Saturday, July 29, 2017

Korean Sentai: Power Rangers Dino Force Brave Episodes 1-6

It's hard to deny 2017 has been something of a rough year for Super Sentai. After Zyuohger managed to display some surprising depth with a solid conclusion, Kyuranger popped onto the scene and immediately started stinking up the joint to the point that I no longer have any interest in covering it. In fact, I recently checked in on the shows progress, and guess what? They've added even more characters to the already bloated cast. Luckily that show isn't the only avenue for fans to get their fix as there are theatrical films, video specials, and something wholly new, a Korean addition to the franchise. Let's see if the land of Kimchi can offer us some salvation from the woes of Lucky and his space goons.

First and foremost, Power Rangers Dino Force Brave is a sequel to Kyuryuger, a sentai season that proved to be highly popular in Korea. The Sentai franchise is called Power Rangers over there, and no I have zero clue what they call actual Power Rangers. However I feel it best to inform you all that I never watched Kyuryuger, so I can offer no real opinion on how this functions as a continuation. Even with some vague knowledge of that season I can only judge this on it's basic merits. To do that we'll have to cover a few production aspects that are odd to say the least.

When it was announced that this series would only be 12 episodes long I figured it was a sensible choice to maintain a low budget and not hold back the premier of the following series for too long. What wasn't made clear early on however is the running time for each episode without ads is about 12 minutes. When you take into account the standard length intros, outros, roll calls and transformation sequences there's maybe 9 minutes of legitimate content per episode.
That low running time per installment means every aspect of the show is very rushed or in some cases nonexistent. Characters are left mostly underdeveloped, fight scenes only get so complex, even some of the common tropes of the franchise are skipped over in favor of the running time. Take for example the monsters. Usually a monsters design designates it's tactics. For instance a spider might tie people up in webbing, a musical critter might attack with sound-waves, you get the picture. Generally the challenge within an episode is how the team learns to overcome said attacks. In this show, monsters may have those design elements yet no time is spent on showcasing unique fighting styles. So everybody simply has punches, kicks, a couple energy blasts, and maybe a sword if they're extra special.
Explain the arm pads then, ya dink.

Production wise the show is a mixed bag. There's a lot of on-location shooting which is nice as the sets all seem rather small and barren. The action sequences shift between quite adept to choppy and uninteresting. Most of the costumes are pretty solid though there is this odd thing where muscle pads are frequently visible. I've even noticed this with the girl and it's always goofy looking. Oh and then there's the robots which are decent looking when it's the standard guys in costumes footage. Then things switch to outdated CG which allows for more intricate choreography at the expense of looking like throw-up.

Let's call that enough on production and get to the story and characters. The story is as straightforward as it gets. Aliens are coming to destroy the Earth by harnessing the power of a giant robot dinosaur, naturally a group of youngsters is imbued with superpowers to strike back against the forces of evil. Our group of dogooders consists of:

Juyong/Brave Red like most red rangers gets more attention than the rest of the cast. Thankfully he fits into the nice guy mold of leaders. He's very upbeat and encouraging of his team, even admitting where they outperform him on the battlefield. Could they maybe launch this guy into space to take over for a certain lucky asshole?
Hyeonjun/Brave Black is your strong guy with a strong sense of justice and a good heart. That's pretty much it for him.
Sechang/Brave Blue is a pop star and supposed ladies man, though he seems far more interested in the smoothness of his skin, creepy.
Pureun/Brave Green is a spoiled rich boy in the midst of learning that money isn't everything. Oddly enough he's the best with guns.
Dohee/Brave Pink is an aspiring nurse and a fairly standard issue girl who does and likes girly things other than the color pink.
Juhyeok/Brave Gold is a later addition. Apparently the long lost brother of Juyong. He's generally standoffish and mysterious. He's a mercenary who works for the villains intially as he seems to have some issue with his brother.
Any job? Go on.

While it may sound like I'm picking this show apart, I'll be honest in that I sorta like it. Not a lot mind you as there are plentiful flaws, I haven't even gone into how awkward it is to have such obnoxiously pretty men in the team, especially during the ending credits dance. But even with everything wrong during these opening six episodes I found myself getting into the adventure. Nothing about the show is particularly deep or interesting. By design it can't be. There simply isn't enough time for deep storytelling or complicated character dynamics. One might even question what was the point of making all these new costumes and robots for so little airtime. The fact is that what is on display here is at least solid. The characters are two-dimensional but they're generally likable. Everything about the show is largely the same, undeveloped but structurally sound.

I can't call Dino Force Brave the saving grace of this years sentai offerings just yet. There's still a whole half of the series that could completely nosedive. For now I'm optimistic that given another shot with some more ambition, this Korean wing of the franchise could one day produce something really interesting. We'll check back with the second half soon.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

CosmicSparky's LP Stash.

Like most anybody from the first world, I began amassing music during my teens, late teens in this case. It wasn't the largest selection, primarily due to my notoriously picky nature, but boy was it ever solid. Of course poverty prevailed and one day those CD's were sold off to a nearby record store that at least had the good form to stroke my ego by praising the quality of my music selection. After that came years of lackluster downloads, and haphazard file organization. I began to miss the days when music was something to take a little pride in, so recently I wondered down the rabbit hole of getting into vinyl records. I'll tell ya, it's not a tough hobby to get started, albeit with a few potential pitfalls and some misinformation floating around. I figured it would be a fine time to start sharing some tips I've learned thus far and maybe start doing some coverage of the hobby as a recurring feature.

When I decided to look into a record collection, few things could have prepared me for the onslaught of crazy I was about to uncover. Turns out a good deal of record collectors are a truly nutty and superstitious lot. Of course like any other group there are some with more sensible outlooks. Still; there's an alarming amount of misinformation and half-truths floating around, seemingly in a sad attempt to keep the hobby feeling like an exclusive club.
Case in point, there are claims that inexpensive turntables will ruin your LP's. This is something of a half-truth. When it comes to those cheapo Crossley players I've heard legitimate, sensible explanations of how they could damage a disk. On the other hand, I've seen those same claims leveled at decent tables simply because they don't cost a months rent. Certainly it's a good idea to get as nice a player as possible but it's still totally possible to spend less than a hundred on a table and be just fine.
Even some positive reviews can make inaccurate claims. For instance, I eventually went with the Audio Technica LP60 as it is supposedly the overall best starter turntable. One favorable review of the item stated a flaw that the arm didn't automatically lift when done playing a side. As you might imagine I waited rather impatiently during my first time and guess what, the arm lifts and returns to it's rest every damn time, so why the misinformation?
Another of the big conflicts among record folk is colored vinyl. Many claim that colored vinyl has inferior sound compared to the standard black. However, I've yet to find anyone attempt an actual scientific test of this theory. Beyond that, the so-called proof of lower sound quality is a hiss, a phenomenon prevalent to all LP's due to varying amounts of static charge which can be taken care of by various means. As someone with a mix of black and colored releases, the most notable difference so far has been due to the audio master used for each release. Even on a single release, static hiss can change from one disk to another. My colored double LP of the Flower soundtrack has very noticeable static hiss on the first disc yet the second is as pure and wonderful as a purring kitten.
The biggest issue with all the different dramatic claims is the added difficulty in sussing out useful and trustworthy information. One area where there seems to be almost universal accuracy is the need for better record sleeves. Even with my fairly small collection I've already encountered several releases with god awful paper sleeves that leave bits of papery shit all over the LP. You can guess how happy the stylus is when it hits those leftovers during play. This is one area where you should totally listen to enthusiasts. A good number of them introduced me to Diskeeper Audiophile Sleeves and no joke, these things are incredible. They cut down on dust and static while making it easier to access all of my disks. A pack of 50 costs about as much as a new record but it's more than worth it.

So let's say that like me you want to get into nice physical music, but can't spend a ton. Let's look at what I picked up to give you an idea of a very basic set-up.
Turntable wise I bought the Audio Technica LP60, that companies entry level model. It's a solid piece of equipment all around, plays well, can handle two different LP sizes and speeds, plus a built in phono pre-amp which makes it crazy easy to hook up to speakers and start listening. There are a few issues however. The unit lacks a volume switch of any kind meaning you must rely solely on speakers with volume control. Also, it lacks most of the customizing options of higher end gear which means if you end up wanting something better you'll have to drop cash for a whole new machine. Honestly I'm enjoying the new hobby enough so far that I almost wished I'd opted for the next model up but this is still a good way to get started and it's easy to get for less than a hundred bucks.
Unless you're the sort who leaves sound equipment laying around, you'll need speakers. All we had in excess were some crazy cheap twelve dollar computer speakers which as you might imagine were horrid. Similar to the turntable I didn't want to destroy my bank account to get decent sound, especially since living conditions prevent complex set-ups and high volume. Thankfully I found out about Edifier. By all indications, these should be terrible. I mean we're talking about hundred dollar electronics straight outta China. After reading and viewing a stream of glowing reviews though I decided to give em a chance. Man have I ever been impressed. Once again, there's certainly a better option out there for someone with more room and cash but for a standard bedroom listener these offer surprising depth and clarity, and I haven't even begin to test the limits of their volume which is supposedly quite high.

Of course none of the means much without some tunes and that's where the real fun, and occasional frustration lie. Few hobbies offer such a wealth of content options from new releases, to rare special editions, and ancient thrift store finds. Yet even with that wealth of choice there's still some releases that will drive you crazy because of limited print runs, or finding out that one of your old favorites never hit the format. Then there's the harsh truth that albums with only two or three songs you love, simply aren't worth the effort. Vinyl is a format that promotes listening to the entire album, so be sure to get stuff that's at least 90% quality tracks.

If you're willing to go through all the work to get the equipment, some LP's, a spot to stash it all, then you get to have the real fun. I won't pretend this is a superior form of musical performance. Files are infinitely more portable and functional, not to mention a high level format like flac could potentially blow vinyl out of the water. That said, there's a comfort to the multiple step process it takes to turn on my gear, get out the Superfly soundtrack and relax. It makes listening to music an event again, and that was something I was really missing. I plan to extend that feeling into major events as well, playing horror movie soundtracks around Halloween or busting out holiday standards come Christmas Eve with the family.

And that's the newest hobby to worm its way into my bank account. I suppose that's the advantage of being a 30 odd year old without kids. I'm allowed to try new things. Plus it makes for a fine way to stay indoors and dodge the heat of summer. From here on out I'll occasionally post reviews on specialty labels, stores, accessories, and the like. Have any of you caught the record bug? Like to share any tips or info for a post? Drop a line.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Threadbare Mitten Film Festival 2016

Ample warning, dear readers. I've worked on this article in fits and spurts for a considerable amount of time, largely because I swear this word file may be cursed. No kidding! In the time I've worked on this article there have been power outages of anywhere from five seconds to over thirty hours, layoffs and rescheduling at work, animal madness, stock tables, and a monster I refer to as Tyrannosaurus Pigeon.
Anyhow, what I'm here to talk about is a new event called the Threadbare Mitten Film Festival that was held just last month in my little hamlet of Charlotte Michigan. Poor thing was saddled with me as the press, but I promised to report on it. This will be more of a disjointed personal take on the experience whereas a more professional take will be written up for Dread Central.

The festival was put together by the group behind last years Freakshow Film Festival in conjunction with the crew that put together the horror short The Third Day. Since I'd covered their previous efforts for Dread Central, I was invited to check out this new endeavor. I guess that counts as a disclaimer which is about as professional as it gets around here.

In all honesty I was fairly nervous walking into this situation. While I am a big film fan who owns enough titles to run my own video store, I find that by and large I don't get along with other film fans. That problem can be further exacerbated if those fans make their own content. Think of it along the lines of having the good sense to avoid musicians. Even if they can actually pipe out good music, it doesn't mean you want to listen to them wax poetically about it. Beyond that I've found that recent years have left me with less patience than ever for art house nonsense. Even so I gathered up my resolve and set out to witness the sights and sounds

The first night of the fest featured an opening party that I missed, followed by an opening selection of shorts and one nearly feature length film at Charlotte's own Eaton Theater. While waiting out front for the show to begin, I made sure to listen in on nearby conversations involving the different fans and filmmakers. Some I noted played the classic role of only touting the most obscure and duchy cinema, while others had only the most basic and disappointing appreciation for movies. Luckily I was introduced to one of the filmmakers, E. M. Spairow who seemed to have her head screwed on well enough. At the very least the poor girl was able to put up with my cynical ass. Talking to her as with any of the creators there came with a certain level of tension since there's always a chance of completely hating their film while they sit nearby. That's a matter for latter.

Anyhow the opening offered some literal jitters when the one and only bit of technical trouble reared its ugly head. For whatever reason, the first batch of short films would all start out fine before eventually bugging out and losing sync between the audio and video. It was the only such incident during the festival however and given that it was their very first showcase it's more than understandable. I've heard of some of the biggest film fests having worse issues even with years of experience. The nearly full film of that night was fine and the night ended decently enough with hugs from a drunken stranger.

The second day was held entirely at the Windwalker Antiques and Art gallery where further films were aired in themed blocks. Having never been to any film showcase at the location I was rather surprised at how decent their equipment was. Both the sound and audio were crisp and clear. Furthermore, this second day seemed to have a larger audience which I'd say is a good sign.

What about the flicks though? I mean this is a film fest, the main reason to check it out is the opportunity to see independent cinema. As a whole, there was a wide selection of genres on display, not to mention more films than I had time or patience for. Let's talk about some highs and lows from the blocks I was around for.

The Best:

Emory Wenden's Fantastical Autobiographical Museum
The grand prize winner was a surprisingly effective little faux-decumentry/drama that I already covered a couple weeks back. Seriously just scroll down if you want to learn more. I think this one has a future for itself,though I'd still like to see the director touch up the ending.

And the Earth Will be Lost to the Flames
Despite what the obnoxious title may have you thinking this was another effective faux-documentry, this time about a friendly neighborhood doomsday sign weaver. Instead of being some crazy old fart of middle aged hippie, the doomsdayer in question was actually a fairly attractive young woman, and a decent actress I might add. The plot has almost limitless potential in regards to whether her beliefs are true, false, and what could come of those outcomes. Sadly being a short means it just sort of peters out.

Girl Meets Roach
Usually I wouldn't take the time to praise what is in truth a pretty basic girl gets over her ex comedy, but after seeing far too much art house fluff it was refreshing to see somethings with characters, dialogue, and a plot. My praise would probably be higher if I were a bigger fan of the genre. It was a solid, if basic little flick.

Both Default and a prior short, Elephant in the Room made for somewhat tense viewing as I was sitting next to the writer/director E. M. Spairow. Both entries featured some of the usual issues associated with short, low-budget filming, but what really worked, and why I'm listing this one over her other entry is that there was such a unique concept here. This is another idea with huge potential. Honestly I could imagine this becoming some sort of over the top dystopian adventure or at least a very bizarre full length dark comedy.

The Worst:

Tyler is such a classic example of arthouse nonsense that if I didn't know any better, I'd swear it was a spoof of indie sensibilities. Absolutely everything, be that the irritating jazz fusion soundtrack, senseless dialogue, or the seemingly pointless story of a woman slowly turning into a gold statue seemed expertly designed to check off each box on the indie short checklist. It was a comfort that no one was sitting close enough to hear my alternating giggles and groans during this lump.

Fish was five of the longest minutes of my life. Imagine an extended sequence of elderly people making gross noises and struggling with the sink, only to wrap up with a sight gag that's visible from miles away. This one had me gripping the seat in the hopes that an old man would just die so I wouldn't have to listen to his coughing anymore. Probably not the sensation you want to create with your film.

The Ingress Tapes
A supposed horror film where a mumbly Brit describes a series of murders he commuted while grainy footage of buildings, train tracks, and reel to reel tape slowly air. You're liable to have a more thrilling time on the toilet.

There's one other flick I'd like to count among the low points of the festival but taking it on would require far more time than we have available right now.

As you can see there were some definite ups and downs to the quality of the films. That's not really the fault of the organizers however as they have to take in enough submissions to fill and fund the festival. And it's not like the terrible flicks don't make for a good story. Thankfully the good flicks were more than enough to make up for the occasional crap heaps.

As for what the organizers were responsible for I gotta say they did a pretty spiffy job. There was only the one instance of technical difficulties, and they were able to stay mostly on schedule with the entire festival maybe running an hour longer than originally planed.
There were plans for Q&A sessions with some of the filmmakers at a nearby coffee shop, though I've not sure if any such event took place. More of the filmmakers seemed to be at the first night events before going back to their own responsibilities the following day. Hopefully this idea can be put into action next year. Maybe a solid block of the festival's programming could be a sort of workshop where tricks of the trade could be shared.

Currently I have no official word about the festival's return, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the group return for another round. I say godspeed to them, it's not exactly easy to have to drive all the way out to the larger metros of Michigan to see some oddball cinema. Having the chance to see this sort of stuff locally is a treat. Plus it gives yet another outlet for up and coming storytellers to find an audience....or torment me with nasty old people noises. For anyone interested in learning more about the festival, you can follow the group at their website.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Star Wars Book Club: Lords of the Sith Review

As is usual around my birthday, I recently worked extra hard at wrapping up books, games, and the like in order to feel slightly more accomplished entering into a new age. This practice can be a saving grace for those items that simply took far too long to finish, stuff like Lords of the Sith, A.K.A. The subject of our latest Star Wars book review.
Honestly though, I bought this book back in April, hoping to cut a mad dash through it over an extended weekend. Instead I finished something like three other books in the time it took to work though this one. I suppose you can consider that a spoiler for the final score. Even so, let's take a look at what this novel has to offer.

Despite what the cover and title may lead you to believe, Lords of the Sith is hardly an in-depth look at the grim adventures of Darth Vader and the Emperor. Yes the pair does play a large part within the story but largely this is the tale of an early strike by a rebel cell lead by Cham Syndulla. If that name has you scratching your head as to who that is or why you should care, don't feel bad. Cham is a character that only exists within the expanded universe and only in small support roles at that, showing up a few times during The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. His greater role in the universe is as Hera Syndulla's father and an early figurehead of the rebellion. Think of him as Saw Gerrera but with morals.

So the story goes that Cham's rebel cell is working towards the freedom of planet Ryloth when the opportunity arises to take down not just the corrupt senator Orn Free Taa, but Emperor Palpatine and his evil lapdog Darth Vader as well. To strike at all three villains requires a multi-phase assault on a star destroyer followed by a manhunt through deadly jungle. Also in on the mission are Cham's underlings like his potential love-interest Isval, and a treacherous Imperial Colonel named Belkor Dray who seeks to rise through the ranks no matter what.

First let's talk about what works, and that's most of the primary elements of writing and story-structure. Moreso than even some of the best books in the franchise, the story here stays largely on task, naturally moving from one event to the next. Likewise author, Paul S. Kemp doesn't write anything out of character or out of tone with these events.

There is one odd stretch that largely revolves around Vader and the Emperor battling an army of giant killer bugs that is a little out of left-field. I won't be too harsh on this section however as it the source of some much needed action.

According to the about the author section, Paul S. Kemp is a Michigan boy like me, so I lodge my complaints in the knowledge that he's just a day trip away from kicking my ass. That being said, what makes Lords of the Sith one of the weakest novels I've reviewed thus far is that it is straight-up boring. This is thanks in large part to the subject matter. The events and characters in focus here just aren't interesting and there's nothing surprising. We all know the rebels aren't going to make a dent in the Empire, the villains will survive, Cham will continue to not really matter. And who gives a crap if treachery takes a mental toll on a Colonel we've never heard of before? The whole book is over three-hundred pages of dull events that don't matter.

It's pretty neat that a book that took so long to read doesn't take very long to tear down. I have to post this far down the rankings. It's not the worst written, or worst structured Star Wars novel out there but it is easily the dullest. Let's place it.

1. Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
2. New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
3. Bloodline by Claudia Gray
4. Guardians of the Whills by Greg Rucka
5. Ashoka by E.K. Johnston
6. Tarkin by James Luceno
7. Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
8. Battlefont Twilight Company by Alexander Freed
9. Moving Target by Cecil Castelluci and Jason Fry
10. Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka
11. Smuggler's Run by Greg Rucka
12. Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
13. Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
14.Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
15.The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

That's all for today kiddies. Stay tuned for those film festival reports I promised and a new feature coming soon. In the meantime I have to do responsible stuff like pay my bills and start investing. That's what us old people do.