TV Review: Beast Wars: Transformers

I loved many cartoons when I was a kid. Spider-Man, TMNT, X-Men, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Ducktales, Recess, and the list goes on. There was no other feeling in the world like waking up on Saturday and being excited to have some cereal and absorb quality animation. I loved many, but there was only one that I awoke before dawn to watch – Beast Wars: Transformers. Don’t ask me why, but Fox pushed Beast Wars to an early morning slot (5:30am or 6:00am), television purgatory. I’ve never been a morning person, so the fact that pre-teen Adrian set an alarm on the weekend (much earlier than his normal wake-up time for school) just to watch a half-hour cartoon speaks volumes.

Beast Wars begins with the Maximals and Predicons, descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively, crash landing on an uninhabited planet. Rather than transforming into vehicles, the Maximals and Predicons adopt beast modes ranging from a rhino to a pterodactyl. The two sides spend the series fighting for survival, and eventually, for the future of the universe. The full CGI animation was groundbreaking for the time, even if it looks dated today. But creators Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio never used the cutting edge animation as a crutch for storytelling. Not only did Beast Wars reinvigorate the Transformers mythology, it introduced us to distinct and interesting characters.

Within the first few episodes we see the smallest, mouthiest Maximal Rattrap openly disrespecting his leader Optimus Primal, at one point calling him a “chicken.” The youngest and most impulsive Maximal, Cheetor, regularly disobeys orders. And about half of the Predacons openly express their desire to overthrow Megatron and take control of their side. These conflicts help the characters feel real, with individual personalities, histories, and agendas. As an inexperienced battle commander, Optimus must earn respect from his crew, and he sums himself up in the pilot episode: “I will not give an order I would not be willing to do myself.” In a later episode he leaps headlong from an exploding island, and when Rattrap calls him crazy, Optimus responds, “Eh, sometimes crazy works.” He really does live up to the Prime name. But the stand out character would probably have to be Dinobot. He is a Predicon who joins the Maximals in their battle against Megatron, and he is Shakespearean in his desire to retain his honor while fighting for the winning side.

There’s a lot to like when watching Beast Wars. Many of the beast and robot forms still look super cool (like the half wolf, half eagle Silverbolt). The voice acting is excellent. The direction is better than I remember, with the camera emphasizing the action and violence of war as well as the natural world. Whereas Spidey couldn’t even throw a punch in his 90s TV series (due to silly restrictions), the transformers are shot, blown up, and some are ultimately destroyed in important episodes. I won’t spoil anything here, but the setting is also an integral character. Even with their advanced technology, the transformers are perplexed by the mysteries of their new planet, including alien constructs that defy gravity and foreshadow an even greater threat.

Sadly, the overall quality declines after season one. Season one is the longest season, which gives it room to breathe and develop its characters gradually. Season two is still good, while the truncated final season and its big climax feel rushed. Worse still, the sequel series Beast Machines is a huge disappointment. But none of that takes away from the fun and excitement to be found on Beast Wars: Megatron spending time in a rejuvenation hottub with his rubber ducky; Rattrap constantly bickering with Dinobot; a gorilla flying on a hoverboard; infamous Decepticons returning to the battlefield. Sincerely, Beast Wars is the best. I just wish I hadn’t lost my transforming toys years ago. Well, that’s just prime.

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Movie Review: A Star Is Born (2018)

I didn’t think I would write about A Star Is Born, but two factors inspired me: for some reason the Academy largely dismissed it, and Bradley Cooper’s direction and musical ability are both much more impressive than I expected them to be. Actually, both Cooper and Lady Gaga are surprising. Cooper legitimately sells his performance as a damaged, albeit talented musician, while Gaga’s acting chops are never in question. The two make a great pairing, and their chemistry is undeniable.

A Star Is Born hooked me as soon as the two leads started hanging out, with Jackson (Cooper) drunkenly hitting on Ally (Gaga). The high point of the movie comes soon after, when Ally joins Jackson onstage for an impromptu performance of their first song together, “Shallow.” I’ve re-watched the scene a few times since watching the movie, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again. The first half of the movie is excellent, and the only real weak point in the second half is the introduction of a music producer who seems less like a character and more like a cardboard cutout designed to introduce conflict. Also, Sam Elliot deserves special mention for his role as Jackson’s brother/manager; his conflicts and eventual resolution with Jackson are some of the most compelling moments of the movie.

A Star Is Born works as both a music picture and a romance. It may be a remake of a remake, but it feels fresh thanks to its two charismatic leads. I don’t know why or how Bohemian Rhapsody stole the spotlight that A Star Is Born should be occupying. No matter, because movie and music fans are both lucky that Cooper and Gaga jumped off the deep end and let us watch as they dove in.

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Treasured Track: Bruce Springsteen – “Hungry Heart”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to bygone eras of our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

“Hungry Heart” is the first song I ever sang at karaoke (shout out to DJ Milo Spriggs at The Froggy Dog), and I’ll always love it for that alone. It’s upbeat as hell with its keyboard foundation and Bruce shouting out encouragement to the audience, but it’s also the story of a man who’s abandoned his family. I’m struggling to think of another fun pop rock song that begins with a line as shocking as, “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. / I went out for a ride and I never went back.”

Even with that, “Hungry Heart” is undeniably appealing. It’s a song begging to be sung along to, joyous in tone if not in context. And even if the narrator has done something despicable, one thing he isn’t guilty of is speaking untruths. Even the most cynical person would find it hard to deny the final verse, spoken in common language without any pretense: “Everybody needs a place to rest, / Everybody wants to have a home. / Don’t make no difference what nobody says, / Ain’t nobody like to be alone.”

Coincidently, today while listening to This American Life I heard about how babies raised in orphanages without any kind of love would simply die. “Hungry Heart” begins by introducing us to a terrible husband/father, and it ends by reaffirming our need find to a connection in life that helps us feel fulfilled. We can distrust the man while appreciating the message. You’re a master, Bruce.

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Music Review: Wild Sweet Orange – We Have Cause to Be Uneasy

Wild Sweet Orange didn’t release much music before calling it quits, but we should be thankful for their one full-length album We Have Cause to Be Uneasy. The band reminds me of Manchester Orchestra in that Wild Sweet Orange did everything right the first time around, creating a fantastic album on their first try.

We Have Cause to Be Uneasy follows a pattern of using twangy guitar to convey a sense of timidity before the band unleashes a storm to accentuate Preston Lovinggood’s singing/shouting. “Seeing and Believing,” a stand out track, is a perfect example of this. It’s a lovely song that begins with Preston reflecting on a doomed relationship before the ending explodes with Preston singing, “So I pray / For a song on its way / To take shape and replace our shame.”

Some tracks embrace the Nashville country roots of the band (“An Atlas to Follow”), but I’m all about the aforementioned storm. “Aretha’s Gold” lifts up the back half of the album, finding a more experimental sound with heavy reverb and Preston sounding more than a little frustrated as he sings, “Oh, but me, / I’m as dramatic as the thunder. / My lightning scares her, she rolls over. / Oh yeah, she needs to get some sleep.” I don’t know if Wild Sweet Orange will return to try another album (they’ve been broken up for years now); if they do, they have a high hill to climb to top their first one.

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Top Ten: Game of Thrones Armor

Top Ten- Game of Thrones Armor

This month Game of Thrones returns for its final season, so this is a good time to take a look back at some of the best armor featured on the show. Now, I’m not an expert on armor or a medieval scholar, so I’m judging based on design, how it relates to a character/house, and pretty much how good it looks on whoever is wearing it. Multiple characters wear similar suits of armor on the show, and in those cases I picked my favorite amongst the bunch. Keep in mind I’m not ranking the characters themselves. Also, Kahl Drogo is one of the best fighters on the show, but I’m not considering his leather cummerbund as armor.

Alright, are we ready? Here are the armor clad warriors of Westeros and beyond who kick ass and look good doing it.

Top Ten- Game of Thrones Armor 10

10. Vardis Egen (Knight of the Vale – House Arryn)

Unless you recently re-watched Game of Thrones, you may have forgotten about Ser Vardis. Way back in season one he fought Bronn in a trial by combat. Vardis looks like a knight from a different series, noble and sturdy. The pointed pattern on the armor keeps it from looking bland, and the closed helmet is a classic knight look, topped off with a single comb (which resembles a medieval Mohawk). None of that saved Vardis from Bronn though; the poor guy ended up taking a long fall down the Moon Door.

Top Ten- Game of Thrones Armor 09

09. Jamie Lannister (Kingsguard – House Baratheon)

The Kingsguard of House Baratheon are mostly ceremonial. By the time the series begins, the kingdom is relatively peaceful, so shiny gold armor is in vogue at the capital. The color can look sort of gaudy and pompous, but it’s also unique and daring. The guy wearing gold armor is just asking for someone to challenge him, and the white cape adds superhero flair. Jaime looks like the ideal knight in shining armor, albeit one who sleeps with his sister on the side.

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Video Game Review: Spider-Man

Marvel's Spider-Man_20190201221533

Just like I got a Nintendo Switch strictly to play Breath of the Wild, I bought a Playstation 4 to play Spider-Man. In fact, I managed to snag the red PS4 special edition with the huge white spider logo slapped on it, and it looks slick. After spending hours completing every side mission and churning through the DLC, I’m happy to say that Spider-Man took the best parts of the classic Spider-Man 2 game (released way back in 2004) and improved on its weaknesses.

Spider-Man is a combination of Spider-Man 2 and the Batman Arkham games sprinkled with familiar, sometimes boring side missions copied from games like Assassin’s Creed. Even if some of the side missions aren’t exciting, web slinging around New York is enjoyable enough to forgive bland missions. Seriously, launching Spidey through the air and threading the needle through tight spaces at high velocity is terrific. Similar to the web slinging, the combat is fluid and varied. I never blamed the game when I failed in a fight, and when I fell into a good rhythm the streets of New York would be littered with webbed up criminals.

Although high end graphics are usually secondary to me when it comes to video games, Spidey looks amazing in this game. It’s clear that the designers took pride in crafting every costume, and I even found myself using costumes I don’t care that much about (Scarlet Spider, Secret War) because they look so cool in-game. The only problem is there are so many impressively designed suits and I could only wear one at a time.

I knew webslinging would be fun, but surprisingly, the story is the most impressive part of Spider-Man. Like the classic Marvel comics, Peter Parker has to balance crime fighting, finances, and family obligations. Mixed in with old tropes are new versions of Mary Jane and Aunt May (the best we’ve ever seen), sympathetic villain Martin Li, as well as a good kid named Miles Morales. There’s also Doctor Octavius, Peter’s mentor, who might be the most fleshed out villain I’ve ever encountered in a video game. The characters drive the story and inject it with life.

When I was about halfway through Spider-Man I realized something: this feels like being in a comic book! Whether I was slinging across the Upper East Side to meet Aunt May at the community center or dodging Electro’s blasts hundreds of feet in the air, I was immersed in the game and felt like the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. One of the only real flaws I found is in the title. “Spider-Man” is good, but adding an adjective like “Sensational” would be more fitting.

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Book Review: Stan Sakai – Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition

Book Review - Stan Sakai - Usagi Yojimbo- The Special Edition

I first met rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi while watching the ‘80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he wasn’t just a friend to the turtles, but an original character with his own comic series. Stan Sakai started the Usagi Yojimbo series in 1984, and The Special Edition collects the first seven volumes.

Usagi is a rōnin (masterless samurai) who wanders a fantastical Feudal Japan full of anthropomorphic animals, finding adventure along the way. Sakai’s art style is pleasantly cartoonish, even when characters are being stabbed or beheaded. It’s an odd contradiction, but it works very well. Plus, little details are fun to find; in one panel corner a lizard catches sight of an approaching conflict, and in the next panel the lizard flees in fear. The Special Edition tells short, self-contained stories while introducing recurring characters who work to assist or hinder Usagi. For example, if Usagi duels and defeats an enemy in one issue, that same antagonist is likely to pop up in a later issue looking for revenge. Sakai strikes a perfect balance between serialization and simplicity.

Many of the stories in The Special Edition are about good versus evil, but the gray areas are the most intriguing. In one story Usagi escorts an older woman to her home village where he finds that the cruel village leader is the woman’s son. The woman, aware of how the villagers are suffering under tyranny, pleads with Usagi to kill her son. I won’t spoil the ending, but the conflict tests Usagi’s morality and it is a must read. Usagi’s antagonists can also be sympathetic, changing over time and even helping Usagi when they could just as easily kill him.

Reading through The Special Edition I grew to care about Miyamoto Usagi, and I still want more stories even after completing the large volume. So I’ve already bought the next four volumes, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Usagi’s journey until he (hopefully) is able to settle down to a peaceful life.

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Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

movie review - spider-man- into the spider-verse

Like most comic book fans, I’ve come to accept that DC creates the best animated content for its superheroes (see Batman: The Animated Series, JLA Unlimited, and Young Justice). Well, no one must have told the minds behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Simply put, Spider-Man has never been more fun to watch onscreen.

Into the Spider-Verse is a hero’s journey for new superhero Miles Morales, but he’s joined by a washed-up Peter Parker (played by Jake Johnson, a favorite of mine), Spider-Gwen, and a few other unique Spider-heroes ready to fight on the side of good. It’s easy to suffer from Marvel fatigue considering how many similar movies are churned out each year, but Into the Spider-Verse is creative and funny, with striking visuals, and there’s even a shocking moment at the start of the film that actually saddened me (another unexpected treat is the horror movie vibe that starts up when The Prowler hunts Miles). The animated film shows a clear reverence for the mythology of Spider-Man, and it contains more Easter eggs than my eyes had time to identify.

The only part of Into the Spider-Verse that I didn’t buy was Miles’ upgrade from blundering, awkward, wannabe hero to an amazingly skilled combatant capable of defeating a legendary villain. It’s not a gradual transition, but rather a “believe in yourself and you can do anything” sort of change. To say it’s not realistic is odd, considering the film features a talking pig, but it bothered me. Regardless, I love this film, and I’m hoping the sequel is even better. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just a great Spidey movie, it’s probably the best Spider-Man movie ever made.

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The Challenge Hall of Shame: Danny Jamieson

The Challenge HOS- Danny Jamieson

The Challenge isn’t for everyone. There will always be those who excel in competition (see the Hall of Fame winners) and unfortunately, there will always be those who consistently find themselves at the bottom. Maybe they’ve embarrassed themselves. Maybe they couldn’t win an elimination to save their lives. Worst of all, maybe they quit on themselves or their teams. Either way, they played poorly enough to enter the Hall of Shame.

Poor Danny. He started out his reality TV career on The Real World: Austin by having his face punched in, and his Challenge career didn’t go much better. If he hadn’t been part of such a popular Real World season, Danny probably wouldn’t have been invited back to The Challenge so many times. But even with all the opportunities he had to win, Danny only lost.

Danny didn’t have a problem with daily challenges (so he wasn’t a constant liability to his teams), but he could not win an elimination to save his life. Now, no one can fault Danny for losing to heavy hitters like Wes Bergmann on Fresh Meat or Darrell Taylor on The Ruins. Danny actually put up a decent fight against Darrell. But Danny was one elimination away from the final on The Gauntlet III, and he failed miserably against the much smaller Adam King in a physical elimination. He talked a big game, saying something about tearing off Adam’s arm and beating him with it, and Adam ended up running circles around Danny. Even worse, Danny clearly quit on himself during the elimination, hunching his shoulders and accepting defeat. It’s the same posture he had on The Inferno III when he allowed Davis Mallory to knock him out of the game. Over the course of his Challenge career, Danny had six chances to survive elimination, and he failed every time.

Of course, a challenger doesn’t have to be great in eliminations in order to reach a final. If Danny had a better political game, he definitely could have made it to the end of a season. But for some reason Danny adopted Wes’ “I’m better than you” attitude, and it did not suit him at all. Wes could at least back up some of his bravado while Danny could not. Danny was never well liked, and it led to him getting thrown into elimination every season. It’s too bad that Danny hasn’t been back since his final appearance on Battle of the Seasons, because he finally seemed to become a more likable guy. That being said, even if he made a return, it’s unlikely Danny would make it anywhere near a final.

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Key Character: Dr. Peter Benton

Key Character- Dr. Peter Benton

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

Many great doctors walked the halls of ER during its fifteen season run, and there’s none finer than Dr. Peter Benton. Benton never gains many friends amongst the hospital staff due to his stubborn, sometimes disagreeable personality, but he works extraordinarily hard to uphold the Hippocratic Oath and care for his patients.

Introduced as a hotshot, impatient surgeon, Benton constantly displays his desire to be the best doctor in the operating room. There are plenty of references to the difficulty Benton faced in becoming a doctor due to his family’s lower income status, which helps to explain his drive to succeed. He doesn’t just excel for himself, he works for the people closest to him, namely his mother and sister (and later, his son). Choosing work over personal obligations becomes a constant conflict for Benton, and he often neglects his loved ones to fulfill his surgical duties. Much to his family’s displeasure, unfortunate scheduling leads to Benton missing his elderly mother’s birthday party to save the life of a white supremacist in the season one episode “The Birthday Party.” But that’s what makes Benton unique. No matter the history/race/transgression of the patient, Benton cares for his patients equally. Well, almost. More on that in a bit.

Even with Benton’s self-discipline and extremely busy schedule, somehow medical student John Carter manages to find his way into Benton’s heart. The mentor-mentee relationship between Benton and Carter is my favorite part of a series that features many other exemplary episodes and characters. Benton regularly berates Carter and expects perfection from his student, but it all has a purpose. There is no maliciousness. Benton is demanding and uncompromising in order to make Carter a better doctor. And here’s something I noticed upon re-watching ER’s early seasons – Benton is always supportive of Carter during traumas. Traumas are fast moving environments where it’s easy for a doctor to lose his cool, but that’s when Benton encourages Carter, letting him know he can perform difficult procedures, believing in Carter even if Carter doesn’t believe in himself.

The historic episode “All in the Family” reveals just how much Carter means to Dr. Benton. After he discovers Carter has been stabbed, a panicked Benton rushes to his side and refuses to leave until he knows Carter is out of danger. Benton has full faith in his own abilities, and he won’t trust anyone else to heal his student. For Benton, Carter’s surgery isn’t just professional, it’s very much personal. And when Carter develops an addiction to narcotics, once again it’s Dr. Benton who’s by his side, chaperoning him across the country to a rehab facility.

Dr. Benton finally leaves the ER after realizing that being a father is more important than anything else, but he leaves behind a strong legacy. Dr. Carter may have filled the void left by Dr. Green, but he’s the product of his mentor, Dr. Benton. And Carter couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.

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