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From the Toy Box - The Adventures of Indiana Jones

September 21st, 2014 | 11:09 PM

As both an Indiana Jones fan and a toy fan, it's been tough, as the franchise has never really found success at the toy level. The films were successful and from the same mind that brought us Star Wars, which has undeniably dominated the toy market for the better part of three-and-a-half decades, but for some reason poor Indy has always foundered on the toy shelves. The franchise certainly isn't lacking in characters or other aspects that could be spun off into toys, but perhaps the imaginatively-creative world of that galaxy far, far away just clicked better with kids than something a little more based in real-world history. The fact that most of the lines produced over the years have been subpar, suffering from crappy sculpts and a lack of variety, probably hasn't helped matters.

For my money, though, the best remains the original Raiders of the Lost Ark line by Kenner. Although the film opened in June 1981, there were no toys available until late-1982. Why the long wait? In those days, toy companies weren't ready to risk the investment required to make products for an unproven movie, so toys were often released only months after a film had opened and its success was proven. (Even the original Star Wars didn't see its first toys hit shelves until 1978, some nine months after it was released.) This is in stark contrast to today's market, where toys for big budget movies hit shelves months in advance as part of the marketing campaign.

I suppose it came as no surprise that Indiana Jones toys ended up being produced by Kenner, which already had a partnership with Lucasfilm and was having enormous success at the time with their wildly popular Star Wars line. (In my opinion, the greatest toy line ever.) Prior to the main line, Kenner put out a 12" Indiana Jones figure for the 1981 holiday season, which retailed for just $4.99. In order to cut down on production costs and get something out quickly in time for Christmas, Kenner reused the same mold for their 12" Han Solo figure, since both characters were portrayed by Harrison Ford.

They didn't even resculpt the hair, changing only the eye color (did Ford's own eyes change between films?) and redressing the figure with Indy's trademark clothing and accessories, including a really funky Fedora.

Yeah, even as a kid I knew that Fedora was something awful, but as a three year old fan I didn't care. I just loved that I had my own Indiana Jones and we went on plenty of adventures together.

Kenner finally rolled out its main line, branded "The Adventures of Indiana Jones," in 1982. It was made up of two waves, consisting mostly of nine 3 3/4" figures and three playsets. Presenting most of the film's main characters, the figures came in blister packaging known as either 4-back cards (Wave 1) or 9-back cards (Wave 2), named as such because the reverse side included a picture showing how many figures were available in each wave. Nearly all of the figures had knee joints, while a few also had a "quick draw" feature. This enabled Indy to swing his whip, draw his pistol or deliver an upper-cut to enemies. While these innovations were not new (Kenner had first used them in their line for "Butch and Sundance: The Early Days" in 1979), they helped set the Indiana Jones figures apart from those in the Star Wars line.

Wave 1 consisted of Indiana Jones, Marion Ravenwood, Toht and the Cairo Swordsman released on 4-back cards. Marion was given a short production run, because Kenner didn't think she would be popular. As a result she is one of the most sought after figures by collectors. She's also the only figure that lacks knee joints due to her tight-fitting fabric dress, which is surprisingly detailed and well made, a three-layer piece of lace sown in a cascade. The dress was also removable, exposing her bare legs and leading to many moments of curiosity and giggles. In an excellent detail that a lesser company might have skimped on, Toht has the form of Marion's medallion "burned" into his right palm, just as he does in the film.

A fifth figure, Belloq in Ceremonial Robe, was only available as a mail-away exclusive (even though he was shown on back of the second wave cards) by sending in proofs of purchase from at least three other figures. There have been a few examples of a carded version of this figure, but it was never officially released as such and these are believed to be salesman samples, making them the "Holy Grail" for Indiana Jones collectors. Belloq was the first mail-away figure I ever got when I was a kid. I can remember my dad and I cutting out the proof of purchase seals and sending away for him, and then waiting weeks for him to arrive.

The wave also included two playsets: the Well of Souls Action Playset (mistakingly referred to as "Well of the Souls" on the packaging) and the Map Room Action Playset. These were very popular due to the amount of accessories and quality of details. The Well of Souls came with the Ark of the Covenant, a dozen or so snakes, a mummy and a two-piece breakaway wall to aid in Indiana and Marion's escape. There was even a hole in the wall that you could push snakes through, and on the reverse side the hole acted as the mouth of a mummy molded into the playset, so you could make snakes come through its mouth, just like in the film!

The Map Room (which included an exclusive Indiana Jones in Arab Disguise figure) was essentially just a small replica of the map room floor, but featured a really cool aspect. As you'll recall in the film, Indy must place the Staff of Ra in a certain place in the map room during a certain time of day, at which point sunlight will shine through the headpiece and pinpoint the Ark's hidden location. In translating this scene to a toy, the medallion was made with a small red lens embedded in the center, while the map room floor had a series of sticker decals with various symbols. These were printed in red so that they would seem to disappear when viewed through the lens, leaving only one symbol visible to reveal the Ark's location. This is a testament to the creativity that made Kenner such a popular company and fan favorite.

Kenner expanded the line in 1983 with Wave 2, containing four new figures: Indiana Jones in German Uniform, Sallah, Belloq in German Uniform and the German Mechanic. In addition, all four figures from the first wave were re-released, but the original Indiana and Marion were on Wave 2's 9-back cards, whereas Toht and the Cairo Swordsman were on their original Wave 1 4-backs. Due to Wave 2's smaller production run, these 9-back versions of Indiana and Marion were more scarce than their 4-back counterparts and have become quite collectible. Indiana Jones in German Uniform came with the "quick draw" action (so he could, you know, quick-draw his bazooka), as did the German Mechanic, no doubt so kids could recreate the famous fight between Indy and the bald headed Nazi behemoth.

Alongside the new and re-released figures, the second wave also included Indiana's Arabian Horse, which had a creative "galloping" action that was activated by pressing a button on the horse's right side.

Only one playset was released in Wave 2, the Streets of Cairo Action Playset. It came with an exclusive Monkey Man figure and a non-articulated, crouching Marion. As with the other playsets, it was popular due to the amount of accessories, which included a monkey, horse carriage, laundry baskets and various fruits. The monkey was also a different sculpt from the one that came with the carded Marion.

The line's one and only vehicle was also released in this wave, the Desert Convoy Truck, which had another inventive design by Kenner: a pull-rope feature. When engaged (via a switch on the truck's rear axle), this allowed you to attach Indiana to the rope and have him be pulled toward the back of the truck as you rolled it forward, recreating the moment in the movie where Indy uses his whip to pull himself back on board.

It's hard to believe that this is the only really good toy line Indiana Jones has ever received. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had just a very small, barely existent line by LJN Toys, consisting of a whopping three figures, there was no line at all for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Disney made a series of figures and Micro Playsets starting in 2001, available exclusively at Disney parks. Otherwise, it wasn't until 2008 that the franchise really got its second genuine toy line, which Hasbro (having absorbed Kenner's assets in 2000) launched as a tie-in with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This line has been the most extensive yet and lasted for a few years, with figures, vehicles and playsets representing all four films, but featuring less-than-impressive facial and body sculpts for a lot of the characters. The single best thing to result from Hasbro's line was a terrific Crystal Skeleton figure, a mail-away exclusive can you see here in a previous edition of From the Toy Box.

Overall, "The Adventures of Indiana Jones" was a good line. It definitely wasn't as extensive as Kenner's Star Wars or a lot of other '80s toy lines, but it offered the core characters with decent sculpts and painting, the playsets were very well done with lots of playability, and the knee joint and "quick draw" action were wonderful touches. It could have used at least a few more figures, such as Col. Dietrich, and a generic Nazi soldier would have been nice, that way you could have bought a few to give Indy some bad guys to beat up on the truck. A Golden Idol Temple playset with rolling boulder would have been great, too. There was a lot more the line could have covered. I guess the sales just weren't there, however, even with the prospect of a second film only a year away, but it was definitely an enjoyable line.

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Movie Review - 3 Days to Kill (2014)

September 6th, 2014 | 09:39 PM


From writer/producer Luc Besson and director McG, 3 Days to Kill stars Kevin Costner as Ethan Renner, a veteran CIA agent. After a botched mission to catch an arms trafficker known as the Wolf (Richard Sammel), Renner is diagnosed as having terminal brain cancer and given only a few months to live. Let go by the CIA, he returns home to Paris to get his affairs in order and spend what time he has left with his estranged teenage daughter, Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld), which wife Christina (Connie Nielsen) isn't too happy about. As soon as he promises he's done with the CIA, Renner is approached by an elite agent named Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), who recruits him to work directly for her on a second attempt at capturing the Wolf, in exchange for an experimental drug that could extend his life. Renner reluctantly agrees only for the chance to get more time with his family and, while making strides reconnecting with his daughter, follows a dangerous trail as he tracks down one of the world's deadliest terrorists.

Things get off to a nice start with an action scene in which bullets fly and nearly the entire top floor of a hotel is taken out by a huge explosion. We also see right off the bat that while Renner may be past his prime, he's still capable of holding his own against the bad guys. It's after that opening that the movie begins its downward slide, from which it never recovers, suffering from a script stuffed with underdeveloped characters and situations, meandering plot threads and jarring tonal shifts. In one of the film's numerous strange asides, Renner discovers that a family of squatters is occupying his flat. He can't evict them because of Paris law, so he must deal with them sharing his living space, even when he has to bring bad guys there to interrogate. The whole thing is never truly integrated into the film and comes off as plain weird.

There's a subplot involving Zooey's romantic dealings with her French boyfriend, but the script never decides if this guy is a creep or not, and he's all but forgotten by the end of the film. And what about that all-important business involving the Wolf? Not much, as it turns out. He's little more than filler, Renner's pursuit of him popping up only occasionally throughout the film as if an afterthought, usually when it's most inconvenient for him as he tries to bond with his daughter. Costner is in fine form as the grizzled agent who still has some pop in him and has chemistry with young Steinfeld, although the story leaves her with little to do beyond be a typical teen drama queen. On the other hand, Heard is miscast as Vivi, lacking the presence to pull off the sexed up, tough-talking icy authority figure she's supposed to be. She would seem to have ulterior motives, but she's not fleshed out one bit, left to look like a fashion model who sports an ever-changing series of ridiculous wigs and outfits.

There is a thread of humor that runs throughout the film, but it's never as tight as it could be, leaving many moments feeling either forced or awkward. That said, I thought the recurring harassment of a limousine driver was funny, especially when he grows so accustomed to it that he willfully climbs into the trunk of Renner's car. There's also a humorous bit early on where Renner and the Wolf's lieutenant, the Albino (the writers aren't even trying with these names), try to shoot each other outside a hotel, but each gun they pick up from a fallen comrade is either empty or only has one bullet left. Other gags, such as Renner forcing an Italian accountant he's interrogating to share his mother's spaghetti sauce recipe over the phone to his daughter or a recurring joke about a purple bicycle he's bought for Zooey, don't really go anywhere and only serve to confuse the viewer further as to what kind of movie this is supposed to be.

The filmmakers never decide if it's an action movie with a sense of humor (in which case there should be more action) or a comedy with some explosions and gunplay (in which case the humor should be funnier and more plentiful), instead ending up with a mess of a film. A nice-looking mess to be sure, but a mess nonetheless. The action is passable but nothing special, which makes it more disappointing because there isn't a whole lot of it in the first place. There are some nice visuals, but the Parisian locations are never taken advantage of the way they were in previous Besson-produced flicks, such as Taken and From Paris With Love. I'm not usually one to complain about the PG-13 rating ruining movies, but here it definitely holds the film back from being as hard-hitting as it could have been, the violence having a tame "edited for television" feel. Even Taken was still pretty smash-mouth with its PG-13.

3 Days to Kill tries to do a lot and unfortunately fails at most of it. Aside from a solid performance from Kevin Costner, nothing about it ever gels, feeling less like a coherent action romp and more a confusing mishmash of half-baked ideas thrown together by filmmakers not really sure what they're trying to do. It kind of reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger's True Lies, in how it revolves around a father trying to keep his double life battling terrorists separate from his domestic life, but needless to say it's not nearly as successful or entertaining.

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Comic Book Review - Star Wars #20

August 13th, 2014 | 03:37 PM


Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Story: Brian Wood
Artist: Carlos D'Anda
Colors: Gabe Eltaeb
Letters: Michael Heisler
Cover Artist: Hugh Fleming
Release Date: August 13, 2014

After almost two years and twenty issues, Dark Horse Comics' Star Wars comes to an end. This issue wraps up the final two-part story involving a mission led by Princess Leia to rendezvous with Seren Song, a childhood friend and agent for the Rebel Alliance. Song has been working on a deep undercover mission for so long that her loyalty is now being questioned, but she possesses vital intel on the Empire that would be a great benefit for the Alliance. As Princess Leia and the others race to her location on board the Millennium Falcon, the bounty hunter droid IG-88 is also closing in on Song, and he's not going to let her get away without a fight.

This may not be the grand finale you expect (there's no cliffhanger, fortunately, although you'll still be left wishing you could see what happens next), but it gives us one last hurrah with Han, Luke and Leia, sending them on a race against time and throwing them into a brief but exciting space battle with IG-88. Han gets to show off his pilot skills and Luke pulls a cool move using the Force, but storywise the focus is on Leia and the rare opportunity she gets to not only reconnect with a fellow Alderaanian, but a childhood friend, of which there are hardly any left. It brings the series full circle, because a large part of the book in the beginning was readers getting to see Leia deal with her grief and sense of loss following the destruction of her homeworld.

While you may wish there could have been a bit more to this finale, it definitely does not disappoint, and it will remind you why you loved it so much in the first place. From the start, Brian Wood has done an excellent job writing these iconic characters. He captures their voices and personalities so perfectly, and he's crafted stories that bring back childhood memories of our own galactic adventures, played out in the bedroom or backyard with our Kenner figures and vehicles. Carlos D'Anda, who drew nine of the first twelve issues, returns for this final arc and, while the other artists who worked on the book weren't bad, it's great to have him back. He doesn't bother trying to painstakingly recreate the likenesses of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Instead, he captures the essence of their characters, which works even better. Together, he and Wood simply worked magic on this book.

If I have one complaint about the series, it's that I only wish more stories could have been told. Like many comic books these days, the series was built of story arcs lasting anywhere from a few to several issues, which limited the number of story opportunities. Because of the arcs, there were essentially only five stories told over the course of twenty issues, and sometimes certain characters got relegated to the sidelines to make room for others.

However, as a whole, it was very enjoyable and one of my favorites since it launched in January 2013. I'm really going to miss it. Like I've often said about IDW's Ghostbusters, you can tell this book is made by fans who truly care about the property they've been entrusted with. A highlight for me were issues #13 and #14, an awesome two-parter that followed Darth Vader on a mission so personal that he lied to the Emperor about it. This was a great little story that not only showed Vader kicking ass, even on some of his own Stormtroopers, but helped to humanize him a bit, too.

Since 1991, Star Wars comics have been published by Dark Horse, but now that Disney owns Lucasfilm, the rights will soon be transferring to Marvel Comics, which Disney also owns. Actually, I should say they'll be transferring back to Marvel, which published the first Star Wars comics in the late-70s. For nearly a quarter of a century, Dark Horse has had the reigns and taken their books in all kinds of interesting directions, and while they still have a few more things to release stretching into next month, the end of an era is right around the corner. Marvel has already announced their first Star Wars book, to begin in January 2015. It will be set right after the original film like this series was, and if it's half as good as Dark Horse's has been, it'll be great.

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Kaley Cuoco - Women's Health

August 8th, 2014 | 12:02 AM

Kaley Cuoco is on the cover of this month's Women's Health magazine. No, the shoot isn't up there with her 2012 Esquire Mexico or 2010 Maxim shoots, but then again it's not really that kind of magazine. Still, the popular Queen of the Nerds is looking as good as ever and showing off her new pixie cut, which I liked before, but have grown to now really love. Okay, I miss the long golden locks, but she pulls off the pixie style pretty well.

Anyway, here are the pictures. Enjoy.

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Comic Book Review - Batman: The Last Arkham (1995)

July 23rd, 2014 | 02:31 PM


Publisher: DC Comics
Story: Alan Grant
Artist: Norm Breyfogle
Colors: Adrienne Roy
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover Artist: Brian Stelfreeze
Release Date: June - September 1992

Today is Batman Day, DC Comics' official designation for celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Caped Crusader. So I thought it would be appropriate to review not just one of my favorite Batman storylines, but the first Batman comic book I ever read. As I've noted before, I was a bit of a late bloomer to comics. I didn't really get into them until I was already a teenager. After being bitten by the bug thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man #361 in April 1992, I spent the next two months diving into the wonderful world of comics, and it was in June that I picked up my very first Batman comic: Shadow of the Bat #1. At that point, I had never read a Batman comic. I knew he originated from comic books, but I was only familiar with him from reruns of the old Adam West show and Super Friends cartoon, and, of course, the 1989 feature film starring Michael Keaton.

Shadow of the Bat was one of the first new solo Batman titles in decades. Launched about two-and-a-half years after Legends of the Dark Knight, which largely focused on the early years of Batman's career, Shadow of the Bat, like the long-running Batman and Detective Comics, took place in the character's present day continuity, but with an emphasis on exploring the psyche of Batman and his various supporting characters. To kick off this new series, DC formed a team consisting of writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle, who had previously worked together on Detective Comics, and the two once again worked their magic.

Playing out over the first four issues, "The Last Arkham" opens with the demolition of Arkham Asylum. The infamous psychiatric hospital has recently been inherited by Jeremiah Arkham, nephew of the late administrator. Jeremiah is rebuilding the asylum with state-of-the-art security measures and plans to use radical treatments in a delusional attempt to rehabilitate his patients, such as the Scarecrow and the Joker, believing they can one day be safely released back into society. Meanwhile, Batman has stumbled upon a series of grisly murders that have the MO of Mr. Zsasz, a notorious serial killer who is currently imprisoned in Arkham Asylum. Convinced Zsasz is somehow responsible, Batman and Commissioner Gordan stage an incident in order for Batman to be committed to Arkham so that he can investigate from the inside.

"The Last Arkham" is a gritty tale that was a perfect introduction to the comic book Batman. It's not just a typical superhero beat-'em-up, although some feel it devolves into that by the end. There is a genuine mystery going on and the story is compelling in its suspense. Is Batman right about Zsasz or is there really a copycat preying on Gotham while he's stuck inside the asylum on a wild goose chase? In retrospect, it's interesting that Grant didn't use any of Batman's iconic villains, although a handful make cameo appearances. Instead, he and Breyfogle created a brand new adversary to put Batman up against: Mr. Zsasz.

Having previously created the villains Ventriloquist and Anarky, here Grant and Breyfogle have come up with a terrifically creepy and sadistic serial killer, one who ceremoniously marks his body to tally every kill he makes. And he's not above killing children, either! Many comic book properties feature one-off characters for specific stories, but both Jeremiah Arkham and Zsasz, like the Ventriloquist and Anarky before them, would go on to become large parts of the Batman mythos. Zsasz even appeared, with some changes, on the big screen with a small part in 2005's Batman Begins.

"The Last Arkham" is a solid mix of action and suspense, with a little criminal psychology thrown in for good measure. It's not exactly deep or complex, but it's sharply written and mature, and is supported by Norm Breyfogle's splendid artwork. Enhanced by Adrienne Roy's subtle but smooth colors, Breyfolge's linework is terrific. Some pieces in particular are downright spectacular, such as the final page, a haunting moment as Jeremiah stares at his reflection in a mirror while contemplating the possibility of one day meeting the same fate as his deceased uncle. Commissioner Gordon and Nightwing have good supporting roles, and there's also a great action scene at the start of the fourth issue in which Batman is pitted against a roomful of his enemies. "The Last Arkham" is easily one of the best Batman storylines of the 1990s and is worth checking out for Bat-fans.

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