Tag Archives: Michael A. Stackpole

The Good Bits: January 2017

Music:

TWRP, Ladyworld (Self-Released)

twrp

My favorite album of January is a departure from what you might normally see in my music listings. Tupper Ware Remix Party (or TWRP) was brought to my attention last year when Ninja Sex Party released their covers album. TWRP was the backing band for most of the album, expertly recreating some of the most well known songs of the 80’s. With the release of their new album Ladyworld, I took it upon myself to finally check out the band’s own work and was met with a catchy delight full of positive vibes. TWRP is firmly grounded in the 80’s aesthetic, touching on elements of rock, synthwave, and funk, while focusing on a message we can all get behind: loving your lady. This is most apparent on tracks such as “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Her” and, my personal favorite, “Body Image”, featuring a chorus both catchy and inspiring in its message. The album also features Arin Hanson (Game Grumps, Starbomb) and Ninja Sex Party, returning the guest appearance favor for TWRP on the final track “Built 4 Love.” The album is on the short side, clocking in at under thirty minutes, but I think that feels just right for a band like TWRP; it’s an upbeat listen to punch-up your day, giving you that little feel good boost we all so often need.

 

Galactic Empire, Galactic Empire (Rise)

galactic-empire

You know me, I love my Star Wars, my metal, and metal versions of non-metal songs. So having a whole album comprised of the most iconic pieces of John Williams’ legendary score turned to metal is nothing but good news. The group has put out a few videos that have made the rounds on social media and now they’ve put out a full LP. It’s a pretty straightforward album; we go from “Main Theme” to the expected “Imperial March”, then touch on a few pieces from the prequels such as “Duel of the Fates” (which uses actual vocals) and “Across The Stars” before capping it off with “Throne Room/End Title.” All of the arrangements are impeccable with excellent guitar tone and feature close attention to all the little nuances from Williams’ score. Any Star Wars fan, metalhead or no, will enjoy this tribute to one of the greatest film soundtracks ever.

 

Film:

Prometheus, (Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender)
Director: Ridley Scott
Released: June 8th 2012

prometheus2

I didn’t really see any new movies released this month, but I did watch Prometheus in preparation for May’s Alien: Covenant. The Alien series is one I’m catching up on, having neglected it for a number of years. Now I’ve finally watched the prequel to the series that I’ve heard much about, opinions always mixed. My personal experience with the film turned out to be very enjoyable one, exceeding my expectations thanks to its spectacular visuals, atmosphere, and theme.

My view of the movie was prefaced with the general opinion that the film, while gorgeous, has a “meh” plot, and I can see where that opinion comes from. There’s some horror movie cliches you can pick out early on, especially if you’re familiar with the other films, and the movie raises more questions than it actually answers. But I forgive the film’s plot because it caters more to theme than revelation. The parallels between the Greek myth of Prometheus and the Prometheus crew are woven into the narrative and share the same message: if you try to get on the same level as Gods, you’re going to be in for a hurtin’. Sure, we all came here for the Xenomorph, but I appreciate where Prometheus stands as far as its own story and theme.

 

Godzilla (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Released: May 16th, 2014

godzilla_2014_poster

Here’s one that’s been on my list since the first trailer but that got away from me. I finally got to watch Godzilla in anticipation of this year’s Kong: Skull Island, which is set in a shared universe with the former film. I’m not necessarily a long time Godzilla fan, meaning I’ve only seen one or two of the classic films and not much else. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand how awesome Godzilla is, or at least can be in the right hands. Like Prometheus, I heard a lot of mixed reception about this film, usually amounting to, “The thirty minutes of Godzilla are great but the rest is boring.” Upon viewing, I do agree that the comparatively small amount of time spent with Godzilla is FUCKING AWESOME, but I would argue that it’s only so awesome because of all the time that isn’t spent on him.

Now, I understand why the majority of the plot spent with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a Lieutenant in the US Navy, and Ken Watanabe, basically a kaiju expert, might be considered boring, the main reason being that neither of them are an enormous destructive monster. But I would argue that spending time with the characters is what helps create the overwhelming sense of awe that is meant to surround Godzilla. Sure, we could have had a film that was ninety percent Godzilla smashing things, but there’s always been more to Godzilla than that. The original movie essentially portrayed Godzilla like an atom bomb, an unstoppable, destructive force all the more powerful because of that sense of shock and awe. Now think about how many explosions and city destroying monster movies we’ve gotten in recent years that are soulless, mindless action (Pacific Rim being a notable except because that movie rules). The decision to focus more on the human characters and their perceptive builds anticipation to a boiling point, and when we finally see Godzilla in all his glory and hear his roar, you get serious chills. Because Godzilla isn’t here to entertain you; you’re here to witness him.

 

Books:

Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole

talion-revenant

Standalone fantasy novels are a rare breed not because there aren’t many of them but because they don’t seem to get as much attention. It’s understandable as the landmark fantasy novels are typically epic in scale and scope, spanning across anywhere from three to five to eight books. But there’s a lot to love from single entries, the most notable being that you don’t have to prepare yourself for the plunge into multiple books and you get a complete story arc all in one go. So I went looking for one, preferably something I’d never heard of before, and came up with Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole, best known for penning several Star Wars books from the old Expanded Universe. The result is an enjoyable fantasy novel that, for the modern reader, doesn’t turn genre conventions on its head, but does tell a satisfying tale of heroic fantasy.

The story tells of a man named Nolan, a Talion Justice, a highly skilled and feared warrior who, as his title implies, travels about the Shattered Empire righting wrongs and delivering retribution. They are known for their ability to suck out the souls of wrongdoers as a method of execution, which is why they are so feared. The chapters alternate between Nolan in the present, fully grown and trained, and Nolan as a boy, fleeing from his country after his family was slaughtered by a neighboring country. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this style of storytelling at first; being constantly pulled back and forth through past and present can make it hard to maintain momentum in the story, but it eventually won me over as the chapters usually parallel each others subject matter. It’s also told in a first person perspective, which I also questioned at first, but I understood it was more fitting for the story.

The big hook of the story, displayed right on the front and back cover, is that Nolan is assigned a mission where he must pose as a noble in order to protect a king from a seemingly unkillable creature. The catch? This is the very same king of the country that killed Nolan’s family. It sets the story up for a tense duty vs. vengeance dilemma, but, slight spoiler alert, that doesn’t end up being the focal point. It certainly motivates Nolan and helps define his sense of justice, but the issue itself is kind of resolved in a few paragraphs. I can see what the intent was here i.e. spend your whole life plotting revenge then questioning yourself, but I did feel slightly mislead.

The good news? The overall plot of the book is still enjoyable. Young Nolan’s training to become a Justice makes for some interesting world building and character background that contrasts well with adult Nolan’s more action oriented scenes. There’s one or two twists as well that help to elevate the exciting finale which, despite this being a standalone book, leaves some room for a sequel. If you’re one for more traditional fantasy and/or don’t particularly feel like committing to a longer series, Talion: Revenant will deliver a well executed story with plenty of action and adventure to keep you invested.

 

Currently Reading:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep

Confession: I have never seen Blade Runner. I’ve meant to for a long time, and with the sequel coming this year I’ve all the more reason to finally watch it. But I figured, while I have the time, I should read the book that the film is loosely based on. I’ve also never read Philip K. Dick before. It’s a short book and I’m nearly done, so expect a full review next month.

 

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The Good Bits: December 2016

As I write this, I am also coming up with a post for the Best Bits of 2016, which, admittedly, is going to overshadow this one a bit. Still, I can’t leave December out of the mix, especially since the most hyped-up movie of the year came out (and I’m not talking about Sing, though it was a fun movie).

Music:

Hyperion, Seraphical Euphony (Black Lion)
Released: February 6th 2016

hyperion

Every year, before I put together a list of my favorite albums, I embark on a search for any albums that I missed during the year in an effort to weed out any hidden gems. There’s always at least one every year, and this year it came in the form of the debut album from Swedish blackened death metal band Hyperion. Nowadays, I tend to lean toward slow, progressive kind of bands and it takes a really kickass album to hook me back into something fast, shreddy, and deadly. Hyperion does just that with incredibly fast riffs and raspy vocals, but they aren’t afraid to get melodic, something I always appreciate. It’s not only one of the best debut albums of the year, but one of my favorites overall. I haven’t spent as much time with it as other albums from this past year, but I spent enough time to know Hyperion are worth keeping on the radar.

 

 

Film:

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Released: December 16th 2016

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_poster

I honestly wasn’t sure if I was ready for a new Star Wars film. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars and was certainly excited for Rogue One, but knowing this was officially the start of a new movie every year made me wonder if it was going to be too much too soon. Having two or three Marvel movies out is one thing because they usually span different types of genres depending on which hero is up front. But a new entry for the biggest blockbuster franchise every year? Sounds too good to be true. And while there may come a day when a new Star Wars film comes out and ends up being a dud or people begin to feel fatigued by having a new one every year, it is not this day. Rogue One is a wonderful first entry in the Star Wars anthology series, hauling in just enough satisfying fan service without leaning on it while remaining a strong film in its own right.

FYI: I’m going to do my best to keep this spoiler free even though most of you have seen it at this point

For some people, Rogue One is a confusing follow-up to The Force Awakens in that it features none of those characters and is in fact set just before A New Hope, telling the story of how the Rebellion stole the plans to the Death Star. Here’s one thing to keep in mind about Rogue One: this is not your typical Star Wars movie. It’s not even like The Force Awakens. This is, in essence, a war movie with a dash of a heist plot telling the story of how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans to the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Jones) leads a ragtag group in search of her father, Galen, a scientist and key player in building the superweapon. The titular Rogue One is composed of a few archetypes such as a snarky droid, hotshot Captain, and a deadly spiritual fighter to name a few. They may sound one note, but they’re certainly fun to be around. Once again, this isn’t a hero’s journey where we see several characters growing and changing. These are the small timers, the moving gears of war that make the big moments for bigger characters possible.

On the other side of the table is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), Grand Moff Tarkin (featuring a digitally resurrected Peter Cushing) and, the one and only, Darth Vader. While Krennic is interesting to watch, he does get a bit overshadowed by his peers. Seeing Peter Cushing onscreen again is going to be hit or miss depending on how creepy you think the CGI is. Personally, I enjoyed it and think it contributes to the film’s authenticity, though I wouldn’t want to see a whole movie led by something like that. Vader, of course, is awesome even with his expectedly small onscreen time, and is a big contributor to making the last ten minutes some of the best in Star Wars history.

I’m beginning to realize there’s way too much to cover to cover for this movie, and I like to keep things brief, so I’ll try to narrow it down: Rogue One is excellently crafted to fit the aesthetic of A New Hope and will certainly tick all the nostalgic boxes. That said, Gareth Edwards’ direction makes the film feel different from other films, rather than trying to stick to the template as The Force Awakens did. It’s fresh and familiar, and while some fans might not like the dark tones and deviations, I think there’s plenty of Star Wars magic in this film, proving that we can have more films that don’t rely on the Skywalker’s or Jedi. It’s a worth addition to the saga and I can’t wait to see it again.

 

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell)
Director: David Yates
Released: November 18, 2016

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_poster

I’m a little late with this one since it came out in November, but better late than never. Here we have yet another prequel set in the universe of one of the biggest Hollywood franchises, the difference being that Fantastic Beasts is set to kick off a series of five films. Now, I consider myself a relatively big Harry Potter fan; not quite a fanatic like I am with Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but I grew up reading HP and they had a pretty big impact on my reading tastes as well as my writing. That being said, the idea that we’re getting four more of these movies feels like…a lot? Not that I’m judging the film on its future plans, but I’m skeptical of the series’ longevity especially where there are several other Potterverse stories that can be told (feel-good Quidditch movie anyone?). Regardless, Fantastic Beasts is a dazzling, surprisingly dark, stuffed first entry to the proposed series.

I have to give big ups to the film for being a well done prequel. Sure, you get some name drops like Dumbledore or Hogwarts, but it manages to stand on its own merits without heavy reliance on what fans already know. The cast is entertaining; Eddie Redmayne was born to play a wizard and Dan Fogler stands out as a surprisingly entertaining muggle who gets dragged into the whole mess. Ezra Miller’s turn as a deeply disturbed teenage boy is some of the best acting in the film and is the centerpiece of the film’s aforementioned dark tone. I know I keep saying “dark” as if the original Potter films were all sunshine and farts, but there are themes and depictions in Fantastic Beasts that I wasn’t expecting, from child abuse (and I mean more so than living in a cupboard under the stairs) to capital punishment.

Visually, the movie is like someone took a dab of Tim Burton to the Wizarding World, which is neat and makes the titular beasts great fun to watch and marvel at. The 1920’s New York City setting mixes in a prohibition aesthetic with the Wizarding World to great effect, staying familiar enough to keep us grounded but giving the world a new flavor. The big sticking point for the film is plot, however, which isn’t necessarily amazing or terrible, but it’s just…a lot. A lot of characters and stories are introduced to you very quickly and certain plotlines overshadow the others whenever they mingle. I would have been perfectly fine watching Newt Scamander running around NYC recollecting his creatures, but there’s also talks of the stability between wizard and muggle relations in the US, whispers of the deeds of dark wizard Grindelwald, and numerous backstories for certain characters that are hinted at then left for another film. Now, I don’t necessarily have a hard time keeping track of multiple story arcs (I watch Game of Thrones after all), but so much is happening at the same time in this film, like a child just bursting to tell about its day and moving from one big event to the next without a breath in between. It doesn’t kill the film, but it does make me wonder if I want four more of these. Is this how other people felt while I sang the praises of the The Hobbit films ?

Potter fans will (or already do) love it. If you only saw the films and likely them, you’ll like this. Even if you’ve never delved into Harry Potter before, you may like it since it’s so far removed from the original films that you don’t require much prior knowledge. I’m questionable as to the quality of future films, but for now it’s an entertaining romp and a fun return to the world of J.K. Rowling.

 

 

Currently Reading:

Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole

talion-revenant

I’m more than halfway through the book and it’s still good so far, though here and there I find things that aren’t quite to my taste. That said, the book is told from a first person perspective, something not often done in fantasy, and I’m enjoying the change. I’ll be done with this one by the next Good Bits.

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The Good Bits: November 2016

November was a tough month for many, so I was thankful for all the movies, music, and literature present on this month’s edition of The Good Bits to remind me that it’s not all bad all the time.

Music:

Metallica, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (Blackened)
Released: November 18th 2016

metallica

Where do you even start with reviewing something as massive as a new Metallica album, let alone a double album? It’s one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year for music in general, not just metalheads. Fans and ex-fans alike rejoiced when they heard “Hardwired” and were blown away by how great it sounded. People who dismissed them for years were suddenly hopeful for a return to form for the band. The result? Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is a great modern Metallica album. And that makes this fan very happy.

If you read my retrospective of 2008’s Death Magnetic, you’ll remember my assessment that the album’s biggest flaw was how it tried to emulate 80’s Metallica just a little too much, from album format to song structure. This is not at all a problem on Hardwired as the band sound way more natural with songs that progress organically and less constructed to fit a template. “Hardwired” kicks everything off with the perfect one-two punch to get you hyped about the rest of the album. The whole first disc is solid, with “Halo On Fire” and “Now That We’re Dead” standing out as favorite. What’s more, you can tell that everyone in the band showed up to kick this album into high gear. The second disc is good too, though some of the songs seem a cut below those of the preceding disc. But then “Murder One” and “Spit Out The Bone” wrap up the album in furious Metallica fashion.

Was a double album necessary? Maybe not. It could have just been the whole first disc and then the last two tracks to form a solid eight track album. That said, I don’t think the other songs hurt the album overall and maybe they’ll grow on me more after a few listens. Either way, the bulk of  Hardwired…to Self-Destruct‘s enjoyment stems from simply being a great, exciting new Metallica release. It feels like their natural destination after such a long and storied career. Plus, with everything else that’s happened this year, we deserve something as special as a new Metallica album.

 

 

ONI, Ironshore (Metal Blade)
Released: November 25th, 2016

oni-ironshore

Technical ability can only take you so far nowadays in metal. What good are crazy time signatures and shit hot guitar solos if your band just comes off as boring? It’s a trap many newer bands fall into that ONI managed to avoid on their debut album. You can tell right away on the opener “Barn Burner” that the band has some serious chops, but when you get to “Eternal Recurrence” the sound opens up, revealing a band that sounds less like Meshuggah or The Faceless and more like Dream Theater with harsh vocals. I was surprised to hear more than a few clean, hooky choruses in between guitar wizardry (and bass wizardry too, Chase Bryant is a goddamn madman).

The album keeps it to nine tight tracks that lasts long enough for you to drink your fill of prog metal bedazzlement. The eleven minute “The Science” was over in a flash for me and proves that ONI know how to write long songs with getting top masturbatory. There are many bands that I’ve been saying telling people to watch for on this blog, and these guys are high up on that list. If you need more convincing, this debut album features Randy Blythe (Lamb of God) as a guest vocalist. That’s how you know you’re doing it right.

 

Film:

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Released: November 4th, 2016

doctor_strange_poster

The term franchise fatigue has been thrown around a lot regarding the seemingly never-ending line of superhero movies heading our way. Sure, we’re done with them for the remainder of 2016, but between DC and Marvel we’ve got six movies heading our way in 2017. In the meantime, we’ll be endlessly assaulted with trailers, breakdowns of trailers, trailer stills, you name it. As a result, while I enjoy this superhero film renaissance, it can get a bit tiring. Luckily, Doctor Strange provides a dash of invigoration for the genre, providing a new character with an origin story that goes by-the-numbers in some aspects, but makes plenty of room for new, mind-bending thrills.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is a bit overexposed at this point and his inclusion in the MCU means we’ll be seeing a lot more of him. That said, even my fiancée, who was skeptical of Doctor Strange before viewing, couldn’t deny the charm and gravitas Cumberbatch brought to the role, moving from cocky jerk to ruined surgeon to hero. The supporting cast is great too: Chiwetel Ejiofor has a great turn as Mordo and hints a his character’s morally gray development in the future; Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius manages to be more than just a one-note villain; Tilda Swinton is excellent as The Ancient One, although I understand the casting controversy might make some viewers less enthralled with her performance. The only one who is so-so is Rachel McAdams, but that’s less because of her acting ability and more because it feels like she’s only there to fill the love interest role.

By now, you’ve likely seen and/or heard about this film’s up-and-front use of special affects, and I can assure you they’re nothing short of spectacular. I saw the film in 3D, and while I think the film is great no matter what format it’s viewed in, you get just a little bit more out of the effects when they’re popping out at you. What’s more, the film’s thorough usage of trippy CGI sequences was never too overwhelming, always toying with the viewer just the right amount before backing off. The film also contains one of the best action set pieces of the entire MCU in its finale, ranking up there with the Daredevil hallway scene under the category of “How the hell did they do that?!”

While Doctor Strange does present us with yet another origin story and its familiar beats, the film gets them out of the way quickly and efficiently enough that we get an effective introduction to the Sorcerer Supreme while taking in a new layer added to the MCU that mixes the status quo up a bit, leaving the franchise with fascinating potential. If nothing else, see it for the Cloak of Levitation. Best cloak ever.

 

 

Central Intelligence (Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson)
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Released: June 17th 2016

central-intelligence

File this one under “Potentially Dumb Comedy Better Than Expected.” Action-comedy buddy movies are a tried and true formula, but sometimes you can’t help getting that “seen one, seen ’em all” feeling when you spot a new trailer. Then again, not every one of those movies features Dwayne Johnson, whose mere presence in a film boosts its chances of being good by at least 25%, sometimes more depending on how much screen time he has. Combine him with Kevin Hart as the straight man and you get a film that’s somewhat predictable, but the star power yields enough laughs to entertain you on a night in where you have absolutely have no idea what to watch.

The film also touches on the subject of bullying, depicting a teenage version of Johnson’s character Bob Stone as a fat kid who is mercilessly picked on at school but is shown sympathy by star student Calvin (Hart). While comedies aren’t meant to be downers, I wouldn’t have minded if the film tried to touch on bullying just a bit more. But, as it stands, you have a solid pair of actors with good chemistry and a fast paced plot. You know what you’re gonna get before you got in, but you’ll have a good time anyway.

 

Books:

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

words of radiance

About this same time a year ago, I’d just finished reading the The Way of Kings, the first in Brandon Sanderson’s series of cinderblock-sized epic fantasy novels dubbed The Stormlight Archive. And I loved it. I wasn’t sure how Sanderson could get better than his Mistborn trilogy, but that first book drew me into a unique world full of endearing characters, fascinating magic, and an endless but intriguing amount of lore. The promise was great, so I opened up the second and latest volume Words of Radiance hoping for some payoff. And boy, did it deliver. Note: I won’t be revealing any big spoilery plot points, but if you’re entertaining the idea of reading this book at some point and want to go in knowing absolutely nothing, read at your own risk.

The biggest payoff of the book is finally seeing the paths of our view point characters converge. It’s entertaining to finally see these characters finally meeting each other and reacting to each other’s quirks. Shallan is kind of the star of the show here; just as Kaladin received backstory chapters in tWoK, Shallan gets her mysterious past explained in WoR. She’s much more engaging in this book than the first, so I didn’t feel like I had to suffer through her chapters if they cut in on someone else’s action. Everyone else gets their time to shine (sometimes literally) as well. Like the first book, there’s a lot of build up and about halfway through you start to see lots of promises fulfilled that make the book feel like a satisfying, savory feast. The most notable event is probably our heroes’ encounter with Szeth, the assassin in white (that’s not a spoiler, it’s on the cover of the book).

The length of the volume can feel like an undertaking, but if you read the first volume and spent a lot of time thinking “Oh god, this is dragging” you might be more pleased with this one’s pace. It’s apparent now that tWoK was meant to get us comfortable with the world of Roshar, to get us invested in the characters, and to promise an extraordinary tale before delivering the goods. As a result, World of Radiance ends up being a triumph, wrapping up one giant arc of the story while setting up the events of the next installment. This is probably my favorite book that I’ve read from Sanderson so far and I’m storming well in it for the long haul.

 

Currently Reading:

Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole

talion-revenant

Normally I try to space out what I read according to genre, but after coming across this book I decided to continue my fantasy streak. Talion: Revenant is a stand-alone fantasy novel, which isn’t something you see a lot of, so I’m intrigued to see what satisfaction I can get out of it versus starting a new series. I’m about a hundred pages in, and so far so good. This won’t take nearly as long to read as the behemoth mentioned above.

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