Thursday, August 31, 2017

Star Wars Book Club: Catalyst Review

Within mere hours it will be September 1st, or as it's known in retail stores, Force Friday II, the Star Wars focused product onslaught meant to dupe poor nerds like yours truly out of their valuable cash with toys, books, games, and the like. Not that I'm one to fall for such empty consumerism...though there is a new starter set for the Destiny game...and a new Claudia Gray novel. Shit, they got me! With a whole new wave of Star Wars goodies on the horizon along with the start of the four best months of the year, I thought it best for us to take a look at yet another expanded universe novel.

In all fairness it's been a little longer than usual since my last review, mainly because after going through so many books and seasons of The Clone Wars, I needed a small break from the franchise. I promised myself that upon my return I'd check out one of the books I was most interested in. The novel in questions is Catalyst by James Luceno who previously gave us Tarkin. Catalyst is a prequel to Rogue One that aims to better explain the history and relationships of the elder characters from said movie along with their roles in creating the Death Star. I was so eager to plumb the greater depths of these figures, what I got is something else entirely.

There's a scene in Rogue One, where Jyn recalls a night in her childhood when Krennic was visiting her parents and she wakes up, only to be escorted back to bed by her father. In this part, her parents and the future villain seem to be having a good time, a far different vibe than when he finds them in hiding years later only to kill Jyn's mother and take her father. That disparity hinted at a deeper emotional story that sadly isn't present within these pages. We're gonna have to tackle this one piece at a time.

Having read the over three-hundred pages that make up Catalyst, I hardly know anything more about Galen Erso than what was presented to me in the film. He's an incredibly intelligent man with strong morals who loves his family. His wife, Lyra on other hand I've now learned too much about. She's such an irritating goody-two-shoes it's downright sickening. She's smart, strong, one with nature, has high morals, is a good mother, physically fit, the woman practically shits gold bricks.
On the flip side I almost feel as if I understand Orson Krennic even less. Having him be underdeveloped in the movie was something of a given, I mean it was servicing a huge cast with just over two hours of story. Any potential for added depth here is thrown out the window as he's played up as a cartoonish, power hungry, ghoul. That scene of the three adult enjoying each-others company can't happen in this book as Lyra practically pulls out her cross and stake every time Orson comes around.
As for that other elder character begging for greater development, Saw Gerrera doesn't even show up until the last quarter of the book, and doesn't meet Galen and Lyra until the last 15 pages or so. Instead we get large chunks devoted to a smuggler named Has Obitt whom Jyn names one of her dolls after.
Tarkin makes his presence felt here as well, which should be a saving grace given how nicely Luceno portrayed him in his previous novel. Like Krennic, Tarkin has also taken a significant downgrade in depth for this outing. Even some of his dialogue seems uncharacteristic which makes no sense when Luceno's last crack at the villain was nearly flawless.

You might be wondering then, if these relationships aren't properly developed, just what exactly is going on in this book? Think of this as a sloppy road map of how the empire took on the massive undertaking of developing the Death Star, from gathering a work force, to securing supplies by stripping planets of natural resources. Many of these elements serve as tangents. For instance the subplot about the alien workforce constructing the station sorta fades away. There's an entire portion in the final quarter that deals with Tarkin waging war on a defiant solar system. This is meant to serve as something of forming event for the eventual rebellion but it could have been it's own separate story rather than be forced into this one.

There are some interesting bit pertaining to kyber crystals, hints that these stones may have something of their own will or an ability to influence people. The notion that being in close proximity to kyber crystals makes it difficult for normal people to sleep is very strange as that's clearly not an issue the Jedi faced. Of course there are no concrete answers to the mysteries these stone possess, perhaps that's something being built up for another story somewhere down the line.

I really can't stress enough how much of a disappointment Catalyst turned out to be. What could have been a neat mixture of character drama and espionage ended up as a dull collection of awkward interactions and go-nowhere plot threads. The structure of the writing, grammar, all of that is solid but it's a dull read, far below the standard set by the author's previous work. Let's put this one on the leaderboards.

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. Catalyst by James Luceno
12. Smuggler's Run by Greg Rucka
13. Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
14. Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
15. Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
16.The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

And with that I now declare Summer officially over! Yes, I know there's technically still a few weeks left but you'd be hard pressed to convince me of that considering the current weather, let alone the decorative Halloween village above the cupboards. Every year I try to make both September and October on this site all about the wonders of the Halloween season, and for once I think there's actually enough content on hand to accomplish it. Look forward to some new unboxings, movie reviews, candy hauls, spooky crafts, you name it. We're finally at the last and best third of the year, it's gonna be great. Have a solid labor day, everybody.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Korean Sentai: Power Rangers Dino Force Brave Episodes 7-12

This week has felt very out of place. Currently the temperature is in the forties, kids are back in school, the store had plentiful amounts of pumpkin spice treats, it's hard to believe this is still August and not the middle of Fall. The best way to keep myself in check and not drape the entire house in spider webs is to buckle down and wrap up some leftover Summer business. With that in mind let's talk about the second half of that one and thus far only Korean Sentai spin-ff, Dino Force Brave.

Having established all the basic structure and character traits during the first half, the remainder of the series decides to focus soundly on the relationship between estranged brothers. This is both a good and bad decision as it makes the rest of the team even less important. Hell, they barely even factor into the final episode. That's not to say anything of the mascot characters like Torin who I can only guess where a part of this series as their guy-in-suit nature made them easy to carry over from original Kyuryuger. Speaking of Torin, at the end of this show he magically disappears for some unexplained reason. Is he like a ghost something?

The one step forward, one step back nature of the narratives narrowed focus applies to other elements of the show. Most of the normal action sequences have improved with faster, more elaborate choreography. Giant robot scenes on the other hand are even weaker than before as the more cumbersome dino combinations are fully CG, preventing them from properly interacting with the guys in monster suits. Seeing as jumbo battles are generally the shorter of the two we can chalk that up to a partial victory.

One of my previous complaints about the series has been slightly addressed. Some of the monsters begin to use powers themed around their appearance though nothing all that creative. One guy uses a trumpet, not to brainwash people or anything so special, just some basic explosive blasts. Likewise another enemy utilized icicles.....that explode. You seeing a pattern here? It really would have been fun to see this batch of heroes work to outsmart or overpower a uniquely powered foe rather than these stock villains with the same three attacks.

As for the story; we come to find out that the gold ranger has been intentionally misleading the villains all this time to convince them that he has inherited the power of the dragon king. What's that you ask? Basically it's the touch or quickening, pick your mystical power source. This whole ruse is meant to protect his lil bro the red ranger. Sure enough the bad guys get wise and kidnap the fearless leader. Of course he's rescued, the baddies are put in the ground, and everyone returns to their old lives. Oh, and the Zyuohgers shows up in a glorified cameo.

Gotta mention that one fun bit about watching this show has been the different languages. About two thirds of my viewing has been in proper Korean with subtitles. The rest however are dubbed into Japanese and translated from there. I'd like to think that explains some of the more colorful dialogue but who knows, maybe the writing is just that silly to begin with.

In the end, Dino Force Brave wrapped up it's existence much as it started. The whole production has been a bit simple, more than a little predictable, and far too childish. Can't deny that that simple nature has continued to be a little refreshing. It's like an afternoon of cartoons and hot chocolate.
On the downside, the majority of the cast has little if nothing to do and there's nothing distinctively Korean about the plotting or style. That's why I'd much prefer to this sort of project attempted again with a longer run time, smaller cast, and deeper cultural bent. It'd certainly be a welcome opportunity to have alternative Sentai for years like this where the flagship show is rubbish.

Dino Force Brave wasn't the saving grace we Sentai fans needed this year but it was a moderately entertaining experiment. I wouldn't outright recommend it to anyone other than franchise fans in need of something new. For me, it was an easy way to get my Sentai fix this Summer. Think of it like one of those highly superficial Summer romances, fun while it lasted but we've each got to move on to more meaningful things.

That's all for now, folks. I should be back soon with another regular feature post before we hit September and a new batch of seasonal fun. See ya soon.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Living Skeleton (1968) Review

It's no secret round these parts that I frankly dislike the month of August. Yes indeed, the fiendishly hot yearly counterpoint to February reeks of high temps, too much, sun, bugs, and a complete and total lack of a decent holiday. It's that final barrier before the outstanding final third of the year. Of course it doesn't help that as usual, I'm suffering from seasonal allergies as well though they are significantly lighter than usual. My point is I start going stir crazy, waiting for back-to-school stock to disappear in favor of Halloween goodies. At times like this, it's a miracle if you can find just the right item to scratch that oncoming Autumnal itch, without fully jumping the gun and pulling out foam jack-o-lanterns in summertime heat. Luckily I found a perfect item to sooth that itch, it's a delightful piece of entertainment I'd like to share with you all.

The Living Skeleton is a black and white late 60's offering from Japanese studio Shochiku, a production company that supposedly focused more on dramas but was experimenting with genre fare at this point in time. The cast is made up of, well, not anyone crazy notable but they're all game and put on some solid performances. Plus lead actress, Kikko Matsuoka is quite fetching. Strangest of all the crew may be the director, Hiroki Matsuno who has no other credits on IMDB. Not even something so small as a boom man or craft services. It's a shame too as he shows some major potential here and a real eye quality shots.

On to the story. It all starts with a bloody incident on a large Freighter. Most of the crew is chained together and shot by a band of traitors who then murder a young woman named Yoriko. Years later we catch up with her identical twin sister, Saeko who lives in a seaside church and who's only social life beyond the priest is a dog called Johnny and a fisherman boyfriend named Mochizuki. One night Saeko believes her sister is calling to her from a freighter passing in the night, Sailing out into a violent storm, Saeko finds the old ship along with a ledger containing the names of the murderers along with something more sinister.
The next portion of the film revolves around a possibly possessed Saeko traveling Japan in order to seek vengeance on her sisters killers. Meanwhile the priest and boyfriend attempt to track her down. Think of this section as something of a supernatural Charles Bronson flick, only this time Charlie's a pretty lady.
Lesser films would likely stretch that series of revenge killings out long enough to fill the 80 minute run time but here it cuts off a little after the halfway point. Thus allows the movie tp pull off some wacky twists and a return to the spooky ghost ship setting. The twists are actually a little hard to see coming too, not because they're well-hidden so much as the film didn't need them to stay entertaining. Still; can't argue with anything that makes the movie crazier while adding to the body count.

Speaking of body count, it should be noted that this is a surprisingly violent film given it's time and subject matter. Certainly it's no gory masterpiece by any means but when I'm watching these old B&W spook stories at most I expect to see someone get shot or fall into a vat of pretend acid. Here, people are drowned, gassed, melted, crushed between gears. Nothing especially graphic but boy does it ever add to the fun.

What really makes this movie stand out is its combination of style and atmosphere. Japanese horror flicks have had their own set of cliches for quite some time. It gives them their own unique feel but it's generally something you have to be in the mood for. With The Living Skeleton, it feels as if someone took that storytelling style and tossed it into a blender with art house sensibilities, and classic Universal Monster movies.
Honest to god, the mix of styles on display makes this film such an easy pick for a night when you need something spooky. There's old fashioned Gothic imagery such as bats, fog, and cobwebs along with classic J-Horror elements like freaky girls with long hair. Add to that a storyline which features crime, mad science experiments, catholic faith, and an interesting coastal setting and the movie's just a perfect storm of comfy horror viewing. It's like an old cozy blanket of terror.

Of course it isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Some of the editing leaves some scenes a bit vague. For instance I thought one of the villains had died only to see him playing mahjong a few scenes later. Elements like this can be jarring though I suppose it's a fair trade for a breezy run time. Beyond that are some underdeveloped plot points along with some major unanswered questions regarding Saeko's knowledge of the bigger picture.
Even with those issues, I can't stress enough how nice of a find this movie is. The whole production is just such a nice fit for any mood. It's old fashioned without being boring, violent but not grotesque, dramatic yet not overbearing. Think of it as chicken soup for any horror fans soul and seek it out when you need that boost of creepy spirit.
If you take my advice and seek out this neat little picture, it's available through Criterion's Eclipse series in a box set titled When Horror Came to Shochiku along with other offerings like Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell and The X From Outer Space. I've yet to view the entire set though I feel confident that Living Skeleton is worth a good chunk of the asking price.

All that being said, let's mark this roughly as the start of this years Halloween coverage. I know it's early but considering this place averages four posts a month it's better to get ahead of the curve. I'm expecting some major activity this year as a long time local inspiration/rival in the Halloween game is in the midst of moving this fall, giving me an opportunity to spread my fame, or infamy that much further. Don't be surprised to see some posts on diy decorations and some more movie recommendations. Stay tuned, kiddies. I'll be back before the week us up cause we've got a lot of fun to take care of.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Show and Tell: August 2017

Note: The bulk of the following article was written weeks ago before being sidelined. Recently there was a loss in our extended family due to a rather horrific accident. This event makes the following abundance of shiny baubles seem a bit less interesting and possibly even tasteless. That being said, I began this site with the intention of it being a fun place to look at different topics, and provide an escape from the stresses of the world, not to go on long winded speeches about loss or the meaning of life. As the recent tragedy effects the time available to work on posts, I'm finishing this one in order to keep the site updated for you fine folks while the family deals with the loss.

Way back when I was a wee lad, mail was an incredible novelty to me. Most kids get very little in the way of mail to begin with but once you factor in a lack of subscriptions, zero pen pals, and nearby relatives that offered up birthday and Christmas cards in person, I swear mail of my own was a yearly event at best. Maybe that could explain why nowadays I occasionally order too many items at once resulting in an embarrassing showcase of materialism or as I like to call it, Tuesday. All things considered, I'd say this makes a fine excuse to revive the long dormant show and tell feature.

In all fairness, such a monstrous bounty all at once was not planed. All these items had different origins be that long gestating pre-orders, late birthday gifts, or board game trades made in an attempt to downsize my collection. Universal law seems to dictate however, that if multiple packages are on route, all shall be delivered within the same day.

The Warlock Collection from Vestron Video collection is one of those items that seems too good to be true. The first film is an over the top mix of adventure, fantasy, comedy, and witchcraft which wormed it's way into my horror loving heart upon first viewing. Problem was the DVD was some hideous, fullscreen only abomination, a mistake I've waited years to see corrected. This set surpasses that meager dream by including the extra nutty second installment, along with a third I've yet to witness. As someone who tends to their horror collection as others would a rose garden, there was always a hole where these films should have been. Now that vacancy has been filled. Time to continue my efforts of convincing someone to release Pin, Split Second, Eyes of Laura Mars, and Full Circle.

Time Stories is one of the biggest titles from board game publisher Space Cowboys. They're one of very few companies to have actually earned brand loyalty from me. Given they're track record it's no surprise. From Favorites like Splendor and Black Fleet to innovative and frustrating titles like Unlock, and even fun shoot the shit games like Hit Z Road, these guys are responsible for some of my favorite board gaming memories. While this is a more complex title, there was no way I'd let one of their productions slip past. The added bonus of trading off two older titles means I'm maybe 1/49th of the way towards my goal of culling an overgrown game collection.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks was part of a duo of late birthday presents. I've heard mixed things about the book, including some complaints that it fails to properly mesh with the timeline of the series while potentially oversimplifying some of the key mysteries. Seeing as I'm no master of the franchise I didn't always catch the inconsistencies with established lore, though a couple still stuck out. What really struck me as unique is that I learned some honest to god real history from this collection of conspiracy theories and spooky stories. It's not unlike the old monster or UFO books I used to scare myself with as a kid, only with a sprinkling of legit educational value.

Then there's records, so many records. Disintegration comes curtsy of my sister as yet another belated gift. Barely had a chance to touch it yet though it oddly ties into current events as Lovesong is supposed to be a primary theme at the upcoming funeral. Certainly a coincidence though it's still strange how events tie together.
The other three LP's come from Collector's Choice Vinyl. One reason for the order was simply to try them out as they had some spiffy pricing and flat rate shipping which is a luxury when it comes to vinyl. The other reason is their exclusive variant of The Fly soundtrack. There is another mass market version but this green black mix was just too spiffy to ignore and at only 750 piece I made sure to jump on it as soon as possible. Part of my plan since getting into records is to enhance different times of the year and horror soundtracks will be a key element in to the Halloween season from now on, a practice that starts right here.
Also in the order are Neon Indian and Big Freedia, each of which are solid albums. So far, my record stash has become an invaluable relaxation tool with one downside. Like any new hobby, there's always that rush of excitement to catch up, meaning it's easy to go overboard. While I am of the opinion that money is better off spent, ya have to draw the line somewhere, which usually comes when you realize half a check went to LP's.

As noted above, I'm finishing this post during a week when nearly every conversation involves death which usually makes people think about their legacy or connections to others rather than mere objects. I've always been materialistic, yet looking at these items I see something more than just the newest acquisitions. Each of these helps to improve upon life, even if just a bit. Really that should be the goal of any purchase. Simply grabbing something because it's neat isn't enough. An item should add to our moods, minds, and relationships. True, these are all just objects, but they're also the tools I use to make life a bit better. And when mortality is the topic of the day, having something to improve our time here is pretty much priceless.