LAST STAND OF THE WRECKERS (Review)

(thumbnail) (TFWiki)

So this past weekend was Botcon, the annual Transformers convention. Given that the new film, Age Of Extinction, hits today, there was naturally a lot more excitement than usual. Judging from the reports I’ve read, that excitement was due and well-deserved (barring the occasional ugly snafu).

I couldn’t attend–not that I ever have been able to–and while some friends of mine held their own “Notcon” to make up for it, I stayed home and weathered the death of a close family member.

In between the various businesses of grief, I found comfort and escape in rereading the opening arc of the always-excellent More Than Meets The Eye, one of the two current ongoing Transformers comics, and reading the prequel to this current era of Transformers comics, the 2010 miniseries Last Stand Of The Wreckers.

Essentially, this is an action movie in comics form. Taking place after the All Hail Megatron event, which saw the Decepticons become rulers of Earth after destroying San Francisco, the story opens with Autobot Springer recruiting four new members–war hero Rotorstorm, Optimus Prime wannabe Pyro, gun nut Guzzle and genius weapons inventor Ironfist–to join the Wreckers, basically the Autobots’ answer to Seal Team 6 and Blackwater.

Their mission? Take back the Autobot prison planet Garrus-9, which has been ruled for 3 years by the sadistic Decepticon renegade Overlord. The Wreckers, plus human stowaway Verity Carlo ( a holdover from previous Transformers comics by IDW), land on the planet. But what they find is worse than they could’ve ever imagined…

The wonderful thing about this series–and there are many–is that it mashes up familiar characters (Springer and fellow Wreckers Kup and Perceptor date back to the ’80s) with the ultra-obscure (all the new guys are European exclusive toys who had never been used in fiction before). Writers James Roberts, currently writing More Than Meets The Eye, and Nick Roche (who also draws with Guido Guidi) bring these disparate types together and make them all fully fleshed out, interesting characters.
For example, Ironfist is a die-hard Wreckers fanboy who writes famous stories about the team under a pseudonym. That’s pretty neat.

I should also add this story is full of carnage. Bots die left and right and far from being meaningless, Roberts and Roche make us all care. That’s not easy to do.

Key to it all is Roche’s and Guidi’s art. The two mesh together beautifully and, with the amazing coloring of Josh Burcham, create vibrant, poppy artwork that could easily be the basis for an animated film.

I’d highly recommend this storyto anyone with even a minor interest in Transformers. No prior knowledge is required. I’d especially recommend getting the deluxe hardcover. It has all the covers, character profiles, a wonderful short story written by Roberts and supplemental sequel comics (full disclosure: my friend lettered two of them).
Even if you removed the giant robots, this is a solid military scifi story
If Roberts and Roche were to work on an original work, it’d be as great as what we see here. Check it out.

Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson and A Galaxy Far, Far Away

So while I didn’t get a chance to mention it because it was during finals–when we basically shut down around here–but I did get to see the brand new Godzilla film directed by Gareth Edwards and starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston. I liked the movie just fine, but I found it way too dreary for my tastes.

A Godzilla film should be full of over-the-top craziness and lots of monster fighting/action. This movie…really didn’t have either of that. Instead, they went for a muted, horror vibe similar to the original film. Fine by Edwards & co., but not enough people think of that film when they think Godzilla. I also thought Watanabe was particularly under-served by his material.

That said, when the news broke after the film’s opening weekend that Edwards was going to direct the first Star Wars spinoff film due in 2016 (with a script by Gary Whitta), I was still excited. For all my misgivings with it, I couldn’t deny that in Godzilla, Edwards demonstrated an affinity for staging big action scenes and mounting disaster.

If a leaked toy list that supposedly lines up to the films is correct, Edwards will be telling the origin of Boba Fett. I say “origin”–more like how the little kid from Attack of the Clones (my favorite of the prequels, incidentally) came to be the stoic bounty hunter we meet in The Empire Strikes Back. His aesthetic seems perfect for that and I think it’ll work out.

Josh Trank, of Chronicle and the Fantastic Four reboot, is also directing a spinoff film, presumably the origin of Han Solo. I haven’t seen Chronicle, so I can’t speak to Trank’s skill, but the fact that he directed a nifty little Star Wars fan film several years ago that’s pretty clever in under 2 minutes fills me with confidence.

But what really excites is the news that broke last Friday: Rian Johnson, director of the insanely great Looper and the visionary Brick, will be directing Episode VIII and potentially IX. That’s incredibly exciting for a variety of reasons but for me, it boils down to one.

Johnson is a director/writer who is incredibly gifted at writing and staging dialogue. Considering that Lawrence Kasdan, writer of Empire and Return of the Jedi, is consulting on the new trilogy, I’m hopeful Johnson may soak up some lessons from him. That’s what I want to see: a Star Wars film that crackles and sparks with as much energy as Johnson’s own films do.

And hey, since they’re close friends, maybe a Joseph Gordon-Levitt cameo could be in the offering? Only time will tell.

 

R.I.P. Casey Kasem

So while we were all enjoying Father’s Day this past Sunday, Casey Kasem, legendary DJ and voice actor, died at the age of 82.

Kasem was famous first and foremost as the creator and longtime host of American Top 40, the nationally syndicated radio show that counted down the Top 40 songs from the Billboard charts. Although he stepped down in 2009 (having reduced the show to American Top 10 and passed the reins to Ryan Seacrest), it is in this role that he’s best remembered. An absolutely beautiful piece went up on NPR remembering him in just that context.

But I’m more familiar with Kasem for his other career as one of the biggest voice actors of all time. Beginning with the original 1960s and continuing until 2009, Kasem attained pop culture immortality as Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. As the New York Times noted, Kasem said in an interview that “They’ll be showing Shaggy and Scooby-Doo for eons and eons.” Certainly, he’s great in the role, no matter which incarnation, managing to make his voice the virtual opposite of itself for Shaggy. It’s a great role indeed.

But Kasem did a lot of other work too, all of it inexorably tied to a certain cartoon beloved by kids of a certain age. If you grew up in the 1970s, you knew him as Robin from the various iteration of Superfriends. If you were a ’80s kid, you know him as Cliffjumper and Teletraan 1 from the original Transformers cartoon.

A note about that 2nd one: Kasem, a child of Lebanese immigrants (real name Kemal Amin Kasem), actually walked away from Transformers after an episode aired with heavy anti-Arab sentiment and Arab caricatures. A vegetarian, Kasem also temporarily stopped voicing Shaggy for a few years after he was asked to play the part for a Burger King commercial, only returning when declaring that Shaggy be made vegetarian too.

Walking away from some high-profile gigs like that take an ample amount of courage. Kasem had that in spades. He was also full of tremendous talent, able to bury his recognizable, unmistakable radio voice in a variety of wonderful ways.

I used to want to be a voice actor when I was younger and watching Kasem play Shaggy on TV was definitely a huge part of that. So farewell, Mr. Kasem. You will be missed.

Once More Unto the Bleach BONUS #1: MEMORIES OF NOBODY

MemoriesofNobody

Like most shonen animes, Bleach had feature film spinoffs during its run. Most film spinoffs of anime aren’t really well thought of. For shonen, it’s mainly seen as a cash-grab, offering up a chance to see the characters you already know and are invested in partake in a self-contained adventure that, in the series proper, will never be mentioned again. Add to that, a lot of shonen films are produced rather fast and tend not to run that long. For example, most Dragon Ball Z movies tend to be about an hour because they were produced as part of a double feature for kids released in summer in Japan and came out on a yearly basis.

If not stand-alone adventures, then most tie-in anime films tend to be side stories, like the two movies made for both versions of FullMetal Alchemist. The first Bleach film, Memories of Nobody, is a little bit of both. Released in 2006, it’s stand-alone, with the end making it clear that this won’t affect the show. It’s also a side story, as it clearly takes place at some point after the Soul Society arc. (I’m not going to try and slot this into the series’ timeline because  that would be nuts.) With those qualifications, it’s still an engaging story in its own right.

In the Research and Development Institute in Soul Society, a lieutenant in the 12th Division enters and asks a technician what the status is of the space that’s developed between the human world and the world of Soul Society. The technician replies that the space–another dimension–is about to be investigated by troops from the Onmitsukido, the military branch of Soul Society. One of the troops then signals the Institute, saying the exit from the Dangai–the dangerous dimension that allows travel between worlds–has been sealed. The Institute says that they’ll send backup, but as they prepare to do so, the troops start screaming and, as the technicians listen in horror, are all killed by some unseen force.

Meanwhile in the human world, at a park on a beautiful fall day, a ghost runs through the trees, followed by a giant Hollow that the humans around can, of course, hear but not see. Ichigo (Masakazu Morita) and Rukia (Fumiko Orikasa), with Kon (Mitsuaki Madono) in tow, run up. Ichigo changes into his Soul Reaper film and dispatches the Hollow pretty easily. More than anything, this is a showcase for the improved, feature-length budget animation. This fight scene is awesome; the look is stunning, the action is crisp and it’s propulsive, which carries over to the rest of the film.

After the ghost is purified and sent to Soul Society and a good gag where Ichigo’s careless discarding of his body while in Soul Reaper form leads to paramedics performing CPR on his seemingly lifeless corpse, Rukia receives a message from Soul Society about what seems to be a huge infestation of Hollows. They head to the location and switch to Soul Reaper mode, but see nothing but mysterious white creatures roaming around.

Blanks

Ichigo tries to purify one but it doesn’t work and the creatures start swarming him and Rukia. Just then, a mysterious girl appears, changes into a Soul Reaper and starts cutting down the creatures left and right. Kon, meanwhile, is in Ichigo’s body trying to avoid the creatures when he suddenly sees a strange man in armor. The girl finishes off the creatures by rising into the air in a tornado and unleashing her Zanpakuto, lands, then turns into a human and prepares to leave.

Ichigo and Rukia stop her, confused as to who she is. If she’s a Soul Reaper, Rukia wonders why she hasn’t seen her before. The girl (Chiwa Saito) simply says that she’s a Reaper, says her name is Senna and dashes off. Meanwhile in Soul Society, a large portal appears in the sky showing the human world, something that’s not supposed to happen.

Who is Senna? What are those white things? Who did Kon see? And how does this all tie back to the space between worlds? Memories of Nobody answers all these questions in a perfunctory, crisp fashion–the better to get to the fighting–but it doesn’t skip out on making sure all threads are connected.

The amount of new characters and information introduced could easily have filled an arc of the show. To his credit, writer   makes it all understandable, mostly thanks to a helpful, funny montage from Urahara, and coherent. Additionally, the relationship that develops between Ichigo and Senna over the course of the film is pretty special, and what ultimately happens to Senna at the end of the film is touching and effective. Bleach creator Tite Kubo actually wrote the story for this and all the other Bleach films–a rarity with anime adaptations of manga in general, let alone movie spinoffs–and his presence and weight is felt in the way things come together.

Series director Noriyuki Abe knows he has a bigger budget here and he uses it. The characters pop with life, the animation gets stunning at moments, and the Bankai and Shikai attacks are amazing, particularly Hitsugaya’s (Romi Park). Rukia even unleashes her Zanpakuto during the final fight here and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it at all; it’s a welcome addition.

Shiro Sagisu’s musical score, however, is a bit of a disappointment. Most of it is recycled straight from the show and what new portions of the score there are are weird. There’s an operatic theme, complete with soprano, that plays during a scene with Ichigo and Senna and it’s very ill-fitting and out of place.

The cast continues to sell it, with Morita, Orikasa and the rest doing excellent work as usual. But it’s Saito who makes the strongest impression here. Making a viewer of an established series care about a new character over all the other ones, particularly in a movie that won’t have any effect on the show proper, is really hard to do and she pulls it off with a mix of quirk and pathos. I observed while watching this film with a friend that, essentially, Senna is a Manic Pixie Soul Reaper, and he agreed. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself and the way Senna is pulled off here is good.

So despite the weak music, this film is good overall. If you’re a Bleach fan, you’re gonna find something to enjoy. I know I did. Even if this is ultimately disposable, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a good time while watching it.

(All images courtesy of Bleach Wiki.)

ATTACK ON TITAN Dub Review: Does the English Cast Live Up to Japanese?

And here’s another thing for Another Castle. I still don’t think Attack on Titan is worth the hype but the dub improves things.

Another Castle

Source: StuffPoint Source: StuffPoint

Every few years or so, an anime comes along that blows up both among fandom and the general public. In the ’90s, it was Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, in the ’00s, it was Naruto and for this decade, it appears that show is Attack On Titan (now airing on Toonami on Adult Swim Saturday nights at 11:30 EST). As welcome as a huge hit is for anime, this particular show is rather problematic.

As our previous article about it discussed, the show has absolutely glacial pacing, resolves nothing and is just generally not well executed. Yet, everyone I knew went positively nuts over it. People would breathlessly tell me how they had binge-watched the show in days on Hulu, Crunchyroll or Netflix and for the life of me, I just couldn’t imagine why.

But when the announcement came that Titan was to air on…

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Why Piracy Kills Anime and How to Prevent It

Hey guys!

I’m proud to announce that I’m a staff writer for Another Castle. Ill be writing posts for them about twice a month. Here’s my first one about anime piracy and how to fix it.

Another Castle

Source: AniChart.net Source: AniChart.net

For all of its expansion and legitimacy in the U.S., anime is still a niche market and official releases, be they from FUNimation or an imported Blu-Ray, tend to fall on the expensive side. And of course, there’s always the chance that a show you were looking for was never imported anywhere or poorly edited and translated.

With those long shadows stretching throughout anime’s history here in the West, it makes sense why people would torrent or illegally stream shows and movies. But more than ever, there are so many legal, free ways to watch anime. It’s breathtaking that people still choose to go with fansubs over an official release. Why is this?

The Problem

I asked people from my school’s anime club this question, and they said by and large, it’s a matter of convenience. “If I do watch shows illegally,” one person said, “it’s usually because…

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Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (Review)

File:SplinteroftheMindsEyeClassic.jpg (Via Wookieepedia)

As I’ve said on here previously, I’m not too much of a Star Wars guy. I get why people love it, and I understand the obsession. I also like it a good amount–I’ve seen all the movies multiple times and own a few of the comics and books–but by and large, it’s just not for me.

But what with the recent news of the Expanded Universe–the vast, interconnected network of Star Wars novels, games and comics–being declared noncanon by Disney and the need for me to ingest something else besides Star Trek this summer, I’ve gotten interested. Plus, I’ve rewatched this very entertaining video about the EU by Internet personality Nash about 5 times and it’s piqued my curiosity enough that I’m intrigued about the EU again (Video slightly NSFW).

With that in mind, I decided to check out from my library the first ever EU novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Written by SF legend Alan Dean Foster, it’s a gripping treasure hunt story that offers a fascinating glimpse into what the Star Wars universe was like in its early years, for good and for ill.

Set 2 years after the events of A New Hope, the story opens with Luke, Leia, R2-D2 and C-3PO on their way to the planet of Circarpous IV to secretly convince the inhabitants–and hopefully the inhabitants of another system–to join the Rebellion. Unfortunately, as they pass Circarpous V, Leia’s ship begins malfunctioning and she’s forced to make an emergency landing. Luke follows and they both crash in separate areas of the thick swampy jungle of the planet (which is called Mimban by its inhabitants).

Making their way towards each other and realizing that they’re on a mining planet, they begin to follow a beacon thinking it’ll lead them to an outpost station that they can call for help from, they instead come across a mining town. After stealing clothes to blend in, they enter an inn where an old woman named Halla approaches them. She quickly susses out who they are and forces them to, in exchange for getting off the planet, team up with her to find something called the Kaiburr crystal (the “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”), a legendary gem hidden in a temple that is said to increase one’s Force power to 100 times its max. She shows them a small sliver of it she acquired. Luke realizes it’s the real deal and they agree to help.

However, Luke had earlier slapped Leia in the presence of natives as part of a ruse that she was his slave. Outside, they begin play fighting, which leads to a very real brawl with some miners. They’re arrested by Imperial troops, who take them to the noxious Captain-Supervisor Grammel. Grammel doesn’t buy the story about them being rogue thieves from Circarpous IV and proceeds to jail them. But not before he confiscates the crystal and contacts the Imperial Governor, who in turn contacts a certain Dark Lord…

It’s plenty odd to read this novel for a lot of reasons. For one thing, Imperial stormtroopers are described as being “both men and women.” which makes sense in context. But it’s mostly odd when one considers that, according to the prequels, all stormtroopers are clones. And male clones are that. Furthermore, the way the book ends is WILDLY contradictory to the way the rest of the original trilogy plays out.

But the big, awkward, banjo-playing elephant in the room is the sexual tension between Luke and Leia. On the one hand, it’s a natural growth of Luke’s feelings towards Leia in the first film and we get a more nuanced look at how both parties feel towards each other. But on the other hand, it’s REALLY awkward considering we learn the two are siblings by the end of Return of the Jedi.

That unpleasantness aside, this book is still a solid adventure story and is true to these characters and this mythos, at least in its nascent form circa 1978. As the Nash video explains (and seriously, you really should watch it; it’s pretty great), Splinter was commissioned by George Lucas to serve as the basis for a lower-budget sequel in case the first film didn’t succeed. If you’re willing to overlook some awkward elements in order to read a fun adventure story about characters you know and love, it’s worth a look.