Pro Wrestling Crate June 2018 Unboxing / Review

Looks like it’s that time of the month again! Time for yet another subscription crate un-boxing. I know I seem to do a lot of these, but truthfully it’s just a few each month and the ones I usually get are awesome. As you may or may not know, I’m an avid collector of wrestling memorabilia and signed autographs, and as someone that usually doesn’t care for receiving gifts on holidays and other special occasions, these boxes seem to give me the same feeling most people get on their birthday or Christmas. Now before I start a therapy session, it’s time for the main event: This week we’re taking a look at the Pro Wrestling Crate June 2018!


Spoiler Card

This month’s theme is “Ladies of Wrestling” with some of the proceeds of this crate going to an organization called Womankind. Womankind is a UK-based organization that helps support other organizations in developing nations that help women’s rights. I’m not actually sure how long PWC has been donating to charity in these, as I may have been insanely unobservant in the past, but either way it’s cool to see them helping others with some of the money they receive.

With women’s wrestling in what many would consider to be it’s highest point in many decades, it’s fun to have one of these boxes devoted exclusively to the division.


Shirt 1: Sugar Skull Amy Dumas / Lita Shirt

 

Cool distressed sugar skull shirt from WWE’s Lita / Amy Dumas.


Shirt 2: Join the Hive – Rosemary

 

Easily Impact Wrestling’s biggest female star of the last few years and one of the cooler babyface gimmicks in the entire company.


Candice LeRae Micro Brawler

 

I absolutely love these little figures we get each month exclusively in this subscription box. This one will be proudly displayed next to my Joey Ryan figure to recreate the World’s Cutest Tag Team or holding a spot for a possible Johnny Gargano figure I hope we eventually get. I have started amassing quite the collection of these:


Barbie Blank / Kelly Kelly Poster

While not my favorite wrestler, Kelly Kelly sure makes a nice pin-up poster. Granted, I have very few places I could actually put this without looking like a total sleazeball. Maybe I can hang it near my exercise equipment.


Vickie Guerrero autographed 8×10

Another solid  addition to my collection. I really need to post some of those on here one of these days.


Shayna Bazsler Playing Cards

 

What better merch for the “Queen of Spades” than a deck of playing cards!


Tessa Blanchard collector’s Pin

 

Impact Wrestling’s latest female star and former Mae Young Tournament competitor Tessa Blanchard is the exclusive pin this month, very nice!


In the Ring DVD: Luna Vachon

I am woefully behind on my wrestling DVDs, but this looks pretty cool. Perhaps most well known for her work in WWF in the 90’s, Luna was one of the few female wrestlers at that time, that I was legit scared of.  Here is part of the blurb on the back on the DVD:

Shot on 6/6/06 at a wrestling school behind a mental institution, Luna and Vampire Warrior covered all the wrestling basics such as bumping, selling, and working for the camera as they weaved in stories from being on the road and working with WWE! This was an amazing performance that needs to be seen to be believed. Everyone remembers Luna’s insane promos and on this exclusive DVD she takes the time to work with the students on their promo skills. We even got a chance to watch Luna cut some of her most infamous promos and explained to us where they came from emotionally.


Tenille Dashwood’s aviator sunglasses

 

Emma was one of the most criminally underused characters in the last decade in WWE, I’m very glad she’s been doing well in the indies, and especially her work in Ring of Honor. Cool sunglasses as well.


All-in-all another great box from Pro Wrestling Crate – as always the autograph is always a highlight for me, but the shirts (especially the Rosemary one) were great, and I love my Micro Brawlers! pound for pound, this is the best wrestling crate out there. It usually has the most diverse selection of items, and the coolest themes. To get your own, head on over to Pro Wrestling Crate at the following link: Pro Wrestling Crate!

Next month’s box is all about the bad guys

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The Monday Meme: BOOOOOOOOO

Lady Death: Chaos Rules / Lady Death: Damnnation Game (2015)

One of my guilty pleasures in the world of comics are “cheesecake comics” an outdated term for a comic with sexy women in it (beefcake is more used today for the opposite). One thing I will never do is get on a soapbox and try to pretend that the only reason I read comics like this are for some metatextual ironic reason, or that I believe books like this are in some way feminist in nature. Honestly, some books like this are pretty trashy, although I try to avoid the stuff that veers into total smut as the storytelling is usually the caliber of a late night Cinemax movie.

What I will say is that I enjoy the art and I like the carefree attitude most of them have, and that’s why I read them. Most of these comics are not really erotic in any way nor do they depict lurid acts for the most part, but everyone in it usually dresses like they live in a Frank Miller movie, so there’s that. If you recall I have posted reviews in the past for Vampirella comics, which despite the silly costuming and gratuitous poses, is actually a good read and a fairly compelling comic for somebody that loves gothic horror. I also enjoy things like Conan and Red Sonja which are both barbarian adventure comics, and cheesecake depending on the story. So why am I rambling about this? Today we’re talking about what I consider to be the “best of both worlds” in terms of gratuitous imagery and a barbarian tone – Brian Pulido’s Lady Death.

Much like Dawn and Vampirella, I remember being introduced to comics like this when I was a teenager in the 90’s and an avid reader of Wizard Magazine. They would usually have posters or articles about these comics, and they looked really cool, but the comics were usually kept in the forbidden “behind the counter” zone that young impressionable teens had no access to at the local comic shop. Had I seen a stray side-boob at that age, you never know what sort of miscreant I would be today!

Coffin Comics, the new company helmed by Lady Death creator Brian Pulido, has an interesting way of making comics in this modern climate of digital distribution and Amazon running everything out of business. Instead of a model where comics are sent out to stores, he funds each issue with a Kickstarter campaign resulting in a landslide victory each time in funding and a ton of swag to the contributors. I have been able to participate in the last few campaigns and have been rewarded with all manner of posters, bumper stickers, cards, guitar picks, and even challenge coins. While some creators use the funding to pad their wallets or to fund other things than what the fans are contributing to, Coffin Comics leaves me happy each time even though I will never be able to use all of the silly swag I get. But where did this business model come from?

Coffin Comics was started in 2007 by Pulido, who is the previously mentioned creator of pretty much all of the properties formerly under the roof of a company called Chaos! Comics. These titles included Lady Death, Evil Ernie, Purgatori, Chastity, Jade, Bad Kitty, and Lady Demon. At one point, Lady Death was big enough to have her own trading card sets and other merch that usually was only reserved for big Marvel and DC properties. When Chaos ceased publishing, the license to Lady Death moved to another company called CrossGen publishing that went out of business about a decade ago.

After a few false starts, everyone’s favorite anti-hero is back home with Pulido in this new company since 2015. When asked about this new strategy utilizing Kickstarter, Pulido has remarked that he’s not really interested in the mass market that much (although he does sell through Diamond like most comics) but has a comic collector in mind with every decision. That’s why all of the comics are marked #1 and there are TONS of alternate covers for each issue – some with print-runs as low as 12 copies! While that seems silly, the fans of his don’t seem to mind, it’s just a quirk of getting comics from them.

To date: the following titles have been released:

  • Lady Death: Chaos Rules
  • Lady Death: Damnation Game
  • Lady Death: Extinction Express
  • Lady Death: Oblivion Kiss
  • Lady Death: Merciless Onslaught
  • Lady Death: Unholy Ruin
  • Lady Death: Apocalyptic Abyss

So getting into the first of our double feature – Chaos Rules #1, the comic assumes you know who Lady Death is right from the get-go and wastes no time in making sure you know anything. Granted, there’s nothing keeping a new reader from understanding the plot, but a vague knowledge of the basic plot could be a plus. I would recommend perhaps watching the 2004 film created by the Now defunct anime studio AD Vision and written by Carl Macek. It’s not completely true to the source material, but it helps sum up the backstory. Here it is conveniently found on YouTube:

If you don’t want to watch that, the gist of her origin is that she was once  a young girl in medieval Sweden named Hope. Her father was a local nobleman named Matthias (Marius in one of the reboots) who was forcibly conscripting peasants into military service as feudal levies. Unknown to his innocent daughter, Matthias had a dark secret.

Although congratulated by the Church for his work against the pagans, he was despised by the common folk as a cruel tyrant. Matthias was outwardly pious, but secretly dabbled in black magic and demonology. He was actually a descendant of the fallen angels who had led the rebellion against God. A couple of the series change what happens next a bit, but Hope’s father summons a demon and Hope is captured in his place to be tried as a witch – she uses the same incantation her father was using and summons another demon that gives her a choice: Die or live as a soldier in Hell. She takes the latter and becomes a bad-ass warlord to face her father or to take over Hell depending on the version.

“In Chaos Rules #1, Lady Death is awakened from a 20-year, spell-induced slumber, she finds herself in the fiery pits of Hell. Two decades of her life, gone –– nothing more than nightmares. Who among her depraved enemies is responsible? How long until she exacts bloody vengeance? Not long!!! This is the first new Lady Death comic I’ve personally published in 12 years. This story –– chock full of sex, violence, and very bad behavior –– is Lady Death, fully realized.”

The above is a quote from Brian Pulido from the Kickstarter page and it sets the tone of the comic. This is definitely a re-introduction the the character that I assume many have not kept up with for a number of years, if not decades. While no Citizen Kane in terms of writing, the story is well conveyed and well-written for this type of comic. Perhaps the only thing holding this back from being “great” was the fact that some of the art is a bit cold or static, making it hard to tell what exactly is going on.

This is a minor gripe though, as fans of the original book and fans of this genre will enjoy it immensely. It was good to see the story scaled back after the almost Dragonball Z styled power boost given to the characters in later incarnations – a trend that seems to ruin most comics like this. It happened in Spawn, Punisher, and even Dragonball Z! It’s nice to see the Lady return to her roots.

Damnation Game #1

“Lady Death rescues an innocent boy dragged to Hell, inciting an ultra-violent quest into the depths of Damnation, a depraved city hosting ‘The Hades Engine,” a contraption that can return the boy to earth. But Lady Death’s actions bring her into direct conflict with the nefarious Hellwitch. Who will live? Who will die? With her return to Hell, Lady Death is public enemy number one, and you know what? She wouldn’t have it any other way. Let the mayhem begin!”

Coffin’s second outing is another solid read, but is held back by the exact opposite issue I had with the first issue. While the art in this is better than in the first, my opinion at least, the writing isn’t as well-done. some bits of dialog are very stilted, perhaps cliché and seem forced. On the flip-side, there are moments of great foreshadowing that Dheeraj Verma and Sabine Rich employed that conveyed a plot twist coming up better with their use of panels than the dialog could do. I loved the artwork.

This book is also the introduction of a new nemesis for Lady Death in a character named Hell Witch. You see Lady Death may have offed her Daddy in the last issue, so Hell Witch is out for vengeance. Since I’m assuming old Chaos! characters like Purgatori are off the table, Hell Witch seems like a fine replacement without being a direct clone or simple stand-in of the other. Although, to be honest, part of me would love to see these older characters eventually make their ways back home as well.

All-in all you really can’t go wrong with either book – stay tuned for more as I have all of the issues so far and will try to do more reviews! I will also do a kickstarter un-boxing whenever my La Muerta: Retribution stuff arrives.

The Monday Meme: PSA

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

As we all know by now, Konami sucks and has cemented itself as one of, if not THE most hated game company on the planet. Formerly the home of a myriad of popular gaming franchises, the company now seems hellbent on ruining the careers of it’s once most valued creators and cranking out mobile games and pachinko machines for the Japanese market. This has led a wave of aforementioned creators to bail on the company including the likes of Hideo Kojima and Koji Igarashi (IGA), the man that is the topic of today’s review. IGA left Konami a number of years ago to help found a new company called Artplay and helmed a successful Kickstarter for their first game entitled Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – a 2.5D modern “spiritual successor” to his popular Castlevania series.

It’s been a few years since IGA did his Kickstarter, and we’re finally seeing some of the fruits of the labor that he and his team have been putting into the title. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is actually the result of a stretch goal from the main title that was expanded into a full-fledged game. This isn’t really something new for crowdfunded games, and honestly games in general nowadays, as a lot of production companies have been churning out small, usually cellphone related, games as a marketing tool for their releases. The difference between this and a lot of those promotional games is that this is a FULL-ON 8 bit game that was crafted to help build the world around the Bloodstained franchise and set the scene for the main game.

On the night of the full moon, demons called forth by evil alchemists emerge from a land beyond ours and ravage the earth, becoming a threat that spells the end of mankind as we know it. On this night, one man, a warrior from the east, arrives to exterminate the demon threat for the sake of both his friends and the survival of the human race. However, to destroy the demons once and for all, he must find solace and support in unusual allies…

COTM is, in a lot of ways, similar to the NES classic Castlevania 3 (which also has a solid Netflix show based on it) in that it is level-based instead of the sprawling castle that we are used to in more modern “Metroidvania games” and has switchable characters. Each character has strengths and weaknesses and learning how to properly employ them in battle is the key to getting through this game easily. Granted, there is an easy mode if that doesn’t help.

First up we have Zangetsu, a warrior from the East who wields the legendary sword Zangetsuto, in his battle to remove all deminds from the earth. He is eventually aided by Miriam, a character that was introduced to us as the main protagonist of the upcoming Ritual of the Night. Miriam suffers from a curse that is slowly turning her into a stained glass window. Miriam wields a whip in classic ‘Vania fashion and can jump higher than Zangetsu and slide under walls in some cases.

The next character obtained is named Alfred. He is an Alchemist said to be searching for an ancient tome called the Liber Logaeth. Since alchemists have been touted as the chief evil of this world, it will be interesting to see how his story pans out in the larger game. Alfred is very weak but can wield powerful magic including this awesome electricity spell that will lay waste to any boss if you mange to keep it on you to that point.

Finally, Zangetsu meets a man named Gebel who is allegedly the progenitor of the crystallizing curse who harbors deep hatred for both humans and alchemists. he can shoot stuff out of his hands and turn into a bat to help avoid annoying platforming sections. At least that’s what I did! According to all the press stuff, Gebel appears to be the main villain of the follow-up game, so seeing him here as a “hero” is interesting.

Like I stated earlier, this isn’t some quick cash-in cellphone game. This is a full featured game with multiple difficulties and multiple endings that open up after you clear the game forcing you to play again to see the true ending. There are eight full levels, with the final three being pretty long, and a boss for each and every level. I currently have only finished the game once, so I cannot comment on additional modes past that. The graphics and music are also very good and really help this game stand out.

All in all this is a GREAT retro game – it’s not gratuitously hard like the recent Mega Man sequels or super short like I assumed it would be. This is a full fledged game that seems like I could have been playing it on the NES 30 years ago. If this is the quality to expect from this series, I am very excited to see the follow-up and hope there will be a new franchise coming from this.

I got the game for free as I donated to the Kickstarter, but it appears to sell for $9.99 which is a good price for such a quality game. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is available on just about everything, so if your looking for a new Castlevania styled game, look no further.

Niche Games Can do Well if Companies Take Time to Market Them Correctly

Note: Close to a decade ago, I worked for a gaming website called Gamrfeed, sadly the site folded and was absorbed back into it’s parent website VGchartz a long time ago. When I started working at my current job in 2011, I sadly did not have time to continue producing articles on the schedule that was required, so I had to drop it. I was really proud of some of the work I did on there, and do not want it to disappear into the ether as most websites do after a while. I’ve been posting a few of these “rescued articles” recently, especially ones I think still matter or that I’m proud of. Since this article is from early 2011, the references are incredibly out of date, but that should not stand in the way of the information presented.

I wrote this as a commentary on the trend of publishers not releasing what could be considered “niche games” in the US market for a myriad of reasons and basically blaming the fans when asked about it. I was really hot about this issue at the time, as companies like Namco, Konami, Capcom, and pretty much any other Japanese gaming company started this really ugly trend of cancelling games then blaming fans for not doing free PR work or “not being excited enough”. Honestly this seems to have gotten somewhat worse as time has gone by as most “AAA games” have shifted from being “games” and are now almost all open-world monstrosities that are designed to pump money from you. Case and point, this slide from an Ubisoft press conference: 

 


The “Games as a Service” dilemma might be a solid topic for a future article, but without further ado, lets step back into 2011 and see what made me rage out then.


We have been told for years and years now that niche games (which usually mean games from Japan) do not sell in this current market. This has been, on countless occasions, the primary reason for the endless sequels, spin-offs, and clones that we see in place of refreshing new IPs. I have always held the opinion that, if given a fair shot, many of these games could sell very well if marketed well, courted to the press, and handled better than many games are handled. The age old argument seems to be that “weird Japanese games” should never be released over here, as they will fail miserably. Some seem to forget occasions where this was proven to be total bunk, like with the EXTREMELY weird game Katamari Damacy and now an equally bizarre game – Catherine.

If one had to actually explain the premise of Catherine to a non-gamer or the dreaded “casual gamer” I would imagine that the person in question would resemble either a total loon, or somebody on a prohibited substance. In a recent VGchartz review, the plot was laid as as such: “Every night after Vincent leaves the bar he grows horns and enters a nightmare world in which he and some sheep constantly climb a tower of blocks in an attempt to reach the top before the bottom falls out from under them.” For the layman, a premise like this seems destined for the bargain bin amongst copies of Wet and Brink; but that’s the funny thing about Catherine – it’s actually doing well.

After just one week out in the Americas, the game has racked up a total sales of nearly 300,000 units worldwide, and with a reported 200,000 copies released to stores (the largest release Atlus USA has ever enjoyed) I think we can safely see that a game like an erotic action/puzzle game can sell well if handled correctly.

 

https://i0.wp.com/gamrfeed.vgchartz.com/galleries/2010-06-06/steves-gallery/steves-gallery_1312837171.png

News reports later backed this revelation Catherine had shipped 200k copies”:

“Yesterday, Atlus told IGN that Catherine has been the company’s biggest launch title ever. “[It] has exceeded our highest expectations,” said Tim Pivnicny, VP of Sales and Marketing at Atlus. “It released last week to tremendous critical acclaim and fan response, bolstered by the release of a demo a couple weeks prior, and continues to generate discussion among fans for its mature themes, engrossing subject matter, and frantic, challenging gameplay.”

So how did this happen? How did a game where a man is slowly being turned into a sheep and has to climb a tower do so well? Quick answer – it was marketed correctly.

Let’s face it, Atlus games have a very loyal built in fanbase all over the world, and while some games sort of fizzled out like, Growlanser V, they have had a number of modest hits including the Persona series. The reason that their games do well is a hard question to answer, but I feel that it can be broken down into a quick little formula that they have obviously mastered. First and foremost Atlus USA seems to be one of the only companies in America that sets realistic goals for games. Rather than expecting everything to be a million seller, then getting mad when they have extra stock and nobody buying them, Atlus makes small runs of every game based on predictions from pre-orders. This usually means that their games almost always sell out.

Another thing that Atlus always does well is that they treat any release like an event, like it is something special. Rather than throwing the game to the wolves in such a way that indicates that the parent company really could care less for a quirky foreign game, Atlus does it right. They set realistic goals, run pre-orders, and use viral marketing to build hype. Atlus USA have a good relationship with their fans, and utilize them to help hype games, but not in a way that totally burdens them with it, as a lot of the bigger companies do.

When fans spoke out about Catherine originally not getting released in the U.S., the fans spoke up and it worked. Nobody ever said “you better hype this or we won’t release anything else”, they said “okay here it is”. Now that the fans were happy and willing to help out, it was time to win over the press. Remember all the E3 press the game got, even if the game itself wasn’t being talked about, all patrons of the convention had “Catherine” branded on their lanyards, leaving many to look into the game if they hadn’t done so. Magazines started talking about it, game websites, everybody.

It really shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Catherine is doing well, but many are treating it as such. This is most likely because we live in an era when any game that does not sell millions of units is considered a huge flop. If anything, it is the small publishing houses that get it right in these situations: they don’t try to act like they are as big as EA or Activision, but cater to their more intimate audience. Through Pre-sell bonuses, viral marketing, word-of-mouth, and pure old fasioned sexual innuendo, Atlus seem to have struck gold here. Let’s hope it keeps happening.


End Note: It’s funny to look back on this and see me talk about the “modest hit Persona” considering how huge Persona 5 was last year – despite that Atlus (now owned by Sega) is still great at what they do, and many other Japanese publishers have not changed course – especially Konami because F%$# Konami.

Lucha Loot May ’18 Treasure Chest Unboxing / Review

I occasionally partake in the subscription box craze that seems to be going on right now, mostly gaming and wrestling related. There’s been some good ones and some bad, but the wrestling ones are largely my favorite ones to get. As an avid collector of wrestling memorabilia and signed autographs, these things are always a pleasure – well aside from that time WWE unloaded a ton of Enzo Amore merch on everyone before he got released for being an alleged rapist.

This week I’m going to look at the Lucha Loot May ’18 Treasure Chest from Masked Republic. First thing’s first – the spoiler card:

Looks pretty solid, a bit heavy on the Masked Republic branded Merch, but I have a possible answer for that later.

Mask – Huracán Ramírez

 

One of the forefathers of Lucha Libre, Huracán Ramírez, aka Daniel García, was one of the handful of luchadors so popular that he was given his own feature films. He was an active wrestler for more than 30 years, and passed away in 2006.  During his career, his true identity was a closely guarded secret except to the closest family and friends, more closely guarded that any other luchador of that period. Following his retirement the “Huracán Ramírez” name and mask has been used by others, primarily because García did not own the rights to the name and the mask.

Pin Set: Juventud Guerrera

Solid pin set, instead of one enamel pin (as usual), we get two buttons this time.

Sticker: Masked Republic Japan X Haoming Logo Sticker

About the size of a baseball card.

Masked Republic Beer Koozy

I have more wrestling Koozies (that looks weird) than any sane person needs.

Shirt: MAD

I need to get caught up with recent happenings in AAA, as I had no idea that MAD had reformed or that Konnan had buried the hatchet with the promotion. The logo is really cool, and doesn’t scream WRESTLING SHIRT (not that I care like some folks) but it legit looks cool. It’ll definitely get added to my rotation!

Autograph: Mascarita Dorada

Better known in the US as El Torito, the diminutive Bull character that used to accompany The Colons a few years back when they were dressed up as Spanish bull fighters, Mascarita Dorada is awesome! one of the better autographs from this subscription.

Dr. Wagner Keychain

Solid keychain currently residing on my keys. Or other way around…whatever… Plus Dr. Wagner Jr. is one of my faves, so this was cool.


Here’s what I was talking about earlier:

Looks like Lucha Loot will be switching to a 6 boxes per year model instead of a monthly model as it now stands – I assume this is why this box had a lot of in-house swag as they are rebuilding for some reason. I hope it’s not some sort of monetary issue as I love these guys and their customer service is pretty awesome.

All in all, solid box with the stand-out items being the shirt and autograph. If you have some spare cash laying around, give these guys a shot – it’s like a lucha filled Christmas in your mailbox every month. I would say that you could set aside money for the pre-paid subscription like I did, but that’s no longer an option.

Anyway, check this out here

Digital Manga Bargain Bin Dive

One thing that I always enjoy is a good sale – and when it comes to manga you really can’t beat books for around 2-3 bucks a pop. I’ve obtained great reads from a company called Digital Manga Publishing over the past few years – usually Vampire Hunter D or Osamu Tezuka books that they seem to be the chief publisher of. A while back I grabbed a few books on the cheap that didn’t really warrant a full-sized review, so figured I’d do the same thing I did with my bargain Heavy metal haul from last year.

Check em out right here if you’re interested!!


IWGP vols 1-4 (2001-4)

I already did a full review of IWGP Vol 1 a while back, here’s a recap:

The story follows a guy named Makoto that seems to have all sorts of connections to street gangs and other illicit activities despite seemingly not being a part of said activity. He runs a shop with his mother and has some sort of oddly close Batman/Commisioner Gordon relationship with the local police that has yet to be fully explained. He and a few friends meet a couple of girls at a New Year’s Eve party (the over-hyped 1999-2000 millennium celebration in particular) and hits it off with a girl named Rika. Ikebukuro is plagued with reports of a serial “strangler” that seems to be attacking girls that go on dates with older guys for money, and this has everyone scared. Some bad stuff happens and it’s all up to Makoto to stop it (to not go into spoiler-land too much).

 


Knights Vol 1 (2008)

This is a 2.5 story with a very interesting protagonist, so I rated it a bit higher. Based loosely on the European witch hunting craze in the 13th century, it seems that all clergymen have become insane zealots that practice witch persecution this side of the Malleus Maleficarum. The only people standing up to a genocide of falsely accused witches are a squire named Mist commonly referred to as “The Black Knight” and his assistant, some sort of real witch that is naked about 99% of the book. I thought Mist was interesting because he is dark-skinned in a world where nobody seems to have seen either a Moor or African person (it’s a fantasy world I suppose) and thinks that they are demons. So basically this is a literal black knight fighting racist clergymen…weird…


Worst vol 1 (2002)

Worst vol 1 is a promising beginning to a comic in a genre I have never really delved much into. Of course I’ve seen parody stuff like Cromartie High Schoool and read things like GTO, but that’s not really the same. This is the typical “youth delinquent” genre story where rival high school gangs are vying for turf and duking it out, but instead of a tough-as-nails protagonist, Hana is a fun loving guy with a big heart that can also kick pretty much anyone’s ass when it comes to fighting. Can’t wait to read more…

 

The Monday Meme: Country Music

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

“I’m gonna be a pilot. Best in the galaxy.”

 

While I can’t say I’ve been one of the more loyal Star Wars fans over the years, (the prequels lost me for a bit) some of my fondest memories of my childhood include it. Then again, I can’t imagine too many “older millennials” not having some sort of deep cultural connection to it – whether loved or hated the ever-present looming of the franchise was always there. Cartoons (Muppet Babies), other films (Spaceballs), and even songs (Weird Al) constantly had references to a series of films that almost became bigger than film itself. In what was likely a very annoying event for my family, I once taped the trilogy off of a USA network cable marathon and watched it constantly – so much that I used to know the words to the Ewok song at the end of Jedi.

Seeing my fandom really blossoming, I remember at some point that my mother gave me a series of books called The Han Solo Adventures when I was young, I think she got them from a book club or something and passed them on to me, and I was hooked on the characters of Han and Chewie. I mean, I teared up at the end of Episode 7 due to a particular incident – er, the movie came out a million years ago, if you haven’t seen the spoiler I’m sorry. I nearly cried when Han Died. When a prequel film was announced I got really excited.

“It is a lawless time. Crime Syndicates compete for resources – food, medicine, and hyperfuel. On the shipbuilding planet of Corellia, the foul Lady Proxima forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection. On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly among the stars…”

That is the opening crawl for Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film that fills in some of the gaps of the titular characters backstory. Ultimately, one can think of any of Han Solo’s questionable boasts in the previous films and wonder “I wonder what the Kessel Run is?”, “Has Chewie ever really ripped someone’s arms off?” or “Did he really win The Millennium Falcon from Lando ‘fair and square’?”

The film answers all of this without seeming too gratuitous about it, thankfully. Yeah a lot of things that seem really important to the character’s later motivations and personality seem to have all taken place in the span of only a few weeks or less, but the writers resisted things like shoe-horning Boba Fett or Darth Vader into the film, a fact that I was really happy about. Yeah there was another BIG cameo in there, but it was refreshing rather than cringey.

Harrison Ford has some mighty big space boots to fill, and I was perhaps the most skeptical of the casting of Alden Ehrenreich as Han. Rather than attempting to do a prolonged impersonation of Ford, Ehrenreich nails the personality and wise-cracks of the character in such a way that you could imagine him being a 20-year-old version of the same man. To compare this to the series’ often fan-imagined competitor – Star Trek, I feel that casting of young versions of characters was done FAR better here.

Donald Glover was amazing as he always is in his role as Lando Calrissian – a portrayal that actually added a lot to the character that casual fans that don’t want to read a library of books may be unaware of. I know some folks, as tradition with any film nowadays, were mad at the insinuation that Lando was Pan-sexual now in various interviews – once seeing the movie, I love how this was handled, and while not going into specifics he was not going around and having sex with anything he saw. In fact, it was one of the more touching relationships in the franchise.

Rounding out the main cast was Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Paul Bettany as Dryden, and Woody Harrelson as Beckett. I was actually surprised at how much I like Harrelson’s character as I wasn’t a big fan of him being cast as he’s far too recognizable and Star Wars has always stayed away from huge stars for the most part. Granted, he basically played the same character he often plays in many films such as Zombieland and The Hunger Games  – older guy that has seem some crap and mentors the younger main character. I’ll just chalk that up to his version of how Ice Cube always plays police officers or how Liam Neeson is perpetually given roles in thrillers that involve him saving his family. Honorable mentions go to other characters like Enfys Nest who meet the “cool character that folks will become obsessed with” mold like Boba Fett.

Perhaps my only real quibble with the film was the addition of a sub-plot concerning a droid character in Lando’s employ named L3-37 that is basically a parody/homage of various modern-day social justice movements. The character is often seen advocating for droid rights, as she has “malfunctioned” to such a degree that she sees injustices involving droids all around her when few others seem to care. We even see that many of the shadier characters in the galaxy enjoy droid cage-fighting as a spectator sport, a fact that enrages her.

While I’m not mad about this inclusion, I feel that this and the war profiteering plot in Episode 8 are a bit too “on the nose” and lack the subtlety that Star Wars usually has. I mean, Star Wars isn’t Handmaid’s Tale, it’s usually not a scathing rebuke of modern-day politics unless you consider that the bad guys are space Nazis essentially.

All-in all, I really liked this film – it captured the fun and spectacle of the non-‘anthology” films well, and made me remember how awesome Han and Chewie are. I’m hoping this does well enough that they make more, but who knows as it seems the film was released at a bad time and is slightly under-performing. Considering this was a film in which the original directors got fired and Ron Howard ha to “swoop in” and save the day on, I’d say they did a solid job.

The Bunker (2016)

The 1990’s were a weird time for videogames – developers were throwing all sorts of crazy ideas out there to see what the future of gaming would be – there was a wave of virtual reality games, holographic games, and my personal favorite – games that used live action FMV sequences to create the illusion of the game being an interactive film of some sort. I clearly recall being damn near obsessed with a game called Mad Dog McCree for some reason, many a quarter was wasted pretending to shoot down terrible actors the caliber of a wild west themed amusement park with a sluggish light gun. And then like that, the genre died and was regarded as an embarrassing relic of a confusing time for many years. I honestly would have never thought that a live action revival of sorts would have popped back up nearly years after their hay-day, but here we are at the tail end of the “tens” (that sounds weird) and that’s exactly what has happened.

Enter The Bunker, by British game developer Splendy Games and published by Wales Interactive. Not only is this definitely a new live action FMV game, but it’s actually surprisingly good if one takes it in as it is intended  – as an interactive film.

The game places the player in the shoes of a lone nuclear war survivor named John that has been living in a fallout bunker for over thirty years. After the death of his mother, John is left continuing a mindless daily routine that he has been doing every day for years only to have a series of unfortunate predicaments put his life in danger. With no contact from anyone on the outside, or hope for rescue John must face his past and make the decision on whether he’s going to leave the safety of his home or perish like so many before himself.

I think what seriously sets this game apart from the previous wave of live action games is that ACTUAL bona fide actors were hired to play the characters in the game, thus eliminating the sheer camp of about 99% of the genre. Granted, I do not know of the pedigree of any of the actors used in the 90’s, but nearly all came across as local theater actors at best, my apologies if this was not the case.

John, for instance, is played by Adam Brown who isn’t the next Johnny Depp by any means, but is a notable character actor that is perhaps best known for playing Ori, one of the dwarves in the recent Peter Jackson helmed Hobbit trilogy. The other major actor, Sarah Greene, is a theater actress that has many television roles including a small stint on Showtimes Penny Dreadful.

At its core, this is a point-and-click adventure game utilizing an inventory system and puzzle solving to progress the story. Granted, the limitations of this being something that was previously filmed rather than a rendered game, makes the trial and error nature of most adventure games null and void for the most part – the game is incredibly linear and you usually know exactly what to do even if you aren’t sure where you are going from room to room.

For instance, there is a section where John has to fix an air filter, a task he learned about reading his daily computer diagnostic screens. John is given instructions to finish this task and where to go, it’s just a matter of going to the correct areas and following directions. Other puzzles include things like door passwords and recognizing visual clues.

Depending on how open-minded one is to the fact that this is an interactive film – the relatively short gameplay time might be a turn-off to some. I would say that without a guide and a bit of exploration, this game clocks in at around 2-3 hours tops – something many adventure games are used to, but others might scoff at the length. But in all actuality, this is one case where I feel the length doesn’t matter as the narrative definitely exhausts itself by the end of the game, and the novelty would likely wear off.

Yeah, they could have added a puzzle to every door like some sort of MYST clone, but that would have slowed the game down for no reason whatsoever.

So, if we’re not critically looking at this fully as an adventure game, does it stand on it’s own as a film? honestly yes it does. This is by no means a major Hollywood blockbuster, but as a minimalist claustrophobic indie film it succeeds in creating a mood of depression and desperation that I feel few films truly achieve no matter the budget. granted, I have a perverse fascination with post-apocalyptic fiction as many long-time readers will recognize, but I feel that this is up there with some of the best in the genre.

That is not to say, that I’d like for there to be tons of games like this – if this were to get popular I’d fear this would be a fertile ground for tons of licensed games using a similar engine – and as we’ve seen with Telltale games and the many imitators of theirs, more is not always better.

In conclusion, I really liked this experiment in interactive film. while it may not truly exceed most expectations for a modern videogame, it shows that the technology and talent needed for what many in the 90’s tried to achieve using live action FMV sequences is finally there and this this format can be successful and memorable. John’s story is bleak, heartfelt, and truly sad – when you finish the game John’s fate is left open – perhaps for a sequel, or perhaps to give the viewer an opportunity to think about his world and the ramifications of nuclear warfare and how it could affect us all.

No matter what, I recommend this game to science fiction fans that want something different. Yeah, it’s not for everyone, nor is it very challenging, but it’s at least got me excited to see more games like this – I see the same publisher also released a game called Late Shift that I’ll have to try as well.


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The Triumphant Return of Nerd Poker

As with many things that were once seen as underground and “uncool” for anyone not in the nerd culture, Dungeons & Dragons has seemingly come out of nowhere to be a mainstream thing all of the sudden. I recall an episode of Community that heavily featured the game, as well as a recent episode of iZombie that lovingly poked fun at the venerable past-time. And let’s not forget Stranger Things, and its group of D&D heroes fighting a real-life monster. Gone are the days of the inane “Satanic Panic” outrage over the game and questionable films like Mazes and Monsters helping to stir the pot. Even Vin Deiesel had a movie made that was entirely based on his own personal D&D character – it’s weird time indeed. This was the perfect climate for something amazing to pop up on the internet.

For a lot of my friends, especially those into stand-up comedy, there was a different entry-point into the game – a podcast, formerly on Earwolf and now on Patreon, Called Nerd Poker. Starring stand-up comedian Brian Posehn, Nerd Poker was a great look at what many D&D games turn into – a DM frantically trying cling to order while a bunch of silly people make dumb characters and waste time instead of doing what was planned-out. What ensued was pure comedy gold most of the time, and it wasn’t a forced product like it could have been.

The OG Cast including Sarah, Sark, Brian, Ken, Blaine and don’t forget Gerry.

At the height of the show’s popularity, I even went as far as to donate some cash to Gerry Duggan at a local comic convention as well as a condolences card for his most notorious character, Sir Richard, who had died in a blaze of glory recently. We talked for well over a half hour about gaming, and was able to get a Nerd Poker related autograph in the binding of my Deadpool book.

Hearing my name in the following episode was amazing and really helped me feel like a part of a small community of fans that had sprung up. I started playing the game again with some buddies, and eventually bought a bunch of 5th edition books. While talking to Gerry Duggan I asked if they realized how important their show was to gaming as a whole, and he seemed surprised. I’m still not certain why the company that owns D&D never sponsored the show or anything, because Brain and Co. basically advertised their product better than they did themselves for years.

An example of the fan outpouring for the show includes awesome fan art of the characters.

For the first 75 or so episodes – Nerd poker was one of my favorite things to help me pass time at my boring office job. Their DM, an internet personality named Sark, wove a tale of a rag-tag group of heroes battling an evil organization referred to as The Collectors that seemed to be “collecting” people from other worlds for some dire purpose. Sadly we never really got closure for this story, as a number of the cast members including Sark had to bail on the show at one point. Blaine Capatch took over as the DM and the show basically meandered for another 75 or so episodes until it’s untimely death about a year ago. Nobody’s really sure what went down, but it seems like Earwolf, the podcast network the show was on, screwed them over regarding a cancer benefit for one of the players. Everyone assumed the show was gone and buried until just a few months ago – Nerd Poker is BACK!

Now DM’d by Dan Telfer, most of the cast has returned for a creator-run version of the show with Patreon subscribers providing the funding. In return for donations, Brian and Co. have been releasing special episodes with guest stars and other fun bits. Now existing as a fan run product, there is a whole new charm to the show as things that would normally be insanely annoying such as Ken Daly accidentally eating pizza directly into his microphone somehow come off as hilarious. And when Vin Diesel ignored their not-so-serious requests to be in the show, they did one better by creating a version of him as a character in the game. It seems like the old magic is back, and part of my work routine that sadly was taken away has returned!

If you’re a lapsed fan, head on over to Patreon and throw some cash over there – if you’re like me, you want the show to last for a LOOOOONG time.


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The New English Beat feat: Ranking Roger: Bounce

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Not too long after I finally got to see the US version of the English Beat Live, I found out that the other iteration of the band had a new album out. It’s been a bit since I bought this, but I was finally able to give it a solid listen today. For those unaware of why I mentioned two versions of the band up there, there are currently two different English Beats with both former singers heading their own version. From what I can gather, there wasn’t any sort of bad break-up or anything (Between Dave and Roger, the band did basically implode in the 80’s with the other members) as Dave Wakeling moved to California in the early 90’s and the rest didn’t want to follow. Both artists tried to do tours with their own names, only to have everyone always call them “The Beat” so they embraced it. Here’s a more detailed answer from an interview with A.V. Club, where the question was asked to Wakeling as to why there was two bands:

Oh, that was quite simple. Whilst we were trying to get five out of the seven members for a reunion show in England, Roger was coming up against the same thing as me; he was being called The Beat over there regardless of what he tried to call himself. The same thing had happened with me. I’d just given up in the end; fine, English Beat, I liked the name anyway, I thought of it, so fine, I’ll be the English Beat.

And so I said, “If you want to use the name in England, that’s fine by me; just don’t screw the legacy, make sure that the shows are always great quality and the fans go home happy and it makes them like the records more rather than less.” And so that was quite an easy thing to sort out. It’s kind of cute, I think, that you can hear “Mirror in the Bathroom” sung live by one of the lead singers on two continents!

 

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Ranking Roger at his personal recording studio

With that in mind, it’s kind of funny to find out that Ranking Roger’s The New English Beat released an album at the very tail end of 2016, with Wakeling planning his own new album sometime this year! But your question may be: How’s Roger’s Beat stack up? is it like the old stuff? well yes and no, but not in a bad way. In all honesty Bounce (the album in question) is basically what I would have expected the band to do in the 90’s if they had stayed together. It’s more polished than the previous albums, seems like it was made on a higher budget, and seems altogether “shinier”. You can feel the vibes from Both English Beat and General Public as well as a slightly more somber tone.

For those that know me, “shininess” is not always a good thing for my musical tastes as I sometimes feel that a lot of modern music, especially pop music, is empty and overproduced. While Bounce doesn’t completely stray down this path, there are a few hints of Coldplay-like guitars and such found in a few songs that really didn’t do a whole lot for me. what I did like was that some of the more mellow songs seemed to be a lot more politically charged than most Beat songs ever where. Take a track like “Walking on the Wrong Side” for instance.

What this means, is that some of the energy found in some of my favorite beat songs like “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Ranking Full Stop” is curiously absent from this record. What we do get are a few lighthearted sentimental tracks to even out the politics, which is a trademark of the sound most bands fall into when they get older. Thankfully this wan’t a total deviation into sappy ballads or anything so that’s a plus.

All in all, this was a solid listen, and a great re-introduction to a band that has basically been doing touring for the past few decades. I’ve personally been hankering for a fourth wave ska movement to pop up, so hearing only a few hints of the rudeboy sound in this record made me a bit disappointed overall. The good news is, that the music stands on it’s own and I plan to include it in my current iPod rotation. I also need to hunt down some of the music Roger did between the original English Beat and this album to see how his sound has progressed. If you enjoy ska, reggae, or The English Beat – do yourself a favor and check this out – despite a few quibbles I have it’s a solid album.

 

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Persona 5 (2017)

NOTE: I will leave this as spoiler free as possible and describe main themes rather than specific story notes. Be warned, some images will contain spoilers.

A few of you might be wondering where I’ve been hiding this month. I wish I had a great reason that involves international espionage or something, but the truth happens to be that I’ve been spending most of my free time playing a new RPG from Atlus called Persona 5. As of this writing, I just saw the end credits roll and with a tear in my eye I wish that I could play more. Usually a lot of JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games) tend to be good for about 25-30 hours, then fetch quest you to a final boss that you don’t care about. My Playthrough of Persona 5 was 110 hours and I didn’t have time to do everything I wanted – I’m not one to immediately re-play a game, but I kind of want to with this one. I actually started to write this review a few weeks ago, but decided to stop in case the game “crapped the bed” at the end like so many do – thankfully that was not the case, and if there was any way to eloquently describe the opposite act I would write that instead.

For those unaware of the series my gushing pertains to, Persona is a long running spin-off of another series called Shin Megami Tensei which dates back to the NES days. If you want to see more info, I did a write-up a while back about how controversial the series was, that sort of shows you some themes and ideas within. SMT or “Megaten” games tend to be pretty hardcore, and for a while Persona has existed as a more casual friendly entry into the series, full of anime tropes and cut-scenes. As this series has matured, the staff has shifted the balance around a bit until they finally hit the sweet spot. I’m honestly leaning towards a “student surpassing the teacher” moment, and I think Persona 5 has been my favorite SMT game ever made.

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So, what makes this game so good? Does the near unanimous praise this game has garnered from review sites come from anywhere or is this just weebs hyping something? The answer is – Persona 5 is a near perfect classic turn-based Japanese RPG – a genre that everyone has been abandoning due to age and lack of innovation. And while many former genre-mates like Final Fantasy have gone to action-RPG land, Atlus has doubled down and it paid off. At the game’s core are two gameplay features that define the series – demon negotiating and the press-turn battle system.

Demon negotiations are what led some to call this series “goth Pokémon”, but in truth Megami Tensei, the first game in this series, was released nearly a decade before Pikachu was a glimmer in anyone’s mind. So yeah, you do go around capturing monsters to force into battles, but it’s a bit different here, as these creatures (from gods to toilet demons) act as a way for the characters to use magic and strengthen attacks rather than actually throwing down. The concept here is that these creatures, called Persona, are shards of the mind of the psyche of the characters and embracing their power will lead the characters to self-discovery, and in this case, stand up for themselves. I’ll talk more about this later, once I finish up this thought.

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The Press-turn battle system is perhaps one of my favorite RPG battle systems, as it forces you to think about strategy rather than plowing throw every encounter doing the same attacks. Basically, one attack is allotted per character deployed in battle. How you use these opportunities is crucial to your chance at winning the fight. By executing an attack (physical, magical, or using an item) one press turn will be used up. To make things more interesting, is the fact that you can lose and gain turns in a few ways. If an attack hits the enemies weak point or triggers a critical hit, you will gain a press turn (essentially an extra attack when all is said and done). Thus, making enemy exploitation and knowledge of your foes a primary factor in winning the battle. Be aware though that enemies can do the very same things to you. Therefore, if you are unprepared and caught off guard, even a much lower level group of enemies can defeat you quickly in a string of critical strikes. This exact situation happened to me in a few of these games, most notably SMT: Nocturne, where the game would constantly put you in situations where battles seemed almost impossible to win sometimes.

Now a great battle system can make or break a game, but the story is where it really counts right? Yes – and with this game the story was nearly flawless for me. I’m a sucker for anything related to western esotericism and Gnosticism, and this game is basically a media representation of many of the books and podcasts I like to study in my free time. For me, playing this game is almost like having the feeling of an epiphany the entire time which is a feeling I rarely have with games. In the past, The Persona games have been about the idea of secret inner beings that we force out of our mind. This concept is taken nearly directly from the pages of Swiss Philosopher and Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. When writing about his concept of a persona, Jung explained that many lack a persona –

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“The alternative is to endure living with the absence of the persona—and for Jung “the man with no persona… is blind to the reality of the world, which for him has merely the value of an amusing or fantastic playground. […] Those trapped at such a stage remain “blind to the world, hopeless dreamers… spectral Cassandras dreaded for their tactlessness, eternally misunderstood.”

Then, there was the concept of recovery of these personas:

“Recovery, the aim of individuation, is not only achieved by work on the inside figures but also, as conditio sine qua non, by a readaptation in outer life—including the recreation of a new and more viable persona. To develop a stronger persona… might feel inauthentic, like learning to “play a role”… but if one cannot perform a social role then one will suffer. Thus, one goal for individuation is for people to develop a more realistic, flexible persona that helps them navigate in society but does not collide with nor hide their true self. Eventually, in the best case, the persona is appropriate and tasteful, a true reflection of our inner individuality and our outward sense of self.”

Within these few paragraphs lies the entire theme of this game – people are mere husks until they embrace a persona, nurture it through social interactions, and evolve it to better oneself.

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On top of this, Persona 5 is about bad people doing bad things, and good people feeling hopeless about it. The problem is, genuinely evil people doing genuinely evil things are commonplace in our world. This might be as small as somebody cheating on their spouse or a policeman taking bribes all the way up to mass murder.  For the most part, few have the courage or intention to go against this, since that is what our society has conformed to. We do many things to uphold collectivism, and feel that order brings “the greater good”. We listen to people in authority because we’re afraid that going against it will change our lives for the worse, no matter how much we disagree with them. If someone hides their bad intentions behind the media’s manipulation and lies, we believe it, because that’s all that we’re able to see. Without going into a political rant here, this game is very true to our current times.

Persona 5 is also about breaking free from those conventions, standing up for what’s right and basically throwing a big middle finger up to “the greater good”. In the game, our rag tag group of heroes assemble to help people that don’t have the power or courage to help themselves. They are all social outcasts in their own ways – a pair of juvenile delinquents, a foreigner judged for her looks, a stoic class president, a daughter of a powerful man, an artist seen as “eccentric” and even a person that shuts themselves away from the outside world. It would be easy for any of these characters to turn into bitter horrible people, but they don’t because they still have hope. Hope that humanity can turn away from evil.

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Easily, one of the most fulfilling parts of this game – and the reason it made me emotional more than a couple of times was the way it handles relationships between characters, and even NPCs. This isn’t a new thing for persona, as all of the games since Persona 3 have had a “Social Link” system in place wherein one gets stronger as they nurture friendships between characters. in most games, interactions with NPCs are a few bland moments of time filling exposition and that’s it – here one can easily fall in love with even the simplest characters. Aside from dealing with your own problems, the main protagonist becomes friends and helps a slew of other people, all similarly down on their luck and wanting to give up. One example is a back-alley Doctor that ultimately supplies the party with medicines and other goods, Early in the game you discover that she has a troubling past and has basically given up on all of her dreams. and only after you push her to be her best, does she finally accept her faults and move forward with her life. and that’s only one of many characters you interact with

These interactions are not mandatory, as the game allows the player the ability to choose how to progress the game. with a limited number of things that can be done in any given day, as well as the need to place some needs above others, means that some friendships will not be as fulfilling as others – much as with real life. It seems that at any given time, you know you really need to level a character up, but tests are starting soon and you better study! And what’s that 6 other people want to hang out! Socializing in the world of Persona can be just as hard as in the real world it seems.

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I promised that I wouldn’t go too far into spoiler territory, so I better leave it there. I would say this this is easily one of the best RPGs, scratch that, GAMES that I’ve played in the last decade. when most RPGs roll down a checklist of boring cliches, the Persona series continues to break new ground and re-invent itself each time. If you are looking for something different to play, and are willing to stick with a game that could clock in over 100 hours, you won’t find any more fulfilling game that came out all year. Here’s hoping that an inevitable “sequel” spinoff game comes out soon so I can hang with these characters again, and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait eight years for Persona 6!


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Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Let’s get this first part out of the way:

If there is one thing I’m tired of in the realm of film and television, it’s pre-emptive complainers trying to de-rail everything before it even comes out. with any review of this live action American/Chinese Ghost in The Shell film, everyone has drawn battle lines in regards to the elephant in the room of “Hollywood whitewashing”; in fact, I would say you were almost expected to take a side, and if you took a side that many didn’t like you’d get lectured by the other. It’s annoying that folks are getting in fights and “unfriending” each-other because of opinions over a goofy sci-fi film, but that’s our modern society I guess. Some popular reviews from major sites didn’t even talk about the film, they just reviewed everything that was in some way perceived as racist to stoke the outrage fires, this honestly comes across like they never actually watched it.

I’m not going to dwell on this topic too much because I can see both sides and don’t think arguing over whether or not Scarlett Johanson should or should not be cast as The Major actually addresses the actual problem that Hollywood has with representation. The internet witch hunts and rage were nearly identical to what people attempted to do with both recent Star Wars films, and even last years re-boot of Ghostbusters, and I honestly don’t care anymore. I’d rather discuss a film based on an anime/manga property that I’ve loved for upwards of 20+ years, and how it turned out.

/end rant

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Ghost in The Shell has been a favorite of mine for a VERY long time. I recall being first introduced to it through my older stepbrother that loved cyberpunk stuff – he had the original Masamune Shirow manga laying around at some point when I was visiting and I was enthralled by what I saw. Not too long after that, I was able to rent the anime adaptation from one of our local video stores and was hooked on the franchise from that point forward. every continuation has been something I get really excited about – all the movies, games, TV shows etc. That said, I was torn when they announced that a western adaptation was going to be produced a few years ago.

Readers may recall that I’m pretty vocal about my dislike for most anime adaptations because they don’t treat the source material with respect and are generally bad (Dragonball Evolution is the king of this). That goes for live action adaptations produced in Japan itself. I am always annoyed when they discuss a possible Akira remake because the two directors that were vocally lobbying for it seemed determined to completely alter the entire premise of the story into something else. I recall at one point, the script going around had Kaneda and Tetsuo, protagonists of the film, gender swapped and made into former lovers – nope! Any such fears that I had with Ghost in the Shell were calmed when the released the first trailer – the logo was there, scenes appeared to be adapted directly from the 1995 film, characters looked almost correct – “wait?! was this going to be okay somehow?” the controversy I touched on above was something that troubled me a bit, but I figured I’d give it a shot and see what happens.

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Quick verdict – Ghost in the Shell 2017 is good, not great, and it’s not deserving of the critical heat it’s getting online.

An argument can be made that many of the visual flourishes in this film seem like a road often traveled, somewhat dated, nothing new. That’s by design, as many scenes are literally directly lifted from the 1995 film – keep in mind that the source material is nearing thirty years of age if you go even further back to the comic. it’s filled with typical cyberpunk aesthetics, and much like steampunk, or post-apocalyptic fiction – straying too far from the agreed upon tropes is never a great idea. Most “cyberpunk” properties follow a set groundwork laid by much older films like Blade Runner, books like Neuromancer, and the like. Ideas like megacities run by huge militarized corporations, dingy slums filled with bright holographic neon lights, weird Asian and Western culture amalgamations and the idea of trans-humanism seem passe today, but we seem to be ever closer to that very reality. it might not look the same, but in many ways cyberpunk is closer to our modern society than it was back in the 80’s.

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I mentioned that some scenes were directly influenced by the Mamoru Oshii film of the same name, and I would even go as far as to say that this was almost a shot-for-shot remake of that very film with a little bit of some of the sequel material sprinkled in. This is a double edged sword in many ways, as seeing scenes like the building infiltration, the spider mech fight, and the cloaked fight with the hacked garbage man was cool, but a lot of those scenes were a lot cooler and more fleshed out in the original film. This was because there was a decent amount of new material – some adapted from the comics or TV series taking up the runtime. Reading reviews online, a constant complaint I kept seeing was that “The Major got a new backstory” which is funny because Hideo Kuze and his revelations at the end of the TV series factor into this film quite a bit, meaning that people have not seen Stand Alone Complex and should not be commenting on it as if they are authorities on the matter.

For much of the film, we know The Major as Major Mira KIllian – a cyborg created by a large robotics company named Hanka Robotics. She was a survivor of a refugee boat accident – something that left her family dead and herself severely injured. Her brain was the only thing salvageable from her body, so it was put in a new body as a second chance at life as long as she’s cool being basically sold to the government as a weapon. Of course, this is all BS and the driving force behind The Major trying to piece her previous life back together.

Much like the backstory stuff, I saw people complaining that the inclusion of Hanka was a new addition to the franchise, but they were actually an organization from the original comic, although not as major as here. In both versions they are a VERY bad company, as the comic version of Hanka was caught in a scandal where they were dubbing the ghosts of children into a mass-produced consumer robot to achieve a greater sense of human personality. Here, without going into too much detail – they are trying to create a race of perfect soldiers with human brains in a cybernetic body, where they get these brains could be an issue.

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In some ways, making Hanka Robotics a major plot point in the film is actually going against one of the major philosophical ideas from the original manga. In a world where the internet is literally in and around you at all times, and cyber-warfare is something even low-level street thugs dabble in from time to time, old ideas like national sovereignty and borders are basically obsolete. Section 9 always skirted a fine line between acting within the scope of normal law enforcement, and treating the Networks as a free for all that the old ways stood against. Leaving out some of this diplomatic and political intrigue sort of boils down the role that Section 9 and Hanka have as nothing more than a Corporation acting as The Government and Section 9 acting as their willing lap-dog. I guess in some ways that’s a telling indictment of the current status-quo with our own corporations, but something that I wanted to point out as a major difference. Hanka is also a convenient way to have a blatant “villain” rather than the numerous ephemeral “gray area” antagonists the material usually features.

There are a few differences like this that are not huge deal breakers, but sort of “dumb down” the ideas from Ghost in the Shell to a more palatable product for those looking to see an action popcorn movie rather than a philosophical look into trans-humanism. I’m not annoyed by this in any way because no two versions of Ghost in the Shell are exactly alike. The manga, the Oshii films, The TV series, and the recent Arise films are all different parallel versions of this story, and none of them are very much alike to be honest. I actually prefer the TV series Stand Alone Complex, to the films and dislike the manga sequel. with a franchise like this, there are many ways to look at the story – something for everyone.

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When it comes to casting, I absolutely loved the job they did. And yes, Scarlett Johanson did a fine job no matter what internet folks want you to believe. Pretty much every character from section 9 is present aside from Paz, seemingly replaced by a new character named Ladriya, I’m pretty sure she’s not from any previous version, but could be wrong. Takeshi Kitano (As Aramaki) is my favorite Japanese actor, and having him be such a badass in this film was awesome. He has, by far, the best line in the entire film where he chumps out an entire squad of armored assassins with a briefcase and quips “Never send a rabbit to kill a fox”. I wanted to clap at that very moment, but that probably would have made everyone mad in the theater.

Chin Han is also great as Togusa, perhaps my favorite character from the TV series. He’s not a major part of the film by any means, but I was glad to see him in there. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to discuss this without talking about Batou, as played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk. I’ve somehow missed him up to this point, but he was really good – he really captured the character and was perhaps the truest to the source material of anyone in the film.

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I’ve already written a lot here, and I don’t want to spoil more than what I have since the film does have a few mysteries and twists. To reiterate from above Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a good, but not great film that stayed close to the source material with a few alterations. Yes, these alterations sort of “water-down” some of the themes of the source material itself, but this was a summer popcorn flick, I was never under the assumption that this was going to be a complex film for jaded otaku. I enjoyed the casting despite the online backlash, and would be up for a sequel if one ever materializes. That is unlikely as the film hasn’t really caught the box office on fire, but who knows. I am sad that there was no reference to any sort of mobile tank unit like the Fuchikoma / tachikoma / Uchikoma /or Logikoma units from the numerous iterations of the franchise. This was no surprise as they are not present in the 1995 film either unless you count the spider tank.

I’d say ignore the haters and see this for yourself – I’m not saying you’ll like it, but it’s not the bucket of dog turds everyone wants it to be.

 


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Concert Review: English Beat w/ Deco Auto 3/24/17

I used to have a long commute to work every day, so my chief companion quickly became my car stereo. It took about a year, but I ended up rage-quitting local radio stations completely once I realized that my local “hard rock” station was garbage and that my local “alternative” station was basically folk music garnished by seemingly mandatory Pearl Jam songs. I bought Sirius XM to alleviate all my radio woes, and immediately fell in love with a channel on there called 1st wave.

Whenever I tell folks that I’m into 80’s new wave music, I think a lot of folks assume I love bands like Hall and Oates or something, but honestly I’m only really into that late 70’s – early 80’s scene that sprang up (mostly) in the UK – great news, that’s what they play! I think one of the first times I was listening to 1st Wave Dave Wakeling (of the English Beat and General Public) was on a talk show segment hosted by Richard Blade and I immediately realized just how much I loved the band, and my love for ska was re-energized.

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Readers may recall a while back I was talking about “trying to see more bands on my ‘musical bucket list'”, so when The English Beat popped up on my Jambase page I had to immediately snag some tickets. I’ve always been a fan of ska music, so getting to hear one of the pioneers of the 80’s second wave of ska/two-tone/reggae was definitely something I’ve wanted to do. Some of these bands rarely come over to the United States anymore, but the good news is that Dave Wakeling happens to live in California, so he tours here all the time.

Before I get into the show itself, I wanted to talk about the venue the show was held in, Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, MO. This was my first time at this venue, and I was really impressed. I’m not a big blues aficionado, which is the style of music most featured at this venue, but I’d love to come here again –  I’ll have to keep an eye out on acts coming in from time to time. This is a promotional ad, but shows off the Place better than I could attempt to describe it.

The compound is made up of a number of venues, with our concert taking place in “The Garage”. This was a roomy music hall with standing room at the front and back, a bar, and some tables – since we arrived early we were able to score some choice table seats.

The supporting act for this show was a local band called Deco Auto which is a power pop band in the vein of a lot of those early 90’s alternative bands that used to get tons of radio play like Weezer and Superchunk. While their music isn’t really my standard listening, they were pretty good even though they had a few technical difficulties during their set. For a few of their songs, one of the vocalists was sadly muted lower than she should have been so we really couldn’t hear the full impact of their music. The highlight of their set was a cover of the Blondie Song “Hanging on the Telephone”, which is always fun to listen to.

Their Bandcamp page

Oh wait, you thought you had seen all of my crappy concert pictures in previous posts, think again – this is a snap of Deco Auto doing their thing.

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Next up was the main event – finally getting to see The English Beat live! Honestly the band shows absolutely no signs of loosing any steps – the music sounds every bit as good as the original albums from 30+ years ago. The set-list was the following:

Rough Rider, The Tears of a Clown, Hands Off…She’s Mine, Twist & Crawl, Rude Boy Skank, I’ll Take You There, Save It for Later, Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret, Too Nice to Talk To, Can’t Get Used to Losing You, Sole Salvation, Tenderness, Ranking Full Stop, Mirror in the Bathroom

There was a LOT of music from their first album which coincidentally is my favorite album of theirs due to the heavy ska and reggae influence. later albums somewhat shifted to arena rock, which is good, but the older stuff is my preference. conspicuously absent was the song “I confess”, perhaps one of their biggest hits, but I’ll gladly trade it for “Tenderness” from General Public.

This iteration of the band is Dave Wakeling on vocals, Nucci Cantrell on drums, Matt Morrish on sax, Kevin Lum and Minh Quan on keyboards, King Schascha on vocals and MC duty, and Brad Engstrom on bass guitar. For those unaware, there are actually two touring versions of the band going around – one helmed by Wakeling and another helmed by Ranking Roger, former bandmate of Wakeling’s in The English Beat and General Public. It seems as though there is no bad blood between the two, as the band originally broke up because the rest of the band wanted to stay in the UK and joined the Fine Young Cannibals, Wakeling moved to the US at some point and it was simply too hard to be a band at that point. Both Roger and Wakeling wanted to tour as themselves, but were always labeled as “The English Beat” so they embraced it.

The cool thing is that both singers bring a bit of a different flavor to the music, so having new albums coming out from both bands this year is a blessing for fans. I recently picked up Bounce, the new album from the UK version of the band – hope to review it on here at some point.

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All-in-all, I had a blast at this show, and hope to get to see the band again next year as they release their new album Here We Go Love. I was also glad to see that despite the age of the band there were fans at the show from pretty much every living generation in attendance. I keep thinking that we’re long overdue for a fourth wave of ska music to get big in the US, seeing so many people supporting a band like this makes me hope that’s true.

In case you’ve never seen this band:


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Mystery Science Theater 3000: 11×01

 

It’s less than a week from the premiere of the eleventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so if you’re like me you’re pretty excited to see what happens. Thankfully, Kickstarter backers past a certain level got to see an advance screening of the pilot episode over the weekend, and since I was unable to wait another week to watch it, I caved and booted it up. I’ll try to keep a ton of major spoilers out of this review, since this is technically a pre-screening, but be warned – there will be a few in here. You may have a number of questions now – Did Joel an co. recapture the Magic? Is Jonah a good host? Are the bots more than a shadow of their former selves? are the riffs pretty good? are there celebrity cameos? If you’d like me to answer yes to all the above – you’re in luck!

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On the host front, you couldn’t find a better fit than Jonah Ray as Jonah Heston. I’ve been a fan of his for a number of years largely due to his many podcast adventures on the Nerdist Podcast alongside Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira. While real life Jonah be be sort of curmudgeonly and grumpy, Jonah Heston is very cheerful and peppy – much like both of his predecessors. Considering that the entire point of the show is a group of mad scientists basically trying to drive a guy crazy, having the host be happy makes it that much more fun. The bots are also back in full force, with all of the voice actors doing a great job. The one jarring difference is that Gypsy, the sole female member of the Satellite of Love now has an actual female voice, rather than a husky voice provided by a guy for comic relief.

We do see a bit of the circumstances that lead to Jonah being on board the Satellite of Love (which is now tethered to a moon-base on the dark side of the moon), but they don’t dwell on it. there is no mention as to how any of the bots came back, or what happened to Mike Nelson, the previous host. Honestly, this is a show that doesn’t need to be bogged down with exposition, so I wouldn’t care too much if we never find out – keep in mind “Just repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax”.

What we do know is that Jonah Heston is an employee of Gizmonics institute, and is in charge of delivering a cargo of asteroids harvested from deep space. Co-workers apparently talk him up to be one of, if not THE best at what he does, with his only downfall being a rebellious streak. He is minding his own business when a distress call rings through the airwaves. Our new “mads” headed up by Kinga Forester (daughter of Clayton Forester and Granddaughter of Pearl Forester) have concocted a plan to shanghai a good Samaritan, just like himself, and force him to be the new test subject for a new iteration of the Mystery Science Theater experiments.

The first experiment – a bad monster flick called Reptilicus.

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Repticilus is a 1961 “kaiju” movie in the same mold as Godzilla made by Danish filmmakers that really had no business trying to make such a film. In many ways, its like a lot of the early Hammer science fiction and Monster films, notably Quatermass and X: The Unknown, in that the main characters are scientists and they are fighting a monster that they do not understand. These films from nearly a decade prior had great acting for this sort of film, and cutting edge special effects – this one – Not so much. Honestly the entire films down down around the shoddy special effects and film quality of the monster itself – a creature that has been realized as a bad puppet with perhaps a single string making it’s head writhe around.

These scenes are notably inferior to other scenes to where it almost looks like an entirely different movie has been spliced in. One of the funnier riffs involves this disparity where someone exclaims that “it’s raining tar” due to the large amount of film imperfections on that given scene. Reptilicus becomes unintentionally hilarious when he starts eating people, an effect realized through a terrible mat overlay as far as I could tell, and his acidic green slime attacks. Sometimes less is more with films like this – a lesson learned from 1954’s Gojira (Godzilla) in spades. that film barely shows the titular monster so you’re never left to face the fact that he’s a dude in a suit – Reptilicus however overstays his welcome.

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I am left VERY happy with this new season so far. I think my only quibbles with this new version of MST3K is that some of the riffs are slightly too rapid fire – some scenes go from riff to riff without any real time to breathe. The good news is that the writing is pretty solid, so one never really gets too tired of the jokes. Also, this first episode is also pretty sparse on interaction between the SOL crew and the “Mads” – we see some some good interactions at the beginning, involving an invention exchange, and some pretty solid banter, but they disappear soon after.

I’m really looking forward to more MST3K, it really feels weird having new episodes considering I think I was in high school when it was still on in the past. Much like the revival of Doctor Who, there are some changes – some that won’t please everyone, but this is in every way classic MST3K. Welcome back, hope you stay a while!

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The Monday Meme: I’m Coming Down

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Image from: IT


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Tales of Masked Men (2012)

About the same time Netflix added the first two seasons of the hit Robert Rodriguez show, Lucha Underground, it seems they have also added a couple of Lucha Libre documentaries to their ever-expanding library of great stuff. Tales of Masked Men (2012) is the first one I decided to watch, mostly because it was super late and the whole thing was just about an hour-long. I’m not certain if it premiered there, but I know this film was aired on PBS at some point, which shows the sort of program that it is. The documentary is both a historical analysis of the origins of the sport, starting in the 1930’s with such men as El Enmascarado (purported to be the first guy that wore a mask in Mexico City), Masked Basque, and Masked Marvel, but it also stands as a sociological film, looking at the society in and around Mexico City.

Described by cultural anthropologist Heather Levi as “a sport in the key of melodrama,” Lucha Libre springs from the same root as American professional wrestling (i.e. Olympic and Greco-Roman style competitive wrestling), but has taken on the unique characteristics of Mexico and the country’s long-standing fascination with masks. Masks conceal faces but not feelings, allowing luchadors to transform themselves into either the character of a rudo, the rule-breaking villain, or a técnico, the fair and square, technically proficient hero. Practiced in large and small arenas throughout Mexico and the U.S. as well as other countries, this “working class” sport is truly interactive, with multigenerational fans passionately involved in the high drama of the ring.

–The website for the film

As one lady in one of the “on the street” interviews states, “For Italians there’s opera, For Mexicans there’s lucha Libre”, which really goes to show how the sport is regarded by many people in modern-day Mexico. Sadly, just like in America with its own strand of professional wrestling, Lucha Libre is often looked down upon by those that seem to think that the whole thing is a bait and switch act played to fools, but they are the real fools because fans know exactly what is going on. Nobody, apart from small children and perhaps the mentally challenged, think it’s real guys – get off your arrogant high horse.

I liked some of the discussions of this ever-popular “you know it’s fake right?” question that folks seem to always have – and anyone that says this has to be ignorant of just how physical the whole thing is. yeah, outcomes are pre-determined, and there are pulled punches, but I’d challenge any of the naysayers to step in a ring and jump from ropes, do flips, and entertain a crowd. It’s a melodramatic live-action comic book, full of real-life superheroes.

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After a bit of this cultural discussion, the film shifts into a series of profiles of prominent luchadors (wrestlers). The legendary El Santo (The Saint) is the first Luchador profiled. debuting in around 1934, Santo was a largely poor journeyman wrestler that toiled around dingy independent arenas until he decided to don a silver mask and become a “Rudo” (bad guy). Despite his penchant for cheating and getting disqualified, Santo easily became the most popular wrestler in all of Mexico (turning him into a “Technico”, or good-guy), a fact that landed him numerous film roles. Eventually he transcended the sport and became a living legend and symbol of Mexico until his death in 1984.

Many anecdotes were shared for Santo (born Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta (September 23, 1917 – February 5, 1984)) including the fact that he seemed to never lose sight of the fans, and did everything in his power to make them happy. It was said that he would even forgo pay, if the show he was attending did not have enough money to pay the rest of the talent, he would have rather they split his guaranteed sum than let his brothers go home penniless. I know it’s bad to speak ill of the dead, but it legitimately seems like Santo was a truly good person.

One of these days, I need to try to get some of his films, such as one where he and another Luchador named Blue Demon fight werewolves and vampires because wrestling is serious business.

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Next up was Mascarita Sagrada (Little Sacred Mask), perhaps the most famous Mini-Estrella in all of Mexican wrestling. While many see “midget wrestling” as exploitative here in the US, it’s as popular as ever in Mexico with many of the mini counterparts to normal sized wrestlers becoming more popular than their larger namesakes. One of the more interesting things said during the interview is that Sagrada originally hated Lucha Libre, he saw it as a sport for uneducated people much in the same way that people up north sometimes look down at pro wrestling as a sport for rednecks. He wanted to get into Kung Fu, and used Lucha Libre as a way to train until he fell in love with it.

He was trained by two prominent little people wrestlers named Gulliver and El Gran Nikolai, two men that pretty much started the division in Mexico in the 1960’s. At one point he relays an anecdote of a class he was in as a small boy, one where a teacher asked him to get some folders from a high shelf. Friends and enemies alike mocked him for not being able to reach said shelf, so he set a chair up in front and grabbed the folders. He knew that in that moment, much as in life, if he had said “I can’t” his entire life would have been stunted from that point forward. That’s how he lives his life – never letting his size get in his way.

There is a version of Mascarita Sagrada currently on US Television on Lucha Underground, however it is very likely that it’s not the same guy as the original one here, as he is older.

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Finally the film shifted to another dynamic – a father and son tag team. Solar is one of the last working wrestlers from the “silver era” of Lucha Libre, and while many of his contemporaries have long since retired, he is still there running the ropes at 60+ years old. I recall seeing Solar in the short lived Lucha Libre USA show that ran for three seasons on MTV2 and Hulu, where he even won the Lucha Libre USA Heavyweight Championship at one point. I had no clue how old he was on there, as he can still move like a man much younger!

His son is training to follow in his father’s footsteps as El Hijo de Solar or Solar Jr. At the point of this film, he was still very much a greenhorn – not ready to be a star, but he was learning from one of the best. who knows if he’ll be as good as his father, hell he may even surpass him in every way – it’s just cool to see them together. The documentary went a bit into the succession of masks and how luchadors will usually pass their persona down to somebody else – for instance, there is now a THIRD El Santo, Dr. Wagner, and second Blue Demon out there – keeping the whole thing alive for years to come. We don’t really have that much in American Pro Wrestling, I can honestly only think of a few times where a moniker might be passed down – like in the case of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, or “Gorgeous George”.

All in all, this was a very good, albeit short documentary. It’s tailored in such a way that total newbies can watch for the human drama unfolding, others will love seeing cameos from a ton of their favorite wrestlers in the background of shots.


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The Monday Meme: Haters

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