The Figure 

Although in some ways this figure from the Star Wars: Collection 2 wave produced by Hasbro in 2002 is somewhat unexciting as a toy -- the Supreme Chancellor is, after all, a politician and not, say, a fellow you'd expect would wield a blaster or lightsaber -- Palpatine nevertheless is one of the more detailed figures I've seen or owned. 

Not only is his sculpt-and-paint job consistent with those from the earlier Episode I figures, but the detailing captures the subtle and almost sinister looking aging process that is apparent in Episode II. Instead of his skin having a lively flesh-pink tone and his hair in gray-silver hues, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine has a paler complexion, not as greyish as that of his "later" Emperor Palpatine incarnation, but one can see more wrinkles and "liver" spots on the Supreme Chancellor's face. His hair has thinned a bit too, and it's now a distinguished-looking shade of white, giving Palpatine a "gentle wise old man" facade. 

Although sculpted and painted from plastic, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's ornate cloak and tunic look as though they were made from the finest mix of heavy and light fabrics; reminscent of the outfits worn by the Trade Federation viceroy Nute Gunray crossed with the ceremonial outfit worn by Supreme Chancellor Valorum. The robes, with flowing sleeves and simple yet elegant lines, give the figure a distinctly regal appearance. 

Although adult collectors will probably appreciate the attention to detail to costume and physical characteristics, children more than likely will not find Supreme Chancellor Palpatine very exciting. For all his importance in the films, Palpatine is basically a mostly-offscreen presence, a puppetmaster who pulls everyone's strings yet doesn't fight anyone physically until the third film of each trilogy. Thus he has no nifty extras -- no blaster, no red bladed lightsaber -- in the carded package. 

The nature of the costume also seems to have limited Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's articulation. The head moves at the neck, of course, but his legs seem to have no knee joints to allow the future Emperor to sit, and his hands look as though they are permanently steepled in a contemplative pose as the duplicitous "phantom menace" mulls over his complicated schemes. 

As always, parents are cautioned that Star Wars figures have small parts; it might take brute strength, of course, but the hands and head could be forcibly removed and become a choking hazard. Hasbro recommends this toy for children ages 4 and up, although I strongly suspect older collectors (ages 12 and up), including completists like me, might like this figure better.