Thursday, February 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama (as reviewed way back in 2003)

5.0 out of 5 stars
 Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama: A Brilliant "Tour de Force" of the Force on Radio
May 3, 2003
By Alex Diaz-Granados 
Format:Audio CD

At first, the idea seems bizarre, even ridiculous. Star Wars, a movie best known for its vistas of alien worlds and epic battles, as a 13 part radio drama? No way would it work, right?
Well, unless you have the cold heart of a Sith, Star Wars did indeed translate well from the silver screen to radio, thank you very much. Yes, Star Wars' visual effects are a big part of the magic of the saga, but the heart and soul of George Lucas' galaxy far, far away are the characters and the storyline. And while the movie is satisfying on its own, the radio dramatization written by the late Brian Daley takes us beyond the movie....beyond the screenplay...and even beyond the novelization.
By expanding the movie's story beyond its two hour running time, the Radio Drama allows us to catch glimpses of Luke Skywalker's life BEFORE the movie. It tells us how Princess Leia acquired the Death Star plans....and what, exactly, happened to her during her interrogation aboard the Empire's battle station...(it is an interesting scene, but not for the squeamish, by the way). In short, by expanding the story to nearly seven hours, characters we loved on screen acquire depth only equaled by novelizations.
Photo Credit:
Original promotional poster for NPR's Star Wars: The Radio Drama
The Radio Drama makes extensive use of material written (and in some cases filmed) for A New Hope's silver screen version but cut for editorial or technical reasons. Also, Ben Burtt's sound effects, John Williams' score, and the acting of Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Anthony Daniels (See Threepio) give the whole project its "true" Star Wars cachet.

(What I didn't mention in the original review was that the radio dramatization was directed by John Madden, who would later direct the Academy Award-winning film  Shakespeare in Love.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Karlie Tomica: Alcohol, Irresponsibility and Immaturity Mix Fatally

It's been a while since I last wrote about Karlie Tomica, the 20-year-old Nikki Beach bartender who killed  Stefano Riccioletti as she drove back home, drunk as the proverbial skunk, on the early morning hours of Jan. 29.

The passage of time has done nothing to assuage my anger about this case of a reckless driver who, as Miami Beach Police detective Vivian Hernandez tells the Miami New Times' Lanie Doss, was highly intoxicated.

In an article dated February 12,  The New Times' Short Order blogger writes:

MBPD Detective Vivian Hernandez confirmed the findings to Short Order. "Yes. She was three times above the legal limit." Hernandez also said that Tomica will have to appear in court and face additional charges. 

Though law enforcement officers had only charged Tomica with leaving the scene of an accident which resulted in death, they did so only to wait for the toxicology reports.  Tomica now faces serious charges, including one for driving under the influence.

Karlie Tomica is also facing more woes on another front: According  to, the website of ABC affiliate WPLG-TV, a civil lawsuit, filed by Riccioletti's adult son in Miami-Dade County, also seeks to pin some of the responsibility for his father's death on Nikki Beach management.  The suit states that not only did the club hire Tomica, who is not legally allowed to consume alcohol as a bartender, but that management encourages servers to drink with customers for sales purposes.  

Riccioletti's family also alleges Nikki Beach (ironically named after Jack Penrod's late daughter who was killed by a drunk driver) knew Tomica was inebriated and was going to drive herself home after her shift.

Photo Credit: WSVN via Miami-Dade Dept. of Corrections
The former "Party princess" who once boasted about "livin' the dream" posted $10,000 bail on Jan. 29 and has erased all traces of her online existence.  Her fiance shut down Tomica's Facebook and Twitter accounts on the same day Karlie bonded out.  She is expected to turn herself in on to authorities  Friday to face the new, harsher charges.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

John Keegan's The Second World War: A book review

The Second World War was the largest, bloodiest conflict in history. It was fought on three of the seven continents and involved every major power of the time. Some of the combatant nations (most notably France and Italy) changed sides at least once between 1939 and 1945, and by the time Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945 over 50 million men, women, and children were dead, millions more were wounded and/or uprooted, homeless, and bewildered by the war's effects.

Indeed, those of us now living in the early 21st century are still living with the aftermath of World War II; many of the crises we now face can be traced to decisions made during or shortly after the war.

John Keegan's The Second World War is  a one-volume general history of the 1939-45 conflict, and it should be read more as an introductory text rather than a comprehensive "this-is-the-book-that-explains-the-whole-darned-thing" opus. It's too short (595 pages, not counting the bibliography or index) for that. Instead, it is structured in six parts, starting with Hitler's early campaigns in Poland and the West in 1939-40 and culminating with Japan's surrender in midsummer of 1945. Each part is divided into a few chapters that focus on themes and strategies...with attention given to a particular type of warfare in form of an example. For instance, for "Air Battle," Keegan cites the Battle of Britain. For "Airborne Battle," he uses Crete as his centerpiece.

The book is strongest when Keegan goes into detail about such things as the evolution of armies from the 19th century until the war starts in September 1939; he is particularly adept when explaining the revolutionary changes in European military organizations, particularly after the integration of the railroad and mass-production techniques from 1860 on. Keegan takes a potential snore-inducing subject -- Surplus and war-making capacity, say -- and makes it interesting to the average reader. His experience as an instructor at Sandhurst and his writing skills allow Keegan to weave a coherent narrative tapestry that depicts World War II in all its terrible yet mesmerizing spectacle.

As good as this book is, it is not without its flaws. Perhaps his research assistants blundered on occasion, or the publisher's deadline loomed too near when Keegan completed The Second World War, but I spotted a few errors of fact or terminology. In Part V: The War in the West, Keegan writes this about Operation Market-Garden: "Market, the seizure of the bridges at Eindhoven and Nijmegen [in Holland] by the American airborne divisions, proved a brilliant success. Garden, the descent of the British 1st Airborne Division on the more distant Rhine bridges at Arnhem, did not."

In fact, Market was the code name given to the entire airborne half of the operation, while Garden referred to the British ground force (XXX Corps) assigned to relieve and reinforce the paratroopers. 

In another chapter, Keegan labels the SS mobile task forces used to round up and execute tens of thousands of Jews in the East with the term Sonderkommando. This, too, is inaccurate. The German SS units Keegan writes about were called Einsatzgruppen. Sonderkommandos were Jewish concentration camp inmates given the awful duties of emptying the gas chambers and crematoria in such hellish places as Auschwitz and Treblinka. Obviously, few books ever escape the odd typo or small factual error, but there are enough of these gaffes to distract or confuse the reader.

Nevertheless, John Keegan's book is worth reading, flaws and all.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hasbro Star Wars Legacy Comic 2-Pack Dark Horse Heir to the Empire #1: Review

In 1991, Bantam Spectra Books and Lucasfilm Limited joined forces to re-launch the dormant Star Wars franchise with the publication of Timothy Zahn's Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, the first volume of a three-book cycle known asThe Thrawn Trilogy.

Eight years had passed since the theatrical run of Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi, and only a few Lando Calrissian novels, a moribund Marvel Comics series and a West End Games role-playing game were "keeping the flame" for fans who wondered when - or if Star Wars creator George Lucas would complete the long-rumored nine-part saga made up of three Trilogies - the Classic, the Prequels and a Sequel Trilogy set decades after Return of the Jedi.

Heir to the Empire, which is set five years after the climactic events of Episode VI, not only updated readers on how the lives of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, C-3PO and R2-D2 have changed since the Battle of Endor and the deaths of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, but it also introduced a new set of heroes, rogues and villains.

Among all of Zahn's new dramatis personae (which include such recurring characters as Mara Jade, Borsk Fel'ya, Capt. Pellaeon and Winter), two characters truly stand out in his first three Star Wars novels: Grand Admiral Thrawn, the last - and best - of Palpatine's warlords, and Talon Karrde, the smuggler/information broker who seeks to be neutral in the war between the New Republic and a suddenly-resurgent Galactic Empire.

The unexpected success of Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy and the many books by other authors which form the Expanded Universe created a great buzz among Star Wars fans, and many companies, including Dark Horse Comics and Hasbro, began releasing spin-off products, including new Star Wars comic books and action figures, some of them directly based on Expanded Universe stories and characters.
 Star Wars Comic Packs: Grand Admiral Thrawn & Talon Karrde
It's five years after the destruction of the second Death Star. The Rebel Alliance has established a New Republic, but its existence is threatened by the old Empire. Grand Admiral Thrawn commands the remnants of the Imperial fleet and is putting together a plan that will destroy the new government. Thrawn contacts Talon Karrde, a man with valuable information that Thrawn needs in order for his plan to succeed. 
- From the package blurb

When I resumed collecting Star Wars action figures and their assorted accessories about a decade ago, I decided to focus mainly on those items which are derived from "G" canon-sources, i.e. everything related to the movies and TV shows personally overseen by George Lucas.  

The Expanded Universe novels and comics, however, are "C" canon-sources which are licensed by Lucasfilm Limited and are considered part of Star Wars' continuity but not necessarily the "official" storyline.  (Lucas himself admits that he has not read any of the novels; the only major nod to the Expanded Universe's existence is the use of the name "Coruscant" for the capital planet of the Galactic Republc/Empire.)

Thus, even though Hasbro has issued many figures based on characters from the Expanded Universe novels, until I bought the Star Wars Comic Packs: Grand Admiral Thrawn & Talon Karrde two-figure set a few days ago, I only owned one figure of Mara Jade, given to me by my friend and fellow collector, Rogers Perez as a birthday present. 

This Star Wars: The Legacy Collection offering from 2008, is the ninth Star Wars Comic Packs set produced by Hasbro.  Like all the other sets (16 in existence with several others in the works), Grand Admiral Thrawn & Talon Karrde features two figures and an issue of a Dark Horse Comics Star Wars comic book.

Grand Admiral Thrawn: Perhaps one of the most popular EU characters in the Star Wars literary world, Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the most formidable antagonists ever faced by Luke Skywalker and his friends in the New Republic. 

A tactical genius who can study a culture's art and thus figure out its particular psychological weak points, Thrawn is a rarity in the Galactic Empire: a non-human who has earned the right to wear the white uniform of a Grand Admiral of the Imperial Starfleet.  Loyal to the Empire's stated goals of establishing unity and order to the galaxy, Thrawn is more frugal with the use of Imperial resources and is not as apt as Darth Vader to lethally punish officers who make honest mistakes in battle.  In his own way, he is also honorable and worthy of respect, not just from his subordinates but from his antagonists in the New Republic.

The Hasbro figure is the second ever made of Thrawn and it looks exactly like Tim Zahn's description of the Chiss warlord in the Star Wars novels where he is a major character - humanoid, with black hair, blue skin, and red eyes.

Because he's depicted as he appears in the 1991-1993 Thrawn Trilogy, he wears the white uniform and rank tabs of a Grand Admiral, of which there were only 12 at the height of the Galactic Empire's power.  This consists of a long-sleeved white tunic with matching trousers patterned on the standard Imperial officer's uniform, a black belt with a silver buckle, and knee-high black boots.

Because Thrawn doesn't engage in any firefights personally - he has a Noghri bodyguard and a retinue of Imperial stormtroopers for protection - the figure doesn't come with a blaster pistol as an accessory.

It does, however, come with a small ysalamiri, a furry salamader-like creature which looks and is mostly harmless but has an interesting ability to resist the Force.  Thrawn usually has one or more around him whenever he expects to encounter a Force user (such as Luke or the insane Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth) and thus counteract his or her Jedi skills. 

In the package, one ysalamiri clings to the Grand Admiral's neck and left shouider, but there's a photo on the reverse side of the "card" which shows the creature grabbing Thrawn's left boot, so presumably this accessory can be removed and posed differently than its "in package" placement.

Talon Karrde
, the smuggler chief who has taken over much of the late Jabba the Hutt's organization, is also very interesting character-wise.  Though part of the galaxy's "fringe elements" and considered an outlaw by many, including some in the fledgling New Republic, Karrde is not as venal or amoral as the slug-like gangster killed by Princess Leia five years ago.  In fact, he's a wealthier, more urbane version of Han Solo - a man who prides himself in being an independent operator with ties to no government or cause.  He's also - like Thrawn - intellectually curious and always seeking information...a firm believer in the notion that knowledge is power.

Karrde, to my knowledge, has never had a figure made in his likeness, and his appearance is that of a long-haired space freighter captain with a neatly-trimmed goatee.  His outfit is all earth tones - a tan jacket trimmed with dark brown "fur," a dark brown tunic, brown trousers, a tan gun belt with a functional holster, and knee-high spacer's boots. 

Both figures feature the usual articulation points (head/neck, shoulders/elbows, and legs; however, the design of Thrawn's Imperial uniform tunic precludes any obvious hip joints, while Karrde's less-restrictive and more informal outfit does allow for multiple joints in the figure's legs. 

Unlike Thrawn, Karrde does get himself involved in several sticky situations where brainpower needs to be augmented by firepower, so his figure wields a small silvery blaster pistol.  In the package he is shown holding it in his right hand, but it can be placed in the gun belt's holster if one wants to take the figure out of its package and posed differently.

Star Wars Comic Pack's final accessory is a reprint issue of Issue #1 of Dark Horse Comics' six-part adaptation of Zahn's novel.  Featuring a 29-year-old Luke Skywalker, a stylized portrait of Thrawn, and two Imperial Star Destroyers, the cover art carries on the striking visual tradition of the various posters created for the seven feature films.

My Take: 
Though - as I stated earlier - I tend to stick to figures based from the films and/or more recent TV series, the Thrawn Trilogy of Expanded Universe novels ranks high in my list of favorite Star Wars books, so when I was browsing at Wal-Mart for new figures and I saw this, I couldn't resist. 

The packaging alone is so attractive and displayable that any serious Star Wars collector would go ga-ga over this or any of the other Comic Packs.

 At first, I was disappointed that I couldn't get two Thrawn-Karrde Comic Packs; there was only one left at the Walmart where I bought mine and it cost (in 2009) $10.99 plus tax.  I like keeping my figures in the packaging, but since I had not read the Dark Horse Comics adaptations by Mike Barron, I was curious to see what the comic was like.   

Luckily, I managed to keep my curiosity in check and the package intact, because in January of 2010 I bought the omnibus hardcover edition of The Thrawn Trilogy, which contains not just Issue # 1 of Heir to the Empire but the complete comics adaptations of the series, including Dark Force Rising and The Last Command.

As with any Star Wars collectible, parents are cautioned that this Star Wars Comic Pack contains small parts that may be a choking hazard for very young children.  Hasbro suggests this product is suitable for kids four and up; I think it's better suited for older children (11 and up) and serious adult collectors.